Renaissance versus Reaction – a Historic Battle Unfolds in Kerala

Subin Dennis

EVER since the September 28 verdict of the Supreme Court's constitution bench which allowed women of all ages to enter and pray in the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the RSS-BJP has tried to turn the temple and its surrounding regions into a war-zone.

The RSS itself had actually welcomed the Supreme Court verdict, but soon the RSS-BJP leaders, sensing the possibility of using old prejudices to gain some popular support, came out in opposition to women's entry in the temple. This was utterly hypocritical, as the BJP government of Maharashtra had implemented the Bombay High Court verdict allowing women’s entry in the Shani Shingnapur without any protest.

The stand of the Congress has also been similar – while its national leadership initially welcomed the court verdict, its state unit opposed the implementation of the verdict, eventually forcing the national leadership itself to change its stand.

The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), however, has taken an open stand in favour of women's entry in the temple, which is a basic democratic demand.

The RSS-BJP has been organising protests and mobilisations aimed at preventing the entry of women in Sabarimala. During the few days during which the Sabarimala temple was open in mid-October, they forcibly prevented young women devotees from entering the temple. Thugs of the Sangh Parivar assaulted women devotees and journalists.

The LDF government swung into action with a firm hand, arresting more than 3000 Sangh criminals who participated in the violent attacks on devotees and journalists.

At the same time, the LDF has been organising mass campaigns to take its message to the people. Massive rallies have been organised by the LDF in district headquarters across the state. Pinarayi Vijayan, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Kerala chief minister, has addressed nine such rallies so far, drawing mammoth crowds. Videos of his speeches, which talk about the legacy of the Kerala Renaissance (the social reform movements which occurred from the late 19th century onwards against the worst forms of caste and gender oppression), are being shared widely.

Activists of the CPI(M) and members of various Left mass organisations have been going door to door, discussing the issue with the people. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) organised “Renaissance gatherings” in block centres throughout the state, with speeches and cultural programmes aiming to raise awareness on the issue.

Temples and the roads around temples in Kerala were not accessible to people belonging to the “lower” castes until the first half of the 20th century. It was the Renaissance that broke those shackles. Powerful movements led by social reform leaders such as Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Chattampi Swamikal were instrumental in transforming the conditions that prevailed till then. Temple entry agitations, such as the Vaikom satyagraha (1924-25), the Guruvayur satyagraha (1931-32), the struggle in Kandoth (1931) and the Paliyam struggle (1947-48), took place demanding that people of all castes be allowed to enter Hindu temples.

AK Gopalan (AKG), who rose to become one of the most prominent communist leaders later, was among those who led the satyagraha in Guruvayur. P Krishna Pillai, who later became the first secretary of the Communist Party unit in Kerala in 1939, also played a significant role by ringing the bell in the Guruvayur temple which only Brahmins were allowed to ring. The struggle in Kandoth was led by AKG and KA Keraleeyan (who also became a major communist leader in the subsequent years). The Paliyam struggle was led by the Communist Party – the committee which organised the struggle, the Paliyam Road Struggle Committee, was led by communist leader TE Balan.

The Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the King of Travancore in 1936 was the result of protracted struggles such as these.

The situation today is also similar to the time of the temple entry movement in many ways, with secular, democratic opinion supporting the demand of doing away with restrictions prohibiting women of the menstruating age from entering temples on the one hand, and reactionary sections opposing this demand on the other.

But there is one crucial difference. The Congress, which was very much part of the social reform movements that led temple entry agitations such as those in Vaikom and Guruvayur, has abandoned the legacy of those movements. Even the Congress leaders who had welcomed the Supreme Court judgement ended up proving themselves to be ace reactionaries when the litmus test came – the so-called “liberal” Shashi Tharoor has joined the Congress protests against women’s entry in Sabarimala. Rahul Gandhi washed his hands off, saying that while he supports women’s entry, he bows to the opinion of the Kerala state unit of his party.

Pinarayi Vijayan, in response, said in one of his speeches: “The Congressmen of Kerala are competing with each other to say that what Rahul Gandhi said is his personal opinion. Whose opinion is it that they support instead? The opinion of Amit Shah! So for the Congress members in Kerala, their leader is Amit Shah. Rahul Gandhi is just another Congressman voicing some personal opinion of his.”

The Sangh Parivar, meanwhile, is continuing its attempts to spread religious discord and to foment violence. The police has been responding by picking up and charging cases against Sangh hooligans who indulge in violence. BJP state general secretary K Surendran and Hindu Aikya Vedi president KP Sasikala (who is notorious for her communally charged speeches) are among those arrested. Surendran also claimed that the customary bundle (“irumudikkettu”, that Sabarimala devotees carry) was thrown to the ground by the police and trampled upon, but CCTV footage proved his claim to be a lie, showing instead that Surendran himself had put the bundle down.

BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai also made another U-turn while talking to the media. "Our agitation is not about women coming to Sabarimala. Our agitation is against the communists who are trying to destroy Sabarimala."

Even as BJP leaders made duplicitous claims, their cadre have been going around intimidating women devotees and threatening intellectuals and writers who have been raising their voice on the issue. The office of Sunil P Elayidom, Left scholar, literary critic, orator and professor at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, was vandalised, leading to a massive outcry.

Civil society groups and various democratic organisations have come out in support of the Supreme Court verdict and against violent attacks by the RSS-BJP. Programmes are being held across the state to strengthen democratic opinion against outmoded customs.

“Yesterday's blunder cannot be allowed to become today's "custom" and tomorrow's "science”, Pinarayi Vijayan said in a speech. “Human beings should be considered human beings and there should be no discrimination among them. That is an ideal of modern Kerala which we cannot sacrifice.”

“When it comes to this issue, how many votes we will get or lose, how many seats we will get or lose, these are things that do not concern us. There is only one thing that concerns us – retaining the progressive character of Kerala,” he said.

The people of Kerala, and their government, are determined to defeat the nefarious designs of the right-wing elements who are trying to lead the society backwards.

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