NEW DELHI - The entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala will continue with the Supreme Court on Thursday deciding to set up a larger bench to reexamine religious issues including those arising out of its earlier verdict that lifted a centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age visiting the hilltop shrine.
The apex court said the seven-judge bench will look into pending questions similar to Sabarimala related to Muslim women's right to enter a mosque and permission to Parsi women who marry outside the community to enter its fire temple and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
The verdict pronounced by a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi comes three days ahead of the opening of the Sabarimala temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, a "Naishtika Brahmachari" (Perennial celibate), on November 17 for the annual two-month-long pilgrim season.
The multiple pleas seeking a review of the apex court's September 28,2018 judgement allowing women in the once banned 10-50 age group to enter the shrine were, however, kept pending in a 3:2 verdict.
Kerala was rocked by violent protests, spearheaded by right leaning outfits and the BJP, last year when the LDF government decided to implement the September 28 verdict.
The majority verdict by Justice Gogoi and Justices A M Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra said restrictions on the entry of women in religious places were not confined to Sabarimala and was prevalent in other religions as well. But it did not say anything adverse against the earlier judgement nor did it stay the order.
The minority verdict by Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud gave a dissenting view by dismissing all the review pleas and directing compliance of the September 28 judgement which held that the centuries-old Hindu religious practice was illegal and unconstitutional.
Reading out some portions of the majority view, Chief Justice Gogoi said the petitioners were endeavouring to revive the debate on religion and faith.
He added that the apex court should evolve a common policy on religious places like Sabarimala and added that the larger bench will decide the issues relating to this Hindu shrine, entry of women into mosques and practice of female genital mutilation.
The split 3:2 decision came on 65 petitions -- 56 review petitions, four fresh writ petitions and five transfer pleas -- which were filed against the earlier 4:1 verdict
The five-judge Constitution heard in an open court the pleas by the parties, including the Nair Service Society(NSS), the Sabarimala temple's Head Priest, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and the state's Left Democratic Front(LDF) government.
All eyes were on the CPI(M)-led LDF government on whether it would allow women in the 10-50 age group to offer prayers.
LDF convenor A Vijayaraghavan said the government will make all efforts for the devotees to visit the shrine peacefully. "The government's primary objective is to maintain peace. When the verdict in Ayodhya matter came, people responded peacefully," he said.
Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran said the verdict needs to be studied in detail.
Asked if young women will be allowed at the shrine, he said this is not the time to comment about it.
It remains to be seen whether any women in the menstruating age group will make an attempt now to reach the shrine. Several women, who tried to enter the shrine earlier, were either sent back or, in some cases, even assaulted.
Two women--Bindu Ammini (43) and Kanakadurga (40)--who had offered prayers at the shrine after a 6-km hill trek and scripted history on January 2 this year, said the positive aspect of Thursday's order was that the court had not stayed the earlier verdict.
The two women had offered prayers, a day after the state government organised a 620-km-long human wall of women' from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram to uphold gender justice.
"If there is no stay, I would like to go there again," said Kanakadurga.
Women's rights activist Trupti Desai said women should be allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple till the seven-judge bench delivers its verdict and vowed to offer prayers at the shrine in the new pilgrimage season
Kandararu Rajeevaru, the Head Priest of the Sabarimala temple, said the apex court decision to refer its earlier verdict to a seven-judge bench "gives hope".
"This will strengthen the beliefs of devotees," he added.
Senior BJP leader B L Santhosh said the verdict is in the direction of protecting the rights of devotees and upholding faith.
The BJP and the Congress wanted the state government to exercise restraint and not to allow women in the previously banned age group to go to the hill shrine, which would hurt the "sentiments of devotees".
"If police tries to help any women to enter the temple, there will be grave repercussions as it affects the faith of devotees. Government must show restraint and wait for the larger bench's verdict. In case women pilgrims in the banned age group try to offer worship, government must prevent them from doing so," said Kummanam Rajashekaran,a senior BJP leader and former state president of the party.
