Sabarimala verdict: Missteps on God’s stairway

Delhi, India Oct 18, 2018, 09.45 AM(IST) Written By: Shastri Ramachandaran

Police escort Madhavi and her family members after she was heckled by protesters. Photograph:( PTI )

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The SC order in the Sabarimala case upholds the constitutional objective of access for all Hindus to all Hindu temples. That sections of Hindus are still excluded from other temples does not in any way undermine the validity or force of the SC order.

It is strange, if not unholy, that the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which runs the Sabarimala shrine of Lord Ayyappa, resists implementing the Supreme Court’s order on allowing entry to women of all ages but has no qualms whatsoever in being dictated to by political forces like the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

While the BJP and the Shiv Sena are at the forefront of a political campaign to obstruct implementation of the SC’s September 28 judgment, the Congress, too, by joining the street protests has shown that it is no less a Hindu party.

The rationale of those adding their voice and presence to the Hindutva-led campaign against women between 10 and 50 years entering the Ayyappa temple is that if this is going to hurt the Left Democratic Front (LDF), then there is no reason to let the BJP and Hindutva outfits succeed as sole beneficiaries of the agitation. The faux Hindutva and soft Hindutva parties too want to benefit from the fallout of this unreasonable agitation. The attempt to ratchet up the protests may well be to test the potential of the agitation to be blown up as an Ayodhya-type conflict. With the difference that it would be a case of Hindus versus Hindus spawning conditions for violence. And, any resultant political instability arising from the socio-cultural and religious conflict which weakens the ruling coalition can only benefit the Hindutva (not all Hindu) forces.

Therein lies a prescription for turbulence in one of India’s most orderly states which ranks high in many measures of Human Development Index, especially literacy, education and socio-economic inclusiveness of the weaker sections, minorities and migrant labourers. 

Sadly, the TDB, vested with the sacred duty of managing the temple, appears to be a willing accomplice in the political game now underway where it has ranged itself against those who stand for upholding a constitutionally valid and legally binding order of the Supreme Court. 

This is a fraught situation and the gathering agitation is unjustified by any yardstick: Constitutional, religious and political. 

To take the constitutional aspect, Article 26 states: “Every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right (a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; (b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.” The preceding article holds that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. However, “(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making […] (b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

Thus, the SC order in the Sabarimala case upholds the constitutional objective of access for all Hindus to all Hindu temples. That sections of Hindus are still excluded from other temples does not in any way undermine the validity or force of the SC order. Besides, Ayyappa worship is not a separate religion.

The dissenting judge on the five-member bench, Justice Indu Malhotra held that “In a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.” Here, “ordinarily” may be the operational word. Had this been the first instance of the matter coming to court, Justice Malhotra’s opinion could have been given effect to before the case was admitted for hearing. However, it was by law (in 1972) and by a Kerala High Court order(in 1990) that women’s entry was banned. A court had already “interfered” and its interference accepted because the outcome was acceptable. That verdict being undone by a (superior) court cannot be rejected because the order does not suit the self-appointed keepers of the faith and a section of Ayyappa devotees.

As a religious custom and practice (not law) of faith, the TDB has been complicit in violations. It had allowed a film to be shot with actresses dancing on the sacred 18-step stairway to the shrine’s sanctum sanctorum. VIPs and film stars, among others, in the “offending” age group, have been allowed entry to the temple. 

This flies in the face of the TDB’s claims of upholding a sacred and holy tradition. Thus, on religious grounds, too, there is no basis for resisting the SC order. In fact, the SC order does not force anyone to either go to or keep away from the temple. Those between 10 and 50 years, who wish to keep away from Lord Ayyappa’s shrine, are free to do so. 

Diversity is much more than merely sustaining conditions for multiple faiths to flourish. It is also about allowing faith to be professed and practised in multiple ways. Each to her own faith, implies each one’s right to follow her own path to her Ishta Devata. How faith should be manifest cannot be dictated, least of all by political groups.

Politically, the unrest being fomented on the issue reeks of hypocrisy and exposes the crude attempt of narrow-minded opportunists to stoke sectarian sentiments. In 2016, the BJP, the Congress and other parties, hailed the court verdict allowing women entry up to the restricted grave area of the Haji Ali Dargah. They commended the women activists who had gone to court. In stark contrast, these Hindu parties are now fighting for gender discrimination in Hindu religious practices and institutions for which there is no basis whatsoever.

What is it about Hindu parties and their politics that makes them champions of Muslim women’s rights and equality, but opponents of Hindu women’s rights, especially when it comes to religious institutions and practices?

An honest answer to this question may also answer why political forces with their roots and patrons far beyond Kerala are involved in whipping up emotions over women’s entry to a small shrine on a hillock in the southern state. Is it the opportunity to trigger a Samudramanthan to release the politico-religious toxins required for the coming assembly and Lok Sabha elections? 

The answers are blowing in the wind.

(This article was originally published on DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)