NEWS
23/12/2018 11:20 PM IST | Updated 01/01/2019 3:13 PM IST

'Women's Wall': How Kerala Govt Is Pushing Back Against Sabarimala Protests

The plan to demonstrate Kerala's progressive credentials has run into controversy, but the Pinarayi Vijayan government is standing firm.

The Kerala government had its hands full in the latter half of 2018—there were the floods from which the state is still recovering, and then the massive protests over the Supreme Court verdict allowing all women to enter the Sabarimala temple. Now, the government’s plan to organise a “women’s wall” in response to the reaction against the Sabarimala verdict has caused quite a stir. 

Mint via Getty Images
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the initiative on 1 December.

What is the women’s wall?

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the initiative on 1 December after a meeting with over 50 socio-cultural organisations to garner support for its stand on implementing the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter Sabarimala. Hundreds of women had also protested against the verdict, claiming the sanctity of the temple would be destroyed.

The wall, to be formed on 1 January, will stretch from the state’s northern district Kasargod to the southern most district of Thiruvananthapuram to demonstrate the secular and progressive mindset of Kerala, the chief minister said.

State finance minister Thomas Isaac said in December that a million women would participate in forming the 600-km long wall. 

In a tweet on 21 December, Isaac said 3 million women were expected to participate.

In his announcement, Pinarayi sought the support of ’progressively-thinking” minds of the state in order to safeguard the “secular” fabric of Kerala.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha are among the organisations lending their support to the wall.

CPM’s Kerala secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the wall would make it into the Guinness Book of World Records with participation of 3 million women.

Who is against the women’s wall, and why? 

In a note to the CPM’s Central Committee, veteran leader and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan warned the party against compromising its ideological position by forming the wall in association with caste organisations.

Many religious organisations have also voiced their opposition.

The Sabarimala Karma Samiti, one of the Hindu outfits spearheading protests on the Sabarimala issue, alleged that the women’s wall was an attempt to “destroy” Sabarimala in the guise of implementing the SC order.

It instead called for lighting of ‘Ayyappa Jyothi’ (sacred lamps) on 26 December from Manjeshwaram in north Kerala to Parassala in the south. Thousands participated in the event. The state BJP extended its support for it, while Nair Service Society general secretary G. Sukumaran Nair urged members to take part in it.

Nair said the women’s wall would only divide the society.

“Even if being passed as a movement to reinforce renaissance values, it is actually an attack against the belief, tradition and practice associated with entry of women into Sabarimala,” he said.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference termed the wall “undesirable”. “Renaissance values shouldn’t be safeguarded at the cost of dividing the society,” it said in its statement. 

Why are opposition parties criticising the government?

The Congress-led United Democratic Front said none of its workers would participate either in the women’s wall or the Ayyappa Jyothi programme.

State opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala called the women’s wall “nothing but poison with sugar coating” and accused the government of selectively picking organisations to participate in it. The Congress leader alleged no minority outfits were invited for talks with the government.

“Selectively inviting only a few organisations for the wall, while ignoring those who had contributed to the renaissance of Kerala, will destroy the secular fabric of the state,” the Congress leader said in a statement.

The Congress has found itself on the same side as the BJP in protesting against the Supreme Court verdict, leading to its workers and leaders facing awkward questions about its stand on gender equality. 

On the last day of the recent Kerala assembly session, MLAs almost came to blows inside the assembly after deputy Leader of Opposition and senior Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) member MK Muneer called the wall “communal”.

“Like in West Germany, if the Berlin wall was dismantled, the Women’s Wall, which is a communal wall would be dismantled,” Muneer said.

What is the controversy over funds and forced participation?

Many critics have alleged that the state government is diverting funds meant for flood relief on the women’s wall. The Kerala high court, while hearing public interest litigations to this effect, asked the government to detail the expenses to be incurred for the wall. The government told the court that the initiative will be funded from Rs 50 crore allocated in the state budget for schemes to prevent atrocities against women. However, both Vijayan and Isaac separately clarified later that no public funds will be used for the wall.

The government has also been forced to clarify that no government employee will be forced to participate in the event.

Why have big names withdrawn support?

Several prominent personalities have withdrawn their support for the women’s wall. Last week, actress Manju Warrier withdrew from the event citing its political nature. According to Malayala Manorama, the actress had initially extended support through a video posted on Facebook.

Facebook/Manju Warrier

Kerala Public Works Minister G. Sudhakaran hit out at Warrier’s exit saying, “The women’s wall is not political. The problem is with Manju Warrier’s looking glass. I have only respect for her as an actor.”

Writer Sara Joseph backed out of the event over sexual harassment allegations against CPI(M) MLA PK Sasi, The New Indian Express reported. Joseph said she would not participate unless Sasi was expelled from the party.

Dalit activist Sunny M Kapikkad also withdrew his support, criticising the state government for its delay in implementing the top court’s verdict.