Sabarimala: BJP’s Challenge to Democracy, Harmony and Women’s Rights

Brinda karat

FOLLOWING the BJP president Amit Shah’s open call to defy the Supreme Court judgement lifting the ban on entry of women into the temple, the BJP-RSS combine in Kerala has declared a six day rath yatra to the temple. This should not be seen as an issue that concerns Kerala alone. It is a test of the waters of river Sarayu where the Babri Masjid once stood. Amit Shah’s comments that courts should pass only such judgements as can be implemented are equally directed to the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya matter. Already the RSS and top BJP leaders are making highly objectionable demands for an ordinance in the light of the Supreme Court’s rejection of their plea to bring forward the hearings on petitions relating to the masjid/mandir issue. The link is clear enough. It is an ominous warning to the courts: do as we want or face the consequences of your orders being flouted.

A day later, the BJP in Kerala got another slap from the Kerala High Court. Its “intellectual cell”, yes it has such a cell, had petitioned the court seeking a ban on the entry of non-Hindus into the temple. The bench said “It will destroy the communal harmony in the state. It is a religious centre where people of all religions are allowed to visit and people go to the Vavar mosque as part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage.”

Vavara was a Muslim saint who became a devotee of Ayyappan. As many commentators have pointed out, there is a shrine dedicated to Vavara at Sabarimala. There is also a mosque in his name some 30 km from the temple and many Ayyappa bhakts pay obeisance to the mosque as part of their pilgrimage. In addition, as legend has it, a close friend of Ayyappa was a Christian priest called Arthunkal  Veluthachan. That is why many Ayyappa bhakts also visit the Arthunkal Church at Chertala as part of their pilgrimage. This is the context in which the Kerala High Court called Sabarimala a symbol of secular values. The BJP-RSS far from respecting this tradition want to convert it into an upper caste centre, like many of the temples in North and West India, where under BJP rule dalits are banned entry even today.

As far as the issue on ban on women’s entry is concerned the BJP stand is equally untenable.

Keeping women out is not “an ancient practice” since “the deity is celibate” as claimed by Amit Shah and the BJP. There was no blanket ban on women of fertile age going into the temple until 1991 when the Kerala High Court, acting on a complaint by an individual named S Mahendran, gave an order that henceforth, no woman aged between 10 and 50 can go to the temple. However, the judgement itself gave examples of how women, including the then Maharani of Travancore in 1940 and others had not only worshipped at the temple but participated in many temple ceremonies. The judgement said: “There was thus no prohibition for women to enter the Sabarimala temple in olden days, but women in large number were not visiting the temple. That was not because of any prohibition imposed by Hindu religion but because of other non-religious factors. In recent years, many worshippers had gone to the temple with lady worshippers within the age group 10 to 50 for the first rice-feeding ceremony of their children (Choroonu). The Board used to issue receipts on such occasions on payment of the prescribed charges.” Yet a ban was imposed.

A dalit may choose to worship in a temple or not, that is an individual choice. Similarly a woman believer may or may not want to go to the Ayyappa temple. A woman in her menstrual cycle may choose not to visit any temple at that time. Again these are personal choices. But to prevent dalits forcibly from worshiping at a temple or to ban women from entering a temple because she is of fertile age is, as noted by the Supreme Court, against the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Amit Shah says that women’s entry into temples cannot be considered a question of equality. This is the similar upper caste reasoning which has kept dalits out of many temples even today and which has led to violence against all those dalits seeking to worship there. The understanding against women’s entry is based on the Manu Smriti concept of purity/impurity which holds menstruating women and untouchables equally impure. The truth is that the BJP-RSS is driven by Manuvadi ideologies which cannot tolerate social reform. This is their history. Their gurus in the RSS had strongly opposed any reform in Hindu personal laws. They were against the right to divorce, they were against the equal right to property for women, while supporting sati they were against widow remarriage, the list of their retrograde positions is endless. They want to impose these ideologies in their current agitation against the Supreme Court judgement.

When the Supreme Court overturned this ban, the RSS spokespersons in Kerala had actually publicly welcomed it. This makes it clear that the subsequent opposition and u turn has nothing to do with religious belief. Once the RSS-BJP combine saw the protests of one section of people against the judgement, it felt it could utilise this to hit several targets. The Supreme Court is one.  The LDF government in Kerala which has stood firm against the combine’s attempts to inject its communal poison into the polity, is another target. Progressive forces across political, caste and religious lines who stand for social reform and against Manuvadi ideologies are another clear target of this RSS-BJP’s opposition.

Amit Shah likened the situation in Kerala to the emergency.  He was reacting to the arrests of 2000 persons against whom the police have credible and direct evidence of being involved in the forcible prevention of women who wanted to go to the temple. Amit Shah himself has openly admitted that these are BJP workers. So there should be no misunderstanding that ordinary devotees are being arrested.

A sample of some of the highly provocative statements made by those who Amit Shah defends is from the leader of the so-called Ayyapa Dharma Sena, Rahul Easwaran. Out on bail, he announced at a press conference, “There is provision to close the temple if there is a failure in rituals. We also need a Plan B and Plan C... I am saying this openly. If any one woman between the ages of 10 and 50 tried to enter the temple with the help of the police, about 20 people were ready to make a cut on their hand and shed blood. If that happens, the temple would have to be closed for three days (on account of desecration). There is no need to open it no matter who says so... If blood or urine falls on the temple, it has to be closed.” He is the nephew of the main tanthri (priest) of the temple and he declares that he is prepared to desecrate the temple with urine and blood to keep women out. Even the tanthri has had to at least publicly disown these statements. These are the criminal anti-temple activities being defended by Amit Shah. He is mistaken if he thinks the Kerala government is like the one he runs in Maharashtra. In Maharashtra after the violence connected with Bhima Koregaon events, the ring leaders belonging to right wing Sangh Parivar organisations were exonerated and hundreds of dalits were arrested using draconian laws against them. In contrast, the Kerala government has identified the organised trouble makers, none of whom are ordinary devotees, and is taking action against them.

Since the BJP president is against the judgement of the Supreme Court why does he not go to the Supreme Court in a review? Instead, when the president of the ruling party incites violence against a court judgement and against a government led by an opposition party which upholds the court judgement, is this not the real face of authoritarianism? And these are not just words. The violence and hooliganism directly encouraged and supported by the BJP-RSS saw men attacking and burning the ashram of Swamy Sandeepananda Giri because he has differed from the BJP-RSS and taken a stand in support of the SC judgement. This attack on a widely respected Swamy also exposes the reality that for the BJP-RSS, it is only the RSS Hindutva which is to be promoted and other men and women of the Hindu faith who differ from them will be attacked.

The hypocrisy and double standards as far as respect for elected governments are concerned is equally evident. While Arun Jaitly makes a veiled criticism against the court intervention in the CBI matter saying that decisions of elected governments have to be respected on the principle of accountability, on the same day,  his party president Amit Shah threatens the elected government in Kerala, that it will be thrown out because it is defending the Supreme Court judgement. In fact the present central regime has taken steps which undermine the rights of the states and elected non BJP governments which inflict serious damage to the constitutional framework of a federal structure. Amit Shah’s threats in Kerala should be seen in that context.

The people of Kerala and indeed the people of India will surely help Amit Shah and the party he leads, learn about constitutional values.


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