THE RSS and the BJP have been desperately trying to capture a space for themselves in the political sphere of Kerala for the past many decades. The RSS has been working in Kerala for more than seven or eight decades and has been trying to revive all sorts of obscurantist and superstitious practices and customs. They infiltrated into hundreds of temple committees and became active in temple festivals and other religious functions. They deliberately organised communal clashes with minority communities in order to polarise the Hindus and to expand their influence. They are continuously attacking the cadres of the CPI(M) and the Left as the CPI(M) and the Left consistently stand for progressive values, secularism, scientific temper and protecting rights of all sections of people, including minorities. The BJP won one assembly constituency in Kerala in the last assembly elections, due to the help rendered by the Congress and the UDF. In all the previous assembly and Lok Sabha elections, both the UDF and BJP tried to pool their votes together in many constituencies to defeat the CPI(M) and the Left Democratic Front. Despite all their nefarious efforts, they have not been successful to carve a niche in Kerala politics and society.
The LDF government in Kerala has been gaining more and more support from people in the last two and a half years because of its pro-people policies and corruption-free administration. The progress made in infrastructure development, expanding education and health facilities, programmes such as Green Kerala, Life Project, intervention to protect the rights and interests of people belonging to SC and ST communities, providing drinking water facilities, strengthening public sector undertakings, developing agriculture etc., have been appreciated by various sections of people. The government is making all efforts to protect the interests of women, people belonging to SC and STs, transgenders, disabled and all marginalised sections of people. The interventions of the government during Nipah virus outbreak, Ockhi cyclone and the unprecedented August 2018 floods have been acclaimed by all sections of people, including the harsh critics of the CPI(M) and the LDF government.
The positive steps of the LDF government in appointing dalits as priests in temples in Kerala, expanding the quota for backward classes, dalits and adivasis in appointments to Devaswom Board, got great appreciation among all progressive and democratic sections of people. It is also a fact that the conservative elements in the society are unhappy about the decision of the government. It is difficult for them to come out openly against the decisions of the LDF government and have been waiting for an opportunity to come out against the government.
The BJP and the NDA are getting isolated from the people due to price rise, agrarian crisis, attacks against the public sector undertakings, attacks against the democratic and trade union rights of the workers, attacks against dalits, adivasis, minorities, intellectuals etc.
More and more people are rallying with the LDF government and the BJP and the UDF are getting isolated from the people of Kerala. The people are moving away from the BJP and the NDA because of the anti-people policies of the Narendra Modi government and the monumental corruption in Rafale deal. The emerging situation in Kerala once again revealed that the efforts of the BJP-NDA to get a space in Kerala in Lok Sabha elections are not going to yield any results. This is the main reason that the RSS and the BJP are frantically trying to create confusion over the Supreme Court judgement on Sabarimala among a section of devotees and to turn them against the CPI(M) and the government. They also want to divert the attention of the people from the real issues. The sinister move of the RSS and BJP is not going to succeed. Their effort to turn the wheels of history backward will definitely fail.
The Supreme Court verdict on September 28 has a long history behind it. It was in 2006, an organisation called Young Lawyers Association filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court asking for its intervention to allow women of all ages to enter Sabarimala temple and to worship. The petitioners are persons unconnected with any movement in Kerala and residents of North India. Many of them are related to the RSS and the BJP. The Supreme Court asked the opinion of the Kerala government on this issue. In 2007, the then LDF government led by VS Achuthanandan filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court explaining the position of the state government. The affidavit stated that the Kerala government was against any form of discrimination of women or other sections in the society to enter Sabarimala temple. The affidavit also brought to the notice of the Supreme Court that, in the past, women used to enter Sabarimala temple and referred an incident about the visit of the then Raja of the Princely State of Travancore and the Queen to Sabarimala temple. The affidavit also mentioned that the Supreme Court should consider the sentiments of the people while taking a decision. In February 2016, two months just before the assembly elections, the then UDF government in Kerala led by Congress leader Oommen Chandy filed a different affidavit stating that the Kerala government was not in favour of women belonging to the age group of between 10 and 50 years entering Sabarimala temple. After the formation of the LDF government in 2016, when the case came up before the Supreme Court for arguments, the state government filed an affidavit reiterating the stand taken in the earlier affidavit filed in 2007. Nair Service Society, Ayyappa Seva Sangham, Devaswom Board, Pandalam Raja, Priest of Sabarimala temple and others appeared in the case and presented their arguments opposing the entry of women.
After 12 year-long litigation, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court passed the judgement by a majority of 4 to 1. The major conclusions of the judgement are as follows:
“(i) ......the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious denomination. They do not have common religious tenets peculiar to themselves, which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being, other than those which are common to the Hindu religion. Therefore, the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are exclusively Hindus and do not constitute a separate religious denomination.
“(ii) Article 25(i), by employing the expression ‘all persons’, demonstrates that the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion is available, though subject to the restrictions delineated in Article 25(1) itself, to every person including women. The right guaranteed under Article 25(1) has nothing to do with gender or, for that matter, certain physiological factors specifically attributable to women.
