The government is duty-bound to implement the Supreme Court order.” Since the apex court’s September 28 verdict allowing women of all ages access to the hill shrine of Sabarimala in south Kerala, there hasn’t been one public appearance or televised speech by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan — and he has made at least a dozen so far — where he hasn’t reiterated that line.
The state has been in ferment since the court order, with assorted Ayyappa outfits backed by the Sangh Parivar leading protests across the state and vowing not to let women between 10 and 50 anywhere near the shrine. In response, police arrested hundreds of protesters who pelted stones and attacked media personnel and women devotees. For those looking at the state from outside, this mass mobilisation in the name of faith seemed out of character — after all, this is a state that has seen major social reform movements, a state whose strictly bipolar politics has served to keep Hindutva politics out, and which is the last remaining bastion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet, the Sabarimala issue has led to the state witnessing a peculiar polarisation along caste and religious lines, giving the BJP its first big card in a state where few gave them a chance.
Interview with Pinarayi Vijayan: ‘Not asking women to enter shrine… our duty to give them protection’
At the centre of this political whirlwind stands Vijayan, buffeted by protests from believers who blame his unrelenting position for the crisis getting out of hand while being hailed by liberals and hardcore party cadres for his uncompromising secular stand, where he has staked not only his political career but the future of the CPM.
“We have no prejudiced stand, nor are we aggressive on the Sabarimala issue. The government is duty-bound to implement the Supreme Court order,” Vijayan again said on November 15, minutes after an all-party meeting — the first since the verdict — ended in a stalemate.
For those who have known Vijayan, this was no departure from the image of the CM as a doer, someone who calmly steered the state through one of its worst floods in recent memory. Yet, as he spoke and stuck to his guns on Sabarimala, many thought he lacked empathy, that he could have been more accommodating of believers (many among them traditional voters of the CPM) and that he could have handled the matter with more sensitivity.
They thought that when he spoke of temple rituals and beliefs, of reformists and renaissance leaders such as Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, he spoke in the cold tone of a rationalist and party man. As he reminded people about the fund allocated for temples by successive Left Front governments, the appointment of non-Brahmin priests to temples and the renaissance history of Kerala, his speeches triggered debates across the state. When the Sabarimala thantri (head priest) threatened to close the temple if women were let in, Vijayan brought up an old sex scandal involving the thantri family. “The temple is not a family property of the thantri for him to open and close it as per his convenience. It is owned by the Travancore Devaswom Board. It’s good if he understand that,” CM Vijayan said at a public meeting on October 23.
The CM also reminded the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, which has been staking claim to the temple’s legacy, of the huge debts that forced it to surrender its rights over the temple in 1821.
The BJP ran a counter campaign against the CM’s combative line, accusing him of “playing with faith”, a line which, from the scale of the protests, seems to have found resonance among the believers. The questions flowed thick and fast: Why wasn’t the CM addressing their concerns, why was he in a hurry to implement the court order, why wasn’t he seeking more time from the court, why wasn’t he standing by their faith?
The only time the government seemed to adopt a conciliatory approach was when, in October, Vijayan left on an official visit to the UAE to seek funds for flood relief. In the CM’s absence, as the situation escalated over two women activists attempting to walk up to the shrine, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran ordered the police team to bring them back. “This is not a place for activists to prove their strength. This verdict is for women devotees, not for activists,” Surendran said.
The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), an autonomous body that runs the temple administration and which has former CPM MLA A Padmakumar as its president, said they would soon file a report before the SC to convey the crisis.
But when the CM returned from Dubai, Surendran receded into the background and Vijayan’s hardline position was evident once again. The party decided to hold a series of “Vishidheekarana Yogam” or explanatory meetings on Sabarimala, with the CM, instead of the state party secretary (Kodiyeri Balakrishnan), explaining the party’s stand.
What explains Vijayan’s position, one that runs counter-intuitive to traditional vote-bank politics?
