The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s plans to mobilise Hindu organisations against the Kerala government over the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict suffered a jolt on Tuesday when a prominent organisation representing members of the Ezhava community asserted that it would not support the protests.

Vellappally Natesan, the leader of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful organisation that represents the Hindu Ezhava community, said the citizens of Kerala should understand the Sangh Parivar’s devious plans to divide people on religious lines and foment riots. The Ezhavas are classified as other backward classes and comprise 28% of Kerala’s population.

On September 28, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court ruled that Kerala’s Sabarimala temple must not discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into the shrine. “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.”

Sabarimala, perched 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, which straddles November and December. The shrine is also open to the public during the first five days of each month in the Malayalam calendar. Women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 were barred from entering the temple till the apex court’s judgment.

Accepting the verdict, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government in the state promised to ensure adequate facilities for women pilgrims at the shrine. But soon, protests erupted in many parts of the state, with some people alleging that the government was attempting to destroy the sanctity of Sabarimala. This took on a political colour when the Sangh Parivar – as the RSS and its affiliates are collectively known – joined the protests on October 3.

On Monday, at a meeting in Kochi that was attended by leaders of 41 Hindu organisations, the RSS formed the Sabarimala Action Council to coordinate the protests. P Gopalankutty, the state general secretary of the RSS, was one of those present. The groups at the meeting resolved to organise various protests – such as road blockades, day-long fasts and marches – in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, starting from October 10. The Bharatiya Janata Party also announced that it would intensify its protests against the verdict.

The RSS’s first direct intervention in the matter was expected to bring many more Hindu outfits to the protests.

But then Natesan spoke up.

Ezhava outfit’s stand

Natesan, a powerful Ezhava leader, is known for springing political surprises. He has waxed eloquent about the power of the Ezhava community during major elections, and has offered support at various times to the Congress and its rival the Communist Party of India (Marxist), depending on each party’s chances of victory in the elections.

In 2016, he had lobbied with the BJP before the Assembly elections. This led to the formation of a political outfit called the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, which eventually became an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. His son Thushar Vellappaly is the convenor of the coalition.

On Tuesday, Natesan praised Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for inviting for discussions the Sabarimala priests and members of the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, who have traditionally overseen the conduct of the rituals at Sabarimala. Both, however, turned down the offer.

Natesan also gave hints of a political realignment in the state when he trained his guns on the RSS and the upper-caste Nair community for organising the protests. “Who decided these protests?” he asked. “Did they consult Ezhavas and Dalits before launching it? It is a protest by the upper-caste people. They are attempting to overthrow the elected government.”

His statements might keep a large chunk of Ezhava devotees of the Sabarimala deity, Ayyappa, away from the protests.

Devotees at the Sabarimala temple. (Photo credit: IANS)
Devotees at the Sabarimala temple. (Photo credit: IANS)

Sangh Parivar agenda

In line with its professed position that women everywhere should be allowed into temples, the RSS had initially supported the Supreme Court judgment.

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

In 2016, RSS general secretary, Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, had said there was a need to change the mentality of managements of temples that prevented the entry of women.

But the RSS changed its stand when protests against the Supreme Court order and the government’s decision to implement it began to draw huge crowds in Kerala. On October 3, Joshi said Sabarimala is a matter of tradition and faith for millions of devotees, including women, whose “sentiments cannot be ignored”.

But RSS did not get into protest mode immediately. It opted to wait and watch.

On October 2, Kerala witnessed the first protest against the Supreme Court verdict. Organised by the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, a non-political organisation formed in 1945, this protest in Pandalam, the home of the erstwhile royal family, saw thousands of Ayyappa devotees protesting peacefully.

“We are not part of any political organisations,” said Mohan K Nair, the Sangham’s national vice-president. “Our aim is to ensure the sanctity of Sabarimala.” Nair is also a vice-president of the Kottayam District Congress Committee.

The Nair Service Society, another prominent organisation of upper-caste Hindus, organised a Nama Japa Yatra – processions chanting the name of Ayyappa – in many parts of the state.

Other little-known organisations also organised protests. These included the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, headed by Rahul Easwar who belongs to a family of Sabarimala priests, and the Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad, formed by Pravin Togadia after he was expelled from Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Both these organisations are not part of the Sangh Parivar and were not invited by the RSS for the meeting in Kochi. Political analysts said that the RSS invited only those non-Sangh Parivar organisations that do not threaten its domination.

‘Aim is to create communal riots’

Chief Minister Vijayan has accused the RSS of attempting to create communal violence by going ahead with the protests. “They [the RSS] supported the verdict in the first place before opposing it,” he said while addressing the media in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday. “Their aim is to create communal riots.”

He added: “The BJP-ruled Maharashtra had implemented the Bombay High Court orders on entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali dargah [in Mumbai] and the Shani Shingnapur temple. So the protests here show the double standards of the saffron outfit.”

Vijayan also promised to talk to people if there was any misunderstanding over the state’s stand on the issue. “We do not want a confrontation with Ayyappa devotees,” he said.

BJP leader Pillai denied Vijayan’s allegations and said the Sangh Parivar is not playing vote-bank politics. “We are peacefully fighting for the devotees,” said Pillai. “The chief minister is making unnecessary allegations.”

A protest march against the SC’s Sabarimala verdict organised by the Nair Service Society in Pala in Kottayam district on October 7. (Photo credit: Vineeth).
A protest march against the SC’s Sabarimala verdict organised by the Nair Service Society in Pala in Kottayam district on October 7. (Photo credit: Vineeth).

Dalits and Adivasis denounce protests

Meanwhile, Adivasi and Dalit organisations have also spoken out against the protests.

Punnala Sreekumar, leader of the Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha, a Dalit reformist organisation, has demanded that the government should implement the court verdict. “The government should show the courage to continue the social reform movement initiated by great leaders Naryana Guru and Ayyankali,” he said. “It should not be cowed down by these protests.”

Dalit and Adivasi rights activists Sunny M Kapikkadu and M Geethanandan asked members of the Dalit, Adivasi and other backward communities not to associate with protests that aim to bring back Brahminism to Kerala society. “We should understand that the calls for retaining the rituals are an attempt to bring back Brahmin domination in society,” they said. “Failing to realise this will take Kerala back to pre-reform period.”

Adivasi leader CK Janu, whose political party, the Janadhipathya Rashtreeya Samithi, is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, said the state government is obligated to implement the Supreme Court order. “It is the apex court in the country, so the government has to implement it,” she said.

She said Adivasis do not care about the protests as they are not welcome to major places of worship including Sabarimala. “We are not worried about the verdict as it doesn’t affect us at all.”