“(iii) The exclusionary practice being followed at the Sabarimala temple by virtue of Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules violates the right of Hindu women to freely practice their religion and exhibit their devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. This denial denudes them of their right to worship. The right to practice religion under Article 25 (1) is equally available to both men and women of all age groups professing the same religion.”
The Supreme Court judgement continued that the exclusionary practice of “entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years is a clear violation of the right of Hindu women to practice their religious beliefs which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right of religion under Article 25(1) a dead letter”.
The Supreme Court judgement allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple and all other temples in the country is a historic one. The concurrent judgement of Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud elucidated another important aspect related to religious faith. The judgement states: “Yet, the right to the freedom of religion is not absolute. For the Constitution has expressly made it subject to public order, morality and health on one hand and to the other provisions of Part III, on the other. The subjection of the individual right to the freedom of religion to the other provisions of the Part is a nuanced departure from the position occupied by the other rights to freedom recognized in Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21. While guaranteeing equality and the equal protection of laws in Article 14 and its emanation, in Article 15, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, the Constitution does not condition these basic norms of equality to the other provisions of Part III. Similar is the case with the freedoms guaranteed by Article 19(1) or the right to life under Article 21. The subjection of the individual right to the freedom of religion under Article 25(1) to the other provisions of Part III was not a matter without substantive content. Evidently, in the constitutional order of priorities, the individual right to the freedom of religion was not intended to prevail over but was subject to the overriding constitutional postulates of equality, liberty and personal freedoms recognized in the other provisions of Part III.”
There is some confusion among a section of the traditional devotees as the verdict is against the customary practice of disallowing the entry of women belonging to the age group of 10 to 50 years. The NDA and the UDF are trying to make use of the confusion among the devotees to gain support. They are trying to depict the issue as a dispute between believers and non-believers. They are also hoping that they would be able to wean away a section of believers from the support base of the LDF and the CPI(M). Both the NDA and the UDF are also trying to make use of the unhappiness of the conservative sections who do not appreciate the appointment of people from dalits as poojaris in temples and the reservation of backward communities, dalits and adivasis in appointments to Devaswom Board.
Kerala has a long history of social reform movements. In earlier days, only the so-called upper caste people were allowed to enter temples for worship. The temple entry issue was the centre of many struggles during the early decades of the 20th century. The leaders of the national movement and Communist movement took active part in those struggles. Temple entry was allowed to all sections of people. There were also struggles for asserting the rights of women in wearing dress covering breasts and using silver and gold ornaments. There was also a tax on growing moustache by SCs and backward classes during the period of Princely State. The social reforms movement, subsequently the progressive leaders in the national movement and later the Communist movement fought against all these evils. The struggles of the Communist movement and the class and mass organisations helped the development of a secular democratic culture in Kerala and the blossoming of scientific temper among people. The RSS and the BJP want to take the Kerala society back to the old days of darkness, superstition and obscurantist practices. The Congress-led UDF is supporting the efforts of the BJP.
The All India Congress Committee immediately after the judgement stated: “We welcome the historic Supreme Court judgement allowing entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala temple.” The leaders of the Congress in Kerala also welcomed the judgement in similar tones. But sensing the confusion among a section of the devotees about the judgement, Congress has joined the camps of the RSS and the BJP in opposing the judgement and mobilising people against the judgement. The true face of the Congress party that they are incapable of upholding secular and democratic values is once again exposed before the public in their volte face with regard to the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. This will only expedite the process of collapse of the Congress party in Kerala. Compared to other states, the Congress has a mass base in Kerala. A section of them will be swallowed by the RSS-BJP combine as in the case of many other states.
The CPI(M) has discussed the issues arising out of the Supreme Court verdict. There is no question of going back to the old days. The Supreme Court verdict is a part of the process of ensuring equality of women with men. The state government is constitutionally bound to implement the decision. The Supreme Court also declared that the right of religious faith is not absolute but subject to public order, morality and health, on the one hand, and to the other provisions of the part III of Fundamental Rights, on the other. This historic judgement ensured gender equality and upheld primacy of secularism.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Democratic Front have decided to organise a statewide campaign explaining the stand of the LDF and the government on this issue. The Kerala state committee of CPI(M) has decided to explain the stand of the Party in all district committees, district workers meetings and general bodies of the Party members. This process will be completed within a week. LDF will organise district-wise public rallies where the chief minister and other leaders of the LDF will participate. Constituency-wise padayatras will be organised in all the 140 constituencies in Kerala during the first week of November. In the recent past, Kerala witnessed similar mobilisations of the conservative forces when the Shariat issue came up in 1986 and the creamy layer issue in reservations in 1996. The Party and the Left in Kerala was able to meet those challenges raised by the conservative forces and to make progress. The Party is confident that the ideological battle on this issue will provide new opportunities for the Party and the Left to reach newer sections. The present challenges will provide new opportunities for the Left to advance.