The continuing tension on the second day - October 18, of reopening of South Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple over the entry of women pilgrims for darshan, or paying obeisance, is indeed blatantly political.
Almost all parties are keen to pander to the age-old tradition to keep women of menstruating age out of the revered shrine of Lord Ayyappa. The women’s right to enter the temple and pray was upheld through a majority judgment by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on September 28, by allowing a petition moved by a group of women lawyers. And yet this appears to be a distant possibility given the siege laid by Hindutva groups and others waiting the Sangh-backed mobs’ ire to ebb.
Wednesday’s violent clashes on the route to the temple between saffron stole flaunting mob of protesters and police speak of the high stakes in the battle that by all indications is meant to scare away and deter women from venturing into the temple despite their being armed with a Supreme Court order.
Some of the female pilgrims and women journalists were mauled by the crowd of noisy protesters in utter disregard to what the top court has ruled.
Police under the Communist or Left Front government of the state could at best only save the female victims from further, or more serious, harm. What is even stranger is that the Hindutva brigade-backed women were often leading the mobs that stopped vehicles on way to the temple to search, spot and segregate women travelers.
For reasons behind women being thus pitted against women over the issue of their entry in the temple one will have to look at the history of the rightwing communal build up made over the years in an otherwise highly literate and largely secular state of Kerala where the BJP had nearly no presence in the legislature until recently. But unfazed by this, the Sangh has been quite active in the state for decades through a number of what are called to be fringe organisations supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Kerala Hindu Aikya Vedi, or Kerala Hindu unity forum, is one such outfit. It is headed by a middle-aged woman KP Sasikala, who is popularly known as Sasikala Teacher. This is so since she had begun her career in the 1980s by joining the noble profession of teaching. But she veered towards politics in over a decade’s time and contested elections in Kerala on a BJP ticket in 1996 from Pattambi in Palakkad district. She fared so poorly in the polls that she never again joined subsequent electoral frays.
Yet, Sasikala is known for her firebrand oratory. She knows how to play around with history to tailor it into easy and Sangh savvy fables. She is often referred to by her admirers by the sobriquet of Jhansi Ki Rani, or after the famed queen of Jhansi who once fought the British in their heydays to become a martyr.
On Wednesday, Sasikala traveled from her South Malabar stronghold to Sabarimala to join the protest over women’s entry in the sanctum. She addressed the crowds exhorting them to uphold the tradition though without resorting to violence. As per her, the tradition had to be tradition and, thus, it couldn’t be against women as the case was now being made out to be. She said in her speech available over Youtube that the protests outside the temple were not backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, but were being spearheaded by the Sabarimala Dharma Samithi.
Thus, the temple and the right to enter it are being attempted to be reserved as a copyright of sorts by the Sangh satraps by whipping up the bogey of tradition despite its being overruled by the Supreme Court. And this is not new since the HAV and RSS have for long been fighting for what they called to be liberation of about 3,000 temples spread across Kerala from the control of Devaswom boards where among others the state government is also being represented. A member from the State Council of Ministers looks after different Devaswom boards. This also includes the one that is meant to take care of Sabarimala Temple.
Former BJP leader from Kerala, who became Mizoram Governor in May this year, Kummanam Rajasekharan has for long argued that often the mosques and churches in Kerala were outside the government control; and, thus, the temples should also be free from the state’s tutelage. He has fiercely been against the state’s practice to nominate members of Devaswom boards. He wanted this to be replaced by devotees’ right to look after and maintain temples since the money coming to the temples was donated by the devotees.
But behind these arguments lies the fact that the donations made to the temple go mainly to the priests and, thus, a mechanism has to be there to make reasonable and judicious use of the money. The government also makes allocations to run Devaswom boards. The RSS and its affiliates grievance is because their members seldom find a place in these boards since Kerala is known to have so far only either Left Front or Congress-led United Front Governments.
To counter Devaswom boards the RSS and its offshoots often form temple protection or Sanrakshan outfits. Rajasekharan has gone to the extent to assert the right of the surviving scions of former princely states over Kerala’s temples against that of the Government. He had argued that these states acceded post-independence to the Union but not necessarily with their rights over Hindu temples.
Rajasekharan has been quoted as saying this in a book Shadow Armies Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva by Dhirendra K Jha which was published by Juggernaut in 2017: “At the time of accession to India, the right of administration of the state was handed over to the democratic government. The administration of temple was a different thing and it should have remained with ordinary Hindus. That is why we are saying that the right to administer temples should be returned to Hindus.”
Such assertions coming from Sangh higher ups don’t leave any doubts about the stakes that the Parivar has come to have in the battle over temples in Kerala even before the row over Sabarimala Temple erupted. Thus, the present controversy after the Supreme Court order is largely meant to assert what Sangh Parivar likes to have - its exclusive right over not only Sabarimala but also many other temples that are spread across Kerala. And such proclivity on the part of the Sangh is, of course, in absolute disregard to law, rule and norms. Although this poses a problem for the state, the Centre’s silence makes it somewhat complicit in the defiance of the top court’s order.