Sabarimala: Backdraft on the backwaters

The BJP-RSS has unleashed state-wide violence in Kerala, after 2 women offered prayers at Sabarimala. However, Ashlin Mathew thinks that the BJP’s attempts of polarisation of Keralites will fail

Sabarimala: Backdraft on the backwaters

Ashlin Mathew

The Kerala of last week after two women entered the Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala was not the Kerala of my childhood when we would come home for vacations. That would be the 1980’s. Nor was it the 90’s Kerala of my teens when I would go to college in Changanassery, 30 minutes from Kottayam. The Kerala of last week was one of unmitigated and planned violence. Malayalees do have a sense of violence in them, but it was never this brutal.

Two women, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanakadurga, 41, entered the temple on January 2, 2019, a day after more than 30 lakh women came together to form a 620-km-long wall to uphold gender equality and renaissance values. Just as the news of them having worshipped at the temple came out, head pujari Kandaru Rajeevaru closed the temple for purification.

This is despite the fact that the Travancore Devaswom Board manages the temple and the act went against the Supreme Court verdict. Soon after, rowdy elements, allegedly belonging to the Sangh Parivar went on a rampage on the streets. No one was ready for this, not the police and definitely not the people of the state.

The violence

Frenzied men were unleashed onto the streets. “They came and attacked everyone, including journalists. Such violence is seen only in north Kerala, especially in Kozhikode and Kannur. This time, they damaged shops, pelted stones, blocked vehicles and burnt tyres in Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta districts too. In Adoor, bombs were hurled at the homes of several local Left leaders. The house of Adoor special branch SI in Pathanamthitta was destroyed. In a counter attack, homes of several BJP leaders were vandalised,” said Biju N, an Adoor resident.

In Pathanamthitta, after the house of a BJP leader was attacked, the local leaders began protesting that it was done by CPI(M) leaders. The police found that people allegedly allied with the Parivar had vandalised the house to instigate violence in the area and blame it on the Left. N Nishant, allegedly a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, was arrested for hurling a crude bomb near the Nedumangad Police Station in Thiruvananthapuram while BJP worker P Pratheesh was held for attacking a police jeep during the protest. More than 6,000 persons have been arrested in 1,869 violence-related cases.

“This is what the Sangh Parivar has been doing. They believe that they can disrupt public life on any religious matter as if it were their sole right to do so. They have practised this format in North India where such riots are organised, and mayhem ensues. But they will find it difficult to do so in Kerala. People in the state are much more educated and will see through this plan. They have definitely been planning for a few months to whip up communal passions, but after the police clampdown in Pathanamthitta, it had died down.

Now, as soon as they heard that women entered the temple, they unleashed their well-trained rank and file. None of them are known faces. They were waiting for an opportunity to spread violence,” says Sibi Sam, former Pathanamthitta district Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha president. He had quit the BJP’s youth wing in December 2018, following BJP’s stand on minorities and the Sabarimala issue.

Even after the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50, there have been no reports of violence from around the temple. “Sabarimala has been quiet, and pilgrimage has been progressing without any hindrance. There are two reasons for this. Real Ayyappa devotees have no problem with women entering the temple and the other reason is that those people who were wreaking havoc in Sabarimala have moved to other parts of the state to bring about a riot-like situation in various parts of Kerala,” says Sam.

Attack on journalists

Violence is becoming so endemic that even journalists are not spared. Protesting the violence allegedly perpetrated by the Sangh Parivar elements on journalists doing their jobs, journalists announced a boycott of the press conferences which were called by BJP leaders in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists refused to let BJP leader KP Sasikala to conduct one at the Kottayam Press Club. The largest trade and business organisation in the state, Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi (KVVES), has announced that they would not support or cooperate with hartal organisers.

A minority instigating violence

But, has the majority of people in Kerala turned violent? No, not at all. Malayalees have not lost their mind yet.

“Unlike what the media portrays, it’s only a minority group which is against the entry of women in Sabarimala. But these people are the loudest, so there is a perception that they have huge support. If they had a greater number of people supporting them, then why would more than 30 lakh women come forward to be a part of the women’s wall initiative,” explains Sam. But media is full of only one-sided stories – those of violent resistance to menstruating women entering the holy shrine.

“Only one kind of opinion was being projected in the state’s public sphere. Varied opinions exist on the Supreme Court verdict allowing the entry of menstruating women into Sabarimala temple. Instead of allowing for a debate on the issue, a violent atmosphere is being built by the Sangh Parivar members,” points out Meera Velayudhan, who is a senior policy analyst with the Centre for Development Studies and has been involved with gender studies since the 1980s.

