By Dr. George Jacob
Kochi, Dec. 13, 2018: The Supreme Court on September 28 lifted the ban on women of menstruating age (10-50) from entering the Sabarimala Temple. This practice has been in place for years. Why did the Court rule thus? Was it to further gender equality? If so, the ruling deserves to be implemented in right earnest.
Surely the learned court would not have lifted the ban to provoke unrest among the faithful, whose belief in the celibacy of Lord Ayappa is unshakeable and unquestionable, as is restriction on women to pray in mosques in Islamic faith, and beliefs in virgin birth and resurrection of Christ in Christianity are.
This unique temple is known for its secular nature, with people of all religions and castes worshiping the celibate deity Lord Ayappa most peacefully. Pilgrims planning to worship at the temple lead an ascetic life by renouncing all worldly pleasures for 40 days before the pilgrimage.
The controversial ruling stirred the hornet’s nest especially in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the temple stands. Allowing women of menstrual age group to worship at the temple was simply unacceptable to the common man, especially among Hindus, including Hindu women. They refused to buy the welcome prospect of doing away with the archaic patriarchal system of a Hindu’s scheme of things. To them, celibacy of Lord Ayappa remained firmly uncompromising. It was sacrosanct.
The 18 steps that lead up to the temple represent our faith and our life’ they persisted. Initially, the unrest and protest against the unthinkable possibility of women of every age worshipping at the temple was limited to the truly faithful and apolitical among Hindu devotees.
Once their disillusionment became palpable, politicians of every hue in the state smelt blood- a golden opportunity to bank on to garner precious Hindu votes. Lord Ayyapa abruptly became a vote-vending source. They took to the streets with ruthless determination and venom to make the best of the God-sent opportunity to garner votes.
Is there an emotionally appealing agenda better than religion to drum up mass awakening? Irrespective of color of their flags and ideology, the parties took it upon themselves to ‘save Sabarimala’, except of course the Leftist alliance-the LDF governing Kerala, which was determined to have the court’s ruling implemented.
As if, as a governing alliance, it had showed similar determination and urgency to abide by other rulings, more relevant to the state’s progress pronounced by various courts! Atheism by which the communists swear by ran incongruent to the Kerala Chief Minister’s adamancy to have women worship at the temple.
The political outfit that decided to take advantage of the majority Hindus’ disillusionment and hurt at the court ruling and the Kerala government’s surprising insistence to have the court ruling implemented was the rightwing BJP and its sister concerns- the VHP, and RSS. To the Sangh Parivar, this seemed an ideal platform to make their presence felt in one Indian state that had resisted the advance the NDA ruling at the centre had made all over India.
These rightwing forces took to the streets tearing into the uninterested common man’s right to normal life by calling hartals and disrupting traffic on major highways. Their henchmen pretending to be pilgrims created havoc by mingling among the gullible pilgrims to orchestrate anarchy by defying law and order and inciting violence in and around the once peaceful temple, which was heartlessly converted into a battlefield.
Coconuts they carried as offertory were used to inflict physical hurt in the mêlée. Blood was spilt on the sacred 18 steps that led up to the temple. Public property was damaged. Section 144 of the IPC was clamped around the temple to prevent organized anarchy. Leaders of the rightwing forces forced their way into the temple in the pretext of worshipping.
The firebrand Hindu Aikya Vedi Chairperson Sasikala teacher and BJP General Secretary K. Surendran were taken into preventive custody by the government to prevent them from inciting violence and anarchy against the court ruling which they were perfectly capable of. The state government left no stone unturned to rein in the mischief mongers. Thripti Desai, a gender equality activist and founder of Bhumata Brigade, a Pune-based social activist organization and her entourage on their way to Sabarimala was gheraoed at Kochi airport by rightist goons masquerading as ‘devotees’ and pilgrims chanting ‘Samiye Sharanam’.
The Kerala chief minister became the most hated figure among the rightists for the tough stand he pursed in the interest of state’s peace and communal amity. Leaders of the opposition-the Indian National Congress too joined the ‘save Sabarimala’ drama most hypocritically by proceeding to the temple precincts defying section 144 clamped in the region. What if their inaction and indifference resulted in loss of precious Hindu votes? They too shed crocodile tears.
The Travancore Dewaswom Board (TDB) administering the temple was caught between the devil and the deep sea. The mid-August floods that had practically ripped apart Kerala had caused considerable damage to facilities at the temple and around the trail leading to it unable to cater to thousands of pilgrims expected. This, along with the warlike situation at the temple, purposefully brought about by the political parties, especially the rightists resulted in sharp fall in the number of pilgrims visiting the temple causing the TDB lose precious money running into millions that the temple used to generate as offerings.
The loss at the time of writing at the beginning of the pilgrimage season is already 140 million rupees. Coffers of the transportation sector and small businesses viz; hotels, lodges and kiosks and eating places that used to do brisk business around the Sabarimala season ran dry. Having suffered humongous loss due to the floods around Onam, these traders couldn’t afford another financial setback. Who cares about them after all?
The customary pious ‘Swamiye Sharanam’ chants that used to bless Kerala’s air in the cold December month, and which formed part of Malayalee culture like the Trichur Pooram and the Snake boat Race were badly missed. Instead ‘Swamiye Saranam’ of a hostile kind shouted by the henchmen and goondas of rightist forces, pretending as ‘devotees’, blocking roads and stoning public property rent the air, with the sole intention of winning votes of majority Hindus, piqued by the court verdict.
These almost sounded like ‘vot (a)e saranam’, meaning ‘hail be to votes’! Through it all, Lord Ayappa, whose cause these hypocritical politicians pretended to be fighting for seemed a helpless bystander, and the temple a battlefield, most sadly.