By Samuel Mathai
‘Temple politics’ has now moved towards South. Political parties, with an eye on the forthcoming general election, vie to consolidate their Hindu votes in the Southern states. After the recent Supreme Court decision permitting women, irrespective of age, to enter Sabarimala, the Kerala temple has become a battlefield of politics. The CPI(M)-led government in the state is in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is bound to implement the SC order, on the other it has to protect the interest of the devotees, besides holding its very political existence. The BJP, which is notorious for ‘temple politics’, hijacked the temple entry issue in Kerala. The party which backed the SC decision has now done a U-turn fashioning itself the ‘voice of Kerala’s Hindus’. Hardcore Hindutva outfits in the garb of devotees fan out in the temple venue are making the situation worse. Whereas, the Congress, to prevent further erosion of Hindu votes from its kitty, barged into the scene opposing the verdict in solidarity with the devotees.
Upholding the Supreme Court’s decision that women, irrespective of age, can enter Sabarimala temple, the Kerala government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has said it will not give in to attempts by Hindutva outfits to prevent young women from entering the temple.
“We will not allow anyone to take law and order into their hands,” Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said. He accused the RSS of making use of the situation and deliberately trying to create tensions and law and order problems in the state.
The CM said, “The government is committed to implementing equal justice for everyone. The government will continue its efforts to do this. It is not the government’s policy to fight with the devotees. At the same time the government won’t succumb to the efforts of those who have been trying to create tensions with political motivations.”
Sabarimala temple in Kerala is one of the famous shrines in the world and is visited by over 50 million devotees every year. Pilgrims across the country visit this place to get blessings of Lord Ayyappa. Strict religious adherence was practised by Ayyappa devotees. First of all, the devotees observe a 41-day penance before visiting the temple. They should also avoid any physical pleasure and other family ties and should live like a celibate (brahamachari). They should also continuously practice the goodness of life.
The temple has been the site of widespread protests since late September, when the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on women between the ages of 10 to 50 entering the temple infringed on rights to equality of worship.
Sabarimala issue became active in the legal sphere of Kerala after the High Court considered a letter sent by one Mahendran as a Public Interest Litigation. The letter complained that women were entering Sabarimala, special consideration was given for the wives of VIPs, and that appropriate action should be taken against those concerned. In the HC verdict of 1991, it was said that the letter was transformed as a PIL as per article 226 of the Indian Constitution.
All politics and no devotion
The double standard of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Pariwar is clearly visible in the Sabarimala strife. The party, which had tacitly backed the Supreme Court decision, has now done a complete U-turn fashioning itself the ‘voice of Kerala’s Hindus’. Going against the verdict, its leaders and cadres are fomenting violence in the state, where people had reflected their peculiar unity and secular mindset during the devastating deluge in August last.
Moments after the Supreme Court gave out the historic judgment on the Sabarimala temple, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy welcomed the decision with open arms. “I welcome it. I have been over these last few months been vocal about it saying that we are still living in the stone-age or what?
The fact of the matter is that a woman’s psychic and physique and body function cannot be made to differentiate between the gender equality. Article 14 does not take any such reasonable restriction or unreasonable restrictions into account. So, the court has done the right thing and I think people should wake up. We need a renaissance in religion,” he said.
“As the Shastras are allowed to be amended over time, this is also part of the Vedas and part of the Shastras. Therefore, these kinds of restrictions have no support in any of our divine literature like the Vedas. I fully welcome it and congratulate the Supreme Court for doing justice to Women of India,” Swamy said.
In Maharashtra, the BJP government executed the High Court verdict of allowing entry for women into the Shani Shingnapur temple, there was no protest from the BJP government or from the party there.
The Sabarimala issue has also exposed the BJP leaders of their hypocrisy and double stand on women empowerment and their rights. Immediately after the SC, in a majority 3:2 judgment, set aside the talaq-e-biddat or instant and irrevocable talaq, practised by the Muslim community, the BJP leaders -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and others – instantly welcomed the verdict.
The BJP leaders who shed crocodile tears on the plight of their ‘Muslim sisters’ have not even uttered a word on the rights of the Hindu women on the Sabarimala temple entry.
On the triple-talaq issue Modi had tweeted, saying, “Judgment of the Hon’ble SC on Triple Talaq is historic. It grants equality to Muslim women and is a powerful measure for women empowerment.”
