It took more than three months after the Supreme Court declared the bar on women in the 10-50 age group at the Sabarimala temple as unconstitutional for two young women to finally get into the shrine, during the night of the New Year, with their faces covered and with the support of specially tasked policemen in plain clothes.
The two women, Bindu Ammini (42) and Kanakadurga (44), made history, taking the usually alert and volatile right-wing protesters, and the whole of Kerala, by surprise. Only hours earlier, the State had witnessed its second massive gathering of women, this time brought together by the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in association with 172 social and caste organisations and with the active support of the State government.
The 620-kilometre-long, fairly unbroken wall of women, who came together under the banner of the Navodhanamoolya Samrakshana Samithi, saw representatives from all walks of life joining hands from one end of Kerala to the other and taking a pledge to fight for “gender equality, secularism and the protection of values of Kerala’s early renaissance movements”.
Within a few hours after the conclusion of this event, the two women, seemingly as part of a well-charted plan, entered the temple and walked out unchallenged a few minutes later, smiling, their faces uncovered and displaying the victory sign.
The temple entry of the two women came amid a violent agitation by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and affiliated groups on the one hand and protests by the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress on the other against what they described as “the way the State government set about hurriedly to implement the Supreme Court verdict”.
A few hours after the women visited the temple, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the news to the media. “Women had tried to go to Sabarimala even earlier. But since there were hurdles there, they could not enter the temple. Today if they have entered the temple, it means they have not faced any hurdles. But it is a fact that they have entered the temple. I had said earlier that the police would give protection to those who wanted to enter the temple. That has also happened,” he said.
Once it was officially confirmed, the tantri (Vedic chief priest) of the temple, Kandararu Rajeevaru, in a controversial action, immediately closed the sanctum sanctorum for an hour-long “purification ritual”, traditionally performed in temples in the State after any event of “defilement” believed to affect the sanctity of the idol. (His right to do so has been questioned and the tantri is under threat of legal action for going against the court verdict.)
Right-wing protesters greeted the news with disbelief, dismay and anger, and a tense situation soon prevailed throughout the State. A dawn–to-dusk hartal on January 3, called by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi (SKS), an umbrella organisation of several outfits on a “Save Sabarimala” quest, with the support of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), turned out to be violent and destructive.
Agitators threw countrymade bombs and stones, blocked roads and highways, attacked State transport buses, private vehicles, and shops and other establishments. Mediapersons came under targeted attack. Rioters ran amok on the streets of Kerala, attacking the police, ruling party cadres, vehicles, and shops that dared to remain open, shouting abuses against the Chief Minister and attacking ordinary people as well as the motorcades of Ministers.
Sporadic clashes erupted between the cadres of the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at several places and many, including policemen, were injured. Marches carried out by the SKS became violent in almost all districts: party offices, flags and memorials of the CPI(M) and the CPI and other ruling front partners were special targets.
In the State capital, especially, pitched battles erupted between the cadres of the BJP and the CPI(M) after stones were thrown at an SKS demonstration at Pandalam allegedly from a CPI(M) party office, and a protester died in hospital.
At some places the violence took on a communal colour as BJP workers tried to close down shops run by members of the minority community. By January 7, the police had registered as many as 2,187 cases and arrested 6,914 people in connection with the hartal, the worst in recent times.
The UDF also observed January 3 as a “Black Day” against “the State government allowing the entry of the women into the temple”.
Since then, and until January 11 when this report was filed, there has been no official confirmation of any other woman having entered the temple. But according to unconfirmed reports, some with video footage, several other women, numbering between 10 and 20, had already visited the shrine, with just a few days remaining for the Makara Vilakku festival on January 14, which marks the end of the pilgrimage season.
However, neither the Chief Minister nor Ministers, the Travancore Devaswom Board authorities or the police confirmed or denied these reports. Despite videos showing some claimants, such as an unnamed Sri Lankan woman and a local Dalit leader named S.P. Manju (with her hair dyed white and face partly covered), having a relaxed darshan , the temple remained open and there was no further talk of a purification ritual.
For Bindu Ammini, a college lecturer known earlier as a CPI(ML) activist from Kozhikode, and Kanakadurga, a government employee from Malappuram, only their second attempt to enter the temple proved successful.
Nearly two months after the court verdict, in their first attempt on December 24, the women were forced to return like several others before them, in view of the violent protests on the road to the shrine and elsewhere.
The next day, which marked the end of the “Mandalam” period, a massive line-up of women and men lighting lamps (“Ayyappa Jyothi”) from Kasaragod to Kanyakumari was held under the SKS banner, with the support of the RSS and the BJP, demanding that the beliefs and customs of the Sabarimala temple be protected.
