Why CPI(M)’s U-turn on Sabarimala is a victory of its critics

CPI (M) reverses the stand it took last year when the Supreme Court threw out a 1991 High Court ban on women of menstruating age from visiting the hill temple | iStock

The CPI(M)’s climbdown from its earlier stand on the Sabarimala issue seems to have knocked the wind out of its sails.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has now said that his leftist coalition government will not give police protection to young women who want to visit the Ayyappa shrine, 150 km south-east of Kochi. It reverses the stand it took last year when the Supreme Court threw out a 1991 High Court ban on women of menstruating age from visiting the hill temple. Amid violent protests, it had sneaked in two women into the temple under heavy police protection late at night.

Protests then, silence now

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Last week, the court reviewed its 2018 judgement in a 3:2 split and referred the issue to a larger seven-member bench. It expanded the scope of the hearing to the entry of women in all places of worship, including mosques. It said the right to worship by an individual cannot outweigh the rights of a religious group.

The November-January pilgrimage season last year was marked by blockades and attacks on journalists and policemen by right-wing groups that draw sustenance from the BJP. The Congress party quickly capitalised on the anger against the government and swept to victory in the Parliamentary elections in the state. The CPI(M) scraped through with just one seat. While the Congress won 19 of the 20 seats, the BJP, which has hoped to set foot in Kerala, was unable to turn street protests into votes. The protests also put the spotlight on the contradictions over equality in worship in a state that nearly a century ago was in the forefront of a mass movement, for entry into temples by all Hindus.

Also read | Politics over Sabarimala likely to give foothold to BJP, fringe groups

The chief minister has said that his government is constitutionally obliged to follow court orders and ensure access to the temple. But his party and supporting groups are riven by dissent over the issue.

On Monday, the CPI(M) politburo said that the Supreme Court should come out with a clear stand on the Sabarimala issue. In a statement, it said that “instead of disposing of the review petitions, the majority judgement, deviating from the norm, has widened the scope by making a reference to various points concerning religious rights under the constitution to a seven-member bench.” It said the two dissenting judges had rejected the review petitions and upheld the 2018 judgement.

“By diverting the matter to other issues concerning women’s rights of other religions, which are already being heard by other benches of the court, the minority judgement has failed to uphold the 2018 verdict and by keeping the review petitions pending has created an ambiguous and uncertain situation.” The Congress and the BJP and even most communist leaders have been neutral or silent on the judgement.

To be progressive or play safe? 

In recent months, the CPI(M) has been divided over the entry of women, with some of its politburo members seeing the party stand as progressive, while others have felt that it amounts to interfering in traditional beliefs and practices.

The party faces a sticky situation. It cannot be seen as backtracking and giving up its progressive outlook and unable to take a stand on issues. “As far as the CPI(M) is concerned,” the statement said, “it is committed to women’s equality in all spheres and wants the court to come out with a definitive stand at the earliest.”

Also read | Sabarimala temple opens for pilgrimage season, 10 women sent back

At the same time, the party placated devotees by keeping away women in the age group of 10-50, without trying to look as if it had caved into the demands of the BJP and the Congress, which campaigned feverishly on this angle last year.  K Surendran, the minister who oversees religious issues, said young women will not be taken to Sabarimala with police protection and those who want to climb the hill should come with a court order permitting them into the shrine. It is not clear if the court has stayed its earlier order allowing all women to pray at the temple. The government, some critics, say, could have instead issued a travel advisory, saying that young women should stay away view of the ambiguity over the court order.

The latest climbdown has also divided groups propped up by the ruling coalition as a bulwark against the right-wing campaigners. When protesters lit oil lamps on the streets in protests, the CPI(M) branded them as upper caste Hindus. It countered it by setting up the Renaissance Protection Committee (Navodhana Samrakshana Samithi) of some 100 groups of lower caste Hindus and organising a human chain across the state. The splitting of the issue on caste lines fuelled more resentment against the communists.

The committee’s general secretary, Punnala Sreekumar, said that by backing down from its earlier position, the government has handed a victory to critics. Sree Kumar said the government’s changed position gravely undermines the renaissance ideal of gender equality that had led to the formation of the committee last year.

In contrast, another pro-CPM group, the SNDP Yogam, has supported the government. Its chief, Velapally Natesan, said that the court has effectively stayed its earlier order.

Sabarimala reopened on Saturday for three months to allow lakhs of black-robed pilgrims to trek the 47 km of forests from the foothills of Erumeli to the temple in Sabarimala, racking up ₹3.3 crores in donations—nearly three times the figure of last year. On Monday, police turned away two women from Andhra Pradesh who had shown up at the temple. On Saturday, police “persuaded” three other women from entering the temple, saying they were convinced about the issue and voluntarily went away. The police are scouring social media sites to head off women activists from using the pilgrim town as a platform for publicity.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, urged the chief minister to ensure that “urban Naxals, anarchists and atheists don’t go to Sabarimala under the guise of devotees.” He said a mechanism should be instituted to identify genuine devotees from such people. He did not say how this could be done.

Also read | Political parties in Kerala welcome SC decision on Sabarimala

Some observers contend that activists living outside Kerala and seeking entry of women into Sabarimala do not understand local sensibilities, such as the concept of celibacy of the deity and ritual “purity”. But women’s activist Ranjana Kumari countered that “women know it is not easy to get equality in spite of constitutional guarantees and are ready to fight for it.”

Is Hinduism being Abrhamised?

Supreme Court lawyer J Sai Deepak said Hinduism is being Abrahamised due to the monolithic approach of “essential religious practices test“,  which does not take into account the diversity of Hinduism.

Discrimination in religion is not new to Kerala. On the one hand, a shrill campaign to keep out young women from Sabarimala has intensified in recent decades. What was for centuries a tribal temple to fertility eventually fell into the hands of upper caste Hindus, who introduced brahminincal practices and later even allowed select groups of young women to worship there till 1991. On the other hand, Kerala was in the forefront of throwing open temples to all castes, with the launching in 1924 of a mass movement known as the Vaikom Satyagraha.

For centuries,  “untouchables” were not allowed to walk past the temple in Vaikom in  Kottayam district because upper castes used the street. Following Mahatma Gandhi’s intervention, the Travancore Maharajah, Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, scrapped that rule by introducing the Temple Entry Proclamation Act in 1936. Gandhi in an open letter called him “the true Mahatma” for introducing the proclamation, which was the first of its kind in British India and allowed all castes into temples in the Travancore kingdom. It paved the way for similar enactments throughout the country.

(The author is a freelance journalist and editorial trainer with forty years of experience in writing and editing for Indian and American newspapers and news agencies)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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