As I write this, Section 144 of the IPC, prohibiting the assembly of more than four persons, has been imposed in Sannidhanam, Pamba, Nilakkal, and Elavungal. It seems Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has a problem. Is it none other than Lord Ayyappan himself? Or, should I say, Lord Ayyappan as he is manifest at Sabarimala? For though he is worshipped in thousands of shrines across South India, it is in this remote temple complex inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve that the lord attracts the largest and most fervent flock of devotees. Some 15-30 million of them, throng to seek his darshan each year, most after a rigorous 41-day penance. Wearing black clothes, walking barefoot, abstaining from alcohol, meat, sex, and sleeping on the floor are among the rigours that the Sabarimala pilgrimage demands.
In 1991 the Kerala High Court forbade girls/women between 10 and 50 years from visiting this temple. The Supreme Court overturned that judgment on September 28 ruling the “selective ban on women” as “unconstitutional and discriminatory”. Many offended devotees felt this order was interventionist and unfair. In fact, the lone woman judge in the five-member bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, dissented: “It is not for court to interfere in religious practices even if it appears discriminatory. Notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion,” she opined. Indeed, a group of female devotees of the lord, started their “Ready To Wait” campaign in September 2016 to oppose the petition to allow women into the shrine.
On November 14, the apex court declined to stay its order of September 28, referring the many review petitions to the Constitution bench slated to meet on January 22, 2019. On November 15, Sabarimala reopened to devotees after the Mandalapooja. The darshans will continue till December 26, then again from Makara Sankranti (January 14) till Maha Vishuva Sankranti (April 14). The all-party meeting called on November 15 by Vijayan also failed to resolve the Sabarimala impasse. The Congress walked out, accusing the Communist government of forcibly entering women into the temple, thereby trampling on the sentiments of devotees. Ramesh Chennithala, Congress MLA and Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, said, “The CM was not ready to listen to us…the government will be responsible for all the untoward incidents that will happen in the shrine.” The BJP too walked out of the proceedings, leaving the Communists red-faced and isolated to face the political repercussions of Sabarimala on their own.
A huge posse of security personnel polices the premises: The more repressive and brutal the Communist state and police machinery, the more it risks an adverse backlash from people of Kerala. With huge crowds swamping the pilgrimage route, neither the safety of the few women who dare — or are instigated — to enter can be guaranteed, nor the likelihood of some untoward if not violent upsurge ruled out. Setting aside separate days or timings to allow women into the shrine is only likely to exacerbate the anger of the people.
Congress leader Chennithala accused Vijayan’s government of “playing to the tune of RSS-BJP”. Though this was the usual political finger-pointing, his statement might turn out, to Congress’s regret and discomfiture, truer than he might have imagined. BJP state chief PS Sreedharan Pillai warned that “the CM is going to pay high price for his arrogance over the issue.” The pilgrim season of the coming 64 days will prove crucial to the political fortunes of Vijayan and his Left Democratic Front (LDF) regime. Apparently, some 550 women have already registered online to exercise their rights to have the darshan of Lord Ayappan. It is now Vijayan’s responsibility to ensure that they are allowed inside the temple. But should he enforce the Supreme Court’s order, it will bring his government into a head-on collision with not only the Pandalam royal family and the head priest of the shrine, but with the BJP as well as the organised people’s resistance to the change of temple rituals and practices.
History has been rewritten in Indian state politics whenever the Hindu vote has consolidated, whether in UP, Gujarat, or more recently, in Assam or Tripura. The triggers may be varied — from Ram Janmabhoomi to Godhra to illegal immigrants. Hindus being a majority in most Indian states, the BJP has been the natural beneficiary of such a consolidation. The Supreme Court verdict, full of what some critics consider pompous grand-standing and virtue-signalling, may actually give the BJP the fillip it so desperately needs. Kerala Hindus thus far have resembled a house divided. Will that change now? Will insults and humiliation, along with anger and outrage, be the Molotov cocktail to overthrow Communist rule’s last bastion in India?