Never has a religious issue cleaved as many fault lines in Kerala’s politics as the continuing impasse at the doors of the Sabarimala temple.
Since it opened to the public for the first time Wednesday after the Supreme Court allowed the entry of women of all ages into the Lord Ayappa shrine, violent protests, a state-wide strike and prohibitory orders have dominated the state. Deeper down, the ruling CPM and the Opposition Congress and BJP are aware that Sabarimala has the potential to upend politics in an election year and so each one is carefully calibrating, and even re-calibrating, its stand.
Perhaps that’s why with few signs of the protests waning, the CPM Thursday signalled a subtle shift. The Sabarimala temple is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), whose president is CPM leader A Padmakumar. So far, TDB has toed the line of the CPM-led government but today it said it was ready for a “climbdown” to bring peace to the hill shrine, including a review petition.
Welcoming this, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said: “The board can take an independent decision on the Supreme Court verdict which allowed entry of women of all age groups to Sabarimala. The government does not want to intervene in the decision of the board. The government has not objected to the board move to go with a review petition. The government would wholeheartedly welcome if the board or any other party moves a review petition.’’
Senior Kerala BJP leader K Surendran said that “Sabarimala has become a turning point in Kerala politics,” which also reflects the party’s hope and confidence. “The sentiments of believers cannot be overlooked”, said former Congress Chief Minister Oomen Chandy virtually echoing senior Kerala RSS functionary P Gopalan Kutty Master. The Congress, Chandy told The Indian Express, has not changed its position. His government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2016 arguing that the restriction on women between the age of 10 and 50 has been prevailing in Sabarimala since time immemorial. His government had also withdrawn the affidavit filed by the previous Left government in 2007 favouring the entry of all women.
“Justice Indu Malhotra’s judgment is the correct one,” Chandy said.
The Congress had no hesitation in taking contradictory positions in Delhi and in Kerala.
“A religious place can impose reasonable and limited restrictions based on customs…it is a matter of faith and decisions on faith should be allowed to be taken by those who have the power and authority to take such decisions,” Chandy said.
Sources in Kerala Congress said the party was boxed in a corner by an aggressive BJP. An element of one-upmanship in the party also contributed to taking the stand. When the political affairs committee of the Congress in Kerala met to discuss the issue after the verdict, only one leader argued that the party should support the SC verdict. The rest were of the view that there could be a Hindu consolidation and the BJP would be its biggest beneficiary. They said the party cannot afford a Hindu backlash. So the Congress, which was at the forefront of movements against untouchability and temple entry in Kerala found itself standing with the BJP.
That may have a price. “Our stand stems from the fear that the BJP will benefit…many in the party like Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala are also devout Hindus and they truly believe entry of women of all ages should be opposed. The Congress in Kerala had a Left-progressive face which it has lost,” a senior leader said.
The Congress, sources said, also took this position to appeal to conservative sections among Christians and Muslims who fear there could be interference in their religious faith and practices next.
“The triple talaq verdict is an example…we did not want to antagonize the Nair Service Society too…it was political expediency at its worst,” a senior leader said.
There is also a divide within. While the political affairs committee decided to stand with the believers and not organise aggressive street protests like the BJP, newly appointed working president K Sudhakaran, upset with the appointment of Mullappally Ramachandran as president, participated in a protest at Nilakkal yesterday.
The RSS, on the other hand, had taken a definitive view on women and temple entry as early as 2016.
“Generally, both men and women are naturally permitted entry into the temples without any discrimination…However, because of some unfair traditions, at certain places, there has been a lack of consensus on the question of temple entry,” said the report of Sarkaryavah Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi at the RSS Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in 2016.
But today, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said the Supreme Court verdict has not taken into consideration the nature and premise of the tradition in Sabarimala and has led to divisiveness in the society.
For the BJP, making inroads in Kerala has always been a challenging task. And the Sabarimala issue has come as a blessing. Both the Congress and the CPM leaders in private admit that the BJP has finally found an issue it could strongly leverage.
Master told The Indian Express: “Our stand remains the same. We have said that women, like men, should be allowed to enter temples but a consensus should be worked out first…we had said that attempts should be made to bring about a change of mind through proper discussions.”
He said it was the CPM government which provoked the believers as it neither sought time to implement the order nor initiated talks with the stakeholders.
“The same government brought in an ordinance last year to nullify Supreme Court judgement that set aside admissions made by two private medical colleges… denotified state highways and renamed them as district roads to bypass the Supreme Court order shutting down liquor shops functioning within 500 m of highways..and in this case they were in a hurry…they could have sought six months time or told the court that it would be implemented from next year,” he said.
The Kerala BJP too had a slightly different stand in the beginning. In fact, an article in party daily Janmabhoomi in the first week of October backed the verdict saying the entry of women will not affect customs in any way. But it changed its stance soon realising the issue has the potential to rally Hindus.
“As a political party we have to reflect the mood of the people,” Surendran said. The BJP, sources said, is coordinating with outfits like the NSS like never before.
The CPM and its government, unlike the BJP, did not have much choice.
The party’s stand has been in favour of allowing women of all ages. The government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2017. But the Government, seeing the anger on the streets, has been toning down its stance.
After initial belligerence, it agreed to hold talks with the erstwhile royal Pandalam family and the tantri (priest) family, announced it was not the CPM’s job to take women to Sabarimala and now has grudgingly let the TDB approach the court.
In parallel, the CPM is also trying to drive a caste-wedge in the agitation. For instance, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan now regularly cites Sree Narayana Guru and Dalit icon Ayyankali who challenged and broke customs and traditions. Today, he said the Sangh Parivar is motivated by casteist and feudal ideologies and “encouraging such movements will eventually lead to the banishment of backward classes from places like Sabarimala.”
“The Supreme Court had in 2015 ruled that non-Brahmins can also be temple priests. If you are saying that customs and traditions are important…then the next demand will be to nullify that apex court verdict. Dalits and other backwards got all their rights, including the right to enter temples, breaking old customs so if you return to customs, that will herald the return of upper-caste dominance, there may be a larger Dalit-backward-women polarisation,” an influential CPM leader said indicating the party plans to play on backward insecurity.
The CPM, with an eye on Lok Sabha elections, is also hoping that anger among the Nair and other upper caste communities which has taken the shape of street protests primarily in south Kerala will be to its electoral advantage. “If the NSS and other upper castes shift from the Congress to the BJP in southern districts where the Congress and the UDF have been traditionally strong, the vote division will only help us,” a CPM leader said.