On the first day of 2019, the world took note of the lakhs of women in Kerala who were part of an estimated 620 km-long human chain officially called the ‘Women’s Wall’ which stretched from the state’s northern district of Kasargod to the southernmost district of Thiruvananthapuram. They had gathered to “demonstrate the secular and progressive mindset of the state”. It was also an expression of support for the Marxist government’s officially stated position about implementing the Supreme Court judgement in letter and spirit.
Veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat was the last person in the long human chain in Kerala’s capital city Thiruvananthapuram. In an interview with HuffPost India, Karat said that, in context with the Babri Masjid cases which the apex court is presently adjudicating upon (the hearing has been deferred to 10 January), the right-wing politics surrounding Sabarimala is a “rehearsal” and a “sign of things to come”. In this detailed conversation, she accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of putting pressure on the Supreme Court by stating in his interviews that Sabarimala is an issue of “tradition”. She asserted that Modi has not said that his government will implement the judgement but instead asked his party men to “defy the Supreme Court judgement” in the name of tradition.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
The Women’s Wall event in Thiruvananthapuram held on the first day of the new year has caught international attention. Since you were the last link in the wall that began from Kasargod and culminated in Thiruvananthpuram, how do you reflect about participating in the effort?
I can say, in my fifty years of public life, I think the experience of being a brick in that wall, was not only a unique experience, it was an extremely positive, confidence-giving moment. A brick in a wall for social progress, social change and to take forward the legacy which is sought to be destroyed today and replaced by Manuvadi practices and bestial human behaviour. So it was very inspiring to be part of a wall and to be part of a collective which is so strong and to be part of a vision for the future. Because we looked back at the renaissance but it was not with nostalgia; we looked back at the renaissance to see how it can illuminate the future. And that future has to be in our context; to take those values to help us address the issues faced by women today. It was challenging and inspiring and to be part of this is something which I will always treasure...
...substantial efforts had gone into (the initiative) with thousands of women activists fanning out across the state, doing door to door campaigns and most important are the issues which had been raised during the campaign. These included the issues of social reform, issues of the expansion of economic justice, the role of communists and progressive forces in taking forward the legacy of the Kerala renaissance, the issue of women’s equality, the issue of so-called impurity of women and where that came from. So many of these issues get fogged out or concealed by the day to day politics of votes; of electoral politics. So it was really an inspiring campaign for the last two months which culminated in this historic women’s wall. And the women’s wall itself is inspiring because it included women from all communities, castes, classes, age groups. And they had one single message; that we are here to stay.
For our readers, could you describe what the reason was for organising this event and what it achieved?
See, of course, the background of this was the Sabarimala judgement. But in the Sabarimala judgement, some of the issues which were being raised by conservative-orthodox forces and which directly impacted on issues of women’s equality, the Constitution, constitutional guarantees, were very important. These were very important because electoral politics is one thing but politics of social reform, which has actually shaped modern Kerala―and the role of communists and progressives to expand that social reform to include economic justice, issues of the working people―have made Kerala a very unique state in India and brought it to place number one in all social indicators. So to see Kerala being pushed back, to see the reincarnation of the forces who had stoned Ayyankali or had prevented Sri Narayan Guru from walking the prohibited roads, killed those in the Vaikom Satyagraha, chopped off their heads―those forces reincarnated in modern Kerala in the guise of the RSS-BJP and their shield to all the orthodox-conservative forces in society. This is something extremely disturbing.
And this is not only a government issue. There is one thing that the Government in Kerala is committed to implementing the Supreme Court judgement. But the issues which have been raised are issues which social and political forces have to confront and contend with. That is why it was necessary (to organise the Women’s Wall). After all, it is people who have to make decisions. It is the people who make individual choices. It is people whose social behaviour impacts the trajectory of future of any state. When people’s minds today are being sought to be injected with communal and orthodox poison, we can’t just stand back and say, this is nothing to do with us―it is between the government and the temple authorities or the government and the Supreme Court. Therefore, a public intervention was extremely necessary. And the Left, traditionally, has always been on the side of social reform and social change for the better. In Kerala, caste and patriarchy have been critical issues on which social reform movements have been had in the past. Therefore the concept was developed in consultation with a large number of mass and class organisations; over 176 organisations joined in this endeavour. And it was a very successful endeavour in which we played a crucial rule.
