It, however, poses a fresh challenge for Kerala’s communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who may now have to reconsider his stand on allowing women in the shrine. The pro-ban and anti-ban camps are likely to clash with each other, when the temple reopens for the two-month annual pilgrimage on 16 November.
Traditionally, women of menstrual age were not allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple. However, after the SC had struck down the customary practice as discriminatory last year, the Left Front government tried to aggressively implement the court order, which was countered by violent protests by right-wing groups. Subsequently, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, faced a backlash, resulting in gains for arch-rivals, the Congress.
The SC’s referral of the review petitions to a larger bench, may trigger fresh violence. Both the BJP and the Congress claimed that the SC move vindicated their pro-ban stand, considering that the apex court had not stood by its own verdict. Technically, though, the bench did not stay the judgement of 28 September 2018, which had lifted the ban on the entry of women between 10 and 50 years.
Hence, women can still visit the hill shrine until the larger bench pronounces its verdict. But any attempt to do so, might see anti-women’s entry protesters hitting the streets yet again. And, the CPM, this time, may not be as aggressive in championing women’s rights, considering that it has reacted cautiously to the verdict.
Vijayan, who was singularly more vocal than anyone else on the party’s position, declined to comment on the government’s stand on backing women’s entry following the SC move.
Instead, he said the state government will consult lawyers and seek for more clarity on the verdict. “Earlier, the SC had declined to stay the verdict. This time, too, they have said nothing about staying the earlier verdict. So, the government needs more clarity. All legal sides need to be looked into. Like we said before, whatever the Supreme Court says we will respect that," said Vijayan.
Temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran ducked questions from reporters. “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.
N. Vasu, who will take charge as the new chairman of the Travancore Devaswom Board, the publicly run temple board managing the affairs of Sabarimala, said: “Even as there is no stay on the earlier judgement, it is a new situation. 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 action."
At least two leaders of the CPM-led Left Democratic Front said the state government will have to negotiate with the protesters to maintain peace. “The government’s priority will be to try and maintain peace in Sabarimala, that’s all I can say," said LDF convener A. Vijayaraghavan.
“The state government should exercise restraint. It should not use the lack of clarity in the case to facilitate women’s entry into the shrine," said BJP’s 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.
The Sabarimala protests may have been the cause behind CPM’s dwindling fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, wherein it was reduced to just one seat, while the Congress-led United Democratic Front swept the remaining 19 seats. However, the BJP, despite breathing fire into the issue, failed to win a single seat.
Kerala’s police chief Loknath Behra on Wednesday said that over 10,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases around the Sabarimala temple during the pilgrim season.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala also warned the government against “escorting women to sannidhanam" under the “pretext" that the SC had not stayed its earlier order. “Just because there is no stay on the 28 September verdict, the LDF government must not try to create issues by providing security and allowing women to enter Sabarimala. The state government must not implement its earlier agenda of taking women in the banned age group to the hill shrine."
“I welcome the SC’s decision to refer the vexed #Sabarimala issue to a larger bench. The issues involved have implications for the practice of all faiths," tweeted Congress’ Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor.
BJP general secretary M.T. Ramesh said if the government attempted to “sneak in women" of childbearing age to the temple, the BJP would agitate against it. So far, 36 women have registered online to visit the temple during the forthcoming pilgrimage. Last year, over 700 women had registered, but only a handful turned up when violence broke out in the area.
Press Trust of India contributed to this story.