BJP chief Amit Shah said it was a historic judgment. “The judgment marks the beginning of a new era of pride and equality for Muslim women. The BJP welcomes the respects the expansion of Muslim women’s rights and sees today’s court order as a step towards a determined ‘New India’. It is a historic judgement, and not a question of victory or defeat. It’s an assertion of equal rights for Muslim women and the prevalence of their basic rights under the Constitution,” he said.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley: “The Supreme Court judgment in the triple talaq case undoes the injustice to Muslim women who were victims of a unilateral termination of a matrimonial relationship.”
In Kerala, while the BJP had outsourced demonstrations and protests to their feeder organisations in the first couple of days following the verdict, they couldn’t let such a golden opportunity slip.
Kerala BJP general secretary K Surendran, who had deleted his earlier Facebook post supporting the entry of women of all age groups, contended: “We had never welcomed the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. It is vested interests in the media that twisted our statements to make it sound as if we had taken a volte-face”. Asked to elaborate on his own U-Turn, he attributed it to his party’s stand.
The Congress is no different from its opponent, the BJP. On the verdict, the Congress national leadership had said, “We welcome the historic Supreme Court judgement allowing entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple.” But the state unit of the party has taken a position against the judgement and its implementation.
Former CM Oommen Chandy had said the judgement was applicable to all and that the affidavit filed by the previous Congress-led government was not relevant anymore. But the Congress has now taken a stand which is against tradition and perspective.
The Congress has declined to take a strong stand on the issue despite some leaders like Working President K Sudhakaran, being an open critic of women’s entry. The party has taken refuge in putting the onus on the Left government to either file a review petition or bring an ordinance to overturn the verdict. In doing so, the party has rendered itself less relevant in this ideological fight of Left versus Right.
The Congress’ strategy seems to be devised to prevent further erosion of Hindu votes from their kitty. Having already lost a large chunk of the Nair votes to the BJP, they took a call well before the BJP to oppose the verdict in solidarity with the devotees.
The blatantly regressive statements on menstruating women by Congress working president K Sudhakaran and general secretary KP Anilkumar have not gone down well. The Congress has always engaged in such appeasement politics in the state and their stand doesn’t surprise seasoned political observers. But the party has ruled out hitting the streets in protest and instead vowed to protest by peaceful means.
It isn’t clear whether the Congress strategy to reclaim the Hindu votes would work out or whether the BJP would gain further on account of their active involvement in organising protests and demonstrations.
It’s evident that the issue has moved on from one on gender-equality to one about politics. The question is no longer about doing right by the women devotees of Ayyappa, but about addressing worries of the Hindu voters of Kerala.
It could very well snowball into an issue that breaks down the caste-barriers that dictate politics of Kerala. Rival outfits, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and the Nair Service Society, suddenly find themselves on the same side. The Sangh’s dream of a united Hindu voter base may not remain unachievable after all.
In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, the Devaswom Board president had hinted at filing a review petition against the landmark verdict. But following a public reprimand from the chief minister, the Devaswom Board president began to sing a different tune.
Even before the Devaswom Board formally met to take a call on the filing of the review petition, Padmakumar clearly stated that the board would “take a decision in conjunction with the decision of the state government”. It was clearly interpreted as a sign of arm-twisting of the autonomous temple authority by the chief minister.
The CPI(M) is banking on a consolidation of minority votes to make up for any erosion in their Hindu vote bank in the process. They have also managed to enlist the support of Sree Narayana Dharama Paripalana Yogam (SNDP).
Conservative Hindu groups protest
Although the verdict was largely along the expected lines, it was met with widespread protests by Ayyappa devotees in the state. The furore was expected to die down but has since been hijacked by Hindutva outfits.
In a clear volte-face from their stated position, the BJP and its feeder organisations have been mobilising people across the state against the implementation of the apex court order.
Conservative Hindu groups say the prohibition is required to appease Ayyappa. A large number of extreme Hindutva outfits -- the RSS, Pravin Togadia’s Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad, its rival the VHP and the BJP’s Yuva Morcha – have barged into the protest.
Shiv Sena, a former ally of the BJP, said its members will commit suicide if women in the age group enter the temple. “Seven members of our organisation are ready to sacrifice their lives if the women come forward to defy the customs and traditions of the temple,” said Peringamala Aji, a Shiv Sena leader.