When people’s minds today are being sought to be injected with communal and orthodox poison, we can’t just stand back and say, this is nothing to do with us
The second part of my question was about what it achieved.
I think it is a milestone and the residents of Kerala took a pledge that day to take forward the values of the renaissance and not to allow Kerala to slip back into what Swami Vivekananda had described as a “madhouse of castes”. We have right-wing forces all over India playing the same game and this has resonance and relevance beyond that. It is a big achievement that we could say that we are here to confront, resist and defeat those forces. And that has given confidence to women all over India.
How do you then respond to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement in recent interviews that Sabarimala is about tradition and cannot be compared with the Triple Talaq issue?
Firstly, if you just take the concepts of faith and tradition; see faith has always been a mask behind which orthodoxy and conservatism have hidden their poison. If you look at our own history, even from the time of Independence days till now, on every single issue, it has been faith. When Ambedkar wrote the Hindu Reform Code Bill, when he talked about divorce rights for women, the forefathers of RSS and BJP stood up in Parliament and said, “You’re destroying the Hindu religion because you’re destroying the Hindu family.”
When a bill was brought to prevent glorification of Sati and Sati temples at the time after the horrible immolation of Roop Kanwar in late 1980s in Rajasthan, the BJP mobilised on a community basis saying that this is our tradition, they were supporting the tradition of Sati by saying that women were doing this voluntarily and therefore, it was a tradition which had to be preserved and glorified for generations to come. So they supported Sati in the name of tradition.
Now, today also, you have the Babri Masjid. What happened at the time of demolition? It was a question of faith. The Constitution was made a bonfire of in the name of faith. Today when they are lynching people in the name of the cow; the cow also is a question of faith. So conservative, orthodox and communal forces always use the mask of faith and tradition to inject poison in a secular polity and it is really, extremely unfortunate that the Prime Minister of India who took his oath as Prime Minister on the Indian Constitution should now be saying, “defy the Supreme Court judgement” — justifying his party’s defiance on it in the name of faith. So, in Delhi, he is talking about faith while in Kerala, his people are rampaging using the worst kind of violence.
One counter that conservatives give while disagreeing with the Supreme Court judgement is that even women protested against the Supreme Court judgement so, in their view, this is not about gender justice but tradition. How do you respond to this argument?
See, Rajmata Scindia was the leader of the Pro-Sati movement in Rajasthan. It’s not new. And in a society, where there are strong feelings of conservatism and orthodoxy among certain sections, women also maybe influenced by it. But here, the women are being used as pawns in a different game by the BJP and RSS. Why do I say this? The RSS took pride in its resolution in Bhopal that all women should have entry into all temples. The day the Supreme Court judgement came, the RSS spokesman and the RSS’s weekly organ hailed the Supreme Court decision saying this is a great victory and a step forward for women. As soon as they saw a political benefit, they did a U-turn.
This has nothing to do with religious sentiment and everything to do with Hindutva politics. And so they are using women as pawns. See, we respect if women believe that they should not be going into the temples. Our campaign for the Women’s Wall was not that you should go to the temple. Our campaign was this is your individual choice. If you want to go to the temple, you can and if you don’t want to go, you don’t; but you cannot have a prohibition on women going to the temple because they are considered impure. So that is the difference and women responded to this.
BJP state President P S Sreedharan Pillai has called the Kerala CM ‘Aurangzeb’ and Congress’s Leader of Opposition in the assembly has said the government has not respected the sentiments of people. Your response?
As far as the BJP is concerned, its language is always communal. They have also talked about his caste. They have also said he is the son of a toddy tapper.
Though that was by a newspaper. Not by the party per se.
