Sabarimala Review Petitions NOT referred to a larger bench, but kept pending. Here’s what Supreme Court has actually held

Supreme Court: The 5-judge Constitution Bench of Ranjan Gogoi, CJ and RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, JJ has referred certain seminal issues to a larger bench in a 3:2 verdict. CJI Gogoi, Khanwilkar and Malhotra, JJ gave the majority opinion of referring the the questions to larger bench, whereas Nariman and Chandrachud, JJ gave dissenting opinions.

Due to the reference being made to the larger bench, the subject review petitions as well as the writ petitions will remain pending until determination of the questions indicated hereunder by a Larger Bench.

Surprisingly, the majority verdict runs in only 6-pages in a 77-pages long verdict.

Majority Verdict by CJ Gogoi for himself & Khanwilkar & Malhotra, JJ

“This Court should evolve a judicial policy befitting to its plenary powers to do substantial and complete justice and for an authoritative enunciation of the constitutional principles by a larger bench of not less than seven judges.”

Referring the issues connected to the case at hand, CJ Gogoi wrote that it may not be inappropriate if matters involving seminal issues including the interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution touching upon the right to profess, practise and propagate its own religion, are heard by larger bench of commensurate number of Judges. He, hence, ‘suggested’ that a 7-judge bench be formed to decide the abovementioned issues. 

Questions that the Larger Bench ‘may’ take up for consideration

  • Interplay between the freedom of religion under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution and other provisions in Part III, particularly Article 14.
  • Sweep of expression ‘public order, morality and health’ occurring in Article 25(1) of the Constitution.
  • Sweep of expression ‘morality’ or ‘constitutional morality. Is it over arching morality in reference to preamble or limited to religious beliefs or faith? There is need to delineate the contours of that expression, lest it becomes subjective.
  • The extent to which the court can enquire into the issue of a particular practice is an integral part of the religion or religious practice of a particular religious denomination or should that be left exclusively to be determined by the head of the section of the religious group.
  • Meaning of the expression ‘sections of Hindus’ appearing in Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution.
  • Whether the “essential religious practices” of a religious denomination, or even a section thereof are afforded constitutional protection under Article 26.
  • What would be the permissible extent of judicial recognition to PILs in matters calling into question religious practices of a denomination or a section thereof at the instance of persons who do not belong to such religious denomination?

The majority verdict also suggested that the Larger Bench may also decide the question as to whether the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 govern the Sabarimala temple at all.

Overlapping or related issues pending before the Supreme Court

“The debate about the constitutional validity of practices entailing into restriction of entry of women generally in the place of worship is not limited to this case, but also arises in respect of entry of Muslim women in a Durgah/Mosque as also in relation to Parsi women married to a non-Parsi into the holy fire place of an Agyari.”

The Court also took note of other seminal issues arising in the pending cases regarding entry of Muslim Women in Durgah/Mosque; Parsi Women married to a non-Parsi in the Agyari; and including the practice of female genital mutilation in Dawoodi Bohra community and said that these issues may be overlapping and covered by the judgment under review and hence, the prospect of the issues arising in those cases being referred to larger bench cannot be ruled out.

    • Muslim Women in Durgah/Mosque Case is pending before a 3-judge bench of SA Bobde, SA Nazeer and Krishna Murari, JJ. On November 5, 2019, the bench had adjourned the matter for 10 days which means that the matter will now be taken up after Justice Bobde takes charge of the CJI office.
    • Parsi Women married to a non-Parsi in the Agyari case was referred to a 5-judge bench by a 3-judge bench of Dipak Misra, CJ and AM Khanwilkar and Dr. DY Chandrachud, JJ in October, 2017. The 5-judge bench of former CJ Dipak Misra and AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, JJ last heard the matter on December 14, 2017. [2017 SCC OnLine SC 1275]
    • Case relating to practice of female genital mutilation in Dawoodi Bohra community was referred to a larger bench on September 24, 2018 by a 3-judge bench of former CJ Dipak Misra and AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, JJ. The Constitution bench is yet to be formed. [2018 SCC OnLine SC 2667]

Stay on the 2018 verdict

The verdict is silent on whether there will be a stay on the 2018 Sabarimala Verdict which means that the said judgment will continue to hold ground till the review petitions are finally decided by the Court.

