The Supreme Court’s judgement allowing menstruating women to offer prayers in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple has sparked a competition between the Sangh Parivar and the Congress over which side is a greater ally of the “Hindu devotees who are aggrieved by the ruling”.

On Wednesday, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s general secretary, Suresh Joshi, said Sabarimala is a matter of tradition and faith for millions of devotees, including women, whose “sentiments cannot be ignored”. This contradicts the RSS’ professed position that women everywhere should be allowed into temples. Joshi himself had said in 2016 that there was a need to change the mentality of temple managements that prevent women’s entry.

Not to be outdone by the Hindutva camp, the Congress has offered “all support” to those “whose sentiments have been hurt by the verdict”. Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition, said the Congress is for retaining the customs and practices of all religions. This goes against the position of the party’s central leadership which has described the judgement as a progressive step towards gender equality. But it is consistent with the approach of the state Congress, whose government from 2011 to 2016 had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing the entry of menstruating women into Sabarimala.

Both the Sangh and the Congress began speaking out after protests broke out against the judgement in several parts of Kerala on Tuesday. The protests, which are ongoing, reportedly started spontaneously without any organisational support from political groups. They have drawn large crowds, including of women, who believe that the Sabarimala deity Ayyappa, an eternal celibate, would not like to see menstruating women in the temple’s sanctum sanctorum.

On Thursday, both the Sangh and the Congress came out in support of the protestors, “whose sentiments have been bruised”. They share the same motivation: wooing the state’s Hindu voters and cornering the Left Front government for not filing a review petition against the verdict.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has declared his government will not file a review petition. His party colleague A Padmakumar said the temple’s managing body, the Travancore Devaswom Board, of which he is the president, did not want to “play politics” on the verdict.

The Supreme Court ruled on September 28 that the Sabarimala temple cannot discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into a public place of worship. “The country has not accepted women as partners in seeking divinity,” the court said. “Subversion of women on biological factors cannot be given legitimacy. Certain dogmas have resulted in incongruity between doctrine and practice.”

The Sabarimala shrine, set atop a hill in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district, attracts lakhs of pilgrims during Mandala Kalam, a 41-day period starting on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrishchikam. The shrine is also open during the first five days of each Malayalam month. Women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 had been barred from entering the temple.

Sangh’s flip-flop

Soon after the judgement was delivered, the RSS’s state secretary P Gopalankutty said the Sangh would honour it and that all devotees have equal rights to worship at a temple, irrespective of caste and gender. The same day, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kerala president PS Sreedharan Pillai said his party will not support discrimination against women in temples.

The next day, however, the Sangh made an about-turn, opposing the ruling. Sangh officials in Kerala said this was because they realised the controversy will help the BJP make gains among Hindu voters in next year’s Lok Sabha election. The BJP has been struggling to make its presence felt in Kerala. Despite conducting high-voltage campaigns and cobbling up a coalition of “Hindu organisations” over the years, the party has only ever won one seat in the state, in the 2016 Assembly election.

In the last four years, Amit Shah has made several visits to Kerala to help find ways of expanding the BJP’s footprint, but the party has been struggling to find an issue to sell its Hindutva agenda through. The Sabarimala ruling may well come in handy.

Pillai formally declared the BJP’s support to the protests on Thursday. “We will hold discussions with family of the chief priest of Sabarimala, various Hindu groups and members of the erstwhile Pandalam royal family which has rights over the conduct of rituals at the temple before charting our next course of action,” he said.

The party’s women’s wing, the Bharatiya Mahila Morcha, marched to the Travancore Devaswom Board office in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday protesting its decision to not file a review petition.

A Sangh leader seemed to go against the leadership’s position by hailing the verdict, only to later clarify it was his personal view and not that of the RSS. In an article in the Sangh’s Malayali mouthpiece Janmabhumi on Thursday, R Sanjayan had argued that letting women of all ages offer prayers at the Sabarimala temple will only help increase its popularity.

Supporters of the Bharatiya Mahila Morcha protest outside the Travancore Devaswom Board office in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday. Photo credit: Vineeth
Supporters of the Bharatiya Mahila Morcha protest outside the Travancore Devaswom Board office in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday. Photo credit: Vineeth

Congress’s hope

By aligning with the protestors, the Congress hopes to regain lost ground among the Hindu voters. The Congress has been concerned since the BJP won 15% of the votes in the 2016 Assembly election in large part by making inroads into the grand old party’s Hindu vote bank.

The party has fielded Chennithala, who belongs to the upper caste Hindu Nair community, to lead its opposition to the ruling. He undertook a day-long fast on Friday to “save the custom and tradition of the Sabarimala temple”. “The fast is just the beginning of our agitation,” he said. “Congress will support Ayyappa devotees to protect the custom. The government should file a review petition. It should understand the sensitivity of the issue.”

Apart from helping his party win back Hindu voters, Chennithala seems to be using the opportunity to project himself as a “strong Hindu leader”.

He is also trying to corner both the Left Front and the BJP as became evident when he urged the state government to pressure the Centre to bring an ordinance overturning the verdict.

It is not clear if the state Congress’s position enjoys the backing of the party’s central leadership, which is speaking in a different voice. “The Supreme Court’s decision has given a fresh expression to the rights of women and how they cannot be subjugated to any religious practice, no matter how sacred,” the party’s spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted after the judgement was delivered. “We wholeheartedly welcome this progressive and far-reaching decision in case of entry into Sabarimala temple.”

It will be interesting to see how the Congress in Kerala settles this dilemma.