Sabarimala: CPM fights faith vs Constitution battle

Sabarimala: CPM fights faith vs Constitution battle

Caste equations shows BJP's 'Hindu unity' is still an illusion

Kerala Chief Minister and CPM Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan. (PTI file photo)

On a foggy morning in central Kerala during the first week of December, a private bus in the Shornur-Chelakkara route began playing a devotional song to Lord Ayyappa. The annual pilgrimage season of the famous Sabarimala temple saw an action-filled start as the state faces a highly sensitive religious and political tornado after the State Government decided to allow women of all ages into the shrine as directed by the apex court. The conductor of the bus feels that the state is doing injustice to its people on the issue. “They should not allow menstruating women inside the temple,” he asserted. 

The temple of the celibate deity Ayyappan, situated at Sabarimala hilltop in southern Kerala, is officially called the Sree Dharma Sastha Temple.

The ruling CPM is in no mood to leave it to the Opposition parties - the Congress and the BJP who stir against the government - to take political advantage of the situation.

While the Opposition has appealed to the government to file a review petition against the verdict of the five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, CPM has chosen, surprisingly, to implement the court verdict.

Not a cakewalk

The CPM members of Painkulam branch committee of Thrissur district are visiting every house in the village, taking pains to explain why the Pinarayi Vijayan government is not against the women entry.

To their embarrassment, some party members argued with them during the visits. While one member sought leave from the branch committee till the issue is resolved, a few others are not keen on attending to regular duties. It has to be noted that the CPM members are subject to regular scrutiny for a long period before they are given permanent membership. 

The CPM has decided to fight the Opposition through months-long programmes. This could be one of the biggest political battles for the party in Kerala and the CPM is in full force, using all possible narratives to explain their stand on the issue. 

Protestors gathered at the Sabarimala hilltop. PTI file photo.

While party leaders are confident that the CPM will ultimately win, they are also conscious of the fact that it will take a lot of time and effort. “Things aren’t easy now. But our base is strong and apart from a few people, everyone is with the party. Before the Lok Sabha elections, everything will be back to normal,” says Rajesh*, an auto driver and leader of CPM-aligned DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation of India). 

Joining the discussion, Sumathi*, a former local body member, supported his argument. “We will overcome this crisis,” she says. 

The caste angle

There is clearly no 'Hindu unity' as BJP wish to pitch it in Kerala.

Influential caste-based organisations have taken different positions on the issue. Nair Service Society (NSS) lead by Sukumaran Nair is against the verdict and they organised protests across the state. As the Dewaswam Board, who runs the temple, decided to seek SC more time to implement the verdict, NSS withdrew from public protests.

Punnala Sreekumar, general secretary of Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha (KPMS), a Dalit organisation, was one of the first leaders to come out in support of the verdict.

The most important organisation for the CPM, the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP Yogam or simply SNDP), an Ezhava (OBC) organisation, is divided on the issue.

Though Vellappally Natesan, general secretary of SNDP, initially defended Pinarayi and attacked the protesters, he changed his words the next day. Natesan said the government is responsible for all the issues concerning the state but clarified that SNDP is not going to launch a protest against the verdict.

SNDP leaders Vellappally Natesan and his son Tushar Vellappally. (File photo. Facebook/Vellappally Natesan)

Natesan's son Thushar, an SNDP leader and state president of NDA ally the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), joined the protests launched by the alliance. The Ezhavas are the base of CPM in Kerala. Most of its cadres and leaders hail from this caste. Hence the SNDP's decision may have consequences.

Former local body president and the local committee secretary of CPM, T Chandrasekharan, says: “I was an office bearer of SNDP since 1980. When SNDP formed a political party called SRP in 1976, we dissolved the local (SNDP) unit but was re-formed when SRP was gone. Similarly, when the BDJS was formed, I quit SNDP. Ezhava cadres of the CPM, who are more than 95% of the caste's population, will never listen to Natesan or his son Tushar."

The NSS and SNDP made short and failed political attempts in the 1970s. The NSS formed the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1974, immediately followed by SNDP’s Socialist Republican Party (SRP) in 1976. When the Left Democratic Front (LDF) was formed in 1980 by rivals CPM and CPI joining hands, they won 93 seats (out of 140) against the Congress, IUML, NDP and SRP alliance. After 36 years, when the SNDP started its second political party, the BDJS, the LDF managed to win 91 seats.

The Nair community does not constitute a huge vote-base for the CPM. "There are very few Nairs in CPM," says Chandrasekharan. This 'upper-caste' community, according to the 1968 Socio-Economic Survey of Kerala, constitutes more than 16% of the population. While the Ezhavas, the single-largest group, constitutes more than 22% of the population.

Also read: EDITORIAL | Sabarimala: a big win for women

While speaking with two ‘Nair’ cadres of the CPM, it is evident that they are in a dilemma. Both attended the "prayer protests", called "Namajapa Yathra", organised by NSS at Wadakanchery.

“Faith and politics are different. They (CPM) shouldn’t intervene on this,” says Krishnan*, a CPM follower. While Ramesh* feels his party is right on the issue, he is not ready to leave the NSS. “The NSS is important for the CPM. We cannot abandon them,” says Ramesh.

