Pilgrimage politics

Protests, activism and political sparring mark the start of the Sabarimala season, amid unprecedented police curbs.

Published : Nov 21, 2018 12:30 IST

Police   on security duty at the temple on November 16.

Police on security duty at the temple on November 16.

BARELY a few minutes after the Sabarimala temple opened at 5 p.m. on November 16 for the two-month-long annual pilgrimage season, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) announced that it had decided to approach the Supreme Court with a petition seeking more time to implement the court order allowing women in the 10-50 age group to enter and pray at the temple.

Devaswom Board president A. Padmakumar said that the TDB would approach the court with this request because it needed time to ensure that proper facilities were built at the base camps and in the immediate vicinity of the hilltop temple, given the destruction caused by the recent floods. The board will also bring to the attention of the court the law and order situation at Sabarimala and elsewhere in the State following the apex court’s order of September 28 allowing young women into the temple.

A day earlier, an all-party meeting convened by the Kerala government ended in a walkout by the Congress-led opposition parties as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan saying that the government had no other option but to obey the Supreme Court’s direction to allow all women into the temple. The United Democratic Front (UDF) and the BJP had insisted that the government should seek more time to implement the court order, at least until January 22, when the court would hear the 49 review petitions filed against its September 28 order.

Meanwhile, a group of seven Bhumata Brigade activists led by the Pune-based Trupti Desai, who arrived at Kochi demanding that the government ensure safe passage for them to pray at the temple, remained stuck at the Cochin International Airport for hours, with a large number of believers, including women supported by the BJP and other Hindutva organisations, laying siege to all exits from the airport.

Trupti Desai, president of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, has been in the forefront of a growing campaign in India for gender equality in religion ever since she led an agitation to enter the core shrine area of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra in 2015, which had not allowed women to enter its sanctum for over 400 years (“Winds of change”, Frontline , May 13, 2016).

The Trupti Desai-led group arrived at the airport around 4:45 a.m. Protesters had gathered there from midnight onwards demanding that the activists go back. As the protesters grew in numbers and as their chants grew louder, taxi drivers refused to take the group to the temple. Even online taxi services and hotels refused to oblige the women.

For nearly 13 hours, Trupti Desai insisted that she would not go back even after the police informed her of the law and order problems that would arise if she attempted to venture out. Finally, with the airport authorities also insisting that the siege of the airport had to end and with the protesters growing increasingly impatient, the police succeeded in persuading her to leave. But she told the media that she would return another day.

The government was lukewarm to her request from the very beginning, with the Chief Minister saying the day before: “Who is she? The media should inquire if she ever had been a candidate in any election.”

As the protests mounted at the airport, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said: “She was a Congress party candidate in the Pune Municipal elections once, and later we also came to know that she had joined the BJP. As such, either the opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala or the BJP State president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, could merely ask her to go back and she would do so. Instead, by organising a crude protest at the airport, they are obstructing the people’s right to free movement itself.”

Padmakumar, too, said that Trupti Desai was an activist and that the government’s policy regarding activists wanting to visit Sabarimala was well known. “The government should take steps to send her back,” he said.

With the police imposing unprecedented restrictions at the base camps and in the temple precincts, the pilgrimage season promises to be an arduous and tense one for devotees. Earlier, when the temple opened for shorter terms on special days in mid October and early November, unprecedented and violent protests had prevented the first few young women who had sought to visit on the basis of the Supreme Court order allowing all women to enter the temple (“Battleground Sabarimala”, Frontline , November 9). Since then, nearly 800 women have reportedly registered for darshan at Sabarimala in the online queue system managed by the State police.

On November 13, the apex court said that it would hear all the 49 review petitions filed against its September 28 order and all pending applications “in open court” and “before the appropriate bench”. But the hearing was posted for January 22, almost a week after the end of the pilgrimage season. The court also said that it “wanted to make it clear” that there was no stay of the judgment and earlier order allowing all women to pray at the temple.

Addressing a press conference after the all-party meeting on November 15, Pinarayi Vijayan said: “We intend to give protection to believers. The State government is with the believers. There is no cause for concern in this respect. The government’s aim is to see Sabarimala rise to more and more glory. We are making all arrangements for this. However, on the issue of entry of young women, the government has no other option. The Supreme Court did not merely say it will hear all the review petitions on January 22. It also made it clear that there is no stay on its order of September 28. The court has said that order still stands. It means that women of 10-50 years of age have the right to worship at Sabarimala. So, the government has no other option. We cannot but obey the order.”

