New Delhi: Just days after ruling in favour of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Supreme Court is set to pronounce another judgment on a matter of faith. A five-judge Constitution bench will Thursday rule on a review plea that has appealed the court’s earlier decision to allow women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala.
The verdict is likely to have a far-reaching effect across South India, particularly Kerala.
The Supreme Court’s September 2018 decision to allow women devotees to offer prayers in the hill shrine had triggered protests in Kerala and put the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, which implemented it, in a spot.
A year on, there is still uncertainty in Kerala over how ardent devotees will react if the Supreme Court upholds its earlier ruling but politically, the issue appears to have lost its sting. It is, however, still a sensitive issue and all eyes are on the approach the LDF government will take in case it goes against the devotees.
A violent backlash
There had been a backlash to the Supreme Court September 2018 judgment. Protests broke out across Kerala after the LDF government decided to implement the verdict immediately. They intensified when the gates of the temple were thrown open on 17 October 2018 as several women, including activists, devotees and journalists, attempted to enter the shrine.
Many women were forcefully turned back by the protesters who stood guard for kilometres along the base camp near Nilakkal and the Pampa river to ensure that their “religious sentiments” were not hurt.
Such has been the vehement opposition that the upcoming verdict deals with around 65 review petitions filed against the 2018 order, including by the National Ayyappa Devotees (Women) Association, the Nair Service Society (NSS), and the All Kerala Brahmins Association.
Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, an organisation formed “to protect the temple’s traditions” following the court’s verdict, hinted that there may not be much violence this time around.
Easwar said when the temple opens for darshan on 16 November, Ayyappa devotees will stand along the route to the hill shrine and appeal to women below the age of 50 to turn back and not “hurt the sentiments of the believers”.
He, however, said there are three distinct possibilities that could occur Thursday.
“The review may not be given or it could be referred to a seven-member Constitution bench without a stay on the previous order granted,” he said. “A third option for the court would be to grant a stay while granting the review.”
Asked what he believes the judgment would be, Easwar said that in his opinion, the Supreme Court, with the aim to deliver a balanced judgement, would likely refer the matter to the Constitutional bench without granting a stay.
“Sabarimala has strong legal backing. We are not arguing for faith over law. We are arguing for law itself and for Article 25 of the Constitution (right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion),” he said.
Also read: Triumph of faith in Ayodhya verdict set to test SC in its Sabarimala review
A sensitive issue
Sabarimala was a massive factor in the Lok Sabha elections in May and the bypolls on 21 October.
The BJP aggressively campaigned on the issue during the Lok Sabha poll campaign while the LDF stood by its decision to implement the order. The Congress, however, took a neutral stand neither welcoming or condemning the verdict. It benefitted the most.
Of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) bagged 19, with the ruling LDF managing just one.
Since then, the LDF appears to have mellowed it stand on the issue. A post-electoral evaluation report for the CPM, submitted by party state secretary Kanam Rajendran, said the government’s decision to allow two women to trek to the temple had a “huge impact” on party sympathisers. The Opposition UDF and the BJP used it to their advantage, the internal report said.
“It was the first time that the party openly admitted that the entry of the two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, into Sabarimala on 2 January had contributed majorly to the LDF’s dismal performance and defeat in the parliamentary polls,” said a senior CPM leader on the condition of anonymity.
CPM gains after changed stance
But the CPM mellowing its stance has had an effect. In the assembly bypolls on 21 October, the party wrested the Konni seat from the Congress after a gap of 23 years. Konni is in Pathanamthitta district where the Swami Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala is located.
The party also won another of the other four assembly segments that went to the polls.
Thursday’s verdict will be another litmus test for the party’s stand.
Former CPM MP from Palakkad, M.B. Rajesh, told ThePrint that if the Supreme Court overturns its previous verdict, it will not have much of an impact politically for the Left in Kerala. But if the earlier verdict is upheld, then the Left’s stand will be vindicated.
“The RSS and the BJP took to the streets to ban women entry and the stand that they took will be exposed,” Rajesh said. “They will not be able to vehemently oppose the verdict at a time when they are accepting the Ayodhya verdict.”
Political analyst G. Pramod Kumar, though, believes that the issue will continue to cause political ripples. “The LDF now knows that if it eases off on the Sabarimala issue, it’ll only help it. The cause of the believers is also supported by both Muslims and the Christians who were against the CPM’s position.”
Also read: As Sabarimala issue fizzles out, BJP has gained virtually nothing in Kerala