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Sabarimala Row: Walking into a Wall

Sabarimala Row: Walking into a Wall

Above: Protests broke out across Kerala after the entry of two women into the Sabarimala temple/Photo: Kaviyoor Santhosh

In an attempt to come across as a Renaissance man, the Kerala CM not only mooted the idea of a Women’s Wall but enabled the entry of two activists into the Sabarimala temple, thereby singeing the state 

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala has been hit by a tempest over Sabarimala and part of the blame has gone to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Until January 1, people in the state had been discussing the government-sponsored “Women’s Wall” to be formed for the cause of Renaissance and wom­en’s empowerment. As expected, the Wall was a success, though it divided the society along communal lines.

The next day, people woke up to the news that two women activists, Bindu and Kanakadurga, had reached the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, claiming they were transgenders, with policemen protecting them. They spent ten minutes there and were escorted back. Soon Kerala was gripped by huge protests. In a later development, a woman from Sri Lanka entered the temple on January 4, becoming the third woman of menstruating age to offer darshan to Lord Ayyappa.

Vijayan, who portrayed himself as a “Renaissance hero”, is facing the brunt of criticism for throwing the state into turmoil. A 12-hour hartal called by Sabarimala Karma Samithi on January 3 was one of the most violent in two decades. While Sangh Parivar outfits assisted by the BJP continue to unleash violence, CPI (M) cadres aided by the police and a section of the minority community, have also taken to the streets. One person was killed, many houses destroyed and public property worth crores of rupees damaged. The main opposition Congress remains a mute witness in anticipation that it will benefit from the CPI (M) and BJP clashes.

The 620-km-long “Women’s Wall” from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram was used to bring the activists to the temple. Following their entry, the chief priest closed the sanctum sanctorum to perform a “purification” ritual. This act came in for criticism by the chief minister.

The government had made some abortive attempts earlier to bring young women to Sabarimala during the Mandala puja festival held from November 17 to December 27. Citing its constitutional responsibility to implement the September 28 verdict by the Supreme Court decreeing that women of all ages can enter the Sabarimala temple, the government hit back at protesters. But it is clear that it just wanted to create an impression that it is a progressive government even as it withdraws from making the final push. In the process, it has eroded the confidence of those who rep­osed faith in it.

The government even went to the extent of hatching conspiracies to bring activists to Sabarimala. Police officers were sent to Chennai and Madurai to escort them from their starting point. While two of them could reach within 500 m of the “18 Holy Steps” of the temple under police escort, a majority could not cover even half the way.

The police top brass had told the government that it cannot provide security to activists during the peak days of the Makaravilakku festival for which the temple was opened on December 30. The festival will conclude on January 20, two days before the Supreme Court revisits its September 2018 verdict.

While trying to exhibit its leftist and progressive credentials, the government has committed blunders. As no devotee of menstruating age turned up at Sabarimala, Vijayan was desperate to bring some activists there. In the process, the government brought “Kiss of Love” activist Rehna Fatima, and also Bindu and Kanakadurga. The police, under the leadership of Inspector General S Sreejith, went to the extent of camouflaging the women in police uniform.

Bringing one or two women under the cover of 5,000 policemen may be possible. But it is impossible to bring normalcy when the government continues to assist the activists in breaching custom. The government act prompted the High Court-appointed three-member surveillance committee comprising two retired judges and a DGP to come out against it. “While ensuring security for two women, the government is risking the safety of innocent pilgrims,” the committee’s report to the HC said.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said: “Pinarayi Vijayan is trying to get himself in the league of Renaissance leaders like Sri Narayaana Guru, Chattampi Swamikal and Ayyaguru. But he is not ready to pay the price for it. He is dividing the society on communal lines to reap political gains.”

“Whatever the government’s  measures, the protests will continue,” said BJP state general secretary MT Ramesh. BJP MLA and senior leader O Rajagopal said it was natural for people to react when their sentiments were hurt.

Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran’s statement following the  Mandala puja festival that the government did not want to bring any young women to Sabarimala and Travancore Devaswom Board President A Padmakumar’s request that no young woman go to Sabarimala during the peak season had left the impression that the government would not make the final push. Vijayan did not take them into confidence during the operation to bring Bindu and Kanakadurga to Sabarimala.

The chief minister’s reaction immediately after their entry into the temple was that the government had always taken the stand that it would provide security to those who wanted to come to Sabarimala. “I have stated that government will provide security to women who want to come to Sabarimala. Earlier, when two women arrived, there was protest. This time there was no protest,” he claimed. He said that they had not airdropped them and the women were trekking up the hill along with other devotees.

Hindu Aikyavedi leader KP Sasikala said: “We are questioning the double standards of the government. It did not take steps to evict 200-300 people belonging to the Jacobite faction from the church premises at Piravom and hand it over to the Orthodox faction despite an apex court order.”

Earlier, the chief minister said the government would fund a Women’s Wall which would have the participation of 50 lakh women, backing its stand on the entry of women at Sabarimala. When the abuse of power and misuse of money got challenged in the High Court of Kerala, the government gave an affidavit that it had earmarked Rs 50 crore for women’s empowerment and the amount could be utilised for the programme. But when there were widespread protests over the government misusing money while lakhs affected by the floods were still struggling to get a roof over their heads, he said that not a single rupee would be spent from the government’s exchequer for the Women’s Wall.

However, the government continued with its move for the Wall and engaged Anganwadi workers, Asha workers, self-help groups, government employees, teachers, techies, students, writers and activists to join hands in the Women’s Wall on January 1 and create the image of a “progressive Kerala”. But it is obvious that the chief minister has tied himself up in knots.