This demonstration, too, surprised Kerala, especially since it included the participation of women belonging to the middle class and dominant castes who normally do not get involved in such protests, and for the numbers the campaign was able to mobilise (though much fewer than those who joined the LDF government’s women’s wall on January 1).
Immediately following the verdict too, several towns and cities in Kerala saw mass demonstrations (“namajapa yatras”) by female devotees singing Ayyappa bhajans and holding up slogans that read “Ready to Wait” (until menopause to visit the Sabarimala temple).
A number of such “namajapa yatras” were organised by the Sabarimala Protection Council led by the Pandalam Palace Committee with the support of dominant caste organisations such as the Nair Service Society (NSS), which was the first to come out against the entry of women of menstruating age at the temple and the court verdict, before the BJP and allied groups and the UDF declared their support to it.
The women’s wall, a carefully planned, massive demonstration of women, including leaders of several backward caste and Dalit groups in its organising committee, was organised by the LDF to project the counter view, of people who believed in progressive, secular and gender-just values and in the values bequeathed by Kerala’s renaissance movements.
The Chief Minister said the idea of such a wall of women was proposed by leaders of some Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) organisations at a meeting convened by him to discuss ways to promote the Kerala renaissance values in the context of the protests against the Sabarimala verdict.
Organisations such as the NSS, which were among the prominent litigants in the apex court demanding the continuation of the bar on women of menstruating age at the Sabarimala temple, did not participate in that meeting. Many groups that mobilised support for the women’s wall had their roots in the renaissance movements of the early 20th century, with a history of triumphant struggles against extreme caste and patriarchal oppression.
The women’s wall was therefore posed as a categorical statement against the three-month-long protests spearheaded by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations opposing the State government’s attempts to implement the apex court’s verdict. It was also an unstated counter to the BJP’s strategy of making political inroads into Kerala using the Sabarimala issue.
Most political parties and communal and caste groups in Kerala were caught unawares by the Supreme Court judgment on Sabarimala on September 28. As reported earlier by Frontline , the initial statements of national and State leaders of both the BJP and the RSS as well the Congress were often contradictory or in conflict with some of their own subsequent responses.
Both sides initially failed to fully grasp the significance of the verdict for their own political interests, especially because the judgment turned out to be in conformity with the stand of the ruling CPI(M) and the LDF on the issue. They were also taken aback by the immediate reaction of traditional Ayyappa devotees (many of them women from traditional, savarna, middle-class families), who took to the streets seemingly spontaneously, demanding the continuation of the ban and terming the verdict “an encroachment” upon their “right to believe”.
Both the BJP/RSS and the UDF were then caught between two difficult choices: either take a stand upholding the supremacy of the Constitution and the law of the land as ordained by the court or bow to the popular reaction against the verdict among the tradition-bound, conservative sections of society and join their struggle. It was this section of believers that the Congress and its allies often looked up to for electoral support and the BJP had always hoped to bank on in order to gain a toehold in Kerala, which ironically, has the most number of RSS shakhas (units).
The events following the opening of the Sabarimala temple on October 17, including violent protests after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on women of menstruating age (“Battleground Sabarimala”, Frontline , November 9, 2018) clearly showed what the two sides chose eventually and who among them stood to gain the most out of it.
It was almost with suppressed glee that the BJP’s State president, K. Sreedharan Pillai, said at a Yuva Morcha meeting at Kozhikode that the Sabarimala issue offered a “golden opportunity” for the BJP in Kerala and that it was (still) “a puzzle, and they have to think now, on how to solve it”; that the protests at Sabarimala were organised by his party; that Kandararu Rajeevaru had sought his legal advice (which was later denied by the tantri) before announcing in public his decision to close down the temple for purification rituals if any woman of menstruating age entered the temple.
Significantly, Sreedharan Pillai had also said: “We put forth an agenda, and as the players surrender before it one by one and leave the scene, those who remain eventually are us and our opponents—today’s ruling administration and the parties that form part of it.”
Obviously, Sreedharan Pillai also hoped that this strategy would marginalise the Congress party in Kerala, which had until now been the prime beneficiary of conservative, middle-class and savarna votes.
It was Pinarayi Vijayan who first caught the drift of the changing politics in Kerala after the Sabarimala verdict, when, as early as October 16, in a remarkable hour-long speech at a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, parts of which read like a lesson on Kerala’s renaissance values, he warned of the dangers of “everyone in the Congress party in Kerala speaking in the same voice as those in the RSS and the BJP” (on the Sabarimala issue).