Why the majority verdict is debatable?

‘Suggestive’ reference

The verdict does not make a clear reference of issues to a larger bench. The wordsthe prospect of the issues arising in those cases being referred to larger bench cannot be ruled outused in the majority verdict may mean to imply that the reference made by the Court is merely ‘suggestive’.

Nariman, J’s minority opinion also talks about the ‘suggestive’ nature of the references when it says,

“if and when the issues that have been set out in the learned Chief Justice’s judgment arise in future, they can appropriately be dealt with by the bench/benches which hear the petitions concerning Muslims, Parsis and Dawoodi Bohras.”

Hence, it would not be completely wrong to say that this judgment merely suggests the Benches in the abovementioned 3 cases to refer the issues listed down by it to a larger bench if it thinks fit.

Reference of a review petition

If it is believed that a reference has indeed been made in the majority verdict, it will again be debatable on the ground that a reference cannot be made in a review petition. A judgment of the Supreme Court of is final, and a review of such judgment is an exception. Whatever the Court decides in a Review Petition become the law. So will a reference of a review petition to a larger bench mean creation of a new forum? Too many loose ends have been left in the majority verdict that the Court will have to tie up sooner or later.

It is also pertinent to note that in the majority verdict, no ‘error on the face of record’ has been pointed out. In fact, the majority verdict has not answered the review at all. Which explains why the majority verdict runs in only 6 pages and 9 paras.

Dissenting opinion by Nariman, J for himself and Chandrachud, J

“Bona fide criticism of a judgment, albeit of the highest court of the land, is certainly permissible, but thwarting, or encouraging persons to thwart, the directions or orders of the highest court cannot be countenanced in our Constitutional scheme of things.”

Disagreeing with the majority opinion that the Review Petitions be kept in a lurch while the larger bench decides the seminal issues concerning right to religion and women rights, Nariman and Chandrachud, JJ said that the only issue before the Court in the present case was the review petitions and the writ petitions that were filed in relation to the judgment in Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, 2018 SCC Online SC 1690.

Stating that if and when the issues that have been set out in the learned Chief Justice’s judgment arise in future, they can appropriately be dealt with by the bench/benches which hear the petitions concerning Muslims, Parsis and Dawoodi Bohras, Nariman and Chandrachud, J said,

“What a future constitution bench or larger bench, if constituted by the learned Chief Justice of India, may or may not do when considering the other issues pending before this Court is, strictly speaking, not before this Court at all.”

They, hence, went on to examine the issue at hand and noticed that there was a clear consensus on the following 3 issues:

  • The devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious denomination and cannot, therefore, claim the benefit of Article 26 or the proviso to Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965.
  • The four majority judgments specifically grounded the right of women between the ages of 10 to 50, who are excluded from practicing their religion, under Article 25(1) of the Constitution, emphasizing the expression “all persons” and the expression “equally” occurring in that Article, so that this right is equally available to both men and women of all ages professing the same religion.
  • Section 3 of the 1965 Act traces its origin to Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution of India, and would apply notwithstanding any custom to the contrary, to enable Hindu women the right of entry 18 in all public temples open to Hindus, so that they may exercise the right of worship therein. As a concomitant thereof, Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 is violative of Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India and ultra vires Section 3 of the 1965 Act.

Given the consensus on the three issues delineated above, Nariman, J, hence, wrote that no ground for review of the majority judgments was made out and the review petitions were hence dismissed.

Nariman and Chandrachud, JJ, hence, directed the State of Kerala to give wide publicity to the 2018 Sabarimala judgment through the medium of television, newspapers, etc. Pressing upon the need to implement the 2018 Sabarimala Verdict, they asked the government to take steps to secure the confidence of the community in order to ensure the fulfillment of constitutional values. The State government may have broad-based consultations with representatives of all affected interests so that the modalities devised for implementing the judgment of the Court meet the genuine concerns of all segments of the community, Nariman, J said in the minority opinion.

[Kantaru Rajeevaru v. India Young Lawyers’ Association, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1461, decided on 14.11.2019]


Read more about the opinions of all the judges in the 4:1 majority verdict here.

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