The Supreme Court's verdict to refer Sabarimala review pleas to a larger bench will likely pose a major challenge for Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who may now need to reconsider his stand on allowing women into the shrine. The decision needs to be taken before the temple reopens for the annual pilgrim season in two days.
A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday referred Kerala's Sabarimala temple case to a larger bench of seven judges, with a 3:2 majority. The bench did not stay the judgment passed on 28 September 2018 that had lifted the ban on entry of women between age 10 and 50 to the temple. Women can still visit the shrine until the larger bench decides on the matter.
Come 16 November, there may be renewed protests against the entry of women into the shrine.
"The state government should exercise restraint. It should not use the lack of clarity regarding stay in the case to facilitate women’s entry into the shrine," said Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Kerala leader Kummanam Rajashekaran.
"We welcome the SC decision. It's a verdict that gives hope and confidence to Ayyappa devotees," said Sabarimala's chief priest Kantararu Rajeevaru, also a review petitioner.
Meanwhile, leaders of Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM have called for peace and said they were awaiting clarity on the judgement. Some party leaders, on condition of anonymity, said the government may file a plea seeking clarity on the judgement but may find itself in a quagmire if women try to enter the shrine.
Temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran ducked questions from reporters on what lies ahead for the government. "These are not questions to be asked now. I request everybody, including the opposition, to not seek political mileage from the verdict or make comments that can spark tension," he said. He said he will study the verdict before making comments.
N Vasu, who will take charge as the new chairman of Travancore Devaswom Board, the public-run temple board which runs Sabarimala, said, "Even as there is no stay on the earlier judgement, it is a new situation now. The old verdict will now be studied by a new bench. We will contact our lawyers and study the judgement and discuss it with board members, before deciding on further actions," he said.
Vijayan has been a staunch advocate of women entering the shrine and a change in his stance is unlikely, close friends and associates said.
Following the developments, the party-led coalition Left Democratic Front might want to open a negotiation space with protestors. "The government's priority will be to try and maintain peace in Sabarimala, that's all I can say," said LDF convenor A. Vijayaraghavan.