Barely a few months before the Lok Sabha elections, last week’s Supreme Court verdict allowing the entry of women into the hill-shrine of Sabarimala is turning out to be a major political rallying point in Kerala, not just for the BJP, but also for the Congress.
Both the parties have attacked the CPM-led LDF government in the state for its decision to implement the verdict and have made vociferous public calls to oppose it. The BJP, which had left the fight against the move to its feeder organisations so far, has now made up its mind to jump headlong while the Congress doesn’t want the government to show “undue haste” in implementing the SC order. It also wants a review petition against the landmark judgment.
It’s strange that in a state which boasts of 100 per cent literacy, the final adjudication by the topmost court in the country, which in effect is the new law, is considered a contestable issue. Various groups have organised large-scale protest marches led by women in different parts of the state and even organisations which have been accused of Islamist tendencies have supported them since it also gave them space to push their communal agenda.
The argument of the Hindu groups that are bringing women and others to the streets is that the Supreme Court has no role in deciding people’s religious choices and ritualistic practices. In fact, some of the Hindu activists have openly criticised or challenged the SC verdict in a way that could invite contempt of court proceedings. Pandalam, in central Travancore, where Lord Ayypappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala, was believed to have been be born, witnessed the largest protest in the state. Hundreds of women participated asserting that entry to the temple was not a right that they ever asked for. They wanted to “Save Sabarimala” as their big banners screamed.
Interestingly, the main thrust of the SC verdict was on Article 14 (equality before law) and all the four judges who were unanimous in their decision to allow women’s entry cited discrimination of women as their primary reason. They used different expressions, but the message was loud and clear: Women and men are equal before law and it is unconstitutional to treat them otherwise.
What the Congress, the BJP and the religious groups refuse to acknowledge is that the verdict, which was consistent with the Indian constitution, didn’t create a new ground-rule for the customary practices in Sabarimala. Instead, it just overruled a 1991 High Court verdict that had brought in this inequality, and thereby a violation of Article 14, by banning the entry of women between the age of 10 and 50.
Till 1991, there was no legal bar for women to enter the shrine and they indeed used to undertake the holy trek through the Western Ghats and pilgrimage to the temple. Many people recalled with documentary evidence how Sabarimala was like any other temple in the state where women also could worship their god. For instance, TKA Nair, the former secretary of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recalled that one of his religious initiations (the first feeding) was done at Sabarimala and he remembered sitting on his mother’s lap at the temple. There were also photos showing young women praying very close to the sanctum sanctorum.
The verdict, or its political exploitation, has certainly triggered a religious polarisation which seemingly the BJP and the Congress wouldn’t want to let go. However, unlike in other states, it’s not likely to result in any concrete political dividends because, nearly 50 per cent of the population in the state are non-Hindus. If it indeed leads to a split in Hindu votes, it may lead to some rise in the vote-share of the BJP that wouldn’t be good enough to secure electoral victories. The Congress clearly wants to avoid such an erosion and is hence engaged in competitive government bashing.
The most encouraging and politically wise position is that of the ruling CPM. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was quick in his response and said that the government would do everything possible to implement the SC verdict. He said special arrangements would be made to facilitate the visit of women pilgrims, and if necessary he would also enrol the services of women police from other states. He chided the head of the Devaswom Board, a government controlled institution that handles the management of the temple, for his vacillation on the issue.
Vijayan’s unequivocal stand has won him the support of activists and a large section of the general public. He didn’t make it controversial and said that it was the law of the land and that it was his responsibility to maintain it. Politically, it would help him because the CPM is largely a cadre-based party that is unlikely to be affected by the erosion of Hindu votes (incidentally, the majority of Hindus in the state are Ezhavas that form a major chunk of the CPM’s reliable vote bank).
Moreover, a tough stand against religious exploitation by Hindu groups may help him attract more minority votes that usually elude the party. In other words, the Sabarimala verdict is a blessing in disguise for him. Additional Muslim and Christian votes, that traditionally support the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) would be politically more beneficial when compared to some possible erosion of Hindu votes. In the present situation of a three-way contest between the Left Democratic Front (the CPM), the UDF (the Congress) and the BJP, any extra votes that the BJP gets would by and large benefit the LDF because of its cadre base.
What’s however worrying is how the same issue is being exported to other southern states, where the shrine has more devotees than in Kerala, for religious polarisation. Reportedly, there have also been protests in Tamil Nadu and religious groups are planning to raise the pitch higher.
The hedge against religious polarisation in Kerala is its unique demography, but one cannot say the same about the other states. It remains to be seen if religious groups would use it to fan communal sentiments in other states as the elections approach.