Sources close to Vijayan say that while he is someone who sticks to the party line, he has his own way of approaching it. “As a Left party, there was no question of opposing the SC verdict. The party leadership had no second thoughts about a review petition either. But once there was a consensus in the party, we went by what he said on how to deal with the situation,” says a source close to the CM.
An official in the CM’s office says that while Vijayan is his own man, he consults a close circle of advisors if it involves technical, legal issues. “The final call is always his own. He is not someone who has a close associate or a friend in politics or government,” says the official.
The CM’s unyielding style, especially on Sabarimala, hasn’t gone down too well with all partymen. “Initially, people blamed the court. But then his speeches had the effect of people redirecting their wrath on the party and government. It was because of his centralised decision making that the party failed to analyse the scale of the discontent among people,” says an influential leader of the party from Kottayam, a district near Sabarimala with significant Hindu votes.
G Sukumaran Nair, chief of the powerful Nair Service Society, an organisation of the upper caste Nair community who are at the forefront of the protests, too says there has been no conversation with Vijayan on Sabarimala. “Until this SC verdict, we shared a cordial relationship and were in touch,” he says, adding, “Faith is inclusive, it has an attraction among ordinary people beyond politics and communities.”
Defending the CM’s decision to address the people on Sabarimala, K N Balagopal, the party’s state secretariat member, says, “There is no public backlash against his speeches. He is a senior leader who has witnessed post-renaissance changes in Kerala society. When there was a conspiracy to sabotage the SC verdict…, he took an active role in implementing the order. His speeches were not intended to hurt anyone but to remind people of the state’s renaissance history.”
Another party secretariat member says a majority of Dalits, besides minorities, are with the government on Sabarimala. He adds, “So far, no disagreements have been raised in the party against the CM’s style or speeches.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a veteran CPM leader from Pathanamthitta, however, says the party has to be worried that a large majority of upper-caste Namboothiris and Nairs and a section of OBCs are part of the protests. “The BJP and RSS have run a systematic campaign, saying the government and judiciary are targeting only Hindus while retaining the autonomy of socially and politically powerful Muslim and Christian communities. Also, they are creating a perception that Hindu religion and customs are under attack. This is uniting Hindus across castes. Our sympathisers who used to argue for the party in village gatherings are silent now,” he says, adding that the party walked into the BJP-RSS’s trap with Vijayan’s speeches making it seem as if the government was “desperately waiting” for this order.
This leader, who enjoy a close rapport with the Vijayan faction in the party, says it is only a minority — party cadres, atheists, and a section of Dalit, Christian and Muslim communities —who “get goosebumps” from hearing Vijayan’s speeches. “A majority of ordinary Hindus and even those of other faiths are against this order. Their stand doesn’t make them communal or pro-BJP, but it’s a fact that the party failed to reach out to these people,” he says.
Prayar Gopalakrishnan, former TDB president and a Congress leader who launched one of the first prayer rallies against the SC order, recalls how former Congress CM K Karunakaran handled a similar flare-up in Nilekkal, now one of the base camps for the Sabarimala trek, in the 1980s. Then, Christian groups had set up a church in Nilekkal following the discovery of a cross, leading to a communal stand-off. “It was Karunakaran’s patient conversation with stakeholders that resolved the crisis. This approach, mandatory for any CM, is what’s lacking here. The CM sounded like an hardliner preaching his ideology when he insulted priests and the royal family, and challenged believers and their belief,” he says.
Civic Chandran, writer and a senior political observer from Calicut, says social reforms, such as the one proposed in Sabarimala, cannot happen overnight. “Neither can a CM enforce it single handedly. Whether it was Kerala’s Temple Entry Proclamation in the 1930s or other such reforms, they all happened over a period of time, after building a consensus,” he says.
Although the CPM has so far put up a brave face, in private, party leaders admit that Vijayan may have gone too far.
Following the failed all-party meeting on November 15, a senior minister in Vijayan’s Cabinet told The Sunday Express, “The CM has risked the future of the CPI(M) in Kerala by taking this hardline position. The public rallies he addressed has only sharpened the divide. Nobody in the party ever doubted that the SC verdict had to be implemented; the only question was whether we should enforce it or if it should be facilitated. We should have asked for more time.”
