The Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to refer the Sabarimala case to a seven-judge constitutional bench has split Kerala politics along religious lines and revived the controversy at what appears to be an opportune time for the BJP.
Though the five-judge bench of the court, which was acting on a batch of review petitions, did not stay its original September 2018 order that had done away with the shrine’s age-old practice of denying entry to women of menstruating age (between 10 and 50), several BJP leaders hailed the decision as a vindication of their stand. They also declared they would not allow any woman inside the shrine dedicated to the celibate deity Ayyappa during the pilgrim season, which begins with the mandala poojas on Saturday.
This is the second time this month that Hindutva supporters have celebrated a court verdict in a religious matter. On November 9, the Supreme Court had pronounced its final verdict in the Ayodhya case, paving the way for a Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished, while allocating an alternative plot for a mosque.
The BJP’s call to action spells trouble for Kerala’s Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government. It faces the daunting task of keeping the peace at Sabarimala, which has already received requests from 36 women seeking entry during the poojas, according to the Travancore Devaswom Board. The board, a government body, is in charge of the temple’s administration.
The CPI(M) remembers all too well the months of protests and violence against women that followed last year’s landmark verdict. The unrest ensured it was only in January 2019 that Sabarimala received its first women visitors under the age of 50. Kanakadurga and Bindu Ammini, both in their 40s, made history by entering the sanctum sanctorum, till then forbidden to women of their age.
“The priority of the government will be maintaining peace at Sabarimala,” said A Vijayaraghavan, convener of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front coalition.
According to media reports, the government has deployed 10,000 police personnel at Sabarimala for the duration of the pilgrim season.
However, a law-and-order crisis is not all the government had to contend with after the 2018 verdict. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, held in Kerala in April, the LDF won just one of the state’s 20 seats, down from eight in 2014. The Sabarimala crisis was cited as a major reason for the poor result. The remaining 19 seats went to the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
What’s more, the CPI(M) does not seem well-prepared to deal with the coming storm. The party is divided. While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was an early advocate of allowing women inside the Sabarimala shrine, some party colleagues who toe a soft Hindutva line have reportedly urged him to go slow on the matter. They are wary of a Hindutva backlash and fear this could help the BJP make a foothold in the state.
“I request everybody, including the Opposition, not to attempt [to get] any political mileage from the verdict or make comments that can spark tension and violence.”
Despite being a major player in the Sabarimala agitation, the BJP failed to win its first Lok Sabha seat in Kerala in the general elections. It has also won just one Assembly seat here so far, and hopes to use Sabarimala has an election plank to improve its tally in the 2021 Assembly polls.
Responding to the court’s latest decision, Vijayan said his government would “need more clarity on this judgement”. India Today quoted him as saying, “We understand the SC judgment of September 28, 2018, is still in place but we are unclear about the implications. We need to understand the impact of this verdict and will seek legal opinions.”
Several CPI(M) leaders, who spoke to HuffPost India on condition of anonymity, said they were awaiting clarity on the judgement and that the government might file a plea in this regard. But when asked how they planned to tackle any trouble that may arise during the mandala poojas, they had no answers.
Temple Affairs Minister Kadakampally Surendran told reporters he would comment only after studying the verdict. “It would be premature to say anything now,” he said. “I request everybody, including the Opposition, not to attempt [to get] any political mileage from the verdict or make comments that can spark tension and violence.”
N. Vasu, who takes charge of the Travancore Devaswom Board as chairman on Friday, said a new situation had emerged. “A new bench would review the old verdict. Let our lawyers study the judgement and discuss it with the board members first. Then we will decide on future course of action,” he said.
BJP, Congress on one side?
As the government waits for clarity, the BJP appears ready to go into action.
Party leader K. Surendran, the face of last year’s anti-women protests, said that from Saturday, BJP workers would set up camps along the shrine’s route and stop women from entering, forcibly if they had to. He warned the government of serious repercussions if it acted before the court had delivered its final verdict.
Surendran had contested the Lok Sabha polls from Pathanamthitta seat, where Sabarimala is located.
Senior BJP leader Kummanam Rajashekaran echoed Surendran, saying, “I urge the government to show restraint. Lack of clarity regarding today’s Supreme Court decision must not be used as an excuse to facilitate women’s entry into the shrine.”
In an unlikely but not unexpected outcome of Thursday’s development, the Congress found itself on the same side of the political divide as the BJP. The party’s state unit warned the government against acting in haste.
“The state government must not be in a hurry,” said Ramesh Chennithala, Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly. “Any illogical action would have repercussions with far-reaching implications. The government must consider the sentiments of true devotees who may take much more time to accept the changing realities.’’
Welcoming the decision to refer the case to a larger bench, Congress veteran and former chief minister Oommen Chandy agreed that any attempt to facilitate the entry of women into the shrine would lead to violence. He also warned that this would be advantageous to Hindutva forces.
Nothing’s changed, say women
In the face of the growing political divide, activists and women devotees pointed out that the Supreme Court’s original verdict remains valid.
“It is true the Supreme Court referred the Sabarimala case to a larger bench with a 3:2 majority. But it did not stay the judgement passed on September 28, 2018, that lifted the ban on the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 to the temple,” said Mridula Devi Sasidharan, a Dalit rights activist and key campaigner against gender discrimination at Sabarimala. “Any woman can visit the temple till the larger bench decides on the matter. I don’t know the logic behind the arguments of the Congress leaders.’’
Kanakadurga, one of the two women to enter the shrine in January, told HuffPost India, “I plan to make a pilgrimage this mandalakaalam. The court has not revoked its earlier verdict ending gender discrimination at Sabarimala. It has just referred the issue, along with other issues involving women and religious faith, to a larger bench. As long as the court’s order of last year exists, I am open to visit Sabarimala.”
She added, “As there is no stay [on the earlier order], the government has an obligation to protect the democratic rights of women. It must not forget its duty in the face of threats and intimidation from communal forces. I will continue to visit the temple with police protection.’’
Among the 36 women who have applied online to the Travancore Devaswom Board for permission to enter the shrine during the mandala season is Pune-based activist Trupti Desai. A prominent face of campaigns demanding entry for women at Sabarimala and several other places of worship, Desai had made an unsuccessful bid to enter the Sabarimala temple last November.
However, the temple may not be ready to welcome women devotees. “The Supreme Court decision vindicates our stand, gives us hope and confidence,” said Kantararu Rajeevaru, chief priest at Sabarimala and one of the review petitioners.
As for the chief minister, the coming days will be a test of whether he can continue to be seen as a leader who places women’s rights over matters of caste and community. Any dilution in his stand now would weaken his position as a champion of women’s rights.