Sabarimala: BJP-RSS which welcomed women entry, now instigating violence in Kerala

The Sabarimala temple entry case will be a reference to the future generations which would expose the modus operandi of the BJP traditionalising lack of integrity as the most effective political tool

PTI photo
PTI photo
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K R Meera

In 1924, while The Vaikom Satyagraha, one of the most important anti-caste struggles had been happening in Kerala, Vatakkecharuvil P K Kalyani in 'An Appeal to the Hindu Women of Kerala'* wrote thus : ".. We need fifteen people to conduct the Satyagraha each time at the four gates of the temple. This must include both avarnas and savarnas. No savarna woman has yet come forward to participate in the Satyagraha. Probably no one realizes how ignominious this is. Now we are observing the Satyagraha only at the western and the northern gates. If we were able to get another ten people, we can save our face by organizing a Satyagraha exclusively of women at all four sides. The higher the social status of the participants ready for self-sacrifice, the more effective our action be. Therefore a sizeable number of persons of high social standing earned through education or otherwise, must urgently come forward into the struggle... "

In 2018, one of the facebook posts by a Ready To Wait ( to enter the temple) campaigner exhorted her sisters thus : "There are many who ridicule, attack and abuse us. But don't waste time replying to them. Don't feel demoralised over their words too. We should not inch back. What we do is for the future, for the history. This protest will be marked in the history in golden letters! "

There is a great difference between these two women, which defines not only the politics of the temple entry then and now, but also the status of women in India and Kerala, then and now - the first one was an avarna and the second one is a savarna. The first one stood for human dignity and the second one for dignity of a deity. The first one for progressive values and the second one for the customs and traditions. There is nothing more exemplifying how the women of high social status have been responsible for the state we are in. How they have shouted 'ready to wait' and derailed the progress of women over the centuries.

Isn't it incredibly funny to leap forward shouting 'ready to be stagnant' all the while? On one side, there is a Supreme Court verdict permitting women of all ages to enter the temple of Sabarimala, which is as historic as the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1934 whereby the avarnas were granted entry into temples of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. The entry to Sabarimala has been hailed as one of the landmark judgements in the recent years upholding the Constitutional rights of equal justice after decriminalising same sex relationships and quashing of Article 497. This is a moment when you feel proud as a people, of having accomplished a giant stride on the long winding road to the future, gaining great momentum in the journey towards an egalitarian world.

But what if there is an unexpected road block? That too, caused by thousands of women squatting on the roads demanding the right to wait, the right to proclaim to the world that they are impure ? To cut it short, they are fighting for their right to continued inequality, resonating the streets with 'saranam' chants. There are women belonging to all age groups, mostly from the middle class, who would have never left their comfort zones otherwise, to take part in a strike or protest or even in a procession religious or political. Most devastating is that even avarna women are part of it, although the savarnas call the shot. There is a sudden increase in the participation of women in the prime time discussions and talk shows which means an increased visibility of women in the public space.

But unfortunately, they are vehemently and aggressively demanding the restoration of prohibition of fertile women to the temple, which in other words is declaring that a woman is a second rate citizen. It is, as if a time machine carrying educated and visibly empowered women suddenly crash landed in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. So we are bound to watch a television anchor describing how the menstruating women would destroy the celibacy of the deity. Or an IT engineer pointing out the rights of the deity to continue His celibacy. Or a retired government employee describing passionately and poignantly how someone found a cloth with menstrual blood near the temple after a fire destroyed it in 1951. Or a teacher hysteric over watching an eagle ( although the deity who is seen on a tiger has no connection to an eagle ) over in the sky while they were staging a dharna, interprets it as a sign of the blessing of the God. They are all committed to a great cause for the entire mankind, the entire human civilization - the prohibition of fertile women in the temple. And what is the dharma which this deity preaches to the mankind? Tatwam Asi, the highest ideal of Advaitha, the principle of non-dualism.