Describing the verdict as a "victory of devotees", Union minister and BJP leader V Muraleedharan said the apex court has understood the grievances related to the Sabarimala darshan, the traditions and the various methods of worship prevailing there.
CPI(M) General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury said the party Politburo is meeting on November 16-17 and will go examine the Sabarimala and other recent verdicts in detail.
"Since the apex court had not stayed its September 28 judgement allowing women of all age groups to offer prayers at the Sabarimala temple, that judgement continues to stand," he said.
While Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala wanted the state government "not to create issues" by providing security and taking young women to offer worship, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said Thursday's decision of the court will help in protecting the faith of devotees.
Pandalam Royal family member Sasikumar Varma, one of the petitioners, said the court has understood the feelings of the devotees and referred the issue to a larger bench.
The CPI(M)-led government on January 18 filed an affidavit in the apex court, saying 51 young women had entered the temple during the last pilgrim season.
However, as controversy erupted later after names of men were found in the list, the government informed the assembly that only two women in the age group of 10-50 years had offered prayers at Sabarimala.
Following is the chronology of events relating to the entry of women into the Sabrimala temple. The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously agreed to refer the religious issues to a larger bench, while the five-judge bench by a 3:2 verdict decided to keep pending the pleas seeking a review of the top court's decision allowing the entry of women of all ages to the shrine:
-1990: S Mahendran files plea in Kerala High Court seeking ban on women's entry to temple.
-Apr 5, 1991: Kerala HC upholds age-old restriction on women of a certain age-group entering the temple.
-Aug 4, 2006: Indian Young Lawyers Association files plea in SC seeking to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10 to 50 at the Lord Ayappa Temple at Sabarimala.
-Nov 2007: LDF government of Kerala files affidavit supporting PIL questioning ban on women's entry.
-Jan 11, 2016: Two-judge bench of SC questions practice banning entry of women at the temple.
-Feb 6: Congress led UDF government takes U-turn, tells SC it is duty bound to "protect the right to practice the religion of these devotees".
-Apr 11: SC says gender justice endangered by ban on women.
-Apr 13: SC says tradition can't justify ban on women's entry.
-Apr 21: Hind Navotthana Pratishtan and Narayanashrama Tapovanam files plea in SC supporting entry of women.
-Nov 7: LDF government files fresh affidavit in SC saying it favoured the entry of women of all age groups.
-Oct 13, 2017: SC refers the case to constitution bench.
-Oct 27: Plea filed in SC for gender-equal bench to hear the case.
-Jul 17, 2018: Five-judge constitution bench starts hearing the matter.
-Jul 19: SC says women have fundamental right to enter the temple and questioned the rationale behind the age group.
-Jul 24: SC makes it clear that the ban on entry of women would be tested on "constitutional ethos".
-Jul 25: Nair Service Society tells SC the celibate nature of Sabarimala temple's presiding deity Lord Ayyappa is protected by the Constitution.
-Aug 1: SC reserves verdict.
-Sep 28: SC, in 4:1 verdict, allows entry of women in Sabrimala temple, says banning females' entry into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates rights of Hindu women.
-Oct 8: Plea in SC by National Ayyappa Devotees Association seeks review of the judgement.
-Oct 23: SC agrees to hear the review pleas on Nov 13.
-Nov 13: SC agrees to hear the review pleas in open court on Jan 22, refuses to stay judgement.
-Nov 14: SC declines to stay its verdict.
-Dec 3: Kerala govt moves SC seeking transfer of related cases from HC to apex court.
-Jan 22, 2019: SC says it may not start hearing in the case till Jan 30 as Justice Indu Malhotra, lone woman judge of the 5-member Constitution bench goes on medical leave.
-Jan 31: SC to hear review pleas on Feb 6.
-Feb 6: SC reserves verdict on review pleas.
-Nov 14: SC refers to larger seven-judge bench for re-examining various religious issues, including entry of women into Sabarimala temple and mosques and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community. Five-judge bench gives 3:2 majority verdict, keep pending the review pleas.
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