As The Gates To Sabarimala Temple Open, Here’s The Issue As It Stands 

As The Gates To Sabarimala Temple Open, Here’s The Issue As It Stands Women take part in a protest against the SC’s verdict. (Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) Right, protesters burn posters of Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan. (Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The Sabarimala shrine has opened today for the first time since the Supreme Court’s judgement on it last month. As of now, here is how the conflict has developed.

The country today woke up to the pictures of the state using brute force to overpower women camping along the roads leading to Sabarimala, Kerala, to prevent women of reproductive age from entering Lord Ayyappa’s adobe.

The Sabarimala temple opens today for the first time since the Supreme Court, in a controversial ruling, overturned a centuries-old tradition restricting the entry of women in their reproductive age, into the shrine. The ruling, with which the only woman in the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court dissented, has triggered protests throughout the state and these are led by women themselves.

Those against the Supreme Court’s move have argued that the primary objective of the practice was to preserve and honour the celibacy of the deity, Lord Ayyappa. During the hearing in the case in the Supreme Court, lawyer J Sai Deepak, representing a non-profit organisation called ‘People for Dharma’, put forward evidence from various religious texts before the bench, establishing the celibate nature of the deity. He stated that the charge of discrimination against women would’ve been justified had the entire focus of the practice would have been to keep “all women” out, but that’s not the case.

Sai Deepak said that the issue was not about “temple vs women” or “men vs women”, but “men v men” and “women vs women”. If the petitioner’s contention were allowed, then men who don't observe the 41-day vow can also claim right of entry into the temple citing Article 25(1) of the Constitution. A Hindu might say that he wants to offer meat to Lord Ganesha citing Article 25(1) and so on. (Read: ‘People For Dharma’ Lawyer Leaves Court Spellbound; Here Are His Arguments)

By many accounts, thousands of protesters have gathered in areas around the shrine. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has deployed 1,000 police personnel, including women, around Sabarimala and at the two base camps in Nilakkal and Pamba. While Nilakkal is around 18 km away from the temple, the base cap at Pamba is 5 km away.

The Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Samithi, a group formed by the erstwhile ruling family of Pandalam, said that protests will continue across Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka till the Supreme Court’s ruling was rectified. Ayyappa Seva Sanghams in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka will also organise protest marches.

As protests intensified, the chief priest of Sabarimala temple, Maheshwararu Tantri, warned of violence. V K Narayanan, chief of the forest dwellers, is leading tribals in the protests. Agitations in Nilakkal and Pampa are being led by the members of the Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithi. Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad president Pravin Togadia has called for a hartal in the state. Rahul Easwar, a member of the Sabarimala priest’s family, has also led protests. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are holding protests at Pamba and Nilakkal too. Travancore Devaswom Board president Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who was participating in the protest at one of the base camps, has been taken into custody.

Hundreds of women are protesting peacefully at the base camps. Women protesters, mostly tribals and Dalits, held pictures of Lord Ayyappa and chanted hymns. However, reports said stones were pelted on a bus carrying women devotees to the temple when the police did not allow the protesters to check the vehicle. Earlier, the protesters had turned away a journalist named Libi C S from Kerala, who had reached close to the shrine. Another woman from Andhra Pradesh was prevented from reaching Sabarimala. Protesters have said to have attacked The News Minute and Republic TV journalists. Some have even threatened suicides. In judicial protest, Kerala Brahmana Sabha has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court.

The demonstrations have intensified today (Wednesday) as it is the day when the temple opens for its ‘Thulam’ (Malayalam calendar month) pujas, at 5 pm. This will be the first time that the temple would open after the controversial ruling. It remains open for devotees for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar and during the annual mandalam and makaravilakku festivals in November and January. In this stint, it will remain open until 22 October. Multiple women activists are likely to try reaching the shrine on or before this date.

The LDF government has remained supportive of the Supreme Court’s decision. Presenting it as an issue of discrimination against women, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that female devotees have the same rights as men. He had stated that the "government won't file a review petition in the court and would facilitate all women who wish to enter Sabarimala at any cost".

The Congress, however, has not articulated its stand unambiguously. Its position on the entry of women in the temple is also not clear till date. However, many leaders have come out individually in support of the protesters. While Kerala assembly opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has slammed Vijayan for his haste in implementing the verdict, the national leadership has remained silent.

The BJP has been against the dilution of the tradition and its cadre in Kerala has joined the protesters. The party has demanded that the state government file a review petition in the apex court. P S Sreedharan Pillai, the Kerala state president of the BJP, has questioned the government’s haste in implementing the verdict. “The Chief Minister is trying to destroy the belief systems of devotees deliberately,” he has said. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in a statement last month, called for a review of the Supreme Court’s verdict.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, which enjoys support of the state’s Ezhava community (nearly 23 per cent of Kerala’s population), has appeared supportive of the LDF government’s stand. It has termed the protests as unfortunate and inappropriate, accusing the BJP and the Congress of trying to bring down the state government by fuelling protests against the apex court’s order. General Secretary of the outfit, Vellappally Natesan, criticised the protesters saying that they have so far refused to hold any consultations with any other Hindu sects including Ezhava community and the SCs and STs.

“Are they aiming at a liberation movement? SNDP Yogam will enter the field to disclose the reality behind the strikes by cooperating with others having similar stand,” he said.

The family of the chief priest of the shrine, the tantri, has been against allowing women of reproductive age to enter the temple. In a snub to the state government last month, the family had refused to participate in a meeting called by the Chief Minister to discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling. Members of the family, including the chief priest, have come out against the ruling. The Pandalam royal family too is against the implementation of the verdict and has criticised the government for not filing a review petition. Members of both families have participated in the protests today and some were arrested by the police.

Different temples in India have their respective histories and traditions. The question is, if the Indian state interferes in the religious practices of one of them, who can stop it from interfering in the traditions of other temples tomorrow? Through the Sabarimala judgement, the judiciary has already placed events on a slippery slope. The protesters in Sabarimala and throughout India may now decide that they would let it slip only so far.

With inputs from Ashwin Mohan.

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