As the Sabarimala temple, above, in southern India is set to reopen on Saturday evening, devotees pray for a peaceful pilgrimage season.
Violent protests had broken out during the previous season over a Supreme Court ruling on 28 Sept 2018 allowing women devotees of all age groups to visit the shrine dedicated to the celibate Hindu god, Aiyyappa.
Hundreds of pilgrims who blocked some women activists from entering the shrine were beaten up and jailed. Protesting devotees accused the Left Front government ruling Kerala of turning the shrine into a conflict zone with an agenda to destroy its sanctity.
However this season, they believe peace will reign in the hilltop shrine which is second only to Mecca in drawing the highest number of pilgrims during a season. The reason for this is another Supreme Court judgement this week that stopped short of staying its earlier ruling.
A five-judge bench headed by outgoing Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Thursday referred some 65 petitions challenging its 2018 verdict to a broader bench.
Justice SA Bobde, who is set to take over as the new chief
justice, will form a seven-judge bench to take a broader view of the Sabarimala
case by clubbing similar cases related to mosques and Parsi fire temples.
Since Bobde will be busy with other court matters after taking office, it is reasonable to presume that the Sabarimala hearing may be delayed.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan says Thursday’s court ruling is silent on the status of the 2018 verdict. He is seeking the opinion of legal experts for clarity on this.
However, Law Minister AK Balan and Tourism and Temple Affairs (Devaswom) Minister K Surendran have categorically said the government would not offer any protection to women who want to visit the shrine.
Surendran said atheists and activists like Trupti Desai, Sindhu and Kanakadurga would not be allowed to use the shrine as a platform to prove their strength. Women who still insist on visiting the temple should bring with them a copy of the court order saying there is no stay on its 2018 ruling.
On Saturday, police posted at the Sabarimala base camp in Pamba sent back ten women pilgrims from Vijayawada in Andhra after confirming they fall in the 10-50 age group.
As things stand now, the Left Front government is willing to wait for the final Sabarimala ruling by the broader bench.
The Kerala government is treading the path carefully as their hurry to implement the 2018 court ruling led to a backlash from Hindu voters resulting in their humiliating defeat in the recent assembly by-elections.
New assembly election will be held in 2021 and the government, which is eyeing another term, does not want to further antagonise Hindu voters.
Aiyyappa devotees and various pro-Hindu groups have cautiously welcomed the Left Front government’s wait-and-watch approach.
At the same time, they want the government to withdraw the affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court before the 2018 ruling which favoured the entry of women of the 10-50 age group to Sabarimala and ignored the beliefs and practices followed there for centuries.
According to the petitioners, the affidavit did not explain the significance of the deity and His rights. Instead, it selectively focused on ‘untouchability’ and ‘gender bias’ that barred women devotees of menstrual age from visiting the temple.