On November 5, 2018, when the issue of women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple was at its boiling point, the then state president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai had made a controversial speech.
“The Sabarimala issue is a golden opportunity for us. Now it has boiled down to a point where we have been pitted against the ruling coalition of the state with all other players following the agenda set by us,” Pillai said at a conclave organised by the party’s youth wing, BJYM.
Even though the leaked video landed him in a soup for a brief period thanks to the factional feud within his party, his words struck a chord with the BJP-led NDA, which was on a path to increase its vote share in the 2019 general elections.
On the other hand, the ruling CPI(M)-led LDF government was busy projecting itself as a staunch proponent of women’s rights and gender equality and was banking heavily on its ‘social engineering’ by invoking the renaissance movement of Kerala and offering positive furtherance to it.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan almost single-handedly carried it forward with some success. The state government, in a first in the country, went on to organise a massive ‘women’s wall’ across the state in December 2018 with the help of various community organisations like KPMS Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, the biggest Dalit organisation in the state led by Punnala Sreekumar, and SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam), led by Vellappalli Natesan who had switched his allegiance towards the NDA.
Vijayan had been eyeing a grand alliance between the Dalit and OBC populations whilst also taking minorities too into the fold. The upper caste organisations like the NSS (Nair Service Society) were vehemently opposing the Kerala government’s pro-woman stance.
The Congress-led UDF played it safe, despite being on the same page as the BJP. Many of the Congress leaders initially endorsed the agitation led by the Sangh parivar, and then cleverly exempted themselves from it when the ‘protests’ started to turn violent. However, the Congress continued to maintain its stance that the party stood with the devotees and did not want women of menstruating age to set foot inside the shrine. In the process, the state unit of the grand old party even defied its own president, Rahul Gandhi who had a different take on the issue.
Keeping in mind the pilgrim season of 2018, the LDF government is treading very carefully after the Supreme Court’s decision to refer some matters relating to the review petition to a larger bench. The majority verdict has asked a larger constitutional bench to consider the limits of the powers of the apex court in deciding conflicts between religion and other rights.
Even though the court has not issued a stay order on its earlier verdict allowing the women of all age inside the shrine, the state government will not provide security to women devotees of menstruating age this time. Reacting to the judgement, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters that the government would seek an expert legal opinion on the matter which is being interpreted on several lines.
Today, the minister for temple affairs Kadakampally Surendran unequivocally stated that the government would provide no police protection for women who come to visit the shrine this year. If somebody wanted to trek the hill, to the shrine, they would have to get the order directly from the court, said the minister. Surendran, unlike most of the CPI(M) leaders in the state, does not identify as an atheist or a ‘non-believer’ and had this opinion right from the beginning of the issue. There were rumours that Surendran was being ignored by the chief minister as, by talking to the media against some of the women who tried to enter the shrine last year, the Minister was embarrassing the government.
Last year when two women, Kanakadurga and Bindu Ammini trekked up the hill and entered the temple, the blame was squarely put on the ruling party, by the BJP and the UDF and was called a government-sponsored ‘pilgrimage’ for two left-leaning activists. A section inside the CPI(M) too subscribed to this theory and tried to hold Pinarayi Vijayan responsible for it with limited success, as he had – and still has – almost complete control over the Kerala party.
Bindu Ammini, an assistant professor with the Law College, Kannur and Kanakadurga, an employee of the civil supplies department were subjected to severe cyber-attacks after their visit to the temple. Both of them were accused of colluding with the government to tarnish the image of the temple, by the right-wing trolls.
Even though they were escorted by police in plainclothes to the shrine, both of them maintain that they received no aid from the government. Bindu Ammini later went on to criticise the CPI(M) and the government for rolling back on their declared stance on women’s entry to the shrine.
But the opposition, both the UDF and the BJP, effectively campaigned and held that their entry into the temple was scripted by the government. A third woman Manju, from Kollam, also claimed to have trekked up the hill to reach the shrine.
