A five-judge Supreme Court bench on Thursday decided to refer its ruling on the entry of women to Sabarimala to a larger bench. The top court has also decided to ask the larger bench to look into other issues related to religion including entry of women into mosques, entry of Parsi women married to non-Parsi and female genital mutilation among Dawoodi Bohra community.
“There is yet another seminal issue as to the power of the court to determine if the constitutional court can interfere in such integral parts of the religion,” the bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi ruled on Thursday, disposing of the 65 review petitions filed over its landmark judgment that opened the doors of the hilltop temple to women.
The 2018 majority verdict of 4:1 had called the practice of barring women of a certain age group from entering the temple illegal and unconstitutional, triggering protests by traditionalists in the state. It had held that their exclusion on the basis of biological and physiological features denied women the right to be treated as equals.
In the weeks that followed, a barrage of protests were held outside the temple nestled in the Western Ghats in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.
The protests had the support of temple priests who insisted that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is a celibate and women of menstruating age can’t be allowed on account of “purity”.
Legal luminaries such a former minister Arun Jaitley also expressed reservations, asking if one fundamental right could override the other; if the right to equality could override the right to religion and the right to administer religious institutions.
Sabarimala is considered to be the second largest seasonal pilgrim centre in the world next to Mecca. The Travancore Devasom Board, the temple’s custodian, puts the number of annual pilgrims at around 3-4 crore pilgrims during the season. There was a 50 per cent dip in pilgrims last year due to protests over entry of women. Over 50,000 people were booked at the height of the agitation.