A week into the Sabarimala pilgrimage, the political battle over the shrine has caused a drastic fall in the number of pilgrims. This also has implications for the local economy. The BJP, which has been mobilising people upset with the Supreme Court order regarding the entry of women in Sabarimala, as well as the state government, paranoid about protesters laying siege to the shrine, have contributed to this state of affairs. The disagreement over the Court order was understandable since it had sought to overturn a long-held custom at the shrine, but the present politicisation on party lines threatens to derail the pilgrimage itself. The irony is this disruptive action is being conducted under the pretext of “saving” the shrine and the pilgrimage.
Rattled by the spate of mobilisations, the state government had introduced many restrictions at the shrine. The concerns about traffic, parking and so on were valid, especially since the infrastructure had been severely affected by the recent floods. However, some of those directives introduced to avoid potential political mobilisation were unreasonable for a temple. For instance, the police order that pilgrims who gather at the shrine should not chant loudly — an integral part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage, which is a group activity — is near impossible to enforce and any use of force may have disastrous consequences. On the other hand, the BJP has been directing its cadres to crowd the shrine, which serves to give the pilgrimage a political colour. Visits by BJP leaders, including Union ministers, have only contributed to the confusion and triggered avoidable controversies. The Kerala High Court took cognisance of these developments earlier this week and directed the state government to streamline the restrictions at the shrine. As the court suggested, the pilgrim must have the first right to the pilgrimage and the shrine; Sabarimala cannot be turned into a site for cadre mobilisation or imposition of any political agenda.
If political parties are concerned about the pilgrimage, they must keep off the shrine. They have the right to mobilise people for and against the apex court order as well as debate temple customs, of course, but it has to be conducted without inconveniencing the pilgrims. After all, the Supreme Court is set to hear the writ and review petitions against the Constitution Bench order in January. The interested parties must wait for a closure from the Court and avoid stirring the pot.