The Sabarimala issue was always shrouded in controversy and dispute, with many devotees believing that women between the age of 10 and 50 should keep out of the temple due to the celibate nature of the deity Ayyappan, while others feel it discriminates against menstruating women and such a rule should be removed.
But when last year, the Supreme Court verdict allowed the entry of all women irrespective of their age, things took a turn for the worse when the whole state of Kerala plunged into a state of chaos and violence, with clashes between rioters and police, political parties pointing fingers on one another and so on.
Although the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had a responsibility to implement the verdict and protect women entering the shrine, the provocative and rather insensitive way it handled the issue was a root cause for all the problems that ensued.
Right after the Supreme Court verdict, young women who attempted to enter were met with strict opposition from devotees, parties and those who opposed the verdict. Buses and vehicles entering Pamba were blocked by angry protesters, media personnel and the police were attacked. It became obligatory for the government to provide security to any and all women who wanted to enter.
And then for a couple of weeks, the news was filled with attempts made by several women like Rehana Fatima to enter with police protection, none of them able to enter until two women finally did on January 1 of this year.
The turbulence generated attracted the scrutiny of the opposition parties, the BJP and the Congress, who aligned themselves with the protesters. Despite the mounting pressure on the government, they were still not willing to file a review petition against the verdict.
The subsequent events including the arrest of over 3000 people could have been justified in the name of protecting law and order, but when the Chief Minister’s Office went to extent of using CCTV footage to prove that a 48-year-old Sri Lankan woman had entered even when she herself had denied so, it raises questions on what their intentions were.
A moment that indeed left the left red-faced, was when they had to change a list given to the Supreme Court, containing the number of young women who entered Sabarimala post-verdict, twice.
From 51 young women to 17 and then to finally just 2, these embarrassing corrections put light on the fact that the Government wanted to show that there weren’t any problems in the temple it couldn’t handle, which was far from the truth.
This seriously undermines the gravity of the issue. Till now only two women were able to enter the shrine and that too even in such secrecy, through a staff entrance instead of the usual route that involves climbing of the 18 steps.
The changing stance of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the organization responsible for safeguarding Hindu temples and traditions in the state, is to be noted as well. This month, the TDB’s commissioner N Vasu had told the apex court that the Board had no qualms with the verdict, a reversal of its earlier stance opposing the entry of women.
The TDB President A Padmakumar’s claim that the commissioner had not represented the Board’s stance and was all done without his knowledge indicates a worrisome internal conflict and adds yet another drop to the already big enough pool of problems.
Not everyone who opposes the verdict is a ‘sanghi’ or right wing, as much as the government likes to believe. Till now, there has never been such kinds of mass state wide protests for the death of an RSS member or even a Congress party related issue for that matter. It was only because so many devotees were hurt by this verdict, that the protests escalated to such levels.
The LDF members certainly do have the right to preach their ideology and even have a pro verdict stance, but that doesn’t give them the permission to make provocative remarks like calling the Sabarimala Tantri priest less graceful than a donkey and so on.
Quite ironically, the government’s actions may have paved way for the BJP and RSS into the state, which found it hard to ground their feet until now.
The Sabarimala issue gave the right wing a perfect opportunity to present itself to the Kerala people as the protector of ‘Hinduism and its traditions,’ which has been one of its major strategies across India.
Kerala is the last state the Communist Party is in power, and it is rudimentary that they follow a more cautionary approach, rather than the more macho one they have shown till now. Perhaps if they had acted in a more understanding manner to this sensitive issue, a lot of unfortunate events could have been avoided.