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Why Sabarimala is surprising even Kerala, why it is an opportunity

With all the claims of literacy, good healthcare system and the resultant general progressiveness of Kerala, it largely seemed like a reasonable expectation that women would just start going to the Sabarimala temple.

Devotees at Sabarimala in Kerala. (PTI Photo/File)

I find surprised, and even flabbergasted, Malayalis and non-Malayalis around me on the Sabarimala issue.

Even though a lot of people had reservations about the Supreme Court verdict which lifted the ban on women of menstrual ages from entering the Sabarimala temple, it was largely expected that, like the famous declaration of the Temple Entry Proclamation which allowed the lower caste groups temple entry in Kerala in 1936, women would just start going to the temple by and by. With all the claims of literacy, good healthcare system and the resultant general progressiveness of Kerala, it largely seemed like a reasonable expectation.

But events unfurled in quite a different way: the televised break down of law and order in the area, the rule of fear and insecurity that hovers around the state on this issue and the unending high-voltage discussions on mass and social media gave a sense of a state at siege. Though all parties are oath-bound and duty-bound to endorse the Constitution of India, and even when most parties at the national level have taken the official national position that there should be no ban on women only because of they are of the menstruating age (this includes the RSS and the Congress), their state leadership got so scared of the sentiments of their supporters and decided to resist the implementation of the court order through campaigns or even physically. The attempts have been so successful that not a single woman of the age between 10 and 50 have entered the inner sanctum of the temple to this day.

Opinion | Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The Sabarimala aftermath

Women devotees at Sabarimala.

The typicality of Sabarimala

Three aspects of Kerala society throw light on the typicality of the developments: one, Kerala is a hyper consumerist, middle class society in which party supporters behave like consumers with a sense of entitlement. Politicians are only capable of giving what these supporters like and want. This should explain how the state committees of national parties have decided to take a position contradicting their national leadership. Two, though Kerala somersaulted into a global economy in 1970s itself, its values are completely feudal: a huge house, marrying off a daughter in all pomp and glory, and strict allegiance to family, community or party are still cherished.

The cocktail of feudal values and capitalist life-conditions provides the third aspect of the Kerala society: misogyny. Sabarimala is only one of the spaces in Kerala where women have no entry. Public spaces are largely inaccessible to unaccompanied women after nightfall, places of worship, festival venues and grounds are male homosocial havens, mass media and entertainment industries revolve around a handful of male icons, in many households women continue to belong to the kitchen and drawing rooms are still men’s, and lastly and most importantly, political and cultural discussions are held by men, of men and for men (even feminism is just another discussion topic for men!). In short, Kerala’s public sphere is saturated with male bodies and their understanding of the world.

This is not to belittle the amazing movements of the women in the last 30 years for the rights to body, property, work, dignity and presence. But the subcultural space of male bonding has defined itself against all such naming them to be feminist. The all too existing possibility that “feminist” in itself can be used as an allegation, like “terrorist” or “Maoist” in today’s Kerala should tell us something about the contemporary Kerala. This becomes all the more revealing when compared with the moral ground that North Indian feminists have won against patriarchy on the ground, creating a new common sense, making it impossible even for the majoritarian right to oppose the Supreme Court verdicts on decriminalising homosexuality and lifting the ban on women to enter Sabarimala.

This is nothing new: though women’s rights were a crucial concerns for the social justice project on caste reformation and economic restructuring called Kerala Renaissance (beginning in the early 20th century), men limited their participation to the level of ideas without extending it to bodies and spaces. Women continued to be in-charge of households, preparing children for a male chauvinist society and men continued to talk about things political and social. These women and their domestic spaces were addressed only by two entities: the religious organisations and by television serials (both were designed and developed by men again). Other than making fun of them and treating these as innocuous, men never had interrogations about the exclusivity of the spaces they held. Family WhatsApp groups seem to mould these sensibilities into community stories of victimhood and fear mongering. This blackhole of the Kerala public sphere must be acknowledged in the contemporary developments.

The Supreme Court on September 28 ruled in favour of allowing women of all ages entering Sabarimala temple in Kerala. (Express Photo/File)

Kerala Renaissance: Archaic, Aestheticised or Unfinished?

Sabarimala women’s temple entry issue largely has four categories of people involved: Violent Ritualists (mostly male) who oppose women’s temple entry and believe that women who dare should be stopped using violence and terror, Anti-Violence Ritualists who oppose women’s temple entry but believe that use of violence and abuse by vigilante groups is unacceptable, Constitutionalists who believe that the verdict is, to borrow Gandhi’s words on the Temple Entry proclamation for the lower caste groups, one written in golden letters upholding constitutional morality and must be implemented by getting rid of the violent men at any cost, and Institutionalists who believe that though the judgment could have as well not come at all, now that it has, there is a need to respect the judgment and implement it, slowly and strategically.

All these groups seem equally lost about something or the other: Ritualists don’t know till how long they can hold the fort (every party has people who make contradictory statements is a good sign of it), Constitutionalists have not come up with any practical solution to the law and order troubles that might come up with what has now been construed as the “event of that single woman’s temple entry” (One of the questions they should consider answering is how did this “social vacuum” around Constitutional values come about!) and Institutionalists seem to be rather half-hearted about any actual step by any woman to enter the temple.

Among the four, the first, the Violent Ritualists, given how anti-social their acts have been merit no discussions. They need to be removed from the space and booked, along with their political patrons in the media and elsewhere, for their acts. The Anti-Violence Ritualists, Constitutionalists and Institutionalists can, and I believe they need to, hold conversations.

What would be the reference point of such conversations? Many are resorting to idealisation of the Kerala Renaissance which I find problematic in a discussion about women’s bodies for its very exclusive history on that front. Post 1970s Kerala has been such a different space that much of this rhetoric ring no bell with the life-realities of Malayalis now- as future cannot be in some past and nostalgia for it, it is unlikely to take anybody forward. Reviving any kind of golden past in itself is a regressive position.

Secondly, Kerala Renaissance has been made into an empty symbol to such a point that all sides are actually using the same images. The constitutionalists and institutionalists are constantly reminding people of the dark ages before the Kerala Renaissance while the Ritualists have used the photos of the Renaissance leaders on their “rath yathra” vehicle, and thus making them null entities politically.

The only useful and viable option is to see Kerala Renaissance as an unfinished project: one that talked of social justice for the backward castes like ezhavas while abandoning dalits and adivasis, one that spoke of women but never let them speak and one that believed in freedom from feudalism but without ever being able to come out of feudal values. Kerala Renaissance surely has, in it, a moment and a spirit that is ethical, inclusive and brave that can be captured but it cannot be a destination.

For this act of completion, let women sit together and come up with ethical, practical and effective solutions which are capable of redefining the very social values of the Malayali society. For once, men need to listen and just listen for the saturation they have caused is itself a huge part of the problem.

The underbelly of the state has come out right in the open, while the symptoms have always been there. Now this is an opportunity: let there be new thoughts, new imagery, new set of bodies from the receiving end changing the very paradigm towards a more egalitarian and more inclusive tomorrow. Kerala needs more and Malayalis deserve better!

N P Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi

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