It has been barely a few months that the state of Kerala suffered a devastating earthquake, an unfortunate calamity which brought the state to a standstill and marked a huge loss to life and property. Back then, the silent and isolated suffering of the state and the apathy of the central government did not go unnoticed and eventually led the common people of the country to unite in body and spirit for the cause of rebuilding the state. The focus of the state and its resources should have been on recuperating from the natural disaster it so recently faced but unfortunately a situation of mass riots is brimming under our nose in the state and the politicization of the Sabarimala issue by right and left wing extremism might end up leaving the state in tatters once again, a fate which the Keralites definitely don’t deserve.
At the onset, I would like to clarify that as a social activist and a scholar of women and gender studies, for me, the Sabarimala verdict by the Supreme Court last year which lifted the ban on entry of menstruating women in the Sabarimala shrine is a progressive step leading towards gender equality and is in accordance with the democratic principles enshrined in the Article 14 and Article 17 of the Indian constitution. However, because now the issue has surpassed the binary of faith and women empowerment and has entered the stormy waters of politics of hate and politicization of both faith and women empowerment, it becomes important to understand the impending threat on the state of Kerala which the politicization of the issue of Sabarimala poses.
First, for a layman, I would like to explain what women empowerment means in the words of actress Anushka Sharma when she was being attacked by trolls for playing a role in her movie ‘Sultan’ in which she portrayed a woman wrestler who gave up her career for motherhood. To this, she tweeted and I quote, “Choosing motherhood over a career is empowering. Choosing your career over motherhood is empowering. The freedom to choose is empowering.” I could have used any other academic definition to define what women empowerment means but the freedom of choice in a conducive environment for making those choices is what women empowerment essentially entails. The apex court has taken a step in making the environment conducive by its verdict and now it is up to the women to decide whether they want to enter the temple or not. If a set of women say, that we do not see entering the temple as mark of women empowerment or want to keep their faith above the issue of gender equality then that should also be respected as their own micro perspective but in the larger scheme of things nobody can be and should be denied entry in a temple or any other public place based on their gender, religion or caste. Similarly, no woman should be belittled for the choice of practising her faith and not entering the temple as far as the social milieu in which they make these choices is conducive and not dictated by patriarchy. This is precisely the reason that feminism is not a monolithic entity and the third world women have rejected the western notion of feminism of the white women.
The Sabarimala issue, in its current form, has trespassed both the issues of faith and women empowerment and is solely riding on the politicization of both these issues. When right wing extremists, masquerading as devotees create havoc in the state and stop women from entering the temple even after the verdict of the Supreme Court then it no more remains a question of faith but becomes a way to manipulate faith for vote bank and divisive politics. Similarly, the left wing state government misusing its authority to manufacture the consent of women on the issue and deliberately allowing the situation to escalate is not women empowerment but politicization of women empowerment for vote bank politics. This politicization of religious issues by the central and state governments is not going unnoticed; intellectuals and academicians have been continuously exposing their agenda of hate.
“It has become a completely political issue now. On one hand the state is taking religious matters to the court on so many social cultural issues and on the other hand their local leaders are mobilizing the mob to protest. They do not want any practical solutions and are not focusing on sensitizing people on the rights of women but are only trying to create a sharp divide between both the genders. Going to a temple or Dargah is an issue of an individual choice of a woman and no trust or board has the right to make a rule on this.” says, Dr. Firdous Azmat Siddiqui, Associate Professor, Sarojini Naidu Center for Women Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.
The 620 km long chain formed by women in Kerala for supporting the Supreme Court verdict is a historic moment of women unity and a welcome step but there were women in those lines who did not know why they were there and were either lured through money or forced to become a part of the chain. On the condition of anonymity a senior journalist revealed to me that his sister who is a government officer was forced to become a part of the chain by her seniors even though she did not want to be a part of it and with her own will does not want to enter the temple as a matter of following her faith. Regional media in Kerala has reported about many such women in the human chain who were forced to become a part of the chain and did not even know what the issue was. The state government with its law and order needs to implement the verdict of the Supreme Court and not simply take a progressive stand on it and allow the situation to escalate. What has stopped the state government to deal with the right wing miscreants posing as devotees in the shrine and blocking the entry of women for the last few months? How come the women who were going to the shrine were forced to return multiple times when they were given police protection? It is evident that the left wing government is also trying to keep its base of voters intact and then trying to lure a new base of Muslim and women voters who are against the right wing extremism but in doing so the government is risking the life of women trying to enter the shrine and is also allowing a riot to brim under its nose eventually thinking that it would enhance its voter base through polarization.
The Sabarimala issue has collectively exposed all the three political parties who are in a tussle over claiming the maximum political mileage from this binary of faith and women empowerment and their politicization. The central government led by the BJP has seriously compromised the sanctity of the apex court and has started using its judgments as per its own sweet will and convenience. The apex court judgment in the Rafale deal suits them so they are flagging it everywhere but are blatantly challenging the Sabarimala verdict in the state through it right wing forces. Similarly, the Prime Ministers in his recent interview referred to the importance of going through the dissenting view of Justice Indu Malhotra in the Sabarimala verdict but very conveniently ignored the dissenting view of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the case of activists arrested for their alleged role in Bhima Koregaon Violence. The hypocrisy of the Congress on the issue of Women Empowerment has also been fully exposed as the party and its President is known for invoking Women Empowerment in every line of his interview has walked hand in hand with the right-wing forces in protesting against the judgment of the Supreme Court.
The left-wing government in Kerala has though maintained a progressive stand on the verdict but has still hardly walked its talk and has also put the state in danger in an attempt to politicize the issue. The people of Kerala do not want violence and disruption of peace in their state at the hands of these political parties. “Sabarimala is a sensitive issue and the solution should also be dealt with sensitively. Even if temple entry is allowed, which it should be, it needs to be coupled with practical solutions so that the transition is smooth. All the stakeholders need to be taken in the fold, such as the Dewaswom board, the priests. That being said, it is a question of access of public spaces to all, and it should be made available smoothly and safely.” says, Puja Menon who is a native of Kerala and has completed her post graduation in Social Work from the University of Delhi.
Puja’s voice resonates with a lot of people in Kerala because it has concern and compassion for her native place and an understanding that her state has already suffered a lot at the hands of political apathy in the last six months and therefore any further politicization of such a sensitive issue would only end up creating more problems for the people of Kerala. I would therefore like to conclude by saying that the state which leads the way for the rest of the country in areas of literacy, standard of living, sex ratio and gender equality deserves better than this and the people Kerala will look through this phase and will emerge as a stronger and united group than ever before. This politics of hate and religion will not survive for long because the people of Kerala will eventually defeat it.