People seen at Pamba base camp of Sabarimala Temple (Vivek R Nair/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • It is clear that the Kerala government will stop at nothing to force the entry of young women into Sabarimala.

    In the first of a two-part article, the writer says how the Supreme Court ruling triggered a disastrous series of events where there were no winners, but many losers, most of all the Hindu women of Kerala.

The Sabarimala issue is one in which there are no winners, but many losers. Most of all, the losers are the faithful, especially Kerala Hindu women, who have had their beliefs trampled underfoot by an uncaring state. Almost nobody comes out of it smelling of roses, and it has been a disastrous series of events, the real import of which we don’t yet understand. However, it feels very much like a tipping point, although which way things will go is not yet clear.

While the proximate cause of the problems is the Supreme Court ruling on 28 September, there is a preponderant cause and a root cause, too. We can also think in terms of three different stakeholders, none of whom exactly covered themselves in glory: the Supreme Court, the communist Kerala government, and the BJP Union government.

The Supreme Court

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The proximate cause is the public interest litigation (PIL) that the court unwisely admitted: because those filing the case had no obvious locus standi. None of them were Kerala Hindus, or pious Ayyappa devotee women, who might have had a legitimate desire to visit the temple in their child-bearing years between 10 and 50. Instead, it was filed by several Delhi lawyers (four out of five of them later changed their mind once they understood the situation, but the court would not let them withdraw the petition, perhaps for technical reasons, perhaps because of the virtue-signalling opportunity).

There are plenty of concerns about the entire PIL process, wherein a fashionable cause can be brought to the Supreme Court directly: a situation unique to India. Comparable class-action suits in the US, for instance, have to wend their way for several years through lower courts, courts of appeal, etc, before the Supreme Court accepts it only if it is a constitutional matter. In India, on the other hand, anybody with an axe to grind and lots of money can hire a famous lawyer, get the case listed straight as a PIL in the SC, and have the court rule in their favour in a few months, damn the impact on society at large. It really isn’t in the ‘public interest’ after all, just a pet cause for the litigants.

The simplest thing regarding Sabarimala would have been for the Supreme Court to maintain the status quo ante. However, based on a narrow reading of their ambit, and influenced no doubt by current fads and the media, the courts chose to impose a ruling that is the very opposite of Solomonic: instead of being harsh but even-handed, it is harsh but one-sided, and doesn’t take the ground situation into account.

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This is the most glaring proximate cause; on reflection, the court should have rejected this PIL, but it was positioned as a ‘gender-rights’ issue, and presumably in the wake of #MeToo, judges too are eager to show how politically-correct they are with respect to this latest fashion.

The Supreme Court, in a rambling verdict, ruled on 28 September said that all women should be allowed free entry, regardless of consequences. The simple-minded focus on gender equality shows two things: a) the baleful the influence of Western fads and causes on the courts, b) the possibility that the court had made up its mind even before any arguments were heard.

The latter possibility is buttressed by two observations. There was an immediate uproar, and thousands of ordinary Kerala Hindu women, the purported ‘victims’ being given succour by the ruling, took to the streets in massive protests, because they felt their faith and traditions were under attack by outsiders. They were #ReadyToWait till they were 50, they said. The sight of thousands of ordinary middle-class mothers and grandmothers out on the streets should have been instructive.

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But the courts choose to ignore them, and set the hearing for the clutch of review petitions on 13 November, aware that the temple would open for Diwali on 5 and 6 November. If the process were fair, the hearing of the review petition should have been before Diwali, because once a single young woman entered, there would be a fait accompli, and the tradition would have been violated, to the chagrin of the faithful.

Indeed, there were startling battle scenes on the days the temple was open in October and earlier this month with large numbers of policemen in riot gear protecting certain female activists who were obviously not pilgrims, or driven by any need to pray. They were there to make a point. This prospect caused serious angst among the devotees, leading to scenes of unprecedented protests. There was chaos.

These law and order problems and the sentiments of the protesting women did not sway the court, and when they accepted the review petitions in camera on 13 November, the court did not stay their earlier judgment, which they could have while analysing the situation on the ground. On the contrary, they postponed the hearing of the review petitions to 22 January, which is after the Sabarimala season is over. They explicitly said there was no stay on the 28 September ruling. In other words, they were signalling the Kerala government that the latter should go ahead with its plans to bring in women activists, and perhaps that the review petitions would be thrown out.

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The impartial observer is forced to ask whether there is a pattern in the Supreme Court’s rulings in the recent past, generally in the wake of dubious PILs. There was the jallikattu ban, the dahihandi ban, the Diwali cracker ban – all of which were based on no scientific evidence, but all of which had the result of demeaning Hindu practices. The impression one gets is that court is simply sniping at the Narendra Modi government, possibly with a political agenda. Hindu sentiments are the collateral damage.

Kerala Government

There is a preponderant cause, which is the hostility of successive Kerala governments towards Hindus (and only Hindus) and in particular against the Sabarimala temple. Let us recall how in the 1950’s, the temple (which was then seldom visited) was set on fire by Christians seeking to grab the forest around it. The response of C Kesavan, the then-CM and Congress leader, was instructive: “Good. One more house of superstition burned down”.