Pinarayi Vijayan also said that although the government gave priority to protecting the right of believers to believe, at the same time, as the Supreme Court had said, it had to ensure that “fundamental rights were above ordinary belief”.

“A government cannot take the position that belief is above everything else. Fundamental rights are most important. The Supreme Court has made it very clear. We have to obey the Supreme Court. All believers must understand this. Secular society must understand it. Unfortunately, the opposition UDF and the BJP have made it clear that they cannot agree with this stand. The government only hopes they will see good sense. But the government is not going to seek more time for the implementation of the court order. The government is not for watering down the Supreme Court order in any way,” he said.

At the all-party meeting, the UDF and the BJP took the position that the government must seek time for the implementation of the court order, at least until January 22. Since the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the review petitions in open court, the government must utilise the opportunity to intervene to ensure a peaceful pilgrimage season, they said.

Ramesh Chennithala said: “The government should not cling to its stubborn stand by quoting the technicality that the Supreme Court has not allowed a stay. The government has to protect the larger interests of the State.”

The meeting of the Chief Minister with representatives of the Pandalam palace and the family of the Sabarimala tantri (chief priest) that followed did not yield any solution. They also said that the government should seek the court’s permission to delay implementing its order until January 22.

Meanwhile, prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure were issued at Sabarimala and the base camps at Pamba, Nilakkal and Elavumkal. Prayer sessions, protest marches and other “unlawful” gatherings such as those staged in these places earlier by devotees and Hindutva organisations were also banned. Severe restrictions are in place for the movement of devotees and the police authorities are encouraging devotees to visit with online passes or face delays while the police conduct inquiries about them. The shops at Sannidhanam (immediate precincts of the temple) were to be closed after the temple closed for the day, a restriction that led to protests from the business community and that was immediately withdrawn after the Devaswom Board too registered its protest.

The police also said that devotees would not be allowed to stay on at Sannidhanam after darshan at night, another restraint that is sure to generate protests as it will affect the early morning rituals such as “ghee abhishekam” that devotees traditionally take part in. The police authorities said over 15,000 police personnel would be deployed during the season.

The police also want private vehicles to secure police permits and disclose details of the number of passengers and their age at designated places. Private vehicles will not be allowed to ply beyond the Nilakkal base camp, and devotees will have to either walk or take the State transport buses to Pamba, the earlier base camp completely destroyed in the recent floods and from where the traditional four-kilometre walk to Sabarimala begins.

There is concern at the lack of sufficient basic amenities at the new base camp at Nilakkal and at Pamba and Sannidhanam. Oppostion leaders alleged that the government had “miserably failed” to ensure even basic infrastructural facilities at Nilakkal and Pamba, including the repair works to the roads leading to the shrine.

Since the Supreme Court’s verdict allowing all women entry into the temple, the cries of “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” and other familiar chants associated with the pilgrimage have been used as rallying slogans by the BJP and Hindutva organisations in Kerala (“Faith and politics”, Frontline , November 9).

In well-attended public meetings in several districts, Pinarayi Vijayan pointedly referred to the change in the political situation in the State.

For instance, addressing a public meeting at the end of the 14th State conference of the Democratic Youth Federation of India in Kozhikode on November 14, he said that the Congress party had become the “B” team of the BJP-RSS combine in Kerala and that a large section of the party’s leaders supported the views of the Hindu right wing. Stating that the party had failed to learn from its past mistakes in dealing with communal forces, he said: “The State leadership of the Congress has taken an official line that party activists and leaders can cooperate with the Sabarimala agitation spearheaded by the Sangh Parivar without using the party flag. They have the guts to term their national president Rahul Gandhi’s views welcoming the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala as his personal opinion,” the Chief Minister said.

Significantly, a week earlier, while addressing a Yuva Morcha meeting at Kozhikode, BJP State president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai had said that the agitation at Sabarimala from October 11 to 17 was organised by the BJP and that the Sabarimala tantri , Kandararu Rajeevaru, had sought his advice before announcing in public his decision to close down the temple for purification rituals if any woman in the 10-50 age group entered the temple.

Sreedharan Pillai had further said that the Sabarimala issue offered the BJP a “golden opportunity” in Kerala, “...a puzzle, and they have to think now, on how to solve it”. He 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.”

As the tantri denied that he had held discussions with anyone, and as the BJP president tied himself in knots by trying to deny and justify what he said in his speech, one thing was clear: Sreedharan Pillai was certainly referring to the change that the BJP hopes to bring about in Kerala politics, making space for itself by pushing out the Congress through a polarising agenda (“Faith and politics”, Frontline , November 9).

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