In Nilakkal, the main access point, 18 kilometres from the temple, female devotees belonging to Malayarayan tribal community were pulling over traffic to check for women of menstrual age, forcing a group of female journalism students off a government-run bus. “We stop those defying our request and are detaining them at Nilakkal,” the group’s leader, Sujatha, who goes by only one name, said.
A 51-year-old woman from the tribe tried to commit suicide at the site, before being saved by other female protesters. The woman, known as Ratnamma, later told reporters that she was protesting against attempts by some women to enter the temple.
Origin of Lord Ayyappa
It is believed that Lord Ayyappa was born out of the union between Lord Shiva and the mythical Mohini, who is also regarded as an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
As legendary, Goddess Durga killed the demon Mahishasur, and his sister, Mahishi set out to avenge her brother’s death. Mahishi had a boon from Lord Brahma that only a child born of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva could slay her, so she was indestructible. To save the world from annihilation, Vishnu incarnated as Mohini, and wed Shiva, and thus Lord Ayyappa was born.
After the birth of Ayyappa, Shiva and Mohini abandoned the child on the banks of the Pampa River. Then, the ruler of the dynasty, King Rajashekhara, the childless monarch belonging to Pandalam, a small kingdom located in Patthanamthitta district of Kerala, adopted Ayyappa and accepted him as the divine gift.
Thereafter, the King couple were blessed with a son named Raja Rajan. Though both the boys grew up as princes, Ayyappa excelled in martial arts and was very knowledgeable in all Shastras.
Upon completing his training and studies, it was the time to name the heir to the throne. King Rajashekhara wanted Ayyappa to become king, but the Queen wanted her son to be named the King. So, she created all troubles for Ayyappa.
Ayyappa, tricked by the Queen, goes to the forest for getting milk from a tigress to save the Queen from a mysterious health issue. Later, King Rajashekhara and the Queen realised that Lord Ayyappa is no ordinary child, and request him to accept the throne. But Ayyappa refuses and goes to the heavenly abode.
King Rajashekhara constructed a temple for Ayyappa at Sabarimalai, located some 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) above sea level, surrounded by 18 hills in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. The temple was designed by the great architect of gods Vishvakarma. The Ayyappa idol was said to be carved by Lord Parasuram, and installed it on the day of Makara Sankranthi.
Why young women barred from offering prayer at Sabarimala
After a recent Supreme Court verdict, women of all age can now visit, worship and offer prayer to Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala.
Ayyappa is the presiding deity at Sabarimala temple in the hilly forest in Naishtik Brahmachari (eternal celibate) state.
There are different versions as to why menstruating women (of 10 - 50 years) were not allowed to enter the Sabarimala Temple.
The legend goes that, while Ayyappa was still a minor, he realised the purpose of his incarnation on earth, and was to kill the demoness Mahishi who had got a boon from gods that she could only be defeated by the son born out of the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Ayyappa and Mahishi had a fierce battle, and she died in Ayyappa’s hands, and received Moksha.
Upon her defeat, it was revealed that the demon was actually a beautiful young woman who had been cursed to live the life of a demon. The defeat set the woman free who, in turn, proposed to Lord Ayyappa.
He refused saying that he had been ordained to go to forest and answer the prayers of devotees. But, the young woman was persistent. So, Lord Ayyappa promised to marry her the day Kanni-Swamis (new devotees) stop visiting him with their prayers at Sabarimala.
The woman agreed to wait for him at a neighbouring temple. The woman is also worshipped today as ‘Malikapurathamma’ at a neighbouring temple. In honour of Malikapurathamma, Ayyappa does not receive any menstruating woman. Also, women chose not to visit Lord Ayyappa, for it would be an insult to Malikapurathamma’s love and sacrifice.
According to another version, given the arduous task that he undertook, Ayyappa shunned all worldly desires including contact with women. Many believe this was the reason why menstruating women were barred from visiting Sabarimala Temple.
The Supreme Court judgement
Putting an end to a centuries-old tradition, the Supreme Court ruled that women, irrespective of age, can enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. A five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, said that the provision in the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorised the restriction, violated the right of Hindu women to practice religion. It also said that patriarchy in religion cannot be allowed to trump the right to pray.
The bench comprised Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud gave the verdict in favour, Justice Malhotra, who penned a dissenting verdict, said the petition does not deserve to be entertained.
Till the Supreme Court struck down Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 declaring it unconstitutional, women of menstruating age (from 10 to 50 years) were not allowed to enter the temple.
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