Kerala, Nov 28, 2019: The Sabarimala temple imbroglio has become a hot potato not even state agencies want to handle. Unlike the situation in September 2018, when the state government had ensured police protection to female devotees after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on allowing women of all ages entry into the sanctum sanctorum, this 2019 season has been marked by no such safeguards as to Yahoo.
In other words, in the name of religion, the "prohibitionists" now have a free hand. They can arbitrarily stop women before they even reach the foot of the hill where the pilgrimage begins €" and no one can question them. Women in the 10 to 50 age group have been asked to apply for permission and protection from the police if they want to enter the shrine; invariably, they are turned down. As one police officer noted, "By the time they apply and their applications are considered, the three month season will be over."
Faith vs Rights has devolved into a political chess game in Kerala with all the usual players taking sides and trying to win over vote banks. Having burnt his fingers on the issue in 2018, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared he would not take any action this year to offer protection to women. To justify this, he used the need to examine the new ruling of the Supreme Court as an excuse. Although the women were still legally entitled to enter the temple, Vijayan said he will wait for the ruling of the larger constitutional bench to which the case had been referred. This virtually signifies the state government washing its hands of the affair. And so, women who wish to enter the shrine continue to be deprived of their constitutional rights €" despite having a court ruling in their favour.
Things this season came to an ugly pass on 26 November, when Trupti Desai returned to Kerala, announcing her intention to enter the shrine. (Last year, she had to turn back because the crowd which gathered to oppose her was too big to handle.) She was refused permission to even attempt entry; in some part at least this may be due to Desai symbolising the perception of activists as "troublemakers".
Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran had said even before the 2019 season started, "This [Sabarimala] is not a place for activism. This is not a place for activists like Trupti Desai to show their strength. We won’t take them in. Let them go get a court order."
Meanwhile, Bindu Ammini, who had managed to enter the shrine last year, was attacked with chilli and pepper spray right outside the Police Commissioner’s office. She had gone there along with Trupti Desai’s team to request permission to enter the temple.
The stage for this violence was set even before the hilltop shrine opened. Pro-taboo vigilantes said they would use "democratic" means to prevent "activist women" and "feminazis" from entering their sacred shrine. Obviously, they were not willing to acknowledge the democratic right to enter which the highest court in the land had granted to all women irrespective of their age, caste, community, political leaning or religious beliefs. The women who wanted to assert their right to pray had to wait and watch how things would pan out.
When Sabarimala temple was opened this season on 17 November, around 10 women from the "taboo" age group were turned away by the police. A couple of days later, a 12-year-old girl from Puducherry was stopped because her papers showed she had crossed the lower age cut-off limit (10 years) for "allowing" women into the temple. Policewomen held the weeping girl back and promised her agitated father they would look after her till he returned. When he asked how they would ensure his daughter got darshan of the Lord for whom she had observed all the rituals for a month, he got no answer.
It’s still early days €" the Sabarimala season continues till mid-January. But the message has already been delivered: No person in authority, no government official, no police personnel is going to protect a woman who is of "menstruating age" if she tries to enter the shrine.
The irony is that until the courts and politicians got their hands on the issue, Sabarimala was a peaceful shrine. The ban on the entry of women of menstruating age was introduced in 1951, but it was a porous taboo. Women who wanted to visit the temple went anyway, and no one really stopped them. No one asked them for age proof or harassed them.
But everything has changed after last year’s court ruling. Instead of strengthening the rights of the women, the ruling actually turned into a weapon of attack. Motley crowds of people claimed it was their right to defend what they called their faith. They illegally prevented women from entering Sabarimala. Female journalists who went to cover the pilgrimage were attacked because they were in the taboo age group. So were women who had come from other states believing the court had given them the right to enter the shrine.
The Sabarimala row highlights all that can go wrong when courts and politicians get involved with religion. Faith is supposed to heal, not harm; include not reject. But try telling politicians that. Faith for them is a means of packaging vote banks. In Kerala they have gone a step further: turned Hindu against Hindu and women against women €" all in the name of faith.