NEW DELHI/KOCHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday has referred the contentious issue of the entry of the women of menstruating age at the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Pathanathitta district in Kerala to a larger bench in a split 3:2 verdict.
The 56 review petitions and some writ petitions will be considered by a seven-judge constitution bench, which will also consider the pleas for the entry of Muslim women in mosques and Parsi women in Parsi temples.
However, the majority judgment delivered by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices. AM Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra has not mentioned about any stay on the September 28, 2018 Supreme Court verdict hat threw open the doors of the temple to women of all ages.
Justices DY Chandrachud and Rohinton Nariman have rejected the review petitions. "Compliance with the Supreme Court judgments is not optional”, hold the two judges in their dissenting judgment.
The Hindu organisations view the judgment as an acceptance of the review petitions, which had challenged the apex court’s September 28 verdict lifting the centuries-old ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50.
The Court had heard the review petitions and writ petitions in open court before reserving its verdict on February 6 this year. The order came two days prior to the opening of the temple for the two-month-long annual pilgrim season.
The violent protests after the verdict saw a huge dip in the number of pilgrims who visited the temple and the revenue received by the Devaswom Board during the last season. While the number of pilgrims declined by about 50 percent, the revenue came down to Rs180.18 crore, compared to the 279.43 crore last year.
Three members of the bench were among the five-judge bench who stuck down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 which was the basis for barring entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 years into the temple.
The bench on September 28, 2018 had ruled that Rule 3(b) of 1965 Rules violated the right of Hindu women to practice religion under Article 25. Further, it was held that the bar on entry of women between the age of 10 and 50 years was not an essential part of the religion.
While four judges had struck down the Rule, Justice Indu Malhotra had penned a dissenting judgment holding that religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of Article 14 of the Constitution.
She had stated that notions of rationality cannot be brought into religion and that a balance needs to be struck between religious beliefs on one hand, and the cherished principles of non-discrimination and equality laid down by Constitution on the other.
The judgment of Supreme Court had significant ramifications in the state, with the BJP, right wing organisations, as well as the Congress opposing the verdict. Attempts to prevent women from entering the shrine had led to violence in and around the temple.
About a dozen women of menstruating age attempted to enter the shrine after the verdoct, of which only two succeeded in making it to Sabarimala's sanctum sanctorum. The others were chased away by the protestors or turned away by the police.
Kanaka Durga (42) and Bindhu Ammini (44) had scaled the hills under the cover of the night with the help of the police. They faced severe backlash with Hindu activists not allowing them to return to their house. Kanaka Durga, who was attacked and turned out of her home by her in-laws, was allowed to return home after an order by a local court.
Following the violent incidents, the Left Democratic Front government reversed its decision to facilitate the entry of the women from the restricted age category and dissuaded them not to attempt darshan.
The women’s entry in Sbarimala was the main issue that dominated the Lok Sabha elections held in April-May 2019. Though the BJP, which viewed it as a golden opportunity to make an electoral breakthrough in the state, drew a blank in the polls. However, the party has been able to increase its vote share in many of the Hindu dominated constituencies, including Pathanamthitta where the temple is located.
The ruling LDF led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which banked on the equality of the women also suffered huge setback in the election with the front losing in all but one of the 20 seats.
The electoral debacle forced both the saffron party and the LDF to change their aggressive stand on the issue. While the BJP scaled down its protests against the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50, the CPM moved a bit right stating that it would stand by the believers even as it was bound to honour the SC verdict.
The apex court verdict provides a temporary relief to the BJP, which was under pressure to find a legislative solution to the issue. The party had promised legislative solution to the issue if the apex court stood by its verdict. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had promised Constitutional protection to the beliefs and traditions in Sabarimala during his rallies during the Lok Sabha election in the state.
In the light of the violent incidents last year, the police have put in place a five-phase security consisting of over 10,000 police personnel under Additional Director General of Police, Shaik Darvesh Saheb.
The deployment will include 24 officers of Superintendent of Police and Assistant Superintendent of Police ranks. They will be assisted by 112 Deputy Superintendents, 264 Circle Inspectors (CI) and 1,185 Sub Inspector/ Assistant Sub Inspectors at the top layer.
The officers will be backed by a heavy deployment of 8402 civil police officers which will include 337 female officers, including 30 officers in CI, SI ranks.
As many as 2,551 officers will be deployed at Sannidhanam, Pamba, Nilakkal and Erumeli in the first phase from November 15 to 30. The second phase of deployment from November 30 to December 14 will see 2,539 officers on duty followed by 2992 and 3077 officers for the 3rd and 4th phases respectively.
An additional 1,560 officers will be deployed in Sannidhanam, Nilakkal and Pamba from the State Special Branch. The department, however, has not yet decided about the deployment of women police officers in Sannidhanam.
According to State Police Chief Loknath Behera, the pilgrim season has been divided into five phases for easy and effective functioning of the police force. There would be four phases at Nilackal.
Thiruvananthapuram City Police Commissioner M.R. Ajithkumar and Inspector General of Police Balram Kumar Upadhyaya will be the Joint Chief Police Coordinators at Sabarimala.
Rahul R. Nair, AIG at Police Headquarters, will be the police controller at the Sannidhanam, while K.M. Sabu and K.S. Sudarshan, Superintendents of Police (Crime Branch), will be the police controllers at Pampa and Nilackal respectively during the period.