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Successive Congress and communist governments have continued their step-motherly treatment of the temple. It became a cash cow for them, as the number of pilgrims grew exponentially in the 1980s and later, now reaching some 40 million a year, quite possibly the largest pilgrimage in the world. The governments simply siphoned off the entire revenue of donations by the faithful. And they did nothing to whatsoever improve the facilities.

It is unbelievable how much has been looted from pilgrims – hundreds of crores per year – without a paisa being spent on improving amenities for them. There is absolutely no organisation unlike in Tirupati: pilgrims are not able to purchase passes to enter at a given time and many end up spending 10-12 hours waiting in line for a glimpse of the sanctum; there are far too few toilets and bathrooms; there is not enough shelter from the sun and rain (the November-January season is relatively cold and the northeast monsoon is active).

There are feral pigs rooting in the muck, with fierce fangs; the whole area is a mess with mud, pig droppings, plastic, flowers, and human waste. There were photographs of young children sleeping propped up against garbage bins, others sleeping next to rooting pigs. These are people who have come from far and near, after 41 days of penance, have been overcharged for everything, been forced to walk 20 kilometres from the Nilakkal station to Pamba, then climb steep hills for 4-5 km to arrive at the sanctum. Only in India are pilgrims treated with such contempt.

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And indeed, the temple area has exceeded its carrying capacity because of no investment whatsoever for decades. Frankly, the emotion it induces is not bhakti but bibhatsa: the fortitude of the pilgrims who brave all this is astonishing.

None of this is beyond fixing: but it needs money, and more importantly, will. The money is there: the government commingle pilgrim offerings with government funds. The will is missing. It is ironic that this year, when the Pinarayi Vijayan government wanted to control the crowds for their own purposes, they have been able to create some kind of system of reducing the crush at the Sannidhanam. Why couldn’t they do crowd-control all these years?

It’s not just the communists who are hostile, but so are their alter-egos, the Congress. In Kerala, the Congress reflects Christian interests, which include the conversion of Western Ghats forest land to privately-owned Christian assets, especially plantations and resorts. There was the instance where the previous Congress chief minister said that he didn’t support a proposed rail link to Sabarimala because it would mean the loss of Christian land for the project!

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The actions of the Kerala government after 17 November, when the shrine reopened for the season, have been nothing short of extraordinary. They ordered the police to wear their boots in the Sannidhanam, hitherto a holy area around the sanctum sanctorum; there were startling photos of the police drying their raincoats on a clothesline erected just in front of the sanctum sanctorum. A Section 144 prohibitory order was issued, which forced all pilgrims to vacate the waiting sheds. They hosed down the entire area so that nobody could lay down a sheet and lie down.

Furthermore, in an act that could only have been intended to provoke, there were photographs of policemen standing on the hitherto sacrosanct 18 steps, with their back to the deity, hosing down the surroundings. So far as I know, the only person who had ever been entitled to climb the steps without the traditional irumudi is the officiating tantri. These are startling violations of tradition.

They started arresting pilgrims who had come after all the traditional penances: firebrand Hindu Aikya Vedi leader Sasikala teacher, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for MLA Surendran. Many pilgrims were arrested and summarily removed, their sentiments ignored. At least one pilgrim has been reportedly injured when police kicked him. The pilgrims who were merely chanting Ayyappa stuthis were set upon by the police.

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On the other hand, a local airport was turned into a sea of khakhi to protect a known rabble-rouser woman who had arrived from Mumbai. There was no question where the government’s sympathies lay. Meanwhile, they are treating pilgrims as criminals and terrorists (a communist minister, with a Christian name, actually called the pilgrims, terrorists).

This has all the signs of a simple agenda: desacralisation of the shrine. The Kerala government is planning to remove all sanctity, violate every rule there, and reduce it to an object no longer of reverence, but of disdain. It is as though they would like to turn the temple into an empty shell, devoid of sacredness, and kill off this religious tradition and pilgrimage. It is like a medieval attack of one religion on another: pious communists want to wipe out Hindus.

That would be quite natural for a communist government to do, but it is also a violation of the fundamental right to worship unmolested. The fact is that there appears to be no appeal against this assault: there is nobody the distressed pilgrims can turn to for help, as the courts are hostile. In these circumstances, it is quite possible that a few agents provocateurs can come into the picture. The idea may be to create a Bluestar-like situation, with violence used as an excuse for physically destroying the shrine using, possibly, military equipment.

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I have never seen a religious shrine treated with such contempt as Sabarimala. It is unbelievable in a democratic country. The entire might of the state has been brought to bear against an old temple, with its pious, unarmed, peaceable pilgrims being treated inhumanely. It is clear that the Kerala government will stop at nothing to force the entry of young women into the temple, come what may. Their contempt for the Hindu citizens of Kerala, who are protesting peacefully against unjust laws, much like Gandhi did salt Satyagraha, could not be clearer. The words 'apartheid' and 'pogrom' spring to mind.

Read part two of this article titled: Gross Miscalculation: Centre’s Silence On Sabarimala Unlikely To Damage The Left Politically In Kerala

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