ANALYSIS / WOMEN ENTRY
TVM: Kannur strongman Pinarayi Vijayan might just be discharging his responsibilities as Chief Minister by finally creating the conditions for young women to enter Sabarimala. But, perceptions are also that he’s having his own agenda in Sabarimala and beyond, and is trying to polarise the society. What is clear is, he’s setting the agenda for action, taking matters forward, not faltering; and he’s not just satisfied with fighting the fires others have lit.
The LDF government handled the Sabarimala protests for the past couple of months with considerable restraint but in a firm manner. The RSS-NSS-BJP axis at work in Sabarimala and its roundabouts could not sustain the protests in the hills for long and climbed down, shifted base to the front of the state Secretariat and reached nowhere. All along, they claimed they achieved their end of not allowing young women entry to Sabarimala. That claim fell flat on Wednesday. Two women offered prayers in Sabarimala with police support. The Hindutva forces were caught napping.
A provocative call came from the Nair Service Society (NSS) leader G Sukumaran Nair a day ago, asking the CM to mind his business (“bharichal mathi”), and not poke his nose into matters relating to religion and faith. This carried with it the stamp of arrogance. He got a reply within hours — in the form of two women breaking the wall and offering prayers at the hill-top shrine with police help. A tradition at Sabarimala was uprooted in the small hours on Wednesday, January 2, 2019.
The tantri, Kandaru Rajeevaru, who threatened weeks ago that he would close down the temple and walk out, didn’t go that far. He closed the doors for an hour, performed a “purification” ritual, and the temple functioned normally thereafter. Doing more would have invited his immediate arrest and jailing for defiance of a Supreme Court diktat. Notably, not a single pilgrim among the large throngs in Sabarimala throughout the day made any protest after Wednesday morning’s women entry. Even the mild form of protests, sitting around in a Nama Japam at the Sannidhanam, too was seen to be a thing of the past. This left a message loud and clear. The real faithful have understood the game that was at play by a lethal combination of political and communal forces in Sabarimala in the name of protection of faith.
There is merit in the allegation by the Opposition and other detractors that the chief minister was dividing people and engaged in communal polarisation. With the NSS, the Pandalam “raja” and the RSS joining hands against the Supreme Court order and against the chief minister personally since September, what they aimed at was to fish in troubled waters. They seemed to succeed for a few days. Sabarimala went under their full control, with the tantri too being on their side. But, the chief minister, who returned from the UAE tour, was quick to call their bluff. He motored down to Pathanamthitta and made it clear at a public meeting — and at an earlier press meet too –that the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple belonged to the government and that the Travancore Devaswom Board, set up by the government, remained as the only authority to run the affairs of the temple. No one else had any other right other than in matters like safe-keep of the ornaments that would adorn the deity, the CM had ruled.
The Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple was originally a small prayer centre set up by the tribal communities in the hills along the Western Ghats in eastern Kerala long ago. A migrant family from Tamil Nadu, who lorded over the region for a period and is described as Pandalam “royal” family, took over the temple from the tribals. Later, faced with huge debt, the family sold the temple and the areas around it to the Travancore Royal Family. Still later, under a pact as part of unification of princely states in India after Independence, the ownership of the temple got transferred from the royals to the Kerala Government. The tantris of the temple hail from a brahmin family that had migrated to Kerala from Andhra Pradesh generations ago.
The plan of the NSS leadership, allegedly, was to create conditions for seizing political power, through its proxies in politics; if not now, later. The NSS carries with it an ill reputation for leading the Liberation Struggle against the first Communist government in the state in the 1950s under the chief ministership of EMS Namboodiripad, which led to the dismissal of the ministry by the Nehru-led Union Government, citing worsening of the law and order situation in the state.
The BJP, on its part, now hoped to at least spread its influence in the state. Seizing power in the state is still a mirage to the BJP.
It appeared that Pinarayi Vijayan walked two miles ahead of his detractors. He set the agenda after the Supreme Court verdict by taking a firm stand to back the court order. If the NSS and the BJP sensed an opportunity for mass mobilization, rather than sitting back and wait for the fate of the review plea in Supreme Court, the chief minister too was game with it. He seemed to have found that, an opportunity was at hand to him too to play his cards. Successful politicians seize the moment. Fools make an ass out of themselves. The CM’s assertion at the outset that his government will implement the SC order and would not go for any review plea, had a noticeable resolve and roughness. Whether it be the RSS or the NSS, they would not be allowed to have their way.