However, the scenario changed drastically after the Lok Sabha polls when the Left Democratic Front took a drubbing and lost all but one seat in the state. The central committee of the party, after several review meetings, admitted that the entry of two women into the temple was one of the reasons for the poll debacle. The party committee had identified that the consolidation of minority votes and the presence of Rahul Gandhi as a candidate from Wayanad as the main reasons for the dismal performance of the left front in Kerala. The near-annihilation of the Left Front and a significant drop in the vote share has put Pinarayi Vijayan on the defensive.
After the Lok Sabha debacle, the CPI(M) undertook a house-to-house campaign – meticulously planned and executed-in which most of the leaders of the party had been part of the squads.
During this period, several CPI(M) leaders were disappointed over the turnaround on the Sabarimala issue. A central committee member of the party said that he was clueless about the future course to regain the voter’s faith.
“When we talked to the people, it was evident that the community cutting across the religious lines was alienated from us. There were political reasons for the Muslim community, that the Congress is better placed for an alternative government in the Centre, to vote against us which is quite understandable, but the Hindu voters had only one issue to discuss, Sabarimala’, he added.
According to the party insiders, Pinarayi Vijayan, on the other hand, did not pay heed to this line of thought, and went on with his idea of a Kerala renaissance. The party had started making ‘amends’ to win back the lost Hindu votes, by softening up the stances – on issues of faith – which were interpreted as anti-Hindu, thanks to the rigorous campaign by both the BJP and the Congress-led UDF.
Almost ten months after the Sabarimala fiasco, the LDF received a brief respite when they added two more assembly seats to their tally, after by-elections in six constituencies. Even though both the fronts won three each, the LDF could claim a moral victory as they snatched two of the sitting seats of the UDF and, moreover, the BJP-led NDA drew a blank.
The victory of Jinesh Kumar from the Konni constituency, adjacent to Sabarimala, did provide them with a real morale boost even though it was the internal conflicts of the Congress that paved the way for its defeat. The BJP candidate K. Surendran, who was at the forefront of the Sabarimala protests, could not repeat his brilliant run in the Lok Sabha polls where he had increased his vote share by more than 200%.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s strategy to get the Ezhava community and their organisation, the SNDP, into the fold worked this time, and it had been a big morale booster for him after the failed social engineering effort after the Sabarimala verdict in 2018.
Kummanam Rajasekharan, of the BJP was the very first political leader to react to the Supreme Court verdict on November 14, 2019. He warned the state government with dire consequences if it helped any more women activists enter the hill shrine this season. The leader of the opposition and Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala echoed his words and accused the government of facilitating all the violent incidents that had happened over the last year.
Many of the political observers predict a repeat of last year’s events if women of menstruating age come to visit the shrine. The temple protection committee is all set to lay a siege if somebody tries to enter the temple. They have already made it clear that the onus will be on the government if any untoward incident takes place.
Unlike last year, the state government is in no mood to entertain women who want to visit the shrine including the Pune based activist Tripti Deshai, who has already announced that she would be coming this year too. Last year Deshai was violently blocked at the Kochi airport by BJP-RSS workers.
‘There is no stay on the September 28 (2018) verdict which opened the temple to women of all ages. I will go again,” said Kanakadurga after the Supreme Court’s decision.
‘This issue might turn out to be another Ayodhya when the final verdict comes out. For me, this is politically motivated and could potentially destroy the secular fabric and the constitutional values of our country,” said Bindu Ammini.
This time, the CPI(M) is very apprehensive about the verdict and the party would likely avoid further alienating the majority community. “Strategy is being formulated to reach out to the activist groups which want women’s entry to the shrine,” said a party leader.
“We would try to convince them not to play into the hands of the Sangh parivar and the Hindutva forces by flaring up the issue. We hope everybody is already aware of the sinister designs by the right-wing forces,” the part leader said.
Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.