The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has roped in prominent Hindu religious leaders from across India to take forward its four-month-old Sabarimala agitation in Kerala. Though the Sangh Parivar has projected the stir as a defence of the Hindu faith, the perception has gained ground that it is motivated by political calculations, not least because it was led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Hence, this attempt at rebranding.

What also necessitated the move was the Sangh’s assessment that the Kerala BJP had mishandled the agitation. The BJP had organised a 49-day relay hunger strike outside the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, only for the party’s state chief PS Sreedharan Pillai to concede that it had achieved little. The protest was ended on Sunday after the Sabarimala temple was closed following the Makaravilakku festival.

Moreover, the RSS is said to be believe that bringing in religious leaders to front its agitation will help consolidate the Hindus in favour of the BJP ahead of the general election.

So, on Sunday, Hindu religious leaders gathered for a massive Ayyappa Bhaktha Sangamam – meeting of Ayyappa devotees – in Thiruvananthapuram to protest against the Left Front government’s “attempts to defile the Sabarimala temple” by seeking to break age-old traditions. The meeting, attended by thousands of people, was organised by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a conglomerate of Hindutva groups brought together by the RSS to coordinate the Sabarimala agitation.

The religious leaders who addressed the meeting included Mata Amritanandamayi, who enjoys a sizeable following across India and outside, Swami Prakashananda of Kerala’s Sivagiri Mutt and Swami Golokananda of Bengal’s Ramakrishna Math. Video message from the Art of Living’s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Vishvesha Tirtha of Karnataka’s Pejawar Mutt were also played.

The Sangh Parivar is agitating against the Supreme Court’s September 28 judgement allowing women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple and the Kerala government’s attempts to enforce it. In spite of the agitation, many women aged 10 to 50 have prayed at the temple since New Year’s Day. The Kerala police counted 51 such women last week, but are now revising the number after the media pointed out some discrepancies.

Political speeches

If Sunday’s event was meant to make the Sabarimala agitation seem less political, it did not play to the script. Many of the religious leaders made what were taken to be political speeches.

Swami Chidananandapuri, head of the Advaithashramam in Kozhikode, emphasised the “need to forge Hindu unity” and attacked the Left Democratic Front government, particularly Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, for “ignoring Hindu sentiments”.

“Arrogant Vijayan showed undue haste in implementing the Supreme Court order,” he said.

Ravi Shankar maintained that it was the Kerala government’s responsibility to protect the sentiments of Ayyappa devotees and safeguard religious traditions.

Only Amritanandamayi avoided making overt political remarks, dwelling instead on the importance of preserving traditions. “Temples constitute the pillars of our culture,” she said. “Unless they are protected, culture will be like broken kites.”

The controversy over women’s entry into Sabarimala is “unfortunate”, she added, and a result of ignorance about temple customs.

Amritanandamayi has long enjoyed a close relationship with the Sangh Parivar but this was her first appearance at a public event organised by the Hindutva fount. By bringing the Kerala native to the event in Thiruvananthapuram, the Sangh Parivar hopes to win over her ardent Malayalee followers who are aligned with different political parties.

‘North Indian politics’

The political tones of the programme allowed the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to target the Sangh. The party’s state secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, said the RSS has been trying to implant to Kerala the political culture prevalent in North India. “Godmen and godwomen control politics in many North Indian states,” he added. “Sangh Parivar wants to bring it to Kerala. We can’t allow that to happen.”

He even took a dig at Amritanandamayi, saying her mutt should “rise above politics”. “Her followers belong to many political parties,” he argued. “How can she attend an event that her devotees do not agree with? Amritanandamayi is an eternal celibate, but nothing has happened to her even though she meets men of all ages.”

Those opposing women’s entry into Sabarimala often cite the celibacy of Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the temple, as a justification. This is what Balakrishnan was getting at.

A leader of the backward Hindu Ezhava community also attacked the Sangh Parivar for organising Sunday’s event. “What the RSS organised in Thiruvananthapuram was a meeting of upper caste Hindus and it did not have any representation of backward Hindus,” Vellappally Natesan claimed on Monday.