In the name of ayyappa, devo­tees take to the streets in god’s own coun­try

Devo­tees are hold­ing protests in Ker­ala, even threat­en­ing to phys­i­cally stop women who come to Sabari­mala.

The Sunday Guardian - - Nation -

Ker­ala, which is still strug­gling to re­cover from the rav­ages of the del­uge in Au­gust, is fac­ing a sort of so­cio-po­lit­i­cal tur­moil over the en­try of women of all ages to the renowned Ayyappa tem­ple in Sabari­mala in the Western Ghat moun­tain ranges of Pathanamthitta dis­trict. As per a 1991 judge­ment of the Ker­ala High Court, women of men­strual age, 10-50, are barred from en­ter­ing the tem­ple as its pre­sid­ing de­ity, Lord Ayyappa, is con­sid­ered to be a “Naishtika Brah­machari” ( peren­nial celi­bate). How­ever, a five­judge Con­sti­tu­tion bench of the Supreme Court late last month over­ruled the HC and al­lowed all women ir­re­spec­tive of their age en­try into the shrine. Call­ing the cus­tom “al­most like un­touch­a­bil­ity”, the top court in a four- one judge­ment said “re­stric­tions can­not be treated as es­sen­tial re­li­gious prac­tice”. The only dis­sent­ing voice was that of Jus­tice Indu Mal­ho­tra, who said the “court should not in­ter­fere in re­li­gious prac­tices”. The Supreme Court took up the is­sue in Jan­uary 2016 af­ter a PIL by In­dian Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion chal­leng­ing the Ker­ala High Court’s judge­ment. The Tra­van­core Devas­wom Board ( TDB), which con­trols the af­fairs of over a 1,000 tem­ples in the state, Sabari­mala be­ing the most im­por­tant since over 50 mil­lion make the pil­grim­age ev­ery year, had ar­gued in the apex court that the ban on en­try of women aged 10 and 50 years was be­cause they could not main­tain “pu­rity” on ac­count of men­stru­a­tion. The board’s po­lit­i­cal mas­ters, suc­ces­sive govern­ments in Ker­ala led by the Congress (United Demo­cratic Front) and CPM (Left Demo­cratic Front), had taken dif­fer­ent po­si­tions in sup­port and against the ban on al­low­ing women to en­ter the Sabari­mala tem­ple.

Now it is the cur­rent LDF govern­ment’s stand in sup­port of en­try of all women that has led to mass protests, bor­der­ing vi­o­lence and provoca­tive speeches, which has cast a shadow over the im­pend­ing re­open­ing of the tem­ple sched­uled for Wed­nes­day, 17 Oc­to­ber, the first day in the Malay­alam month of Thu­lam. The monthly puja is for five days. Iron­i­cally, both the Congress and the BJP in the state had ini­tially wel­comed the SC judge­ment. Only the priests of the tem­ple from the Thazha­mon Madam and the erst­while royal fam­ily of Pan­dalam, of which Ayyappa be­longs to, ob­jected, say­ing en­try of women be­tween the age group of 10 and 50 was against the tenets of the tem­ple. What prompted the state BJP to start an ag­i­ta­tion is per­haps due to the ini­tial con­fu­sion within the govern­ment re­gard­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ver­dict. It first started with the CPM. Its MLA and cur­rent pres­i­dent of the TDB, A. Pad­maku­mar, first an­nounced that the board would move a re­view pe­ti­tion in the apex court chal­leng­ing the ver­dict. He did not stop there. Vow­ing that none of the women from his fam­ily would ven­ture out for the pil­grim­age, Pad­maku­mar be­came elo­quent when he talked about the “im­prac­ti­cal­ity of di­alec­ti­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism within the tem­ple”. Just a day be­fore this, for­mer pres­i­dent of the board and Congress leader Pra­yar Gopalakr­ish­nan too had said no women from his fam­ily would go to Sabari­mala. For that mat­ter, no women be­liever would dare to climb the hills, he had said, trig­ger­ing a con­tro­versy. How­ever, overnight Pad­maku­mar changed his stance, say­ing the board would not move a re­view pe­ti­tion. This was seen as giv­ing into CPM pres­sure, which was of the opin­ion that the govern­ment was con­sti­tu­tion­ally bound to make women’s en­try into the tem­ple pos­si­ble. But the fact of the mat­ter is that the TDB is an au­ton­o­mous body and hence its un­will­ing­ness to move court was seen as play­ing pol­i­tics, a “ques­tion of athe­ist com­mu­nist ver­sus

When some Hindu bod­ies ral­lied in sup­port of the priests and roy­als op­pos­ing the judge­ment and the govern­ment move to im­ple­ment it, state BJP too, as against its na­tional lead­er­ship, de­cided to join the fray. In view of the gen­eral elec­tion, Congress too joined the pro­tes­tors.

be­liev­ing Hindu”.

When some Hindu bod­ies, promi­nently the Nair Ser­vice So­ci­ety, ral­lied in sup­port of the priests and roy­als op­pos­ing the judge­ment and the govern­ment move to im­ple­ment it, state BJP too, as against its na­tional lead­er­ship, de­cided to join the fray. Not to be left be­hind in view of the gen­eral elec­tion, Congress too joined the band­wagon of pro­tes­tors. It is at this point that Chief Min­is­ter Pi­narayi Vi­jayan in­vited the priests and the roy­als for a round­table in an ef­fort to find an am­i­ca­ble so­lu­tion. How­ever, this fell through since the ag­i­ta­tors wanted first the govern­ment to move court or at least al­low the TDB to do so. This was not agree­able to the govern­ment. As ac­cu­sa­tions and counter ac­cu­sa­tions grew, the protest started to gather mo­men­tum. While the priests and the roy­als tried to stay above pol­i­tics, the pres­ence of BJP and Congress lead­ers among their ranks gave the im­pres­sion that the ag­i­ta­tion is more po­lit­i­cal than de­vo­tional. The CPM was quick to paint the ag­i­ta­tion as “a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to ham­per the unity of Ker­ala”. It also pointed out that the BJP govern­ment in Ma­ha­rash­tra did not wait for any con­cil­ia­tory moves, when the state high court trashed a 700-year- old tra­di­tion by al­low­ing women to en­ter the Shani Shing­na­pur tem­ple in Ahmed­na­gar dis­trict last year. Even as var­i­ous Hindu bod­ies pitch in by the day, the CPM and its var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions have started tak­ing out counter protests. The at­mos­phere is volatile with the BJP rally sched­uled to reach Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram on Tues­day. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, devo­tees are hold­ing protest in var­i­ous parts of the state, even threat­en­ing to phys­i­cally stop any woman who dares to come to Sabari­mala. In the ca­coph­ony, gen­uine voice of women devo­tees is drowned. Many may not want to break the tra­di­tion them­selves, but they are mostly against any­one stop­ping women devo­tees from go­ing to Sabari­mala. Strangely, no one knows who in God’s own coun­try cares for Lord Ayyappa and his devo­tees. But one thing is cer­tain. It needs only one woman to break this im­passe. It will be the young woman devo­tee, above 10 and be­low 50, who en­ters Sabari­mala on 17 Oc­to­ber.

REUTERS

Women hold plac­ards as they at­tend a protest march called by var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions against the lift­ing of ban by the Supreme Court, which al­lowed en­try of women of men­stru­at­ing age to the Sabari­mala tem­ple, in Kochi, on Satur­day.

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