SC ver­dict on Sabri­mala: Po­lit­i­cal par­ties play games

As the faith­ful protest the SC rul­ing on Sabari­mala, po­lit­i­cal par­ties play their games

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Sree­latha Menon

When the supreme court ruled that women of men­stru­at­ing age can­not be pre­vented from go­ing to the Ayyappa shrine in Sabari­mala, po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Ker­ala hailed it as a his­toric vic­tory for gen­der equal­ity. But now the streets of Ker­ala are full of men and women protest­ing against the court or­der and back­ing priests and the erst­while Pan­dalam roy­als who brook no change to tem­ple cus­toms.

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, Lord Ayyappa was the adop­tive son of the king of Pan­dalam, but re­nounced the throne and sta­tioned him­self atop a hill and came to be wor­shipped as a god. Since he was a sworn celi­bate, women of re­pro­duc­tive age are tra­di­tion­ally barred from the tem­ple. It’s a cen­turies’ old cus­tom. But mat­ters of be­lief and cus­tom don’t square up against the yard­stick of logic. While women of re­pro­duc­tive age are not al­lowed in the tem­ple dur­ing the fes­tive months, or Man­dalam, and when the tem­ple opens for the Vishu har­vest fes­ti­val, they may en­ter dur­ing the other months for cer­tain cer­e­monies and dar­shan. The court latched on this to say that if women can wor­ship dur­ing cer­tain months, there’s no rea­son they should not dur­ing cer­tain other months.

Now, par­ties like the BJP are seek­ing to tap into the anger of thou­sands of the faith­ful who are voic­ing their protest against the judg­ment. They are vow­ing to re­store the sta­tus quo. Shobha

Suren­dran, a BJP worker, says, “Will they ques­tion rit­u­als in other tem­ples in Ker­ala too and ask for uni­for­mity ev­ery­where?” An­other BJP mem­ber won­ders if ra­tio­nal­ists and non-tem­ple-go­ers would next de­mand that all tem­ples be shut down as re­li­gion and faith is not sup­ported by ev­i­dence or rea­son.

The Congress, too, af­ter wel­com­ing the judge­ment, has been out­do­ing the BJP and the RSS in crit­i­cis­ing the judg­ment and has em­braced the cause of pre­serv­ing the tra­di­tions of the an­cient tem­ple. Ker­ala Congress pres­i­dent Ramesh Chen­nithala has been ask­ing for a re­view pe­ti­tion. Congress lead­ers point out how the LDF gov­ern­ment brought in an or­di­nance when the supreme court or­dered the clo­sure of bars. But when it came to sen­ti­ments of peo­ple and their be­liefs, the Left gov­ern­ment wants to do noth­ing, say Congress lead­ers.

The Com­mu­nis­tled LDF gov­ern­ment of Ker­ala had al­ways sup­ported en­try of women. The case filed in court by an in­de­pen­dent body from out­side Ker­ala was op­posed by an af­fi­davit filed by the Ker­ala gov­ern­ment when the Congress was in power. When the CPM came to power, it changed the af­fi­davit and sup­ported en­try of women.

Now that the court has up­held en­try of women, the Left gov­ern­ment wants to stick to its stand. It has main­tained that it would now im­ple­ment the judg­ment when the tem­ple opens in Novem­ber for the fes­ti­val sea­son that lasts till Jan­uary.

How­ever, the mas­sive street protests have caused a sud­den change of heart, and chief min­is­ter Pi­narayi Vi­jayan in­vited priests, the Pan­dalam royal fam­ily and the Devas­wom board (which looks af­ter tem­ple ad­min­is­tra­tion) for talks on the ac­tion to be taken. The royal fam­ily and the oth­ers have snubbed this be­lated ges­ture and have said they would talk only if the gov­ern­ment files a re­view pe­ti­tion. (On Oc­to­ber 8, chief min­is­ter Vi­jayan re­it­er­ated that the state would not file a re­view pe­ti­tion; how­ever, the Nair Ser­vice So­ci­ety (NSS) has filed a re­view pe­ti­tion. Oth­ers have also done so.)

Vi­jayan had ear­lier openly chided the gov­ern­ment ap­pointed Devas­wom board pres­i­dent Pad­maku­mar for seem­ing to op­pose the judg­ment. Pad­maku­mar had ap­peared to be con­fused af­ter the judg­ment and had said that while the gov­ern­ment is duty bound to im­ple­ment it, no woman from his fam­ily plans to go to the tem­ple and vi­o­late an­cient cus­toms.

Apart from the fact that po­lit­i­cal par­ties are hap­pily fish­ing in trou­bled wa­ters in the state, the judg­ment has opened the doors to many ques­tions and has pitched rea­son against faith. The first ques­tion be­ing asked is whether a court can im­pose its will on mat­ters of faith. Peo­ple are feel­ing let down by po­lit­i­cal par­ties for fail­ing to put all the re­quired in­for­ma­tion about the shrine be­fore the court.

Ex­clu­sion of women from the shrine is cus­tom­ary for that shrine, while women are al­lowed to wor­ship in all other Ayyappa shrines in the state. Hence, peo­ple do not see this ex­clu­sion as in­dica­tive of in­equal­ity but as a tem­ple rit­ual that should not be dis­turbed. The BJP and Congress have been blam­ing the Left Front gov­ern­ment for fail­ing to put these facts be­fore the court.

