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SC refers Sabarimala issue to larger bench

New Delhi/Thiruvananthapuram: The entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala will continue with the Supreme Court on Thursday deciding to set up a larger bench to re-examine 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 judgment 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 judgment 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 judgment 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

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 woman 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.

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