Just imagine, the women in a state which boasts of the highest literacy, the highest women literacy, the highest percentage of women with higher education, the lowest mortality rate and the highest female to male ratio protesting over days to assert the supremacy of religion over the country's Constitution. Understandably, the quality of education in our country is extremely pathetic and it doesn't encourage students to think critically. May be it kills even the slightest common sense too. Any how, in the same decade which has witnessed the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective in the brutally patriarchal Malayalam cinema industry as well as the nuns' protest supporting the rape survivor which culminated in the arrest of a Catholic Bishop first time in the history, we are witnessing one of the most absurd reverse movements with an unbelievable women participation in the recent history of Kerala - to protect the right to celibacy of the deity in a temple ! So as the wheel turns a full circle, our history repeats itself as a tragic farce.

Many people ranging from the NCW chairperson to Shri Shri Ravishankar wonder why the women of Kerala are protesting against a judgement favouring them. It would be difficult to understand it unless you live in this society. The women who have come out to protest belong to the middle class and the 'Malayalee House' is essentially built on the ideals of the middle class. The Malayalee Middle class is the greatest threat to an egalitarian society because it is not a class, but a philosophy of life with patriarchy and mediocrity as its fundamental principles. Insecurity, either financial or social, is their characteristic phobia.

Since patriarchy cannot thrive without a power structure, it nurtures caste and class discretely before and proudly now. Desire for power naturally destroys the room for critical thinking and advocates mediocrity and and consumerism as a social necessity. It rejoices in an imagined past and set it as the ultimate goal. The women who are bred in a Malayalee middle class are trained to live a make believe life thus transforming themselves into celebrated firewood in the hearth of family, in the kitchen of patriarchy.

So there is no wonder that the women belonging to the savarna middle class crowd the streets in burning rage. After all, that is what firewood is for- to burn as much as the cook wants. It is their presence that proves that the protest is not just for the deity. Because they are like trained falcons, who would fly only when their masters order them. The greater and real cause of their protest is something more complicated- the need to continue the temple custom which in other words is the need to assert that the courts have no power over the religious institutions in this country. Here comes the most important question - who is the cook? And what exactly is being cooked?

The only ray of hope in the long dark labyrinth of irrationality and falsehood is the Left, which by God’s Grace, sticks to its position that the court verdict will be enforced, come what may

To find it out, the background of the women's entry into Sabarimala should be understood. It was in 1990 that the High Court of Kerala considered a letter sent by P P Mahendran as a Public Interest Litigation as per article 226 of the Indian Constitution. The letter urged the court to take appropriate action against those who permit the wives of VIPs inside the temple. A photo of the first meal eating ceremony of children in which young women were seen taking part was published in Janmabhumi daily, the mouthpiece of BJP in the state, made the case active in the court. A two-judge bench in 1991 decreed that the prohibition by the Travancore Devaswom Board that administers the hill shrine does not violate either the Constitution or a pertinent 1965 Kerala law as the ban was for women not as a class but only an age group accepting the temple’s chief priest's testimony that even before 1950 the ban was for women between the ages of 10 and 50.

After 15 years, in 2006, a famous astrologer announced that in the ‘Devaprasnam’ (aimed to find out the desire of the deity) it was 'seen' that a woman had entered the temple against the wish of the lord. This was followed by Kannada actress-politician Jayamala's revelation that she had entered the precincts of Sabarimala in 1987 as a 28-year-old. She claimed that she had even touched the deity inside the sanctum sanctorum as part of a film shoot and alleged that all these were with the permission of the priest.

The government of Kerala ordered a probe, but the case was later dropped and a purification ceremony was conducted in the temple. The Devaprasnam and the response of Jayamala followed by the purification ceremony were widely covered by the media and soon five women members of the Young Lawyers Association with the Supreme Court- Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, Prerna Kumari, Sudha Pal, Laxmi Shastri and Alka Sharma-filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. Bhakti and Prerna later explained that they did this because they were shocked to read about the purification ceremony conducted in the temple.

They challenged the rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu places of Public worship (Authorisation of entry) Rules 1965 that states, “women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship” arguing that it is violation of constitutional ideals of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom. In 2008 Kerala’s LDF government filed an affidavit supporting a PIL filed by women lawyers questioning the ban on women in Sabarimala.