In a series of well-attended public meetings that followed, he warned of the conscious attempts to weaken Kerala’s secular mind and how the Congress was becoming the “B team” of the BJP-RSS in the State, with a large section of the party’s leaders supporting the views of the Hindu right wing.
In a sense, the women’s wall also marked the launch of a shrewd political game that has seemingly brought a lot of small social and community organisations from the backward classes in Kerala under the LDF umbrella, at a time when the BJP is hoping for a consolidation of Hindu support in its favour, with the Lok Sabha election just a few months away.
Kerala’s politics has so far revolved around the CPI(M) and the Congress and their coalitions of smaller parties with their own pockets of influence in the State. As a result of this coalition system and the dynamics of its support structures, the BJP has always remained a fringe player, occasionally posting marginal gains utilising specific local issues to its advantage. It was in the last Assembly elections that the party won a seat for the first time.
Just when the BJP is eyeing a “golden opportunity” in the Sabarimala issue to try and further its prospects in the State, the counter strategy of making the Congress vie with the BJP for the hearts of Hindu conservative voters and creating a division between forward and backward class organisations has served the CPI(M) well so far.
Vellappally Natesan, president of the SNDP Yogam, the social arm of Ezhavas, a prominent backward class community, and Punnala Sreekumar, general secretary of the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, one of the State’s largest Dalit organisations, were given prominent roles in the committee that spearheaded the women’s wall (chairman and general convener, respectively). Vellappally Natesan had drifted closer to the BJP in the last Asssembly elections, with a new party led by his son Tushar Vellappally becoming part of the NDA, while Sreekumar had been drifting closer to the UDF.
The women’s wall was even presented as an idea mooted by these leaders, as an event focussing on the rights of women in the context of the Sabarimala standoff and against attempts to discriminate against women. The pledge taken by the women who participated in the wall was a declaration that they stood by the values that led Kerala’s renaissance movements, secularism and gender equality and against any form of patriarchal or gender domination.
Significantly, there was no specific mention of the issue of the entry of women of menstruating age at Sabarimala during the formation of the wall, even though leaders such as Vellappally Natesan had viciously attacked the conservative forces led by the NSS that had joined hands with the BJP to protect the customs and traditions at Sabarimala.
Thus, at one level, the women’s wall became a symbolic attempt to reclaim the progressive legacy of the renaissance movements, especially in the context of the protests against the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict. But at a more mundane level, it revealed itself as a smart political strategy, an effective checkmate against the BJP and the Congress, both of which have been aiming at a consolidation of the majority Hindu community support in their favour on the Sabarimala issue.
It also helped the ruling CPI(M) demonstrate that the Hindu community in Kerala had not on the whole turned against the State government in the emotive issue of religious belief and that the leaders of several Hindu backward class and Dalit organisations were on its side.
Shrewd political tactics by the CPI(M) have tried to nip in the bud what would have been a consolidation of Hindus against the LDF government on the Sabarimala issue. They effectively made the Congress vie with the BJP for a share of what had so far remained the former’s own conservative political base. The uncompromising, harsh police response against those who led the violent protests at Sabarimala and elsewhere has also earned the government the respect of those opposed to the BJP in the State.
The LDF has been able to portray the issue as a struggle between progressive forces that want to uphold the values of Kerala’s renaissance movements and support social reform and gender equity, and the tradition-bound sections of Kerala society that want to sustain the forces of patriarchy and gender inequality and are willing to go even against the Constitution and the law of the land towards that end.
With the success of the women’s wall and the government regaining control of the law and order situation at Sabarimala, the LDF government is in an advantageous position vis-a-vis its political opponents.
However, the Sabarimala issue could still become the focus of a larger threat to the LDF, especially from disparate forces that believe that the State government failed in its obligation to protect the rights of believers by letting women enter the temple without waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on the lot of review petitions now before it. (The court is set to review nearly 50 such petitions on January 22.)
At the time of writing this report, the BJP and its affiliates were planning to intensify the agitation against the government. An array of national BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were scheduled to visit the State. The UDF has demanded a State Assembly resolution asking the Centre to pass a law to reverse the lifting of the ban on women of menstruating age at the temple.
Vellappally Natesan did not disguise his disappointment at the government enabling women to enter Sabarimala just hours after the completion of the women’s wall. His wife, Preethi Natesan, who was a prominent participant in the wall, said the “stage-managed entry of women at Sabarimala” was an “act of betrayal in the name of Kerala renaissance”.
Leaders such as Vellappally Natesan have time and again demonstrated that given the right incentive, they can easily switch loyalties and find comfort in any rival political grouping if it serves their purpose. The platform for the protection of renaissance values may not be as impregnable as it may have seemed initially.