A five-member constitutional bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday will pronounce its order on whether to review its judgement on a crucial rights-versus-belief dispute in Kerala's Sabarimala temple case. On 28 September 2018, the apex court had ended an age-old practice of keeping out women in their menstruating age from the temple and had called it discriminatory. This resulted in a national uproar and whopping 56 review pleas, four fresh writ petitions and five transfer pleas.
Upholding the review pleas would be seen as substantiating the controversial ban, and the rallies calling to protect it spearheaded by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since last year. This would also be a major setback for the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), in Kerala and its chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who aggressively came down against the ban and jailed thousands of protestors who tried to physically stop women.
If the court invalidates the review pleas, it could further limit the chances of returning the sanction on women but the matter would hardly end there. The petitioners can resort to other judiciary tools or, as the Congress unit in Kerala has repeatedly demanded, ask the Centre to make a special law for Sabarimala, even as its legality is disputed. Although rare, the court can also refer the review pleas to a larger bench.
In any case, just like the settlement of the landmark Ayodhya case on Saturday, today’s verdict can chart a new phase in one of India's most high profile social conflicts that have melded past myths with present-day politics. Given the temple's annual pilgrim season is set to start on 16 November, when tensions peaked last year along with the historic entry of two women, the police see practically little chances of the protests to cool off whichever way the verdict swings.
Kerala's police chief Loknath Behra on Wednesday said over 10,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases around Sabarimala temple during the two-month-long pilgrim season. Addressing the state assembly last week, Pinarayi Vijayan also appealed for peace and said all should accept the verdict by the apex court as in the case of Ayodhya land dispute.
The Sabarimala protests were widely seen as one of the catalysts of CPI (M)'s historic drubbing in May Lok Sabha polls. They lost 19 out of the 20 total Lok Sabha seats in the state, whereas Congress that is aligned with the protestors won all of the 19 seats. The BJP, despite breathing fire into the issue, failed to win any seats.
But the hopes of the BJP has also gone up since the Ayodhya verdict. The SC in Ayodhya judgement said it was "beyond the ken of judicial inquiry" to determine the justifications of a belief, a philosophy dramatically different from the Sabarimala judgement where it said faith and belief could deny Right to Equality.
"The stand taken by the apex court in the Ayodhya case that deity Ram Lalla could be viewed as a special personality, can be applied in the Sabarimala case also," said BJP's state generally secretary M T Ramesh.
One of the review petitioners, Nair Service Society, an outfit of upper-caste Nairs in Kerala, had pleaded that it was not right for the court to invoke Article 15 and Article 17 (Right to Equality law and Abolition of Untouchability law, in that order) in the Sabarimala judgement. They do not apply to religious institutions like Sabarimala, claimed the petitioners, since the exclusionary practice was based on the celibate status of the deity.
The opinion of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, who heads the bench seeking reviews, will be crucial today. Four others on the five-judges bench— Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra—wrote last year's 4:1 judgement, in which Justice Indu Malhotra was the lone dissenter who ruled in favour of the ban.