The CPM’S re­sponse is un­der­stand­able: “We were al­ways for en­try of women. Why did the BJP, RSS or Congress not fur­nish enough de­tails to help the court un­der­stand their point of view? We did not stop any­one,” says a CPM leader.

Says Anil Ku­mar of the Congress:

The big­gest ques­tion is whether a court can im­pose its will over a mat­ter of faith. To hold up to rea­son what is a mat­ter of be­lief is a knotty para­dox. Some say courts should keep off that ter­ri­tory.

“We had given all these facts in our af­fi­davit to the court when we were in power but the left­ist gov­ern­ment with­drew it and gave an af­fi­davit ask­ing for en­try of women. But the lawyer ap­pointed by us was ar­gu­ing for the Devas­wom board even when the Left was in power.”

How­ever, Ku­mar has no an­swer to the ques­tion that the board was an ap­pendage of the reign­ing gov­ern­ment and hence its lawyer will also speak for the gov­ern­ment. But nei­ther BJP nor Congress both­ered to sup­port the tra­di­tion­al­ist views in court when the left­ist gov­ern­ment changed the af­fi­davit. Ku­mar says they will def­i­nitely sup­port the re­view pe­ti­tion in court though it does not want to ini­ti­ate it.

Aside of the power games be­ing played by par­ties over the is­sue, devo­tees have taken to the streets, while ra­tio­nal­ists and mostly non-tem­ple-go­ing elite are jus­ti­fy­ing the judg­ment. Malay­alam writer NS Mad­ha­van has in an es­say pointed out that the tra­di­tion is not so an­cient. He re­calls that in the 1930s, the Tra­van­core queen had vis­ited the tem­ple, a state­ment that has been slammed on Twit­ter by those who point out that the queen was quite old then. For­mer ad­vi­sor to the prime min­is­ter, TKA Nair, has pointed out that he vis­ited the tem­ple in 1940 as an in­fant and was fed rice for the first time as he sat on the lap of his very young mother.

Ra­tio­nal­ists look at the judg­ment in an­other way. Su­nil P Elayi­dam, a Sahitya Akademi award win­ning writer and ra­tio­nal­ist, speak­ing at a pub­lic func­tion re­cently said that tra­di­tions take on a dif­fer­ent mean­ing once we go into their ori­gins. “What is con­sid­ered a Hindu tra­di­tion has ex­changed hands from var­i­ous tra­di­tions like folk­lore, Bud­dhism, Shaivism and Vaish­nav­ism. How can you call any­thing as my tra­di­tion or a Hindu tra­di­tion?” he asks. The Sabari­mala tem­ple has had a Bud­dhist in­flu­ence pre­ceded by Shaivaite and Vaish­navite faiths. Hence to call it a Hindu tra­di­tion is it­self wrong, he says, sug­gest­ing that the tem­ple was prob­a­bly a Bud­dhist shrine. He also sug­gests that the be­lief has ori­gins in the lo­cal folk hero Ayyan and tra­di­tions should be seen in such a broader per­spec­tive to pre­vent un­nec­es­sary anger and feel­ings of be­trayal.

Many be­liefs and tra­di­tions have come from dis­tant lands and their ori­gins have been for­got­ten. For in­stance the tiny clay pyra­mids made to wel­come Ma­ha­bali dur­ing Onam cel­e­bra­tion had their ori­gins in an­cient Assyria, says Elayi­dam. “The leg­endary king Ma­ha­bali who Malay­alis are so proud of might have been a very old an­ces­tor of Sad­dam Hus­sein and his coun­try­men,” he says in a light vein.

Yet many malay­alis still won­der if tem­ple tra­di­tions should be tam­pered with in the name of re­form. Can rea­son com­pre­hend mat­ters of faith? There are tem­ples where men are not al­lowed to en­ter in Ker­ala. There are tem­ples where men dress as women to per­form a rit­ual. In a cer­tain tem­ple only men­stru­at­ing women are al­lowed to en­ter. In yet an­other tem­ple, women alone can en­ter the sanc­tum san­to­rum and do the pu­jas as priest­esses. In yet an­other one, fish and liquor are served as prasad. As Sobha Suren­dran asks: “Can you say that for the sake of uni­for­mity we should have fish of­fered in other tem­ples too?”

Most tem­ples fol­low dif­fer­ent rit­u­als. Will courts now tar­get them too? Sabari Ashra­mam state con­venor Shailaja Bibi says she is ready to die to pre­vent tra­di­tions from be­ing changed. “There is great power in the shrine and you can­not fool around with its rit­u­als.” She echoes the sen­ti­ment of many devo­tees to­day who feel dis­turbed by what they see as de­nial of their right to wor­ship in the way the de­ity wants them to.

Mean­while the Nair Ser­vice So­ci­ety, the royal fam­ily of Pan­dalam, and the priests of the tem­ple at Sabari­mala are all set to file a re­view pe­ti­tion in the court giv­ing all the leg­ends and be­liefs at the root of the ex­clu­sion of women in the shrine. The so­ci­ety is a body rep­re­sent­ing the Nair com­mu­nity of Hin­dus and has been lead­ing protests across the state against the judg­ment and the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to pro­tect the tem­ple and its tra­di­tions.

“There’s great power in the shrine and you can­not fool around with its rit­u­als,” says Shailaja Bibi (above), con­vener of the Sabari Ashra­mam. She says she is ready to die to pre­vent tra­di­tion from be­ing changed. It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by many devo­tees of the Sabari­mala shrine.

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