Though Krishnan is angry at the government, he says he will never vote for anyone else. “I will never vote for BJP in my lifetime. There is no Congress here. If any feminist enters Sabarimala, I will make my vote invalid in the upcoming elections,” says Krishnan.

Manoj, an autorickshaw driver from the Ezhava community, says neither him nor his family is against the verdict. “My wife will not go to Sabarimala till she turns 50. But if she wants to go now, she will go. It is up to her. Whoever wants to go, let them. What is the big deal?” he asks.

On war footing

The ruling party has planned multiple meetings and events and published countless articles to counter the campaign against them, along with its LDF allies and affiliated organisations. Rallies at all 14 district centres planned have already covered most of the districts. Pinarayi has attended more than half of these rallies.

Apart from that, at the local committee level, the CPM is organising "family gatherings" - a meeting of nearly 30 families in the neighbourhood which will be interactive sessions. The CITU is also organising similar "family gatherings" parallel to this.

These are mostly targeting women in the village. “Some women are poisoned by the Sangh Parivar campaigns. By the time we finish our programmes, everything will be cleared,” said Chandrasekharan.

A DYFI programme in Kozhikode. (Facebook/R Bala Ram)

They have already finished house visits. Branch committee members reached out to each and every house to explain them and deliver the pamphlet prepared by the state committee, titled "Resist the attempts for rioting at Sabarimala". Rajesh says they received a positive response from most of the families during house visits.

Also read: EDITORIAL | Sabarimala: Shah inciting people

Parades at the constituency level, led by LDF MLAs, concluded by the end of November.

The youth wing DYFI, Students Federation of India, agriculture workers union KSKTU, women's organisation AIDWA are also among others campaigning extensively at local and district levels.

Pinarayi leads the battle

En route to Muthalakkulam in Kozhikode, where Pinarayi was scheduled to speak, Salman, an autorickshaw driver, says the media is playing a huge role in the issue. “Earlier, people weren’t supportive of the government. Now thanks to TV (news) channels, they are all informed about what is actually happening at Sabarimala, which I think is sympathetic to the government. People will look at all sides of the issue,” says Salman.

The rally venue was packed, mostly with men, but the "prayer protests" against SC verdict are mostly led by women. Women were also seen blocking vehicles to check if young women were travelling to Pamba.

Pinarayi began his speech as usual. At earlier meetings, he had come down heavily against the tantri family, the Sangh Parivar and the Congress. However, he did not repeat the old arguments. Suma, a CPM follower, was disappointed as she was waiting to hear some "mass dialogues". While emphasising that the LDF is supporting the devotees and attacking BJP president Sreedharan Pillai for his "leaked statement" on "golden opportunity that the BJP has got at Sabarimala", Pinarayi said: “BJP says only their faith is original. How can that be valid? We are actually the force which protects the belief of everyone who prays to Lord Ayyappa.”

Also read: BJP desperately needs a controversy, Sabarimala will do

Pinarayi did not forget to set the narrative in his speech, beginning from the history of reformation movements in the state and ending with the need for Constitutional morality. One of the major arguments of the Left parties is that the government is not responsible for the SC verdict but they are bound to implement it.

“We implemented Kerala High Court's Justice [K S] Paripoornan’s verdict in 1991 which banned the entry of women. We did not force anyone to go. Here also, the government will give protection to the genuine believers visiting Sabarimala,” Chandrasekharan said.

But Anoop*, a barber in Cheruthuruthy and a CPM follower, has a different take: “I can understand that the government cannot go for a review petition as it will be against the affidavit it filed in the Supreme Court. But why did they block Devasvom Board from doing the same? I remember the Board president saying they will go for a petition in the initial days. They changed it later."

The president of the Devaswom Board is a political appointee. The incumbent, A Padmakumar, is a former CPM MLA. Though it is not clear if there was a pressure on him, Devaswom Board Minister Kadakampally Surendran had said that the Board is free to take its own position on filing the review petition.

The second major argument is that rituals are subjected to changes from time to time. This is associated with the caste narratives. Back at the rally, Pinarayi narrates the story of Nangeli, a historical figure who cut her breasts as she couldn’t pay "breast tax". The CPM promulgate the stories of old customs such as untouchability and 'sathi' and tries to explain that rituals must change with time. The party also talks about old rituals at Sabarimala - when the tribals were allowed to do puja inside the sanctum sanctorum - which is now barred.

“The RSS has the old Savarna (upper caste dominance) mentality. That is why they oppose all these things. We don’t give special preference to NSS like others (Opposition). We treat everyone equal. These people (protesters) want the old Brahminical system to be in place,” said Chandrasekharan. He also raised the issue of rights of tribals at Sabarimala.

At Kozhikode, Pinarayi says that the government is not against accepting the 'tantri' family's words on temple rituals. “But they shouldn’t become a tool in someone else’s hands,” Pinarayi warned. The tantri, Kandararu Rajeevaru, landed in a soup after BJP state president Pillai claimed that Rajeevaru sought legal advice on closing temple doors if women in the 10-50 age group enter the Sannidhanam.