After a long silence of eight years, in 2016 a two-judge bench of the SC questioned the practice banning entry of women in Sabarimala. By then the Congress led UDF government was in power and it changed its stand and informed the Supreme Court that it is essential to "protect the right to practice the religion of these devotees". The court observed that gender justice was threatened by ban on women and that tradition shouldn't be a bar to equal rights. Soon, Hindu Navotthana Pratishtan and Narayanashrama Tapovanam filed plea in the court supporting entry of women followed by Kerala's newly elected LDF government filing a fresh affidavit in SC favouring the entry of women of all age groups . The Supreme Court referred the case to constitution bench and the historic verdict was passed on 28 September observing that “your right to pray as a woman is not dependent on any law, it is a constitutional right”.

Now comes the twist in the story. As soon as the verdict was pronounced, all political parties including the BJP and the Congress welcomed it. Even from 2006, the RSS was campaigning for the entry of women in the temple. The Hindu Navatthana Prathishtan and Narayanashrama Tapovanam had also filed plea supporting the entry. The Congress's Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala also initially welcomed the verdict although the former Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy stated that 'although the verdict is laudable, the tradition should also be respected'. The state president of the BJP wholeheartedly welcomed the verdict.

The only opposition was from the family members of the chief priest, the 'royal family' of the erstwhile Pandalam kingdom, which had brought up Lord Ayyappan as per the myth and the women who had started the campaign 'ready to wait'. Soon there were heated debates in the television on the verdict in which the eloquent ‘ready to wait’ and ‘save the celibacy of the deity’ campaigners were crying out for justice for the deity with an independent MLA ( who has persistently taken sides with the accusers in all the major rape cases defaming the survivors ) suggesting that there should be jallikattu model protest to force the Parliament to ban the entry of women in the temple. The right wingers like the Hindu Aikyavedi also demanded the ban and a massive protest was organised accusing the Left Government of carrying out its agenda of destroying the Hindu culture by ruining the temples and converting them to tourist centres.

It is understandable that the Malayalee middle class women who are essentially right leaning easily fell for this grave threat to the great Indian civilisation. But how to explain and justify the stand of the Congress, of all the parties, which had organised and accomplished the temple entry for all the avarnas, the Congress which was shaped by the quest for truth of Gandhiji and guided by the scientific temper of Jawaharlal Nehru? More devastating is the stand of the SNDP Yogam, founded by the greatest social revolutionary Kerala has ever produced, Sree Narayana Guru. The only ray of hope in the long dark labyrinth of irrationality and falsehood is the Left, which by God's Grace, sticks to its position that the court verdict will be enforced, come what may.

But what about the BJP and RSS? The Sabarimala temple entry case will be a reference book to the future generations which would expose the modus operandi of the BJP traditionalising lack of integrity as the most effective political tool. Thus we see the state president of BJP PS Sreedharan Pillai swallowing his words shamelessly. Also the Amit Shah, the BJP President publicly exhorting the cadres to make use of the angst of the believers to the advantage of the party in the coming elections. The spoke persons of the party aggressively attack the LDF government as if it was not the apex court which pronounced the verdict, hiding the fact that three of the five lady lawyers who had filed the case seeking entry of women were either members or close relatives of the office bearers of the RSS or BJP. So what is being cooked? More than that, who is the chief cook and bottle washer?

If Vatakkecheruvil P K Kalyani were alive today, she would have been jubilant to watch so many savarna women come out in the streets proving true her words 'the higher the social status of the participants ready for self-sacrifice, the more effective our action be'. Although the cause they stand for is depressing, the fact that these women have at last have come out of their middle class cage-dom like tamed falcons exhibited by their masters, to fight for a common cause, raises optimism. Let them for once experience how it feels like liberated into a public place, even if it is a part of the taming and training, even if they have strings tied to their feet. Once they understand what liberation is, will they be still 'ready to wait' to fly, till they are ordered? Their masters be warned.

* Her-Self : Gender and Early Writings of Malayalee Women. Translated and Edited by J Devika

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