How Sabarimala Changed Kerala’s Politics

The Harivaraasanam rendition by Yesudas in praise of Lord Ayyappa was one of the first devotional songs I heard in my life. To the teenagers of my generation who grew up in the 1980s, it was one of the most exciting experiences whenever neighbours and relatives prepared themselves to visit Sabarimala, which appeared distant to us from my hometown, Kannur in northern Kerala. The destination of those who shunned fish, grew a beard, wore a black dhoti and shirt and walked barefoot for weeks as part of the vratham was awe-inspiring for symbolic reasons, too. We may have better transport facilities today, but pilgrims of the time had to endure long, tough commutes on crowded buses and then had to make that final, arduous trek to the hilltop temple through a dense forest along the Pamba river in Pathanamthitta district, south Kerala.

There was another song that thrilled some of us even more. It was Veeramani’s Pallikattu Sabari Malaikku Kallum Mullum Kaalukku Methai Swamiye Ayyappo Ayyappo Swamiye. It was something of a rhyming slogan that highlighted the pilgrims’ progress and rigour: about the mandatory cloth bag they had to carry and how they treated stones and thorns as bed for their feet marking their piety, austerity and perseverance. As children, we learnt it by heart and sang those lines repeatedly, seemingly possessed.

The romanticism associated with Sabarimala was also thanks to the hill shrine being a secular place: men of all religions could visit and seek blessings even in those days when several of Kerala temples shut doors to non-Hindus and squirmed at lower castes entering through their doors (if their identity ever got revealed). The Marxists of Kannur, whom one never saw visiting local temples, found it acceptable to be seen as an Ayyappa, a generic term for each pilgrim to the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala.

It was, therefore, with a sense of despair that many of us watched Lord Ayyappa being used by the Hindutva forces to mobilise masses in their favour late last year—the then state president of the BJP was caught on video saying that the party wants to make the most of the standoff over Sabarimala. A seemingly secular platform soon became a veritable realm of religious polarisation, ostensibly over gender equality.

The standoff started days after the September 28th, 2018, unpopular verdict of the Supreme Court that lifted an earlier ban on the entry of young women (between 10 and 50) into the temple where Ayyappa is considered a naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate). The ruling CPM in the state went all out to ensure that the court’s verdict was enforced, hence making a strategic mistake of underestimating the underlying religious fervour of a large section of the people (or perhaps overestimating its own secular credentials).

The perception that Kerala, India’s most literate state that has kept the BJP at bay and takes pride in its high social indices, would never embrace communal politics that was seen as symptomatic of north India was decimated within weeks as even women began to join the ranks of protesters. What may be seen as counterproductive to the cause of gender equality, these women protesters wanted status quo on rituals and insisted no young woman should enter the temple, whose deity, it is believed, would be distracted by the presence of menstruating women.

The government’s insistence on upholding the apex court verdict put it in a bad spot with it being identified with non-believers out to profane a place of worship. All-out efforts to counter the campaign only boomeranged as obsession with faith trumped rationality. The ruling CPM in Kerala, which displayed enthusiasm in implementing the verdict which was in sync with their ideology, misjudged the backlash as it got shoved to the ropes by most rival political formations and religious groups.

The November 14th judgment by the apex court on the same issue anticipates that a larger bench may examine its September 28th verdict—and this lack of clarity on the part of the majority of the five-member bench has made me think again about how Sabarimala changed Kerala’s politics. How did all this happen out of the blue?

In the first place, unlike reformation movements of the early 20th century in the state that fought discrimination based on caste, there was no grassroots movement in favour of women’s entry into Sabarimala. It was a subject that was confined to seminar rooms and think-tanks, especially those affiliated to the RSS. Most of them backed women’s entry into Sabarimala although the state BJP and Hindutva groups did an overnight volte-face when they saw an opportunity to drum up religious sentiments to the hilt. The leftists in the state thus found themselves in a knotty situation.

This time round, they are playing it cautiously. The CPM-led government has used the perceived ambiguity in the court verdict to insist that there is a de facto stay to the September 28th verdict so as not to antagonise Hindu voters who backed the Congress-led alliance in the Lok Sabha elections, helping it secure 19 of 20 parliamentary seats. The BJP did not win any seats but proved that Kerala is no different from any other state and that it is not immune to communal tactics. Perhaps thanks to the growth of Hindu right-wing movements in the recent decades and the rise of Narendra Modi to power, strange undercurrents were in the offing. It is also possible that, thanks to exposure to the Ramayan and Mahabharata series some 30 years ago, people of Kerala have become equally sensitive to religious issues as the people of the rest of the country have—as if, as some scholars suggest, it was part of an imagined community, an expression made popular by the late thinker and academic Benedict Anderson.

Alongside the effervescence of right-wing sentiments that weren’t as conspicuous in Kerala as they became after Sabarimala, the Left in the state had stopped locking horns with institutions associated with religion because it had in the previous decades faced the ignominy of losing power over attracting the wrath of religious and casteist forces. When it played discreet politics of non-confrontation, it did gain electorally, as evident in 1967 and 1987. Therefore, that period in which it ceded the socio-cultural space to its rivals, a counter-narrative was gaining in popularity. In 2018, the Left was actually paying the price for playing neutral over the previous three decades or so.

Now, perhaps, the Left government has learnt from its strategic blunder and has decided not to incite religious passions in the name of facilitating the entry of women to the hill shrine. The courts, ironically, have not been charitable to it for following the apex court’s directives and putting up stiff resistance in an unequal fight last year. The state government had gone vehemently after those who tried to stop women from entering the temple using force and threat. Myriad cases were filed against anyone who took the law into their hands. What is unfortunately not talked about is what the Supreme Court did not do: did it use all options available to it to make sure that its directives are implemented at any cost? Did it even once pursue any legal action against those who zealously violated its orders? Wasn’t it largely silent when Kerala bled last year? Unfortunately, recent outbursts by a senior judge who was part of the five-member bench were not preceded by any concrete action.

Anyhow, the result is that gender equality is still stuck under the oppression of patriarchal religious beliefs, menstruation still falls under the realm of superstition rather than science, and a temple associated with India’s diversity of faiths was allowed to become a war zone for petty political gains. In fact, when India took a step forward it also took two steps back in both natural justice and socio-religious evolution.

To me personally, the developments over Sabarimala mean that the Harivaraasanam of my childhood has lost its irresistible charm and Pallikattu Sabari Malaikku its hypnotic appeal. Even the gods are not immune to men’s politics and the priestly greed for power.

First published in Open


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