As the Sabarimala temple closed after the five-day monthly rituals on Monday, Kerala’s Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing women of all ages to enter the hill shrine has left his Left Front government “between the devil and the deep sea”.
“On the one hand, the government has the constitutional obligation to implement the verdict,” Surendran, whose ministry oversees the running of temples, told the media. “On the other, it has to be wary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mischievous plan to rake up communal tension. The party’s leaders are take political advantage of this situation. They aim to make it an issue for the parliamentary election. That is why they don’t want to find a solution.”
The minister seemed to be acknowledging his government’s failure to deal with the widespread protests organised by several Hindutva groups that prevented women from praying at the shrine after it was opened on October 17 for the first time since the judgement. The court ruled on September 28 that barring women of menstruating age from what is a public place of worship violated their fundamental rights.
Armed with the ruling and the government’s promise to implement it, 15 women had tried to enter the shrine over the five-day period. They were forced to turn back by a heckling mob that claimed to be preserving the purity of the temple. On Monday alone, six women pilgrims were forced to turn back. The mob consisted mainly of supporters of the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a recently formed association of around 50 Hindu groups led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They organised protest marches, blockaded roads, intimidated women who were trying to enter the temple and attacked mediapersons. Congress workers protested as well, albeit separately and peacefully.
The Sabarimala row has handed the BJP a major electoral issue going into next year’s general election. The party has given enough indication it will keep the matter on the boil in the hope of polarising votes along religious lines. Indeed, it was the prospect of making electoral gain from the row that led the RSS, the BJP’s ideological parent, to reverse its professed position that women should be allowed into temples everywhere.
On October 18, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said many people felt the ruling did not take into account old traditions that are accepted even by a large number of women. A few days earlier, the Hindutva group’s general secretary, Suresh Joshi, had said Sabarimala was a matter of tradition and faith for millions of devotees, including women, whose “sentiments cannot be ignored”.
All this posturing may still not be enough for the BJP to make significant gains in the parliamentary election, political observers said. This is because the Congress, a far superior electoral force in Kerala, is outdoing the Sangh in appealing to conservative Hindu voters.
Hindus constitute 52% of Kerala’s population. Nearly 27% of them are Ezhavas, a community that is listed among the Other Backward Classes. Ezhavas have traditionally supported the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Community leader Vellappally Natesan of the Sree Narayana Dharmaparipalana Yogam Vellappally Natesan did not endorse the protests against the Sabarimala judgement.
Sixteen percent of Kerala’s Hindus are upper caste Nairs. They usually voted for the Congress, but left it for the BJP in the last Assembly election. The Nair Service Society, a prominent community organisation, was among the first to agitate against the ruling, drawing support from both the Congress and the BJP.
Of Kerala’s non-Hindu population, 26% are Muslim and 18% Christian.
Sunnikkutty Abraham, a political commentator, argued the Sabarimala row will likely benefit the Congress more than the BJP as the Nair Service Society will only back a party with a chance of winning. “Congress is still a dominant force in Kerala and it has the capacity to regain power,” he explained. “The BJP is not a dominant force yet. So, the NSS will support the Congress to thwart the CPI(M).”
Commentator Jacob George contended that the “strong Muslim and Christian presence” will thwart the BJP in Kerala. “BJP is whipping up communal passions for electoral gain,” he added. “But we should not forget that Kerala has a strong minority presence. Christians and Muslims constitute 44% of the population and they will go for tactical voting to defeat BJP wherever possible. BJP’s ploy will not work here.”
Pointing out that the BJP has been attacking the ruling Left Front for not moving a review petition before the Supreme Court, George said the party could now face a demand from its workers to force the Centre, led by the BJP, to overturn the ruling through an ordinance. “I think this will put the state BJP unit in a difficult situation,” he added. “The Centre will not take a stand that undermines gender justice. This will hurt BJP’s chances.”
The state Congress has consistently opposed women’s entry into Sabarimala, saying “customs and practices of all religions must be preserved”. After protests against the Supreme Court’s ruling erupted, Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala “offered all support to those whose sentiments have been hurt by the verdict”.
Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been pointing out that his Congress government, which ruled from 2011 to 2016, had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing women’s entry into Sabarimala in 2015. The Left Front withdrew it after taking power in 2016.
“This consistent stand may help the Congress regain the lost support of the Nair community,” Abraham said.
Ruling party’s loss
Senior functionaries of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the state’s coalition government, fear the party has alienated upper caste Hindus by refusing to challenge the Sabarimala verdict. In addition, the government’s “inept handing” of the agitation has given their rivals a potent electoral issue, they added.
A senior party leader, who asked not to be named, said the government could have ensured women’s entry into Sabarimala by deploying more security personnel and acting against the mob that intimidated women pilgrims. The only time the police showed purpose, he added, was when they escorted journalist Kavitha Jakkala and activist Rahana Fathima to within 200 metres of the shrine before they were forced back by the protestors.
Flip-flopping by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, damaged the government’s reputation as well, they said. A Padmakumar, a ruling party leader who is president of the board, welcome the Supreme Court’s judgement, only to change his position later. He also remarked he would not allow women from his house to offer prayers at the shrine.
Abraham said the ruling party will likely be the biggest loser if the Congress and the BJP continue to keep the Sabarimala row in the limelight. “Many people from CPI(M) families in South Kerala have been participating in the protests against the verdict,” he added. “It remains to be seen how the party will tackle this situation.”