Counterstrike: The women’s wall

Not only is the majority keeping away from violence. But there is strong resistance to the wanton violence unleashed by the right-wing forces. It is obviously leading to a divide within the society. The divide is at all levels – social, religious, caste lines, etc.

“I have been a vocal critic of the Left government. But, their decision to organise a Navodhana wall of resistance by including a number of Hindu organisations was a stand to highlight the renaissance roots of the state. This was a contemporary articulation of our history,” says Sunny Kapikkad, social activist and writer on issues of Dalit and Adivasi rights.

So, more and more people have started taking sides, leading to polarisation within the Malayalee society. Soon after the entry of women, a hartal was called on January 3, 2019, by Sabarimala Karma Samithi, an umbrella organisation consisting of pro-Hindutva outfits. The shutdown was supported by BJP. Hartals are not new to Malayalees. In fact, everyone has learnt to live with it and around it. But, when the pro-Hindutva forces went on a rampage, a sense of disbelief took hold because violent strikes are changing the very nature of hartals in Kerala which is a dangerous sign for the state.

But the Sangh Parivar’s move is designed to polarise the Malayalee society like never before. The Sabarimala issue is being exploited by the saffron forces to divide the society even on caste and gender lines. But a lot of young women are standing up on this issue.

Caste and gender factors

Kerala has not witnessed street violence on this scale for a long, long time now. It is Kerala’s landed Savarna gentry who have been at the forefront of this violence this time. “Even in the 1970-80s, the opposition and protests against land reforms came from the landed sections. It is precisely the same section which is against such reforms. In 1924, during the temple entry movement, there were violent protests from the Savarna Hindu orthodoxy and an even more determined Travancore royalty to prevent any disturbance of ‘customs and practices’ that temple entry would cause,” elaborates Velayudhan. The same sections of the society led by the RSS-BJP are once again raising the tradition bogey. The attempt is to bring about Hindu consolidation for electoral gains.

The real opposition to this kind of an attempt at Hindu consolidation can only come from the Dalit movement. The Left is not party to the case in the Supreme Court nor had LDF, and the CM has spoken quite clearly on this. “It is for us to bring out the underpinnings of the Savarna caste members and their attempts to regain their past power and glory,” says Velayudhan of Centre for Development Studies. She feels that conservatives will not succeed in their game plan. “What will the head priest do now that at least 10 women have entered the temple,” she asks.

But the Sangh Parivar’s move is designed to polarise the Malayalee society like never before. The Sabarimala issue is being exploited by the saffron forces to divide the society even on caste and gender lines. But a lot of young women are standing up on this issue.

“The central aspect of Hinduism is its plurality, but that is being forgotten. Women as an important social force are being undermined. There has to be a counter mobilisation to the right-wing attempts to polarise the state. We cannot sit on our haunches any longer. We took many things for granted after Independence. It is time to stand up for our rights now,” says Vasanthi Raman, visiting faculty at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. She represents the sentiments of lots of Malayalee women who have decided to stand up against the Sangh’s divisive agenda.

There are attempts to mobilise Dalits on this issue too which is leading to caste divide in Kerala as well. One can see, caste is at the centre of this opposition to the Supreme Court judgment—purity, impurity and gender and exclusion on that basis. These are central to the caste system. Unlike the much evident caste system in the north of the country, in Kerala the caste narrative was always an undercurrent - never quite visible, but yet there. Surnames would give no clue to one’s identity. But, ever since the verdict, caste slurs and judgement based on castes have come to the fore. A cartoon was published by a right-wing paper mocking CM Pinarayi Vijayan on the basis of his caste. Deriding anyone, let alone the Chief Minister of the state on the basis of his caste, was a new low in Kerala. Now, political speeches in several nooks and crannies of the state either expound caste as a form of tradition or lambast it and point towards the progressive steps taken by Ayyankali and Sreenarayana Guru. Earlier, there would have been very few takers for such points of view.

“This is the template that the Sangh Parivar follows. They instigate violence in the hope of taking control of the narrative. They have been unable to do that in Kerala and that has frustrated them,” adds Raman.

Kerala has been pushed to a state of division and churning that it has not witnessed in recent times. The Sangh Parivar is making organised efforts to make inroads into Kerala’s electoral politics. It is using the ‘tradition’ plank against the Supreme Court order that allowed women of all ages to enter the Ayyappa Temple. It is not bothered about the social divide it has unleashed in Kerala on religious and caste lines. But Kerala is resisting it and the Sangh’s game plan is unlikely to succeed.

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