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Sabarimala

Faith and politics

Print edition : Nov 09, 2018 T+T-
Chief Minister  Pinarayi Vijayan.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

T he battle for the hearts of Ayyappa devotees aggrieved by the Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women of all ages at the Sabarimala temple is also a battle for political space in Kerala for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

For a party ruling India but still struggling to gain a foothold in the State, the prospect of mobilising Hindu believers around the Sabarimala verdict must seem like a godsend, with the Lok Sabha elections round the corner.

“The nature and premise of the tradition that has been accepted by society and continuously followed for years together was not taken into consideration [by the court]. The version of heads of religious denominations and faith of millions of devotees was not taken into account. The plea by a large section of women, who follow this tradition, was not heard,” the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, said in his Vijayadashami address at the organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur, on October 19, the day Sabarimala was witnessing a volatile crisis, with two women at the very doors of the temple, demanding entry.

Initially, neither the RSS-BJP combine nor the Congress, the main opposition party in the State, grasped fully the significance of the verdict to their own political interests, especially vis-a-vis the stand of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) on it.

The LDF’s position had two significant elements: one, that it believed all people, irrespective of age or sex, had equal rights to worship and entry into the Sabarimala temple; two, that since it was also a matter of belief for thousands of devotees, and despite its own stated position, its government would only go by what the courts eventually decided on the issue. It was a tricky political position but a firm one upholding the supremacy of the Constitution and the law of the land.

In contrast, the statements of leaders of the BJP, the RSS and the Congress showed that the stands of these organisations were confusing and often contradictory.

The national leadership of the Congress had declared it as a “historic judgment”. Many of its State leaders, including former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, had welcomed it initially.

There were also several statements by top leaders of the RSS and its affiliated organisations in favour of the judgment. The BJP leadership, too, had not immediately condemned the verdict.

But soon it was clear that there was an upswell of opinion among Hindu devotees in Kerala, a large number of them women, against the lifting of the customary prohibition of women at the Sabarimala temple. And both groups drifted away from their initial positions.

The huge turnout at the ‘namajapa yatras”, with unusually large numbers of women participating, and the seemingly apolitical rallies of Hindu devotees in several towns of Kerala, mostly supported by Hindu caste organisations, the Pandalam Palace and a variety of pro-Hindutva organisations, demanding that women in the 10 to 50 age group should not be permitted to enter the temple, had cues that both the ruling LDF and the opposition parties in Kerala could not ignore.

A mobilisation on an issue of a core religious belief was an opportunity that the RSS and the BJP had been hoping for long in the State. The volatile events that Sabarimala witnessed on the first three days of the opening of the temple in October now provide the BJP exactly such an opportunity.

The Congress, too, seems to have shifted from the earlier position of its leaders welcoming the verdict. It was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who first drew the attention of the State to it.

Addressing a massive rally in Thiruvananthapuram on October 16, he said it was important for people to take note of the attitude of the Congress to the struggle, supported by the BJP-RSS at Sabarimala.

“Surely, the Congress should not have the mind of the RSS. But did anyone in the Congress speak in a different voice on this issue. Everybody [in the Congress] was against the entry of women; everyone was with the RSS agitation. Why did this happen? It only shows how an RSS mind has formed so firmly within the Congress…. But they should know that if Congressmen join the agitation led by the BJP, tomorrow they will all become the BJP’s supporters.”

In an hour-long speech explaining the LDF’s stand on the Sabarimala issue, he also referred to another risk inherent in the political situation evolving in Kerala in this context. Referring to the “well-known attitude of the RSS to the Constitution”, he said now Congressmen too were raising the argument that “more than anything else, it is [religious] ‘belief’’ that is important”.

“Not constitutional principles; not the laws; but, they say, ‘belief’ is the most important. Have those who support this argument understood the danger lurking behind it? Reports show that the Muslim League and its leaders also agree with this argument. But extend such an argument a bit more, to the issue of the Babri Masjid. Where will it take you? If belief is the most important thing, then shouldn’t you all be with the belief that it [Babri Masjid] was originally a Ram temple? The RSS has that stand; the BJP too; and we all know the Congress had that stand. Has anybody really understood the danger behind this argument? It is not just a Babri Masjid that the Sangh Parivaar has raised its claim on. It has raised its claim over several other places of worship in India as well. If everything is based on ‘belief’, we must think what the future holds for us. You can all take your time to reflect on it.”

Pinarayi Vijayan also drew attention to what he described as “the real aim of the BJP and the RSS and its involvement at Sabarimala”: “It is not to deride the government or the LDF. The real target is to destroy Kerala’s secular mind. We must not allow that to happen. Kerala had always opposed such moves very strongly. I appeal to all, including believers, to come forward to oppose the attempts to destroy the secular mind of Kerala,” he said.