New Delhi, March 29: The hearings before a nine-judge Supreme Court Bench on the ambit and scope of religious freedom practised by multiple faiths across the country lie in limbo due to the COVID-19 scare.
The Bench led by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde is hearing this reference on the question of religious freedom in connection with the Sabarimala case.
The apex court complex is completely shutdown in the face of the outbreak. Extremely urgent cases are being heard by judges via videoconferencing. However, none of the Constitution Bench cases, including the challenge to the abrogation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, has been listed.
The fate of the reference is also uncertain because the seniormost puisne judge on the Bench, Justice R. Banumathi, is set to retire in early July 2020.
Usually, the annual summer vacation of the court begins in mid-May. Lawyers have proposed to the judges to cut short the summer holidays and make up for the days lost to the COVID-19 lockdown.
On February 10, the nine-judge Bench had upheld the Sabarimala Review Bench’s decision on November 14 last year, to refer to a larger Bench questions on religious freedom.
On November 14 last year, the five-judge Sabarimala Review Bench led by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, in a majority judgment, did not decide the Sabarimala review cases before it.
Instead, the Bench has gone on to frame “larger issues” concerning essential religious practices of various religions. It further clubbed other pending cases on subjects as varied as female genital mutilation among Dawoodi Bohras to entry of Parsi women who married inter-faith into the fire temple and Muslim women into mosques and referred them all to a larger Bench. The reference order had also asked the larger Bench to consider the rule pertaining to the prohibition of entry to women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple. Chief Justice Bobde, who succeeded Justice Gogoi as top judge, had set up a nine-judge Bench to hear the reference.