On a late night bus ride from Pamba to Nilackal – two important base camps of the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district – a young man in his twenties vented his frustrations to a friend about young women attempting to enter the temple after the Supreme Court verdict.
“What’s wrong with all these women? No true devotee of Ayyappan will make attempts like these to climb the hill. These are feminists who want to prove a point. There’s a Trupti Desai in Maharashtra who has also vowed to come. I’m sure she won’t be allowed to set foot in Kerala,” he gloated. His friend just nodded.
And then, the conversation slowly and unsurprisingly veered towards politics. The young man continued, “All this is the handiwork of Pinarayi. It seems he’s hell-bent upon following the directions of the Supreme Court. He thinks by having the administration, police and Devaswom Board under his control, he can do anything. Under a Congress or BJP administration, this would never have taken place.”
Around 70 kilometres away in Erumely, Manju, who was initially wary of revealing her name and runs a shop that sells fruits and vegetables in the centre of the town, was unequivocal in her disapproval of the government’s position on the issue.
“Pinarayi may be an atheist. His party may be too. But what right do they have to foist their stand on Hindus and believers? Couldn’t the government have waited to implement the order after due consultations with the tantri family and the Pandalam royal family?” she said.
“Since my childhood, I have gone around raising ‘Inquilab’ slogans on the streets. But not anymore. When it comes to Ayyappan, our faith comes first,” Manju said.
Harikrishnan, panchayat president and a BJP leader in Erumely, blamed the ‘nirbandhabuddhi’ (adamant nature) of the ruling LDF government for the escalation in protests and violence at Nilakkal, Pamba, and even metres away from the holy shrine.
“They (CPM) are solely responsible for any kind of violence. The party paved the way for the verdict at Sabarimala. There are malicious objectives at play here,” Harikrishnan told indianexpress.com.
Quite naturally, CPM leaders including Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister and a belligerent critic of the BJP, have hit back. They said the violence had been perpetrated and orchestrated by organisations affiliated with the Sangh Parivar.
“Violence at Sabarimala is BJP’s manipulation,” Isaac tweeted.
But such strong statements only affirm that the widespread agitations centered around the hill shrine will have far-reaching ripples in the state’s political waters. The most significant crusade centered around the Hindu faith in the state in recent decades, the subject of allowing women of all ages in Sabarimala has fired up emotions among devout Hindus across classes like never before. The participation of women in large numbers at prayer meetings, and marches, in all corners of the state is a testament to how deep the issue has struck at the root of Hindu beliefs.
‘We are certain we can draw enough political mileage from this’
Hindus, who constitute nearly 55 per cent of Kerala’s population according to the last census, have rarely been polarised in elections in the state, and have never voted en bloc for any party. Over the years, the secular and liberal character of the Hindu vote bank has largely dented the BJP’s attempts to win seats in the Assembly or Lok Sabha elections.
Hindus, among whom the Ezhavas followed by the Nairs and the Dalits constitute major segments, have traditionally split themselves between the three main coalitions in the state: the CPM-led LDF, Congress-led UDF and the BJP-led NDA. With the state never having brought a coalition back to power for consecutive terms since 1980, and difference in the vote shares of coalitions often miniscule, it’s generally understood that even a slight swing in votes of the majority Hindus could tip the scales.
But the mood on the ground – especially in these parts of Pathanamthitta – suggests that is all about to change. Over the past week, the BJP and the RSS, who had initially welcomed the Supreme Court verdict, have switched sides. They’ve launched an aggressive, coordinated campaign to back the stand of devotees, who want to uphold temple traditions.
Several senior BJP leaders in the state allowed themselves to be detained and arrested – in front of the watchful eyes of the media – while backing the cause. It can be easily ascertained that the men leading the protests to block young women from climbing the hill to the shrine are also linked to the Sangh Parivar. At several of these protests, fingers are invariably pointed at the CPM-headed LDF administration for not taking up the cause of the Hindus.
A local BJP leader in Erumely said on condition of anonymity, “In the past, we have never been able to garner much votes in these areas. But Sabarimala is a catalyst. We are certain we can draw enough political mileage from this.”
Shal, a Muslim man who works in Erumely, said, “I have been travelling all over Pathanamthitta and Kottayam. In every Hindu-dominated seat, the CPM will lose votes and the BJP will gain.”
His colleague, Basheer, chimed in, “Chengannur il iratta chankante thanthram vijayichu. Pakshe, ivide, Sabarimala il, aa thanthram polinju (In the Chengannur bypoll, the two hearted one’s strategy worked. But here in Sabarimala, it has failed).” Vijayan, considered a CPM strongman and a tough administrator, is often called ‘iratta chankan’ (a man with two hearts) by his supporters.
For the CPM, which has tom-tommed gender equality as one of its founding principles, Sabarimala has proved to be a double-edged sword. The party has realised that it cannot move away from its stated position of allowing women of all ages into the temple, especially after it submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court to the same effect. At the same time, it is apprehensive of playing with fire, considering how the Hindus in the state have rallied behind the party in recent elections. The government’s use of the police force in tackling protesters at Sabarimala and Nilakkal has not gone down very well.
Meanwhile, the Congress-led UDF, which has also tied its wagon to the cause of the devotees and has repeatedly advised the government to file a review petition against the verdict in the Supreme Court, is in sticky waters. The recent by-election loss in Chengannur, once considered a party stronghold, followed by intense factionalism over the appointment of its state president, has hit the party’s position in the state severely. The problem facing the party is very simple: risk losing the Hindu voter base if it supports the Supreme Court verdict, or face an erosion of its liberal party workers’ base if it backs temple traditions.
Nishanth Babu, the husband of a Kannur-based woman who plans to trek to Sabarimala temple, said he was disappointed with the stand of the Congress.
“All parties who support these protests obviously see a political benefit in it. They want to exploit it. We can expect such things from the BJP, but what about the Congress? A party of Nehruvian traditions taking such a stand is suicidal,” he said.
In fact, Vijayan also took potshots at the Congress during a recent press conference. “The Congress and the BJP right now are in a race to prove who’s number one in communalism. If it (Congress) goes on this path, it runs the risk of losing all its democratic traditions,” he said.
The Congress, at present, holds regular press conferences targeting both the CPM and the BJP. It has also opted for peaceful protests, compared to the more belligerent stand adopted by the BJP. But it’s becoming obvious that conservative sections among Hindus will see BJP as a far safer bet than the Congress when it comes to defending their religion.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a journalist who has covered politics in Kerala for decades, said, “In simple words, the Congress muddied the waters and the BJP is fishing in it. Many of the Congress’s liberal and secular leaders are antagonised for taking such a position. What used to remain a two-pronged political battle between LDF and UDF will change. As UDF slips away, BJP will take its position.”