The Bharatiya Janata Party is facing a crisis of credibility in Kerala. As if the Hindutva party’s constantly shifting position on the Sabarimala row was not damaging enough, a document has been leaked detailing its “secret plan” to disrupt the peak pilgrimage season at the shrine.
While commentators in the media are citing this as evidence that the party’s only interest in Sabarimala is to use it as a tool for electoral gains, political rivals are accusing it of fomenting communal unrest.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan claimed the leaked document reveals the Sangh Parivar’s “heinous design to do kar seva at Sabarimala”. “The BJP has issued the circular asking its cadres to move to Sabarimala,” he said. “They want to mobilise people to take over the hill shrine through a kar seva.”
After the Supreme Court on September 28 allowed women of menstruating age to pray at the Sabarimala shrine, the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is a constituent, organised protests to prevent the ruling from being enforced. The Sangh claimed it was defending the temple’s customs and the faith of millions of Ayyappa devotees whose “sentiments cannot be ignored”.
On Monday, however, the BJP’s state chief, PS Sreedharan Pillai, sprang a surprise, declaring that his party was not protesting against women’s entry into Sabarimala. “Our agitation is against the communists who are trying to destroy Sabarimala,” he said.
This was less than a week since Pillai himself had led a rath yatra, demanding that Sabarimala’s customs be preserved. Over the six days of the journey from Kasargod to Pathanamthitta, he had repeatedly spoken about the BJP’s commitment to stand with the Ayyappa devotees pained by the Supreme Court’s judgement. He had even threatened that his party was “ready to shed blood” to defend the sentiments of the believers.
The ruling party promptly latched on to Pillai’s remarks, asking the BJP not to “trouble Ayyappa devotees” if it was indeed only fighting the communists. “BJP should organise protests in front of the state secretariat if it is fighting against the government,” the ruling party’s state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said. “Please don’t trouble Ayyappa devotees”.
The BJP had organised a statewide shutdown on November 17 and blocked roads at several places on November 18 to protest against the arrest of some of its leaders on their way to Sabarimala last week. The twin strikes had left thousands of Ayyappa devotees stranded.
Pillai has made a series of controversial remarks since the Sabarimala agitation started last month.
“Sabarimala is a golden opportunity for the BJP,” he told a meeting of the party’s youth wing in Kozhikode on November 4. “We put forward an agenda and all the parties surrendered to it, leaving only us and our enemies, the government and its parties.”
In the same speech, Pillai claimed that Sabarimala’s chief priest had sought his legal opinion about closing the shrine if women managed to enter it on October 28. “He asked whether shutting down the temple would attract contempt of court charges,” the BJP leader said. “I told him that he was not alone and this was not contempt. Even if a case were to be filed, it would be against us [BJP] and thousands will give support. When I told him not to fear, he said he was relieved.”
Pillai changed his statement several times after the chief priest denied having called him. “I do not remember who called me that day,” he told reporters on November 11. “If the chief priest had denied calling me, it must be correct.”
But later that same day, the BJP leader told a public meeting that he was “not willing to withdraw any word that I uttered in the speech”. In an affidavit to the Kerala High Court a few days later, he claimed the chief priest had indeed called him to seek legal opinion.
The BJP was still trying to contain the damage from Pillai’s utterances when a “secret circular” issued by the party’s Kerala general secretary AN Radhakrishnan plunged it into fresh trouble. The circular, leaked to the Manorama News channel on Monday, directed the party’s district units to bring as many workers as possible to Sabarimala until December 15, when the peak pilgrimage season ends, and listed the leaders who would coordinate protests at the shrine each day.
The Vijayan government later submitted the document to the High Court to support its claim that the BJP was trying to instigate violence at Sabarimala.
BJP leaders, including its state secretary MT Ramesh and spokesman MS Kumar, had denied the existence of the circular on Monday, only to see Radhakrishnan confirm it on Tuesday. “We had asked leaders to keep it as secret,” he said in Kochi.
The ruling party said the circular exposed the “real agenda” of the BJP. “It is part of a design to create unrest at the holy shrine,” said Balakrishnan. “It is a challenge to the real pilgrims.”