Earlier this year, the CPM government in Kerala tried to amend a law enabling non-Hindus to be appointed on the boards of Devaswom temples including Sabarimala.
The volcano of public anger against the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the age-old restrictions on women’s entry in Sabarimala temple, exploded on Wednesday when the temple gates were thrown open. A massive crowd of protestors gathered around Nilakkal and Erumeli, the two base camps for the pilgrimage to prohibit the women devotees from entering Sabarimala. Since the Supreme Court ruling, several organizations including the Pandalam royal family have asserted a strong disagreement with the apex court’s decision. While the state government refused to file a review petition in the Supreme Court, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also stressed that the state government will take steps to provide safety and security for women who may want to visit the shrine.
On one hand, the state government is determined to implement the Supreme Court decision, a large section of Hindu society of the state have taken it to the streets under “Save Sabarimala” campaign. As the pilgrimage day started, the protesters blocked roads leading up to Pamba and women devotees even frisked the vehicles passing by to check if there were women on board. Some women devotees who tried to visit Sabarimala were forced to return. A number of female journalists who were reporting from the spot were heckled and attacked by the protestors. As the area surrounding Sabarimala has turned into war-zone with violent protests, the law and order situation has been difficult to handle despite the deployment of heavy security.
What is Sabarimala Controversy?
The Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at Sabarimala was adopted by King Rajashekara, the foster-father of Lord Ayyappan belonging to the Pandya dynasty. As the legend goes, Lord Ayyappa is a “Naishtika Brahmachari”- a celibate and thus, menstruating women are barred from the hill shrine. The custom has been followed since ages.
In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a PIL before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s custom of excluding women. The PIL was filed by five women lawyers namely- Bhakti Sethi, Laxmi Shastri, Prerna Kumari, Alka Sharma and Sudha Pal. The Association made a case that custom of banning women entry violates the rights to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of female worshipers. Later, one of the five lawyers, Prerna Kumari said that when she filed the petition in this matter, she was not fully aware of the facts of this case.
What was the Supreme Court’s decision?
Supreme Court in its 4:1 majority judgement lifted the ban on entry of women in Sabarimala. Interestingly enough, the only women judge in the five-judge constitution bench Justice Indu Malhotra dissented and opined that the judiciary should not interfere in the matters of faith and religion. Delivering the Judgment, the bench said, “Right to worship is given to all devotees and there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender.” The bench further added, “The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles.”
Though the Sabarimala issue is primarily a cultural and religious one, it did not take much time for it to turn into a political one. While the Left Front government in Kerala supported SC decision, the BJP-RSS after initial silence took a U-turn and opposed the ruling. Congress, on the other hand, seem confused as the state unit under the leadership of Ramesh Chennithala has echoed the BJP-RSS stand while the central unit welcomed the SC decision. There were hundreds of RSS-BJP cadres among the protestors who swamped Sabarimala today.
Reacting to the police action on protestors, Kerala BJP leader Shobha Surendran said, “I am warning the Chief Minister that if the police resort to lathi-charge on Hindu devotees, the BJP will firmly rally behind these pilgrims. I also want to tell the CM that consequences will be severe.” Adding that the protests will change “the face of Kerala”.
State government’s response:
The fact that Sabarimala issue has always been a political one can be understood by the fact that the state’s response to the PIL over the year changed as per the change in state government. The then CPM-led government under the leadership of VS Achuthanandan favoured the entry of women of all ages when the court seeking its opinion in 2007.
The state government’s stand changed after Congress came to power. After former Congress MLA Prayer Gopalakrishnan was made board chief, the issue was brought to the Congress leadership’s attention, which wanted to file a fresh affidavit against the entry of women. Gopalakrishnan said the Congress government and the board were against changing the tradition.
In July 2016, when the issue came up before the Supreme Court, the current LDF regime continued with the stand of the previous Congress government taking a detour from its 2007 stand. Under fire from activists, CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan then stated that the government would file a fresh affidavit, favouring entry of women of all ages to the temple. Now, the CPM govt in the state has extended complete support to it.
A political conspiracy against Hindus?
The communist government is facing a strong backlash for its refusal to file a review petition in the Supreme Court. On the other hand, its perceived haste to implement the order is being seen as an alleged “Anti-Hindu” agenda of the CPIM. On July 8 this year, the Kerala govt passed a law proposing an amendment to the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institution Act. The act was constituted in 1950. The amendment proposed by the state govt to Section 29, in sub-section (2) suggested that the words “who shall be appointed by the Board. He shall be a Hindu.” shall be omitted. In simpler words, even a Non-Hindu could be appointed to the Devaswom board. This was met with a strong opposition from Hindus of the state.
Kerala Govt’s decision to implement SC order comes in a stark contradiction of the last year’s incident where the CM of the state had lashed out at the Idukki district collector for demolishing a massive cross that was erected on an encroached state government land.
Moreover, the CPM- which rules the state proclaims to be atheist by the principle which bars its members from attending religious rituals. Then why such a party feels the need to interfere in a matter of religious concern? And particularly that of Hindus?
The CPM accuses RSS-BJP of playing communal politics. Well, such decisions definitely show that the party cannot certainly take a high ground when it comes to politics over religion.