Another minister agrees, saying the CM should have deputed party secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan to address party meetings. “After the CM took control of everything in his party secretary style, his speeches simply made the job of BJP and RSS easier,” he says. Seeking time from the court, the minister says, would have been both practical and prudent. “Pampa was fully ravaged in the flood. We needed time to rebuild facilities. There were many other preparations to be made before women could go up, including basic amenities such as toilets, drinking water and temporary shelters,” he adds.
Even if it is hard to predict the political impact of the government’s stand, since Assembly elections are at least three years away, a possible measure of the social impact is the scale of protests and the dip in the shrine’s revenues since then. The Sangh Parivar has been running an organised campaign against devotees donating money to temples controlled by the TDB, asking them to instead leave a handwritten note of ‘Swami Saranam’.
The campaign hit the Board where it hurts most. Padmakumar, president of the TDB, admitted there was a 50 per cent decline in the revenue of the Sabarimala temple after the SC order. “The revenue from over 1,000 temples managed by us has declined 30 per cent. This is an alarming situation as we have to pay salaries, pension for over 12,000 people and meet the expenses of temples. Those who are spearheading this campaign (against cash donations) are actually destroying temples,” he said.
Another visible sign of polarisation was evident in the latest data of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), which projected a sudden increase in the viewership of Janam TV, a hardline right wing channel that recently courted controversy when it carried a report, which later turned out to be fake, of a woman devotee carrying sanitary napkins inside her irumudi, the offering that Sabarimala devotees carry on their heads. The data from November 3 to 9 shows Janam TV at second position in the Malayalam TV viewership ratings, just below market leader Asianet News and pushing Manorama News and Mathrubhumi News channels behind. Although BARC data has come in for criticism in the past for being manipulative or inaccurate, the latest data served to rattle the industry.
Vellappally Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful organisation of OBCs in the state, says that electorally, the BJP could be a major beneficiary of the Sabarimala issue, turning the next election into a three-cornered battle in Kerala. Natesan, who has supported the government on the issue, however, said the CM was not rude or aggressive. “It was the upper caste Hindu groups who conspired to make this a controversy. But the government and the party failed to build a consensus among ordinary believers,” he says.
Despite accusations that it is Vijayan’s unrelenting stand that has pushed the state to the edge, his position has turned him into a hero among liberals and those opposed to the BJP’s Hindutva line, some of whom have been critical in the past of Vijayan’s authoritarian way of running the party and his alleged role in Kannur’s violent politics.
Sunil P Elayidom, academic and a popular orator in Kerala’s Left circles, says he sees Vijayan’s position as a very “positive” one. “Usually we don’t get to see such a stand from politicians. The LDF government had no other option but to follow the order. Having said that, there was a delay in building a consensus among the believers. That should have been done, it wasn’t difficult. The Sangh Parivar has instigated these protests for political mileage, similar to what they did in Ayodhya and Godhra. Campaigns are needed among believers now,” he said.
Historian Rajan Gurukkal, former Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, who has led many studies on Sabarimala, too says he “completely agrees” with the Left government’s stand. “This issue has destroyed the brotherhood and love that Keralites displayed during the flood. While we cannot predict the real impact of this situation, the voting pattern of women may change,” he says, referring to the women who have turned out in huge numbers to protest against the government and the Supreme Court.
However, B Rajeevan, a prominent modern critic in Malayalam, says this has happened because the government failed to understand the people and their beliefs. “What the CM should have done was to practise the Constitution, not follow it like a textbook. The content of the Constitution is the people. In a country like India with a majority of believers, the rulers and political class should have the knowledge and skill to engage with the faithful. Otherwise, they end up alienating a majority of people,” he says.
On November 16, a day before the shrine opened for the annual Mandala Puja season, as hundreds of protesters laid siege to the Ernakulam airport to prevent activist Trupti Desai from proceeding to the shrine, the government once again reiterated: “We are duty-bound to implement the Supreme Court order.”