The historic Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala allowing women of all age groups into the temple was widely hailed as a progressive judgment for restoring gender parity. In Kerala though, it’s evoked mixed reactions. The simmering discontent among caste Hindus in the state has now boiled over into a full-scale agitation. Namajapa yatras (“prayer processions”) are being taken out by Ayyappa devotees across the state in protest—with women participating in large numbers. It’s feared that these processions and demonstrations could snowball into a full-scale confrontation as the date draws closer to the opening of the temple for pujas on October 17.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party had initially welcomed the judgment in consonance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s formal position on the issue, the BJP later took a political call to support the devotees. By undertaking a “long march”—led by its state president PS Sreedharan Pillai—to the Secretariat in solidarity with the devotees, the BJP is attempting to convert the movement into an anti-government agitation. With the Congress and socio-religious organisations backing the devotees, the Left Democratic Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) faces its biggest test in power.
Although the CPI(M) initially sought to give the protests a Savarna colour by enlisting the support of the numerically significant Ezhava outfit Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the group and its president Vellapally Nateshan have diluted their position since. The other prominent caste outfit, the Nair Service Society, is spearheading the agitation with its state-wide strong network of karayogams. The public response to the CPI(M)’s effort at counter mobilisation—led by its women’s wing, the All India Democratic Women’s Association—didn’t make any impact.
While the protest marches, demonstrations and “prayer processions” have largely been peaceful, it is feared that the efforts of the Hindutva outfits to communalise the situation could inflame passions and create a law and order issue as the temple opens this week. Only a few days ago, at a public meeting organised by the BJP as part of their “long march” in Chavara, actor Kollam Thulasi made a hate speech reminiscent of the cow belt fanatics threatening to “rip apart” young women visiting the hill shrine. For a state that prides itself for its amity and liberal way of life, the remarks came as a massive shock—especially in the aftermath of the flood that united people across all divides.
The BJP is probably looking at this issue as its Ramjanmabhoomi moment in a state where it hasn’t made much headway despite having organisational muscle and cadre strength. Through a flurry of hate-filled messages on Whatsapp and other social media platforms, the Hindutva outfits have been trying to sow a victimhood complex among the community to polarise them on religious lines. The state government will have to calibrate its strategy to account for these factors.
It’s unclear how the verdict of a constitution bench of the Supreme Court can be pinned on the state government but the BJP is definitely trying to spin it that way. Even the Congress has adopted a similar strategy. Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala has urged the state government to use the ordinance route to—at least temporarily—prevent the implementation of the verdict. The erstwhile Pandalam royal family, closely linked to the deity as its custodian, has been demanding that the government find a way to delay the implementation of the verdict, at least till the review petition can be taken up by the Supreme Court. With the court going into recess till October 22, the Pandalam palace and the Tantri dynasty anticipate women turning up for the pujas scheduled till then.
The government has belatedly sought to defuse the situation by backing down from its initial plans to post women constabulary in the temple premises among other special arrangements for women. Although it’s technically the Devaswom board president A Padmakumar that has made these announcements, it is being interpreted as an attempt by the state government to pacify the situation.
Padmakumar has also extended an invite to the principal stakeholders—the Pandalam royals and the Tantri clan—for talks on October 16. The Pandalam palace has indicated they wouldn’t be interested in talks if it were to be limited to the nitty-gritty of the implementation of the Supreme Court order. The fresh offer for talks comes after a previous offer—by the chief minister himself—was snubbed by these stakeholders last week.
As much as the BJP might want to take ownership of the agitations, it is actually being orchestrated locally at the level of temples. Although there is no principal actor leading it, the village-level NSS karayogams are networking it. With political parties backed by other communities extending their support to the protests, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government has been further isolated. The Catholic Church-backed Kerala Congress (M) and the Muslim League have expressed solidarity with the sentiments of the devotees. “Today it has a bearing on Sabarimala, tomorrow it may have an impact on other faiths,” said PK Kunhalikkutty, the general secretary of the League.
There have been murmurs in the air of a repeat of the Vimochana Samaram (“liberation struggle”) that brought down the first elected government of Kerala in 1959. Coincidentally, it was a (democratically-elected) Communist government led by EMS Namboodiripad that was brought down then. The Nair Service Society and the Catholic Church were at the forefront of that mass agitation spanning months and they were backed by the Muslim League, the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and (albeit tacitly) the Congress.
Although it would be premature and far-fetched to compare the present-day protests to the “liberation struggle”, Pinarayi Vijayan will have to be on his guard going forward. Just as he is duty-bound to execute the law of the land as mandated by the Constitution, maintaining rule of law will be paramount as the temple opens on Wednesday afternoon. With his back against the wall, the implementation of the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala could well end up as the defining moment of Pinarayi Vijayan’s term as chief minister.