SC Verdict on Sabarimala Case Decoded: All You Need to Know

Decoding what the SC said while referring certain issues relating to the Sabarimala review pleas to a larger bench.

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The Supreme Court on Thursday, 14 November, said a seven-judge bench will need to examine the issues relevant to the Sabarimala review petitions, and that these issues were not just relevant to this case, but other cases involving ostensibly discriminatory religious practices, like the entry of Muslim women in mosques and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

The five-judge bench gave a 3:2 split decision on petitions seeking a review of the apex court's September 2018 decision allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala.

The majority verdict by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices A M Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra decided to keep pending the pleas seeking a review of its decision regarding the entry of women into the shrine. 

The three judges were of the opinion that the questions of what constitutes an essential religious practice (and who decides this) and whether the courts can interfere when there is a conflict between  an individual devotee’s right to pray and a religious tradition did not just arise in this case but in other cases before the Supreme Court about religious practices as well.

As the law on these issues was unclear thanks to an earlier 7-judge decision of the apex court, they felt a larger bench was required to settle this.

However, the majority verdict did not say anything adverse per se against the apex court's 28 September 2018 decision allowing women to enter the shrine nor did it stay the earlier judgment.

The judgment copy does not put a stay on the top court’s earlier verdict on the Sabarimala issue dated 28 September 2018, which had lifted the ban preventing women of all ages from entering the famous Ayyappa shrine in Kerala.

In the absence of a stay, this should mean that women can enter the shrine, which is scheduled to open for worship from 17 November. However, with some Hindu petitioners already arguing against this, it remains to be seen if the state government will step in to ensure women have access to the shrine.

Reading out some portions of the majority view, Chief Justice Gogoi said the petitioners were endeavouring to revive the debate on religion and faith.

He added that the apex court should evolve a common policy on religious places like Sabarimala and added that the larger bench will decide the issues relating to Sabarimala, entry of women into mosques and practice of female genital mutilation.

Justices Rohinton Nariman and DY Chandrachud dissented from the majority, saying that the review petitions could still be decided as they only needed to consider if there was anything wrong with the original verdict – and nothing of the sort had been established here. They observed that a larger bench would still be free to consider the issues at a later stage if brought up before them, and that the state and central government and all parties confirmed were still bound by the original decision.

The split decision came on 65 petitions – 56 review petitions, four fresh writ petitions and five transfer pleas – which were filed after the apex court verdict of 28 September 2018 sparked violent protests in Kerala.

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

Background

The TDB, which runs the Sabarimala temple, had made a U-turn to support the Supreme Court's order allowing women of all ages to enter the shrine.

The TDB had joined the Kerala government to oppose a batch of pleas seeking review of the historic verdict.

The Board had later asserted that its latest position was not due to any political pressure.

Some right-wing activists alleged that the Board changed its stand before the court under pressure from the state's CPI(M)-led LDF government.

The Kerala government, which had taken conflicting stands on women's entry into the hilltop shrine, supported the verdict and urged the apex court to trash the review pleas.

(With inputs from PTI)

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