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Sabarimala Virtual Queue: Kerala High Court Reserves Judgment

Hannah M Varghese
1 Nov 2021 1:39 PM GMT
Sabarimala Virtual Queue: Kerala High Court Reserves Judgment
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The Kerala High Court on Monday reserved its judgment in the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the legality of the Pilgrim Management System, implemented by the Kerala Police. It is alleged that it restricts Darshan in Sabarimala to only those who avail the Virtual Queue Services.A Division Bench comprising Justice Anil K. Narendran and Justice P.G Ajithkumar concluded hearing...

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The Kerala High Court on Monday reserved its judgment in the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the legality of the Pilgrim Management System, implemented by the Kerala Police. It is alleged that it restricts Darshan in Sabarimala to only those who avail the Virtual Queue Services.

A Division Bench comprising Justice Anil K. Narendran and Justice P.G Ajithkumar concluded hearing the matter today and announced that it would notify its decision next Monday.  

The Court during the proceedings cited the decision of the Apex Court where it had flagged digital divide afflicting the accessibility to the CoWIN portal to suggest that there may be devotees desiring to visit Sabarimala who do not have digital devices to book a slot in the virtual queue system. 

"The Apex Court decision addressing the digital divide in the country is to some extent an answer to the major grievance of the petitioners. What about the plight of the devotees who do not own smartphones or even mobile phones? How will they attend the pilgrimage?"

With particular emphasis on this argument, the Court opined that the exclusive nature of the virtual queue system cannot be accepted and that it should be made optional as it was before the pandemic. 

Regarding the question of the Travancore Devaswom Board entrusting its function of crowd management in the temple premises, Advocate Krishna Raj submitted:

"The temple is the body of a deity. What power does the police have to manage law and order on its premises? Crowd control is not the business of the police. There are numerous cases pending before this very Court alleging police excesses. This is just another instance of that. The Police cannot enter the premises of the temple without authorisation from the Devaswom Board. The Board is anyway paying the Kerala police for managing the crowd. In that case, why can't crowd control be given to a professional agency rather than the State Police?" 

To this, the Court responded that it is the responsibility of the Board to manage its affairs, not any organisation.

The panel further enquired if TCS has access to the data entered into the portal by the devotees. It then noted that TCS had not chosen to appear in the matter so far despite being served with a notice.

Several counsels appeared in the matter today and argued that a mandatory duty imposed on the Board by a state cannot be delegated to another authority, particularly the State Police. They also enquired if a third person can interfere in the affairs of religion and asserted that the matter warranted the interference of the court.

"If the Board has entrusted the whole system with the Police, then why do we have a Board in the first place? Can the Devaswom Board abrogate its duties like this?"

It was also pointed out that in the 2011 stampede that occurred at SAbariala, the accident was not caused by lack of crowd management but the negligence on part of the forest officers by tying an iron rope across the road.

Is Govt Authorized To Manage The Affairs Of A Temple? Kerala High Court Asks In Sabarimala Virtual Queue Case

The counsels put up a united front and asserted that a middle man was unnecessary in the endeavour to make the virtual queue system a reality. 

Background:

The Virtual Queue, as per the website maintained by the Police Department, is "a limited subscription, first come first serve basis service" to provide access to the pilgrimage to a devotee.

The petitioner claimed that for availing the impugned service, a devotee has to provide personal information including name, age, address, contact number, photograph, details of photo identity cards etc., without any assurance regarding the protection of their privacy or safety of the data so collected.

The primary allegation in the PIL is that in the pretext of facilitating the crowds, the State and the Police are effectively usurping the role and powers of the Travancore Devaswom Board for malafide reasons in a completely non-transparent and arbitrary manner.

The question before the Court was whether the Police and the State were entitled to host a website and run a virtual queue system without requisite approvals. The Court also took note of the fact that the portal had been releasing advertisements as well to generate revenue.

As per the official website, the digital platform for SPMS is developed and facilitated by a private agency namely Tata Consultancy Services, Hyderabad.

The State Attorney N Manoj Kumar submitted that while all the practical implications of the virtual queue system could be adjusted for efficiency, the question of police managing the crowd at the shrine was not open for debate. 

'A Conscious Effort To Malign Police': State Submits Before Kerala High Court In Sabarimala Virtual Queue Case

The petitioner's Counsel Senior Advocate Abir Phukan put forth before the Court that their main grievance was the mandatory nature of the virtual queue system.

The Court during one of the previous hearings of the matter had urged the respondents to make a provision in their portal for cancellation of booking and means to provide a refund for the cancelled bookings if cancelled within a time frame.

Case Title: Suo Motu v. Travancore Devaswom Board

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