NEWS
28/09/2019 8:11 AM IST

One Year After Sabarimala Verdict, Kerala’s Women Say No Going Back

While the BJP seems to have lost the momentum it had built around the issue, activists say people have begun accepting the entry of women into the temple.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Policewomen at the Sabarimala temple in November 2018. 

Some months ago, Kerala made international headlines as women fought to enter the famed Sabarimala temple in the face of violence and threats. But going by an incident that occurred earlier this month, the state seems to have come a long way since then: two women visited the temple to attend rituals related to Onam. While they had expected some resistance and physical violence, the thousands of devotees who had gathered there seemed to have no problems, and they were able to enter the temple in peace.

Women’s collective Navothana Keralam Sthree Paksha Koottayma (NKSPK) said on its Facebook page that the women did not have any police security and weren’t subjected to abuses or threats. The collective, which has helped several women enter the temple  in spite of resistance from Sangh Parivar cadre in the past year, said it would disclose more details about the women soon, and that more women would enter the temple when it opens next. 

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A year after the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, women’s groups in Kerala are more determined than ever to ensure that their hard-fought gains don’t wither away. Despite the Left’s humiliating performance in the last Lok Sabha election, at least partly attributable to its decision to uphold the SC verdict, the CPI(M)-led state government and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan have reiterated their commitment to supporting the cause. While the right-wing now seems to have lost the momentum it had built up over the issue, the Congress continues to maintain that the Vijayan government hurt devotees’ sentiments. 

“Whatever be the stand of the BJP and Congress, it seems the resistance levels of orthodoxy are weakening in Sabarimala. The musclemen are no more in action and women of menstrual age are freely entering the temple whenever it opens for devotees,” said Kanakadurga, one of the two women who created history in January by entering the temple.

Both Kanakadurga and Bindu were hounded and forced to go into hiding after the news of their visit became public. Kanakadurga was also disowned by her family, though she refused to be cowed. 

The civil servant said that more than 150 young women had offered prayers at the temple in the year since the court verdict, and only a few had to face harassment and bullying. HuffPost India could not independently verify this information.

“Politicians may have different readings. But I feel people have started accepting the reality,” she said.

Sivaram V / Reuters
A file photo of Kanakadurga (left) and Bindu Ammini, the first women to enter Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court order.

What is the right-wing up to?

A lack of focus on the issue is visible within the state unit of the BJP, which attempted to build political mileage by sending its workers to physically prevent women from entering Sabarimala. Though state party chief P.S. Sreedharan Pillai continues to call it an emotive issue, party insiders confirmed to HuffPost India that it would be difficult in the future for them to get enough workers to physically prevent women’s entry in disregard of the law. The state government had registered thousands of cases against protesters for attacking women and damaging public property at the height of the protests. 

While the BJP had hoped that the protests would help open its Lok Sabha account in Kerala, it didn’t win a single seat.

Another reason for the right-wing being on the backfoot on the issue is that the Union government and BJP national leadership remain non-committal about invoking an ordinance to bypass the SC order. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had strongly hinted at this in April while addressing an election rally in Kozhikode. 

While Union Minister Sadananda Gowda recently said the government was actively considering an ordinance and subsequent legislation over the issue, he refused to reveal when the process would begin.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan, who hails from Kerala, has bizarrely blamed the Congress for the delay in promulgating the ordinance. 

“The Congress too is of our opinion that the Left government of Kerala hurt the sentiments of devotees. Congress is a major force in Rajya Sabha and that party’s support to a new legislation is crucial. Why is the Congress not demanding legislation in the Parliament? If they are ready to join hands with us, we are ready to move forward,’’ he told a press meet at Kottayam in Kerala earlier this month. 

When asked why the central government has not initiated this law, Muraleedharan said this would happen at the appropriate time.

‘Waking up to reality’

The Congress, meanwhile, is still hoping to reap dividends from the issue. Kerala’s opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, a senior Congress leader, said that the Sabarimala issue had helped his party and its alliance partners in winning 19 out of the 20 Lok sabha seats in the last election.

“The real devotees are extremely hurt because of the way Left parties handled the issue and the cheating by the Union government in making legislation. We used Sabarimala in the just concluded by-election in Pala assembly constituency as the major campaign theme (the LDF won the hotly contested bypoll on Friday). It would be the same at the five assembly bypolls announced for the next month,’’ he said.

“It’s sad that a secular party like Congress is still remaining anti-women and supports the BJP cause of denying women entry in Sabarimala. The poor performance by Left parties in the last election might have different reasons other than Sabarimala. These people are not ready to address our concerns related to the right to pray and equality of women. But the women of Kerala have succeeded to a larger extent in ensuring gender parity at Sabarimala,’’ said Dalit activist and feminist thinker Mrudhula Devi Sasidharan.

According to Kerala electricity minister and senior CPI(M) leader M M Mani, the Congress and the BJP turned Sabarimala into a battleground during the pilgrim season last year. “There was a wilful attempt to take Kerala back to the medieval ages.  But we stood with the women of Kerala without bothering much about immediate electoral gains,’’ he said.

Sabarimala, located on top of a hill in the Pathanamthitta forest, attracts pilgrims from across the country. The temple is open for worship only during the Mandalakaalam in November-December, the first five days of each Malayalam month and for a few festivals. Pilgrims have to trek through arduous terrain to reach the temple.

Kerala is slowly waking up to the reality. The argument that women of menstruating age would not be able to observe the 41-day period of abstinence before making a pilgrimage had failed even to impress the Supreme Court judges.Kanakadurga

“There is no historical or scientific proof to the claim that women were never allowed to offer prayers at the temple. No gender-based discrimination was there till three decades ago,’’ points out scholar Sunny Kapikkad. 

Bindu Thankam Kalyani, a school teacher who reached the base camp of Sabarimala in December and then withdrew due to police advice, said that she is hoping to visit the temple this year. 

“When Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga visited the temple with a police escort during New Year, setting a new history, the priests had conducted a purification ritual. But this time, no such ritual was conducted. That itself is a victory. Situation is changing,’’ she added. 

Even the powerful Nair Service Society has not been very vocal on the issue in recent months, she said.

“Kerala is slowly waking up to the reality. The argument that women of menstruating age would not be able to observe the 41-day period of abstinence before making a pilgrimage had failed even to impress the Supreme Court judges. It’s a landmark judgement protecting women’s rights and gender parity,’’ said Kanakadurga.