I blame the media for the flare-up in Sabarimala. Especially the 24-hour news channels. The Sabarimala controversy is a blood-thirsty beast that has been fed and raised by the media. All political parties welcomed the Supreme Court verdict initially. The BJP and RSS had argued previously for women’s entry into the temple at Sabarimala. Opposition to the judgment came from the family of the thantri (head priest) and the Pandalam royal family. A young man representing these two parties appeared on television channels and attempted to mislead believers and argue against women’s entry. The argument presented was that the deity, Ayyappan, is a celibate. The temple was regularly visited by women till 1951. As late as the 1980s, films were shot here.
However, the media talked up the controversy since the Supreme Court delivered its verdict. The Congress was the first to smell an opportunity in the controversy. Soon the BJP also got into the act. Just like a mother blaming the daughter-in-law for her son’s drunkenness, they started blaming the state government for the Supreme Court’s judgment on a case filed by pro-BJP lawyers. What is the government’s crime? It declared that the verdict of the highest court will be enforced? Other parties kept changing their stance. But Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stuck to his position.
The debate on Sabarimala reveals how deeply misogynistic is our society and media. What is called“belief” is misogyny transformed as the essence of Hindutva. We need to ask: What is the danger in discarding customs? Who is it dangerous for?
Let me narrate an experience of mine. For some years now, Vijayadashami is a major festival in Kerala. It is not just Hindus, but people of all faiths initiate their children to the world of letters that day. In recent times, as a writer, I too have been invited to these functions as a “guru” to initiate children into learning. The truth is I feel more tense than the little kids who are brought to get initiated. The reason is I see myself as a non-conformist. What if the children also become like me? Besides, children start to cry and protest when entrusted with strangers. However, I do go for these ceremonies when there is pressure from friends and elders.
This year, I was invited months ago to the Malayalappuzha Devi temple on Vijayadashami. The list of people invited to the temple was published a few days ago. However, the other day the friend who invited me called and in an apologetic tone requested me not to attend the function. The reason was some Hindutva groups had threatened that they will stage a black flag protest if I was present at the ceremony.
There is a lesson here. Who were they protesting against? I was born in a Hindu household and brought up as a staunch believer. Even after growing up, I continue to recite the Lalitasahasranamam and get inspired by temple lamps, payasam and thrimadhuram (sweet offerings served as prasad). It is to such a person that these Hindu groups want to show black flags. And why? Just because I chose to express my views. Because I said God’s celibacy will not be disturbed if women enter the shrine. Because I asked if it was not blasphemy to take to the streets to protect God’s celibacy when people are yet to recover from the devastation caused by the recent flood. The message is clear — the concern of the votaries of Hindutva is not the Hindu religion; faith or God is not what they have in mind.
What underlies the Sabarimala protest is an attempt to exploit the deep anti-women attitude in the society to create faultlines in the Hindu community. It is an attempt to tell ordinary women that liberal Hindu women are against the faith. After all, the liberal Hindu is today the biggest enemy of the Hindu extremist.
There is a larger politics in this, which is the politics of caste. Casteist politics is against the politics for equality. Politics against equality is politics against the Constitution. A BJP leader in Kerala has called for burning the Constitution. Why is it that those who assault people who refuse to stand up during the singing of the national anthem in theatres do nothing against a person who wants the Constitution to be set on fire? What is more important — is it the Constitution that upholds the greatness of human values or traditions that were forged to oppress a majority of people and turn them into slaves in the name of belief?
Two of the most important struggles of women in Kerala is linked to the Sabarimala verdict. That an actress came forward to complain to police and seek justice when she was attacked and that some of her colleagues risked their careers to form an organisation called the Women’s Collective in Cinema to support her is the first significant instance. The second is the alleged rape of a nun. For the first time in history, five nuns started a protest against a bishop who allegedly raped their colleague and to support the victim. Then came the Sabarimala verdict and the protests that followed.
In all three cases, it must not be forgotten that those challenging the Constitution and due process for justice are powerful people with political backing and substantial assets. Sabarimala is one of the richest shrines in the state. All three cases reveal shades of the same ailment, which go by the name of misogyny.
I am not too bothered about the leaders of the BJP or Congress who have played opportunistic politics with the issue. My question is to the media, which has been encouraging the Hindutva politics in a bid to improve their ratings — at this historic juncture, do you realise what you are doing to Indian democracy?
Edited excerpts from an article by Meera, who is best known for her novel Hangwoman. Translated from Malayalam by Gautam Das and Amrith Lal