The southern state of Kerala has turned into a battleground for religious traditionists and modern reformists since September last year when the Supreme Court opened the gates of the Sabarimala Temple and lifted the shrine’s ban on women in the age group of 10-50, saying it was violative of their fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees.
The majority judgment — delivered by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice RF Nariman, and Justice DY Chandrachud — outlawed the ban of women at Sabarimala temple. That the female judge on the bench Justice Indu Malhotra was the sole dissenting judge who favoured traditional practices says much about how divided people are when it comes to judicial interventions in religious matters.
Reading out the judgment also on behalf of Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Chief Justice Dipak Misra, said that subversion of women's rights under the garb of physiological phenomenon cannot be allowed.
“All devotees are equal and there cannot be any discrimination on the basis of gender,” Misra said.
Activists say it is unfair that Sabarimala, which has a tradition of welcoming people of all faiths be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christians, remains out of bounds for women devotees despite the court ruling. While some women visitors reached the temple in recent days only to be attacked by hundreds of protestors, others chose to remain away driven by faith and age-old religious customs.
The state has witnessed large-scale violence since January 2 when two women in the menstruating age offered worship at the temple. The Kerala Police has registered 1,286 cases in which 37,979 people are accused following the widespread violence that followed the women’s entry.
Protesters argue that the court ruling goes against the wishes of the temple's deity, Lord Ayyappa. Traditionalists believe the ban on women entering the temple is more than just menstruation. They believe it is in accordance to Lord Ayyappa’s wish who laid down clear rules about the pilgrimage to seek his blessings.
Mythology says Lord Ayyappa is an avowed bachelor who has taken an oath of celibacy, and so the justified absence of women. The controversy around the shrine exposes the tussle between the country’s traditionalists and reformers, with some celebrating the liberal values of the judgment and others upset with judicial interference in matters of faith.
Political commentators claim various parties are now fishing in the troubled waters of Kerala given the parliamentary elections this year.
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) argues that the SC ruling does not respect tradition, custom and sentiments of the people and has been aggressively campaigning on Sabarimala supporting the temple’s ban on women of menstruating age. Critics say the party is eyeing the Hindu upper cast vote with its campaign.
The BJP may be hoping to open its account in Kerala, the only state where the party is yet to win a parliamentary seat, with support for the Sabarimala ban as claimed by its state president.
BJP President P.S. Sreedharan Pillai claimed that the Sabarimala issue provides a "golden opportunity" for the BJP to grow in Kerala.
Pillai also said that the Sabarimala issue provided a "golden opportunity" for the BJP to expand its political footprint.
The Kerala police has registered a case under non-bailable charges against him soon after his comments.
Meanwhile, the Left Democratic Front government led by the CPI-M has been trying to implement the verdict even as the Congress, the BJP and several Hindu groups are up in arms against it.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has stood rooted to the stand that there is no other go but to abide by the court ruling.
“Had the ruling been otherwise, we would have stuck to that, as the state government has no vested interest at all. No one should forget that we are a party with many women members. We have always said that we are not at all determined to take women to Sabarimala. We only did as any state government would have done after a ruling of the Supreme Court," Vijayan.
But state BJP president P.S.Sreedharan Pillai slammed Vijayan's party for all the happenings in the state.
The All India Sabarimala Action Council recently said the current law and order situation in Kerala is a direct result of actions taken by the 'Marxist' Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and demanded his resignation and an apology "for his actions against the Hindus and Sabarimala devotees in particular".
"Right from the beginning of the Sabarimala issue, the Marxist party and the Chief Minister have been taking a stand to politicize the issues for their benefit. Their policy has been to destabilize the Hindu religious practices, temples and such other spiritual institutions so that Hindus are demoralized and are divided," Swami Chidananda Puri said while addressing the media.
He added the steps taken by Vijayan's Communist Party of India are just to appease a section of minority communities so as to get their political support.
"No women devotee, in the age group of 10 to 50, has ever attempted to enter the Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court judgement of September 28, 2018. But the Kerala Chief Minister is determined to implement the order, which even the Supreme court has decided to review on January 22, 2019 in an open court, in order to achieve his political intentions, irrespective of the devotees' beliefs," he said.
Puri said the Sabarimala devotees are not against any women or feminist movement and that they have only put in place the restriction due to the age-old practice of the Sabarimala temple.
"The limited restriction on the entry of women from 10 to 50 years, in the Sabarimala Temple, is a matter of religion and religious faith and practice, and the fundamental principles underlying the 'prathishtha' of the Sabarimala Temple, as well as the custom and usage of worship of the deity there, Lord Ayyappa," he said.
Condemning both the BJP and the CPI-M, Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress said these two groups, one which is in power in the state and the other at the Centre are hand-in-glove to create a ruckus in Kerala.
"The need of the hour is that both these groups should ensure that peace return to Kerala," Chennithala said.
In the violence that broke out, the homes of BJP Rajya Sabha member V. Muraleedharan and several other BJP leaders were attacked, as were the residences of top CPI-M leaders including, party legislator A.M.Shamsheer.
The approximate damages caused due to the violence has been estimated at around Rs 10 crore, with close to 100 state owned-buses also being damaged.
Perhaps the Kerala government could take a leaf out of Maharashtra’s Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district. In 2016, there was tension in the town for about 40 days over a similar issue but it was resolved with maturity and discussion.
The 400-year-old Shani temple has a sanctum sanctorum where women were not allowed in, but through dialogue, they gained entry into the sanctum sanctorum in 2016 without any violence.
In Shani Shingnapur, villagers had their own reasons to argue that women should not enter the temple – they believe that as a brahmachari, Shani does not welcome women devotees. For 40 years, women had not been allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum, but through dialogue with village elders and religious leaders, this was changed.
With the Sabarimala temple now set to close on January 20, all eyes are now on the Supreme Court, which is set to hear on January 22, the numerous revision petitions against its September 28, 2018 verdict. Sabarimala is testing the faith, rationality and fundamental rights of a country. One hopes the abode of God remains a shining example of inclusiveness, not clouded by division.