Has anybody condemned it? Has a single leader of the BJP condemned it? They cannot because it is in their DNA. So there is no question about a newspaper or the party. This is their understanding. Who has advised the thantri (chief priest) to do a purification ceremony? All those BJP leaders who talk about Dalits and who had purification ceremonies when Dalits went to (the temple); BJP leader who went to the High Court and said, “Other communities should not be allowed to go to the temple.” And today they are saying that the Pinarayi government is behaving in a dictatorial way? As far as the Congress is concerned, frankly, their Central leadership supported the Supreme Court judgement. So who is the leader of the Congress in Kerala? In the morning, they speak like Mohan Bhagwat and Amit Shah. In the evening, they speak like Muslim league. Seriously, look at their speeches.
One day they are saying this is a communal wall. BJP says this is a communal wall because only Muslim women are there and the Muslim League says this a communal wall because only Hindu women are there. The wall, in fact, comprised both Hindu, Muslim and everybody else.
The confused and opportunist Congress in Kerala has lost its anchor. It is giving ground to the BJP.
For secular-minded people outside Kerala who were watching these events unfold, it was striking that, in a state ruled by a Marxist party, women who intended to visit the temple had to take cover under the night’s darkness to do so. The government has to be a facilitator for women who do want to worship, right? There was criticism about the government for being unable to do so in the initial days. How do you respond?
As you know that there were several attempts made by women who tried to go to the temple. You know the geographical location of the temple; there are jungles on both sides and it is on a hill and there are lakhs of devotees at any given time. Because the temple is open on particular seasons. They come from all over Kerala so there are crowds there. So police action or protection has its limitations in a place of worship.
Limitations in what way?
You know...the RSS-BJP (workers) wear the Ayyappan devotees’ clothes; mingle with the crowds and, as soon as women go there, under police protection, they sit over there, shout slogans and try and catch the women and there are crowds there; what can the police do in such a situation? Therefore, the Kerala government came to the court and said, “Please hear us. Can we make some special arrangements? Either special timings, special days, or whatever it is. Can we make some administrative arrangements for this to take place? We are committed to implementing the court judgement.” If the Kerala Police had used armed force there would have been consequences which would have fallen into the trap into which the RSS-BJP wanted (the Kerala government) to fall into. Therefore, I think this criticism is entirely misplaced. It is unfair and it is distant from the reality of the ground situation of a temple where there are lakhs of devotees and when people masquerading as devotees try and cause a law and order problem.
Also, how do you respond to today’s events? We are talking on a day when there is a state-wide hartal by the opposition against the CPM government.
It’s a shame that the ruling party of India, the BJP, is targeting Kerala because that government is implementing a court order and this is a sign of things to come. They are just doing a rehearsal. (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi has put pressure on the Supreme Court by saying all this is a matter of faith, we will wait for the judgement on Ram Mandir and then we will decide our next step. He did not say, we will implement the judgement. So this is all a rehearsal of that. And people of India should understand that.
One person who was part of the conservative factions behind the hartal died during violence witnessed during the day. Shouldn’t the state government be accountable for this loss of human life?
Accountability is on those who are committing violence on the streets of Kerala. The accountability is of those who are burning party offices, the accountability is of those who are ruling India and attacking normal citizens in Kerala. That is the accountability. The Kerala government is duty-bound to protect the security of its citizens. If somebody is trying to break the law in the way that they are doing; it is not a question of Satyagraha. This is outright violence. This is not the assertion of a democratic right to protest which we will always support. This is outright violence.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has accused the RSS-BJP of turning the state into a “war zone”. So those words are not hyperbole, there is a lot of truth to that. Is that what you are saying?
I am saying although they don’t have numbers, any groups of men who go around deliberately creating a law and order situation, it has to be dealt with. We have a government in Kerala which will deal with it; it will not be cowed down. It will uphold the Supreme Court judgement.
Coming back to the ‘Women’s Wall’ initiative. Where does the effort go ahead from here?
This campaign is going to continue. Today, for example, all over India, on the occasion of Savitribai Phule’s anniversary, women are condemning the purification ceremony (in the Sabarimala temple); they are condemning the BJP and RSS for what they did in Kerala. So this, as I said, has national ramifications for women’s movements and organisations. Certainly, it will be taken forward.