Sabarimala review verdict: SC bench refers matter, including women’s entry to shrine, to 7-judge bench after a split 3:2 verdict


The Supreme Court on Thursday said restrictions on women in religious places were not limited to Sabarimala alone and was prevalent in other places of worship as well as it referred all review pleas to a larger seven-judge bench in a split 3:2 verdict.

The apex court said a larger seven-judge bench will re-examine various religious issues, including the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple and mosques and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

While the five-judge bench unanimously agreed to refer the religious issues to a larger bench, a majority verdict by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices AM Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra decided to keep pending the pleas seeking a review of its decision regarding the entry of women into Sabarimala.

However, the majority verdict did not stay its 28 September, 2018 verdict, which had lifted the ban on women of all ages from entering the famous Ayyappa shrine in Kerala.

A lasting decision on this matter will be given when the seven-judge bench — which is to be decided by the new CJI  SA Bobde — hears the matter again. The Sabrimala temple is slated to reopens on 16 November.

The CJI said the endeavour of the petitioners was to revive the debate on religion and faith.

Justices Rohinton Nariman and DY Chandrachud authored dissenting judgment in the case. “Compliance with the Supreme Court judgments is not optional, hold Justices Chandrachud and Rohinton Nariman.”  The apex court said the entry of women into places of worship is not limited to this temple. It is involved in the entry of women into mosques.

Reactions to verdict

The Sabarimala thantri or chief priest, Kandararu Mohanaru welcomed the verdict saying that it will lead to a right decision on the belief and customs of the Sabarimala temple. He said that it will strengthen the confidence of the devotees.

Travancore Devaswom Board chairman A Padmakumar said that the judgement had endorsed their stand for more time to implement the 28 September, 2018 verdict. He claimed that the majority verdict on the review petitions may allow status quo and it will help the smooth conduct of the annual pilgrimage season commencing on 16 November. When asked about lack of mention of stay in the verdict, he said that he will study the verdict and react.

The apex court, by a majority verdict of 4:1, on 28 September, 2018, had lifted the ban that prevented women and girls between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the famous Ayyappa shrine in Kerala and had held that this centuries-old Hindu religious practice was illegal and unconstitutional.

 Sabarimala review verdict: SC bench refers matter, including womens entry to shrine, to 7-judge bench after a split 3:2 verdict

File image of the Supreme Court. PTI

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Last year’s verdict

The Supreme Court last year had ruled in favour for the way for the entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala. The five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, said that banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practise violates rights of Hindu women.

The CJI said religion is a way of life basically to link life with divinity.

While Justices RF Nariman and DY Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.

Malhotra, the lone woman judge in the bench, passed a dissenting judgement and said that issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain secular atmosphere in the country. She was of the view that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati‘.

She added that the right to equality conflicts with the right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa. She said the issue in this case not limited to Sabarimala only. It will have far-reaching implications for other places of worships.

The court passed four sets of separate judgements on a clutch of pleas challenging the ban on the entry of women of menstrual age in Kerala’s Sabrimala temple saying law and society are tasked with the task to act as levellers.

The CJI said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion. He said devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate denomination.

The CJI said the practice of exclusion of women of 10-50 age group cannot be regarded as an essential religious practice and Kerala law denies rights to women on the ground of physiological reasons.

Nariman said the Sabarimala temple custom barring women of 10-50 age is not backed by Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.

The custom of barring women is violative of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (authorisation of entry) Rules, 1965 is struck down by Justice Nariman.

Chandrachud said religion cannot be used as cover to deny rights of worship to women and it is also against human dignity. He said the prohibition on women is due to non-religious reasons and it is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.

Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not form separate religious denominations, Justice Chandrachud said and added that any custom or religious practise if violates the dignity of women by denying them entry due to her physiology is unconstitutional. He said the popular notion about morality can be offensive to the dignity of others and the exclusion of women because she menstruates is utterly unconstitutional.

Chandrachud held that exclusion of women is violative of right to liberty, dignity and equality and said nanning women of a particular age group is not essential to the practice of religion.

Malhotra said notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion and India has diverse religious practices and constitutional morality would allow anyone to profess a religion they believe. She said equality doctrine cannot override the fundamental right to worship under Article 25.

With inputs from PTI

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