The controversy over the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala has ensured that politics in the state will remain on the boil till the general elections next year.

On September 28, the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages must be allowed to offer prayers at the popular hill shrine in the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district. In 1991, the Kerala High Court had barred women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 from entering the temple. The devotees of Ayyappa, Sabarimala’s principal deity, believe he is an eternal celibate.

Soon after the verdict, the state’s Left Democratic Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said it would ensure that the Supreme Court’s judgment is implemented. But the Opposition Congress and BJP protested against the verdict and the state’s intention to ensure it was implemented.

The Congress joined protests organised by non-political Hindu organisations such as the Nair Service Society, a powerful upper-caste organisation, and the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, which provides help to devotees of Ayyappa. The BJP, with the support of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, organised violent protests in Sabarimala and elsewhere in October, accusing the Kerala government of undermining the character of Hindu temples. The RSS, which has previously supported the entry of women into all temples in India, had previously denounced the verdict, saying “it did not consider the feeling of the devotees”.

When the temple opened to the public between October 17-22 – for the first time since the ruling – members of the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, an organisation formed by the RSS with the support of more than 50 Hindu outfits soon after the judgment, heckled and abused 15 women who attempted to enter the temple, and even attacked journalists.

While some political analysts have observed that the controversy is likely to boost the electoral fortunes of the BJP and Congress in the state, others say that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) might find support among the silent majority and from people from minority communities.

CM stands firm

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has led the push back against the Opposition’s efforts to derail the implementation of the verdict. He has made it clear that his government has a constitutional obligation to implement it, and that it would also not file a review petition against it. The Kerala police have so far arrested more than 3,000 people for violence linked to the protests against the judgement.

On October 27, BJP president Amit Shah, at a meeting in Kannur, warned that BJP workers would uproot the state government if it continued to arrest devotees of Ayyappa. Ironically, the BJP had welcomed the verdict soon after it was delivered. The change in its stance possibly came after it decided the issue provided it with an opportunity to consolidate Hindus in a state it has struggled to break into.

In the wake of these threats, the Communist party’s state and national leadership have rallied behind the chief minister. “Vijayan took measures carefully and cautiously to counter the BJP’s hate campaign,” Prakash Karat, politburo member and former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told “He explained several times that his government was not against the devotees.”

Vijayan is now leading the charge against the Opposition. In the past week, he addressed six public meetings organised by the Left Democratic Front in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Palakkad. This is a major departure from convention as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) normally deputes the state secretary, and not the chief minister, to explain its political line in such circumstances.

Vijayan attacked the BJP and Congress in all four meetings. At Pathanamthitta, he accused the Sangh Parivar of converting Sabarimala into a war zone. “The government won’t allow criminals to take law into their hands,” he had said. At Kottayam, he alleged that the Congress was helping the BJP by opposing the entry of women into a place of worship.

He addressed Amit Shah’s veiled threats at the meetings in Palakkad and Kochi. “Shah must have played several ugly political games elsewhere, but his dirty tricks will not work in Kerala,” said Vijayan. “He wants to see a communal riot in Kerala. He cannot achieve his goal.”

Votes do matter

Karat said that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has always stood for social reforms, and that it would not take a stand on the issue of the entry of women into temples on the basis of electoral calculations. “Ours is a progressive political party,” said Karat.

Party insiders said that its leadership is confident of making electoral gains from the current controversy. They said that the Vijayan government enjoys the support of Dalits and backward classes, which will compensate for the erosion of any support from the upper caste Nair community. They pointed out that the government’s recent decision to appoint Dalit and backward priests in temples would work in its favour.

Last month, the Cochin Devaswom Board prepared a list of 54 non-Brahmin priests, including seven from the Scheduled Caste community, to be appointed in various temples. Last year, the Travancore Devaswom Board appointed 36 non-Brahmin priests, including six Dalits.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) believes that neither the BJP nor the Congress enjoy the complete support of the Nair community. “NSS [Nair Service Society] is taking the lead in the protests, but we believe that the entire Nair community is not aligning with them” Karat said.

Additionally, political analysts believe that the Congress’s soft Hindutva approach in the state has alienated minorities such as Muslims, who now view the party with suspicion. They say that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) stands to benefit from this.

Communists to benefit?

Karat admitted that the Sabarimala controversy has created confusion among many party sympathisers who happen to be devotees of Ayyappa.

He said that the party has launched awareness campaigns in the form of cultural gatherings and family meetings to convince people about the importance of social reforms. “The party will organise its own mass mobilisation drive soon,” he said. “We hope to convince the silent majority who stayed away from the protests.”

Political analysts said the communist party will also make electoral gains if it wins the support of this silent majority.

They said that Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran’s recent statements indicated that the party has already begun work to win the support of the people on the Sabrimala issue. “We will inform the public of the stands taken by the BJP and Congress when the litigation was going on in the Supreme Court for the last 12 years,” said Surendran. “Both the parties supported the entry of women in temples in the past. Many people backtracked from the agitation when they realised the truth. We expect more people to follow suit.”