New Delhi: The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs Sabarimala temple, Wednesday made a U-turn to support the Supreme Court's order allowing women of all ages enter the shrine as it joined the Kerala government to oppose a batch of pleas seeking review of the historic verdict.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi reserved its decision after hearing various parties for three and half hours, including those seeking re-consideration of the September 28, 2018 judgement, even as the Board later asserted that its latest position was not due to any political pressure.
Some right-wing activists have alleged that the Board changed its stand before the court under pressure from the state's CPI(M)-led LDF government.
The apex court, by a majority of 4:1, 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 had held that this centuries-old Hindu religious practice was illegal and unconstitutional.
However, as many as 65 petitions -- including 56 review petitions and four fresh writ petitions and five transfer pleas -- were filed in the apex court after its verdict sparked violent protests in Kerala.
The five-judge constitution bench, which had earlier agreed to hear the pleas in an open court, reserved its decision after hearing the parties, including Nair Service Society, Thantry of temple, temple Board (TDB) and the state government, in favour and against the review plea.
The bench, also comprising justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, was in for a pleasant surprise as the temple board, which also comprises the state government nominees, took a U-turn by supporting the verdict and said the people should gracefully accept it.
The temple board, in earlier round of litigation, had opposed the PIL by Indian Young Lawyers Association seeking to throw open the shrine for all women.
Justice Malhotra interdicted senior lawyer Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for TDB, and said, "You had argued against women's entry".
"The Board has now decided to respect the judgment", Dwivedi replied, adding, "Article 25 (1) equally entitles all persons to practice religion."
"Women cannot be excluded from any walk of life on biological attributes... equality is the dominant theme of the Constitution," Dwivedi said.
The Kerala government, which had taken conflicting stands on women's entry into the hilltop shrine, supported the verdict and urged the court to trash review pleas.
Senior advocate Jaideep Gupta, appearing for the state government, said a constitutional court should not worry about law and order problem and "social disturbances".
Exclusion of women from temples is not an essential practice of Hindu religion, he said.
At the outset, the bench told lawyers it would hear only those who are parties to review petitions and asked them to confine arguments on grounds for reconsideration of the judgement.
Senior advocate K Parasaran, appearing for Nair Service Society, assailed the majority verdict, saying Article 15 of the Constitution throws open for public the secular institutions of the country but doesn't deal with religious institutions.
Seeking a reconsideration, he said the Article 17 which deals with abolition of untouchability in society was wrongly used by the court in its judgment as exclusion of certain age groups of women was not based on caste.
Parasaran also referred to the celibate or 'Naishtika Brahmachari' character of the Sabarimala deity and said the exclusionary practise was based on nature of the deity and the apex court should have considered this aspect.
He also referred to Article 25 (fundamental right to practice religion) and said unless a religious practice is "abhorrent', a court usually does not interfere with the activities associated with religious institutions.
Senior advocate A M Singhvi, representing TDB's ex-chairperson, argued in favour of a review of the judgment.
"There is no exclusion of women. There is no exclusion of men. There is no exclusion of a class of men or women based on religion and caste. There is an exclusion inside a class (women). Hence Article 17 (removal of untouchability) will not apply," Singhvi said.
Dealing with the aspect of constitutional morality, the lawyer said that in a pluralistic Hindu society this concept cannot be applied objectively by the court and it has to be subjective keeping in mind different essential religious practices.
Senior advocate V Giri, who represented the shrine thantry, said the temple allows entry of all persons inside and there is no exclusion of any class of citizen based on caste, gender and religion.
"The fundamental right to worship also includes the character of the deity and every devotee cannot question this character which also formed part of the essential religious practice there," he said.
Senior lawyer Shekhar Naphade said the court cannot direct a community to practice religion in a particular manner.
"This is an internal affair of a religious community which worships a particular deity in a particular manner. This has never been in dispute that this practice is being followed for centuries.
"The court cannot issue a writ of mandamus against a community to practice its religion in a particular manner," Naphade said, adding this was an essential religious practice which cannot be scrutinised.
He said that any religious practice cannot be stopped unless it constituted a criminal offence.
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