As Wednesday approached, India was preparing to witness historic scenes at the revered Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Last month, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that the tradition of preventing women of menstrual age from entering the Hindu temple was unconstitutional. Wednesday was the first time the hill-top shrine had opened its doors for devotees after the September 28 verdict, and many people welcomed the opportunity of seeing women of all ages enter the temple.
But what was supposed to be a victory for constitutional equality turned into a farce on Wednesday. The self-proclaimed defenders of tradition, in an attempt to prevent women between the ages of 10 to 50 from worshipping at the temple, blocked the route leading to the shrine. They searched every vehicle on its way to the area, and attacked the media, especially women reporters, for doing their jobs. The temple’s deity is Ayyappa, whose devotees believe he is an eternal celibate.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said on Tuesday that his government would facilitate the entry of women to worship at the temple. But the events of the following day exposed this promise as hollow. It was clear from the attacks on the media and on women who dared to turn up at Sabarimala that the police had not been mobilised in adequate numbers and were no match for the mobs that had taken control of the area.
Even in the days leading up to Wednesday, the state government was treating potential trouble makers with kid gloves. As late as Tuesday evening, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, was holding talks with the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam – which enjoys traditional rights over how rituals at the temple are conducted – in an attempt to ease the tension. It was clear that the erstwhile royals were trying to derail the implementation of the Supreme Court’s reformatory decision.
Board president A Padmakumar said that the Pandalam family demanded an immediate review petition on behalf of the board in the Supreme Court and also wanted the implementation of the September 28 verdict to be postponed. “Though the talks failed, we are ready to hold further discussions with the erstwhile Pandalam royal family and family of the priests,” Padmakumar told the media on Tuesday.
Given the situation, it is no longer tenable to look at the Sabarimala violence as a one-off case. At the heart of this conflict is a battle between the modern republic, and the position of the judiciary and the old order represented by an obstinate theological tradition trying to assert its position against the Constitution itself.
Protests backed by RSS
While the Pandalam royal family and the Sabarimala priests have become the face of the resistance to the reform, it is clear that they derive their strength from Hindutva and caste organisations backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is trying to get a political foothold in the southern state, where its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is still a minor player.
As early as in March 2016, the RSS issued statements welcoming reforms at Sabarimala. It declared that the tradition of keeping women of menstrual age away from the temple was “unfair”. Immediately after the September 28 verdict, the RSS said it would respect the judgement. However, things changed on October 4, when the organisation claimed the sentiments of the faithful could not be ignored.
Protests erupted across the state. Even the Congress joined the movement after the Nair Service Society, a caste organisation with great political clout among the Nair community, threw its weight behind the reform’s opponents and moved the Supreme Court with a review petition. The Congress indulged in doublespeak: its central leadership backed the verdict even as the state leadership opposed it. Thousands of women were mobilised by these organisations for public protests to showcase the fact that even women were not ready to embrace the reform, even though their entry into the temple had been facilitated by the judgement.
With the RSS at the centre of the movement, the BJP also moved in. On Tuesday, the party held a huge protest in Tiruvananthapuram.
Given the situation in Kerala, where politics is currently dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, it is clear that the RSS and the BJP look at the Sabarimala controversy as a vehicle to propagate their Hindutva ideology in a state that is highly literate and considered progressive.
Undermining the Supreme Court
In the garb of popular protests, the RSS and several caste organisations have managed to undermine the authority of the Supreme Court. By instigating violent protests, the organisations have put the state in a difficult position.
However, nothing can justify the state government’s utter lack of preparation for Wednesday. How could mobs create illegal checkpoints at several places en route to the temple if the police were in control of the situation? How did the district administration allow mobs to illegally search vehicles, during which at least four women journalists and their vehicles were attacked? A woman who tried to climb the stairs at the temple complex was pulled down by a group of angry men, clearly showing that the police were outnumbered. Such poor planning begs the question: Given the political implications of the reform, did the Kerala government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) merely play to the gallery in backing the reform even as it allowed conservatives to have their say on the ground?
The state government has the constitutional responsibility to ensure the enforcement of Supreme Court directives. Article 144 of the Constitution makes it clear that “all authorities, civil and judicial, in the territory of India shall act in aid of the Supreme Court”. This is the same provision that bestows on the Supreme Court powers to invoke contempt clauses if its orders are willfully disobeyed. This is also why Entry 2A of List 1 of the Seventh Schedule allows the Centre to mobilise central forces in aid of civil power.
Legally, for contempt proceedings to be initiated for non-implementation of the apex court’s orders, willful disobedience has to be established. The assumption is always that the court’s orders will be implemented if the situation is normal. The court has, in the past, condoned failures if extraordinary situations have occurred that prevented the enforcement of its orders.
While the Kerala government could protect itself from being charged with contempt of court using such arguments, it is clear that the extraordinary situation was created by its negligence and by the actions of third parties that had clearly declared their intention to violate the Supreme Court’s orders. The Kerala government should now be asked how it allowed the situation to degenerate so easily, and what preparatory actions it undertook to stop mobs from illegally halting the free movement of pilgrims.
It is nobody’s argument that the verdict should not be challenged legally. The Supreme Court verdict in the Sabarimala case has been criticised in some quarters for judicial overreach, something to which the dissenting opinion of Justice Indu Malhotra on the bench also referred. But to stop the enforcement of a standing writ of the Supreme Court through violence is clearly an attempt to debase the authority of the judiciary, something that is unacceptable in a democracy.