The CPM fears its the second ‘liberation struggle’ (Vimochana Samaram in Malayalam). The first was during the era of EMS Namboothiripad in 1959. The violent protests against two bills the government planned to implement had resulted in Centre invoking Article 356 to dismiss the EMS government. They feel the Opposition is gearing up for similar circumstances.

CPM leader K T Kunhikannan's newly released book explaining the ‘RSS agenda’ behind the Sabarimala protests, is a best seller at the rally. The party mouthpiece dedicated its op-ed article solely to the Sabarimala issue for nearly a month, where party leaders and activists gave ammunition to the party's arguments.


Pinarayi Vijayan speaking at the LDF rally in Kozhikode. (Courtesy: Deshabhimani Publications)

The role of media

Joy, a branch secretary of CPM from Kozhikode, concurs with Salman on the influence of media. “Channels show everything. Those who argue with us (during house visits) don’t watch the news. They’re misinformed by many sources like the Sangh,” Joy says.

Chandrasekharan also backs this theory. “This is not the old times. Everything is recorded. All these BJP leaders who supported women entry have now changed their position as they want to use this against the government." Social media is full of old Facebook posts and articles of BJP leaders like K Surendran and O Rajagopal, MLA, supporting entry of women at Sabarimala. The news channels have mostly supported the verdict.

Anoop has subscribed to the Malayala Manorama at his shop. He has also turned on his small TV and jumps straight to Manorama channel. The Manorama group is known to be pro-right wing, but the CPM alleges that it is a Congress newspaper.

Anoop is a fan of anchor Nikesh Kumar of Reporter TV. When Nikesh contested the Assembly election from the CPM, he stopped anchoring, so Anoop switched to Manorama.

“You can’t believe any news channels. Their preference is based on ratings,” he says.

Smiling at the news that around 3000 men were arrested due to the chaos at Sabarimala, Anoop says: “BJP is playing politics in this issue. Why don’t they go for a review petition if they are really bothered about the believers?”

Rise of the BJP

Not so long ago, the CPM neglected the BJP as an Opposition force in Kerala. During the 2016 Assembly elections, the then chief minister Oommen Chandy had made a statement which irked the CPM. He said the fight is between Congress and the BJP. At that time, the BJP had never won a single seat in the Kerala Assembly.

Pinarayi had denied that the BJP is posing any threat to the party, back in 2017. However, at an LDF rally on November 6 at Muthalakkulam, Binoy Viswam, former minister and CPI leader, said the BJP "seems to be replacing the Congress" while mentioning the fact that some Congres leaders had joined the BJP.

BJP rally at Pathanamthitta. (Facebook/BJP Keralam)

“Now two Congress leaders, G Raman Nair and Prameela Devi, have joined the BJP. Next will be Prayar Gopalakrishnan (the former president of Travancore Devaswom Board). If this continues, the BJP may soon replace the Congress. "Even in the upcoming Lok Sabha election, there are possibilities that the BJP may be runner-up in a few seats,” says Chandrasekharan.

Also read: Ayodhya of South for BJP?

BJP state general secretary K Surendran spent 22 days in jail before HC granted him conditional bail. He is charged with attempt to culpable homicide (IPC Section 308) for attacking a 52 year old devotee at Sannidhanam on November 6. DH broke the story that BJP’s previous state president, the current Mizoram governor Kummanam Rajasekharan may be sent back to the state to lead the protest. Rajasekharan, a prominent Hindutva cult has good connections with the several Hindu organisations and leaders is expected to give a momentum for the BJP which is struggling to get a grip in the state. The decision will depend upon the Mizoram state Assembly election result which will be out on December 11 along with other three states.

The protests on the premises of the shrine have enervated gradually, taking the BJP to the state secretariat with a hunger strike and the major Opposition, the Congress, creating ruckus inside the Assembly.

The masterstroke

On December 1, the state government made another move against the Opposition - a meeting of the organisations that were part of its renaissance movement in the state. Most of them are caste-based organisations like the SNDP and KPMS. Though the government had invited around 190 organisations, the influential Nair Service Society and the Yogakshema Sabha (of the Brahmin Namboothiri caste) decided to stay away from the meeting. It has ended up as a blessing for the LDF.

Taking the fight for ‘gender justice’ to the next level, the meeting concluded with the declaration of a ‘women’s wall’ across the state, connecting Kasargod and Thiruvananthapuram. The committee for the New Years' day event is headed by Natesan and Sreekumar.

In a presser after two days, CM came down heavily on the Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala accusing him disrespecting the organisations. “The Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has abused the attendees (of December 1 meeting), the organisations which contributed highly to our renaissance movement. He described them as mere caste organisations and called them useless,” Pinarayi said.

With BJP, Congress (both headed by upper caste ‘Nair’ leaders), NSS and Yogakshema Sabha on one side, and the Left parties led by an OBC leader Pinarayi Vijayan aligning with the SC and OBC caste organisations (or the renaissance contributors) on the other side, the CPM is confident of fighting it out.

(*Names changed)