Women's entry into Sabarimala: 7-judge SC bench to hear case again

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Women's entry into Sabarimala: 7-judge SC bench to hear case again

The Supreme Court, on Thursday, decided to refer the review petitions, challenging the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala temple in Kerala, to a larger, 7-judge bench.

A five-judge Constitution bench, headed by outgoing Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, was considering 65 review petitions (including review pleas and writs), against its 2018 verdict, which granted entry to women in the menstruating age group to Sabarimala. The review petitions have been kept pending and the SC has decided that a larger bench will now hear the entire case once again.   

The bench comprised of CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Rohinton Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra. While Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra ruled in favour of sending the pleas to a larger bench, Justices RF Nariman and DY Chandrachud dissented.

The Supreme Court said the entry of women into places of worship is not limited to this temple, but many similar issues come into play as well, like the entry of Muslim women into mosques, the entry of Parsi women who married non-Parsis into the tower of silence, female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community, and others. The court said that these too need to be referred to a higher bench. However, it is unclear if the SC has stayed its 2018 judgement. 

Dissenting with the majority judgment, Justices RF Nariman and DY Chandrachud stuck to their earlier stand of quashing the custom which barred entry of women in 10-50 year age group, stating that the Supreme Court's judgements are binding. They said the issue of entry of women into mosques and could be considered by 7-judge bench.

"Endeavour of the petitioner is to revive the debate on what is an integral part of the religion. Both sections of the same religious group have the right to propagate practices of themselves. Faith perceived by one group is not the same as another," the CJI said. 

The 65 petitions considered by the SC included 55 review petitions and four writ petitions. 

Former Sabarimala Tantri (chief priest) Kandararu Rajeevaru was the main review petitioner. Nair Service Society and the temple’s board Travancore Devaswom Board were the other petitioners.

One of the main contentions in the review petitions was that the original petitioners —  the Delhi-based Indian Young Lawyers’ Association — was not aware of the temple’s customs, did not have locus standi or the right to bring the case to court.

The petitions stated that the ban was not based on the physiological nature of women, but based on the “eternally celibate” nature of the deity, Lord Ayyappa, and hence the ban was not insulting women’s dignity.

After a marathon hearing of the review petitions, the SC reserved its judgment on February 6. Incidentally, the same day, Travancore Devaswom Board, which until then had vehemently opposed women’s entry, said it supported women’s entry. TDB president A Padmakumar had said that the board, which manages the temple, had never filed a review petition in the case, but only asked for more time to implement the judgment.

Read: Travancore Devaswom Board supports women entry into temple

The Kerala government had opposed the review petitions and said that the courts can set aside religious practices that discriminated or excluded the fundamental rights of women.

For more on what the review petitions argued, read:

The petitioners against Supreme Court’s 2018 verdict and their pleas

Can’t compare issue to untouchability, says lawyer

The review petitions were filed soon after the September 2018 judgment. It was then rescheduled for an open court hearing on January 22, and later for February 6.

The Sabarimala judgment: Recap

In 1991, the ban on the women's entry into the temple was first challenged and the Kerala High Court upheld the ban.

In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a petition in the SC, opposing the practice and seeking to lift the ban.

In 2007, the then LDF-led government told the court it favoured the entry of women into the temple.

In 2016, the matter came up for hearing.

In October 2017, the matter was referred to a three-judge constitution bench to note the arguments between the Kerala government and the TDB, which strongly opposed women's entry.

In July 2018, after an eight-day hearing, the SC observed that everyone can enter Sabarimala regardless of their sex, and reserved the verdict.

On September 28, 2018, in a historic judgment, the apex court lifted the ban on entry of women into the temple.

The bench was headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra. While Justice Khanwilkar, Justices Chandrachud and Nariman ruled in favour of women’s entry, Justice Indu Malhotra was the lone dissenter in the verdict, stating that the court should not interfere in issues of deep religious sentiments.

Read: Justice Indu Malhotra’s dissenting judgment in Sabarimala case

Soon after the verdict was pronounced, numerous violent protests broke out across the state, reportedly instigated by right-wing groups. By January this year, 1,286 cases were registered in Kerala and 3,187 people arrested.

As the Sabarimala season began in October 2018, groups of people, including some women, were standing guard outside the premises to prevent young women from entering the temple. Among the women journalists who came to report the issue, some were assaulted and some were forced to deboard bus going to Pamba.

Several women across the country tried to enter the temple. Despite extensive police protection, some women, who came close to the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine, had to go back amidst boos and heckles of the protestors. 

Finally, on January 2 this year, two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, both in their forties, set foot into the Sabarimala shrine, with police protection.

Read: 

A lawyer and a govt employee: Meet Bindu and Kanakadurga, who entered Sabarimala