Last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that women of menstrual age could enter the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala despite a proscription against this, the Kerala government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) decided to prove its social crusader credentials by backing women who wanted to exercise their constitutional rights to visit the shrine.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan converted the case into a platform to project himself as a champion of gender equality, invoking the legacy of Narayana Guru, the social reformer, to support the women.

But all it took for the Left government to forget about constitutional rights was one election. Having done badly in May’s Lok Sabha polls, the CPI(M) seems to have realised that its position on Sabarimala was actually hurting its electoral prospects. As a consequence, it did a flip.

Earlier this week, a woman who wanted to enter the temple was attacked by hooligans. Bindu Ammini, a Kerala-based activist, had to be treated in hospital after she was assaulted with pepper spray right outside the police commissioner’s office in Kochi.

The response of the state government to the attack exposed its doublespeak. Even as it criticised the attack, the government made it clear that it would not provide protection to women in the age group of 10 to 50 who want to enter the temple, unless they get a specific order from the Supreme Court for this effect.

Its demand for such an order is illegal. Though the Supreme Court earlier this month decided to keep the review petitions in the Sabarimala case pending and send larger questions of law to a seven-judge bench, it did not put a stay on its decision to allow the women to enter the temple. With Supreme Court decree in force, it is the duty of the state government to implement it, as Justice RF Nariman eloquently pointed out
in his dissent in the review judgement.

However, the apex court should also take a part of the blame for the current situation as its ambiguous majority order in the review pleas has emboldened protestors in Sabarimala. These conservatives seem to have read the Supreme Court decision as a climb down from the progressive position it took last year and as a validation of the demonstrations orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar.

The Kerala government must enforce the rule of law. Anything else would be contempt of court.