Refusing to stay its September 28 verdict lifting age restrictions on the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to hear, in open court, a clutch of review petitions on the matter on January 22. “Applications for the hearing of review petitions in Open Court are allowed. All the Review Petitions along with all pending applications will be heard in Open Court on 22nd January 2019, before the appropriate Bench”, ordered a five-judge bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.
The Bench made it clear that it was not staying its September 28 verdict saying: “We make it clear that there is no stay of the judgment and order of this Court dated 28th September 2018, passed in Writ Petition (Civil) No.373 of 2006 (Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. vs. The State of Kerala & Ors).”
While Opposition parties and Hindu organisations demanded that the entry of young women should not be allowed at the temple during the imminent pilgrim season, which starts on November 17, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the September 28 verdict remains in force and that his government will “look into the legal aspects”.
Since the SC verdict, the Lord Ayappa shrine has opened to the public for seven days on two separate occasions, but violent protests at the temple meant no woman between the age of 10 and 50 could enter. Starting Saturday, the temple opens again for the annual three-month-long pilgrimage which attracts lakhs of devotees primarily from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
A total of 49 review petitions were listed before the bench Tuesday including those filed by the chief priest of the Sabarimala temple, the Nair Service Society representing the Hindu Nair community and the Chennai-based trust of women devotees, People for Dharma.
Earlier in the day, three writ petitions challenging the September 28 verdict came up before a three-judge bench of CJI Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph. The three-judge bench, however, said it will consider them only after a decision is taken on the review petitions listed later in the day.
“If the review petitions are dismissed, we will hear the writs. If review is allowed, we will tag the writ petitions along with it”, CJI Gogoi told the petitioners.
Acting on a petition by some advocates of the Indian Young Lawyers Association, a five-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and comprising Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra had, in a 4:1 verdict on September 28, ended the entry ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 to the temple. The Court held that the centuries-old custom at the shrine was not an essential religious practice and “the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender”.
Those favouring the continuation of the tradition argued that the age restriction was on account of the character of the deity, which is in a state of ‘naishtika bramacharya’ (eternal celibacy).
Four of the five judges on the Constitution Bench ruled against the restriction on women while Justice Indu Malhotra wrote a dissenting opinion, saying “the religious practice of restricting the entry of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years is in pursuance of an essential religious practice” and “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts”.
The majority judgment held as unconstitutional Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, framed in exercise of powers conferred by Section 4 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965. It said Ayappa devotees do not constitute a separate religious denomination within the meaning of Article 26 of the Constitution.