The Politics of Sabarimala in the Aftermath of the SC Verdict

With the opening of the temple for the season due next week, CM Pinarayi Vijayan will have to tread cautiously lest the Hindutva outfits manage to whip up the religious sentiments of people into a frenzy.

The landmark verdict of the Supreme Court on Sabarimala, allowing the entry of women of all age groups to the temple, has set off a chain reaction in Kerala. Although the verdict was largely along expected lines, it was met with sporadic protests by Ayyappa devotees in the state. The furore was expected to die down but has since been hijacked by Hindutva outfits. In a clear volte-face from their stated position, the BJP (and its feeder organisations) have been mobilising people across the state against the implementation of the apex court order. The state unit of the Congress too has taken a position against the judgement and its implementation.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Credit: PTI

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Credit: PTI

Meanwhile, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan tried to reach out to the principal players – the Tanthri (head priest) family and the Pandalam palace, closely linked to the legend of the deity – but they chose to snub his offer of talks on account of the government’s statement that the agenda of the meeting would be to chart out a path to implement the apex court order.

Following the snub, the chief minister held a detailed press conference on Monday where he explained the state government’s position at length. He took the Congress to task for their regressive stand and held the BJP and RSS responsible for fishing in troubled waters.

The chief minister held forth on how his government’s (and the CPI(M)’s stand) on the issue was consistent since the V.S. Achuthananthan government submitted its first affidavit as a respondent in the case in 2007.

But crucially, he didn’t explain the change of stance of the Travancore Devaswom board – a statutory body entrusted with the task of administering temples in the state.

Also read: In 4:1 Verdict, Supreme Court Allows Women’s Entry Into Sabarimala Temple

As one of the respondents in the Supreme Court, the Travancore Devaswom Board had taken a starkly different position from the Pinarayi Vijayan government as an autonomous body vested with the protection of customs, traditions and rituals of temples under their administration. A series of conflicting statements given to the press in the aftermath of the verdict by Travancore Devaswom Board president A. Padmakumar – a nominee of the Marxist party and a former MLA to boot – indicated that he was under pressure from the government to take a stand supportive of the government’s.

In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, the Devaswom Board president had hinted at filing a review petition against the landmark verdict. But following a public reprimand from the chief minister, the Devaswom Board president began to sing a different tune. Even before the Devaswom Board formally met to take a call on the filing of the review petition, Padmakumar clearly stated that the board would “take a decision in conjunction with the decision of the state government”. It was clearly interpreted as a sign of arm-twisting of the autonomous temple authority by the chief minister.

Sabarimala temple. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan has an iron-grip on the government and is used to complete subordination from his state Comrades in the party. However, this instance of the president of a statutory temple body being subjected to coercion playing out in the public left a section of the devotees clearly aggrieved. More so, the Devaswom Board’s meeting to make their decision official was rendered a ceremonial exercise in the bargain. And that is when the state government lost control of the narrative. Finally, when the government reached out to the stakeholders to find an amicable solution to the stalemate, it was too late to salvage things.

A senior minister in Vijayan’s government countered this assertion when The Wire got in touch with him: “You press people would have dubbed it double standards and hypocrisy if the Devaswom Board had gone for a review. It is like the Aesop fable of the ‘Father, Son and the Donkey’. We would be damned either way”. The minister did not comment on what compelled the Devaswom Board to deviate from their initial position though.

It seems the state government has overplayed its hand in assuming that the general public would stand by it. But a perceived soft stand on minority issues of late – the government’s reaction on the Munnar cross demolition on encroached land and the inordinate delay in Bishop Franco’s arrest being a couple of them – might have annoyed a section of the majority community.

While the BJP had outsourced demonstrations and protests to their feeder organisations in the first couple of days following the verdict, they couldn’t let such a golden opportunity slip. The state BJP President P.S Sreedharan Pillai had employed verbal gymnastics to speak disingenuously on the verdict as the RSS position on the issue in 2016 had made it incumbent on them to support the court’s decision. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh later issued a clarification by releasing another disingenuous statement on Sabarimala following the verdict. Reached out for a comment, Kerala BJP general secretary K. Surendran – who had deleted his earlier Facebook post supporting the entry of women of all age groups – contended: “We had never welcomed the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. It is vested interests in the media that twisted our statements to make it sound as if we had taken a volte-face”. Asked to elaborate on his own U-Turn, he attributed it to his party’s stand.

The Congress’ strategy seems to be devised to prevent further erosion of Hindu votes from their kitty. Having already lost a large chunk of the Nair votes to the BJP, they took a call well before the BJP to oppose the verdict in solidarity with the devotees. The blatantly regressive statements on menstruating women by Congress working president K. Sudhakaran and general secretary K.P. Anilkumar have not gone down well. But the Congress has always engaged in such appeasement politics in the state and their stand doesn’t surprise seasoned political observers. But the party has ruled out hitting the streets in protest and instead vowed to protest by peaceful means.

Also read: Sabarimala: A Guide to the Tricky Issues Facing the Supreme Court

Mahila Congress state president Lathika Subhash said: “I fully back the decision of the state leadership. Moreover, I am an Ayyappa devotee and I have visited Sabarimala on more than one occasion. I don’t see any contradiction in my stand as a woman and a politician as customs and traditions are associated with the sentiments of people and faith a subjective matter.”

It isn’t clear whether the Congress strategy to reclaim the Hindu votes would work out or whether the BJP would gain further on account of their active involvement in organising protests and demonstrations. The CPI(M) is banking on a consolidation of minority votes to make up for any erosion in their Hindu vote bank in the process. They have also managed to enlist the support of Sree Narayana Dharama Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) general secretary Vellapally Nateshan.

The state government has mellowed its aggressive position on implementing the Supreme Court order following the CPI(M) party secretariat. But the damage was already done following the flip-flops of the Travancore Devaswom Board president. The ‘prayer processions’ taken out in various parts of the state have seen women participate in large numbers. The BJP has threatened to undertake a ‘long march’ to the Secretariat to mount further pressure on the government. Protesters have also erected pandals in Nilackal – one of the base camps of the Sabarimala shrine in the foothills – threatening to intensify their stir in the coming days if the government goes ahead with the implementation of the Supreme Court order.

The state government will have to think on their feet to come up with a solution at the earliest as maintenance of law and order is just as imperative as following the law of the land. The NSS, one of the respondents in the case, filed the first review petition challenging the verdict in the Supreme Court followed by four more review petitions by other respondents. But with the Supreme Court closing for a 10-day vacation from October 12 (for puja holidays), it is expected that the petitions won’t be entertained before October 18. A plea to expedite the hearing was junked by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Tuesday.

With the opening of the temple for the season due next week, Pinarayi Vijayan will have to tread cautiously lest the Hindutva outfits manage to whip up the religious sentiments of people into a frenzy.

Anand Kochukudy is a political journalist and lapsed academic.