Ayodhya of South for BJP?

Playing Hindutva in Kerala

Sabarimala: Protesters oppose the entry of women to the Sabarimala Temple, Kerala, Friday, Oct 19, 2018. Rehana Fathima and journalist Kavitha Jakkal were taken escorted to the temple but the priest reportedly locked it and the women had to return mid-way

More than a week has passed since BJP president Amit Shah assured all-out support of his party to those who are resisting, some violently, the implementation of the September 28 Supreme Court judgement that allowed entry for women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple. The BJP president’s remarks while addressing party workers in Kannur have since set off a series of flippant statements, some of a personal nature, from the ruling CPM and the BJP camps. This familiar line of political posturing, however, has not taken attention away from what Shah’s call to arms essentially means in a state where the BJP is still struggling to break into the political mainstream.

Over the past week, the party has announced plans to have thousands of “mothers” – elderly women – block entry of women of menstruating age when the Ayyappa temple opens for the mandalam-makaravilakku pilgrimage season in mid-November. Fasting protests are being held, some of them doubling as platforms for leaders to go ballistic – senior police officials are now being targeted based on their religious beliefs. The party has also firmed up plans for a rath yatra between November 8 and 13 from Kasaragod to Pathanamthitta, the district where the temple is located. The yatra, led by the party’s state president P S Sreedharan Pillai, is being projected as a call to “protect” Sabarimala.

The BJP state leadership is pitching Hindu consolidation as a key takeaway from the agitation. Sabarimala has set off calls urging the Hindu to “wake up” and assert his identity. But the party has its work cut out in a society shaped by renaissance movements. Anathalavattom Anandan, veteran CPM leader, says the bigger agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to promote the idea of a religious faith that supersedes the Constitution. He points out that since the Kerala High Court ordered restrictions on entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years in 1991, three Left governments were in office and all complied with the order. By implementing the September 28 judgment of the Constitution Bench, the present government is only fulfilling a Constitutional responsibility.

“The question is whether you adhere to the law of the land or not. This is a society built on movements of renaissance; here, any form of divisive politics will be discarded. They can get a few thousand people on the streets to protest but they don’t represent the society,” he says. The Sangh Parivar narrative around the Sabarimala issue has drawn obvious parallels. Writing in CPM mouthpiece Deshabhimani, the party’s state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan calls Pillai’s rath yatra an attempt to whip up communal passions on the lines of unrest around Ayodhya. “This is a ploy to garner votes for the Lok Sabha election and Kerala will see through this communal strategy,” Balakrishnan says.

Kerala’s main opposition party, the Congress, has extended support to the agitation by “devotees”. The party is also tipped by many to gain from the polarisation. But with Congress president Rahul Gandhi stating his “personal view” favouring entry for women of all ages, it will have some explaining to do. As the BJP prepares for a tough general election in 2019, Sabarimala is likely to be pitched as a key issue, against questions on development and the economy.

Even as the CPM maintains that the government is not exhorting women in the 10-50 age group to visit Sabarimala, the elaborate security it provided for two women – Hyderabad-based journalist Kavitha Jakkala and activist from Kochi Rehana Fathima – on their aborted trek to the hill shrine is being questioned. Sobha Surendran, BJP state general secretary, says Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s position on the issue led to the “riot-like” situation in Sabarimala. “At the core of this issue is a question – why is this custom, which does not allow women of a certain age group entry, followed in Sabarimala? No serious discussion has been held on this question. Those who set out to implement the order are denying justice to the devotees. The bottom-line is that this is not about discrimination, this is a custom,” she says, conveniently forgetting that these questions have been considered by the Supreme Court since 2006.

The question Surendran raises is pegged to the idea of the deity as a naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate), an assertion that has been contested by groups that back the SC judgement. The BJP and the Sangh claim success in the agitation – protesters defied prohibitory orders and thwarted attempts by about 15 women to enter the temple when it opened for monthly pujas in October – but their big challenge will be in debunking the analysis that it’s a fight between upper-class orthodoxy and liberal forces.

The Thazhamon Madhom, family of the temple’s hereditary high priests, and the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, former custodians of the temple, have backed the agitation. The Nair Service Society, an organisation of upper-caste Nairs, has led protests and slammed the police crackdown on protesters. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, an influential outfit representing the OBC Ezhavas, has turned down Amit Shah’s call to join the agitation. It’s an important decision, also seen by political analysts as strategic, considering that the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, SNDP’s political arm, is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Ezhavas form a strong support base for the CPM. As per the 2011 census, Ezhavas and Nairs constitute about 22% and 12%, respectively, of Kerala’s population.

The row has revived demands for restoration of rights of indigenous tribal communities – including the Malayarayans – on the temple and the surrounding forests. Interestingly, amid debates on the Brahminic appropriation of the deity, the BJP has backed reinstatement of their rights. The party alleges that policies of the two political coalitions under the CPM and Congress are responsible for taking the rights away from the tribespeople, original custodians of the temple.

Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS), a prominent Scheduled Caste outfit, has distanced itself from what it called an “unconstitutional” agitation. Punnala Sreekumar, KPMS general secretary, questioned “devotees” who look away from atrocities committed on SCs and still expect them to join the protests. On October 20, S P Manju (38), a Kerala Dalit Mahila Federation leader, was forced to drop plans for a trek to the shrine. Sreekumar, during a public speech, made a reference to the incident that could bring some context to the political churn in Kerala – “This is not about sending SC women to Sabarimala, this is about sending women to Sabarimala. We are not talking about the community, we are talking about the society.”

But, for the BJP, as it faces reverses over governance, economy and even the Modi government’s claimed record on corruption, the Sabarimala issue has come as a god-send, the next Ayodhya, milking the issue to polarise and gain votes.

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Ayodhya of South for BJP?

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