Broader bench to decide on women’s entry in Sabarimala

The Supreme Court of India on Thursday referred to a broader bench a slew of petitions challenging its own landmark verdict lifting a ban on women of all ages from entering the Sabarimala temple dedicated to the celibate Hindu god, Ayyappa.

In a 3:2 ruling, a Constitution bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices AM Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra, RF Nariman and DY Chandrachud said the court’s 2018 Sabarimala verdict and the 65 petitions seeking its review cannot be seen in isolation.

They raise serious questions related to other cases such as women’s entry into mosques and Parsi fire temples. These questions touch on an individual’s right to equality, faith and religious practices.  Hence, the 65 petitions should be referred to a seven-judge bench before the court reaches a final verdict in the case, the ruling said.

It listed seven questions for the yet-to-be-constituted bench to ponder.   

The five-judge bench on Thursday did not comment on the 2018 ruling made by an earlier bench led by former chief justice, Dipak Misra.

The top court’s latest decision comes just three days before the Sabarimala temple gate will be opened for the three-month pilgrimage season which draws tens of thousands of Ayyappa devotees to the hilltop shrine in Kerala.

It was not immediately clear whether Thursday’s verdict implied women of the 10-50 age group planning to visit the temple will have to wait till a final decision is reached by a broader bench.

The court did not say whether the 2018 verdict stands and women of menstrual age can visit the temple despite Thursday’s decision.

The left front government of Kerala led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the ruling lacks clarity and they would seek the opinion of legal experts.

Asked whether the government would help women devotees reach the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala, Vijayan said that depends on the situation on ground.

Last year, soon after the historic Sabarimala ruling, Vijayan, who also heads the home (interior) ministry, said his team would help women reach the sanctum of the temple.

The government does not want a repeat of the violence unleashed by pro-Hindu groups after two women activists, Bindu and Kanakadurga, entered the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala temple with the help of police on Jan 2 this year.

Trupti Desai, a political activist from Pune who could not reach Sabarimala temple last year because of a sit-in by pro-Hindu groups at Kochi airport, is determined to visit the shrine this time.

Rahul Easwar, a pro-Hindu activist, said Ayyappa devotees would not allow her or any other woman of childbearing age to visit Sabarimala temple.

Pro-Hindu groups say mostly anarchists and atheists backed by the communist government made attempts to enter the shrine last year to make a point. Some women did it just to get noticed.

Until the 2018 Supreme Court verdict, women of menstrual age were barred from entering Sabarimala temple over the belief that Ayyappa, a celibate god, is sitting atop the Sabari hill in a meditative state.

On Sept 28 last year, Chief Justice Dipak Misra said:

*Women devotees are in no way inferior to men.

*While women are worshipped as goddesses in India, they should not face restrictions in worshipping a god.

*Relationship with a god cannot be defined by biological or physiological factors.

*Banning women of a certain age group from entering the temple cannot be treated as an essential religious practice. It is gender discrimination.

*Exclusion of women violates their right to liberty, dignity and equality. Such exclusion on the ground that a woman menstruates is unconstitutional.

*Restricting menstruating women from entering a temple is almost like untouchability.

However, Indu Malhotra, the lone woman on the bench who had a dissenting view, said courts should not interfere in issues that evoke deep religious sentiments which may be beyond notions of rationality.

Many of the petitions referred to the broader bench on Thursday argue that Lord Ayyappa has his rights just like devotees.

Women of all age groups can enter other Ayyappa temples.  But Sabarimala with its dense forests, animals and myths associated with the celibate god has its own set of rules. Women devotees and activists have to respect these rules and recognise the character of the deity at Sabari, they argue.