Noticeably, even while being tough, the chief minister has handled matters with tact. He waited for his turn but acted when the time came. Long years in politics helped him to understand as much: lie low and strike when the iron is hot. By moving things slowly and carefully, he ensured that things didn’t go out of hand. The LDF government earned praise for the patience it showed and for the steady restoration of law and order in and around Sabarimala. With arrests of some top BJP leaders in Sabarimala or thereabouts, like Sashikala teacher and K Surendran, and tightening the security around the hill shrine, up until Pamba and Nilakkal, the only choice before the BJP — and the NSS which worked from behind — was to effect a climb-down. While the NSS limited its role to shadow-boxing, the BJP shifted the venue of the protests to the front of the state secretariat. Leader after leader who sat on the satyagraha there made a laughing stock out of themselves. Hardly anyone cared for them; and least of all by the government.
The government, the Devaswom minister, the CPI(M) leadership and the LDF adopted a low profile for weeks, and avoided raising the political temperature on their own. The UDF constituents like the Muslim League, as also the Kerala Congress, lay low; other than for occasional comments to the media, they sat back and enjoyed the fight that was going on.
By contrast, the LDF as a whole, more noticeably the CPI(M) and the CPI, displayed a rare sense of unity on the Sabarimala issue. CPI’s Kanam Rajendran, who has a penchant to pontificate, resisted such attempts this time. The unity in the LDF was by itself a disappointment to the Opposition as also the BJP. With veterans R Balakrishna Pillai and MP Virendrakumar forming part of the LDF, its moral strength grew. Substantial additions to this strength came at the ground level from pro-Muslim Indian National League, and a break-away faction of the pro-Christian and pro-farmer Kerala Congress. CK Janu, a tower of strength, too stood by the government and participated in the Women Wall. Together, the LDF seemed unassailable, at least for now.
The Congress leadership in the state has not been able to effectively intervene, let alone wage a fight. Infighting in the party is high. Some of its leaders, known for their corrupt deals and hence lack public support, made some sounds but to no effect.
The attempt by the NSS and the BJP was to keep women in the forefront of the Sabarimala protests in city after city and eventually prepare the ground for a political gang-up. The counter from the chief minister and the LDF — which favoured women entry in Sabarimala — was to demonstrate that most women in Kerala, the base of Ayyappa cult, supported the apex court order and are against the ban on young women in Sabarimala in the name of faith and spirituality. It was amply proven on January 1, when about half a crore of women came out and stood in the streets in a human chain from south to north, that as much women in the state disapproved of the RSS-NSS-BJP attempts to disrupt the sanctified atmosphere in Sabarimala.
With the CM, the government and the LDF getting a resounding Yes from the multitudes on January 1, it was time for the government to take matters to the logical next level. The CM’s announcement that the police provided protection to the two women who entered Sabarimala and offered prayers meant the government has decided to take the bull by the horns. The vigil in Sabarimala by the protesters had died down. They were caught napping. BJP leader PS Sreedhran Pillai was bitter in his counter-attack. He said there was an act of treachery on the part of the CM. As long as the CM lay low and played along, it was fine with Pillai. But, he has not explained as to how the protesters’ vigil had ended midway through the Sabarimala pilgrimage season.
By creating conditions for young women to go in and offer prayers, the CM and the government had their way. There now is reassurance to the Supreme Court that the government is capable of implementing the court’s order, whatever it be.
Some violence is likely in the coming days, but more young women are bound to enter Sabarimala and offer prayers in the coming days. Like the several other traditions imposed in the past by casteists and broken in due course of time, this practice in Sabarimala too could end, thanks to the apex court order. The games by politicians and communalists over Sabarimala would continue for more time. They have come out in the open now and are openly baying for what they were secretly attempting at for long – force the CM out of office.
The Supreme Court will consider the review plea on January 22, two days after the Sabarimala shrine closes after the Mandala Makara Vilakku festival. The chief minister has gone on record to say that if the apex court comes up with a different order, his government would stand by that.
The day saw protests in the streets by BJP men, in the capital as also in Kochi and elsewhere, but they were low-key. The high priests of Hindutva, including the NSS chief, spoke in low tones Wednesday. Clearly, they had not anticipated such a bad turn at the height of a well-publicized grandstanding which went on till Tuesday. The victory is for India’s much vaunted judicial system, whose words prevailed despite massive resistance by misguided elements.
The CPI(M) machinery is well-positioned to face its political rivals, unlike in the past few weeks when they were restrained in their actions if only to avoid creating law and order situations. That might not be a worry for them anymore. With a show of massive public support for the government’s stand on January one, it might be time for the party to prove a point as well and confront the protesters in the streets. Orders are out from the DGP to the police to arrest and fine those who engage in destruction of public property in the coming days. IHN-NN