How Sabarimala turned into a political minefield

Police clashed with protesters at Nilakkal in Sabarimala. Photo: Josekutty Panackal

Had Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan been a more thoughtful leader, he would not have allowed the Sabarimala issue to ripen in a way that tempted the BJP to unapologetically dump its original stand that favoured women entry. Things have but gone too far to be reversed.

The state unit of the BJP, for the first time ever, has found an issue that they feel has the emotional charge to politically unite the Hindus in the state. They have turned the Sabarimala battle into a crusade of sorts, terming it as a battle to recover Kerala from the grip of faith-mocking Stalinists. No less a person than BJP national president Amit Shah was here to aggressively egg them on. Shah even threatened that the Centre could go so far as to even dismiss the LDF government.

Public relations fiasco

It is no one's case that Pinarayi Vijayan had taken an ideologically dishonest position. He has remained true to his party's progressive ideals. His only failing, even top CPM leaders admit, is that he messed up the message. The first 'namajapa' protest, which caught even the BJP off guard, was held in Pandalam on October 2, the day after Pinarayi Vijayan made it seem as if he just couldn't wait to see the Supreme Court verdict implemented.

On October 1, after a high-level meeting, he listed a series of steps that would be taken to ensure smooth entry for women. This gave the impression that the chief minister couldn't care less about the feelings of the faithful. Then, there was also this widely held perception that he had bullied Travancore Devaswom Board president A Padmakumar into submission. The 'namajapa' protests intensified. The BJP had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon. The party began its Save Sabarimala campaign only on October 10, a week after prayer-chanting women swarmed the streets of Central Travancore.

Police demolish the Namajapa Pandal at Nilakkal. Photo: Josekutty Panackal

Reformist avatar

The peaceful nature of the 'namajapa' protests and the 'Save Sabarimala' march threatened to erode the chief minister's moral authority. Pinarayi Vijayan, to his credit, suppressed his instincts and spoke the language of compromise. But his invite for talks was spurned by both the former Pandalam royal family and the tantris. Though he refused to give in to the demand to file a review petition, Vijayan refrained from being provocative. He also desisted from directly attacking the BJP.

Instead, taking ideological posturing to a new high, the chief minister has described the Sabarimala women entry as the latest in a long line of renaissance movements that had shaped Kerala. These movements, he reminded, had pulled down the Brahmanical order. The subtle message was this: the Sangh Parivar had no role in any of these movements that made Kerala what it is today. He wants to brand the BJP as a medieval force keen to revive orthodoxy in the state. Reason why the BJP is all the more desperate to have the SNDP on its side. This is the only way it could usurp at least the iconography of Sree Narayana Guru, the state's greatest social reformer.

Kerala CM Pinarayi's invite for talks was spurned by both the former Pandalam royal family and the 'tantris'.

Love for sequels

By linking their stand in Sabarimala to the glorious reform movements of the past, the CPM is also hoping that some of the pride that the Communists of yore had inspired would swell in the minds of today's more sceptical voter. It is similar to the trick fading matinee idols employ when they get nightmares about their shrinking fan base: they cobble up a sequel of any of their legendary blockbusters.

These sequels, almost invariably, are less convincing than the original. Still, probably because nostalgia is hard to resist, they generate sufficient interest. In that sense, Pinarayi Vijayan seems to be on a strong wicket. (It is another matter that Communist legends like AKG, P Krishnapillai and E M S Namboodirippad were Congress workers when they had participated in historic struggles like Guruvayur Satyagraha and the agitations to secure temple entry for the low castes.)

Selective boldness

Nonetheless, doubts persist about the chief minister's fairness. “Last year there was a Supreme Court verdict regarding the Syrian Orthodox Church. Was this government as determined then as it is now about implementing the Supreme Court order. I suppose not. This is hypocrisy. This government has not succeeded in giving the impression that it was acting in a fair manner,” said social critic Hameed Chennamangaloor.

He has more to add. “Certain Muslim women's organisations have moved the Supreme Court seeking the entry of women in Muslim mosques. Muslim community leaders are even more extreme than right wing Hindu forces. How will this government respond to a Supreme Court verdict that allows Muslim women to enter mosques?”

Calming ruffled feathers

The chief minister, as if to make amends, is also making an effort to calm the feelings of the faithful. He makes it a point to repeat in all his press conferences and public meetings that it was not as if the government told the Supreme Court that the women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala at any cost. “In the affidavit we had submitted before the Supreme Court we had specifically told that women should be granted entry into Sabarimala only after a committee of people well-versed in Hindu scriptures study the issue,” he had said. The point seems to have gone home.

During an informal chat, P G Sasikumar Varma, the president of Pandalam Palace Management Committee, told Onmanorama: “It should not be forgotten that the state government had asked for the constitution of a high-level committee of learned spiritual men to decide on the Sabarimala issue.”

Fight to the finish

While on one side he is busy shoring up public support, on the other hand Pinarayi is iron-fisted in dealing with the protests. Nearly 3,500 people who had taken part in the protests at Sabarimala have already been arrested. However, Amit Shah's visit to the state on October 27 has delivered a clear message to the Sangh Parivar cadre: Fear not, the Centre is there to protect you. During a closed-door session with top state leaders, Shah is also said to have told them that Sabarimala was their last and only chance to storm Kerala.

The BJP state unit has been told to crank up the protests. The cadre has been asked to turn up in huge numbers at Sabarimala when the temple opens for two days on November 5 for Sree Chithira Thirunal Aatta Vishesham, and court arrest. As for the government, it has decided to convert Sannidhanam and the paths leading to it as high-security zones, a move unprecedented.

Devotees had held massive protests as police tried to escort women to the famous shrine.

Confused third party

In this high-wattage contest between the government and the BJP, the Congress seems to have been rendered insignificant. Irony is, it was the Congress that had first opposed the Supreme Court verdict with some conviction. But Rahul Gandhi views the verdict as progressive. The Congress president has put his foot down on the agitation plans the state unit had drawn up. KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran flew all the way to Delhi to reason with his president. But Rahul was unmoved.

The younger lot, the articulate ones like V D Satheesan and V T Balram, does not want to take a position that sees them on the same page with the BJP. Perhaps why Balram said: “Rahul Gandhi, and not Rahul Easwar, is our leader.” There is a large section in the Congress that feels that it is okay to be with the Left on this issue.