The chief priest of Sabarimala temple on Thursday welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to refer the review petitions challenging its 2018 verdict to a larger seven-judge Bench. Last year, the court had allowed the entry of women of all ages into the hilltop shrine, infuriating believers. “God heard the prayers of millions of believers,” Kandararu Rajeevaru told Hindustan Times.

In a 3:2 verdict, the five-judge Bench held that issues pertaining to the test of essential religious practices and correctness of the judgement in the 1954 Shirur Mutt case should be decided by a larger bench. The larger bench will also look into similar matters such as the entry of Muslim and Parsi women into places of worship and female genital cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The court, however, did not stay the 2018 judgement.

Sabarimala Karma Samithi patron and Pandalam Palace Coordination Committee President Sasikumara Varma said the decision had brought devotees relief and happiness. “Our mental agony on the matter has found resonance in the verdict,” he said, according to The New Indian Express. “The court has understood the sentiments of Ayyappa devotees. Leaving the matter to a larger Bench is in itself an expression of doubt that the earlier verdict of the apex court had some flaws.”

The Bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Indu Malhotra, Rohinton Fali Nariman, AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud had reserved its verdict on February 6 after hearing a batch of 56 review petitions, four writ petitions, two transfer petitions filed by the Kerala government, two Special Leave Petitions, and a plea filed by the Travancore Devaswom Board seeking time to implement the judgement.

Massive protests

In September 2018, a five-judge Constitution Bench, which included former Chief Justice Dipak Misra, had allowed women of all ages to enter the Ayyappa temple, leading to massive protests. Only a handful of women managed to enter the shrine.

The matter snowballed into a huge political issue, with the state Election Commission banning political outfits from bringing it up during election campaigns. Many conservative and religious leaders criticised the court’s judgement. The ruling Left government, however, supported the entry of women, opposing the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On Thursday, BJP General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh said the court’s decision was in the direction of protecting the rights of devotees and upholding their faith. “It was never a matter of fundamental rights,” he said, according to PTI. “It was a matter of age-old tradition accepted by society.”

The saffron party warned the Left Democratic Front government not to act in haste. “The government should show restraint as the Supreme Court has not taken a final decision on the matter,” said former state BJP President Kummanam Rajasekharan. “The government should not use the lack of clarity regarding stay in the case to facilitate women entry.”

Former chief minister and Congress leader Oommen Chandy asked the state government to take steps to ensure a smooth season of pilgrimage. The Sabarimala temple will be open for pilgrims from November 17.

“We welcome the Supreme Court decision,” said Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, who is the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly. “If the government tries to forcibly facilitate entry of women, it will trigger a crisis.”

Congress’s Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor also welcomed the court’s decision on the “vexed issue”. He said the matter has “implications for the practice of all faiths”.

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