Devotees of Lord Ayyappa, the deity at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, are dismayed by the contradictory stand taken by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by it over the contentious issue of allowing women entry into the famous hill shrine.
Leaders of opposition parties and political analysts think it's dubious that the LDF government should back the ban on menstruating women in the Supreme Court, but later claim to be favouring entry to women of all ages, as announced by party secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.
Bharatiya Janata Party state general secretary and national executive member Shobha Surendran said it is yet another example of the double standards that the CPI-M takes on various issues. She told Firstpost that by siding with the pro-entry and anti-entry sections of Sabarimala devotees, the CPI-M is trying to prevent the steady flight of its Hindu cadres to the BJP.
"Though the LDF has secured majority of the seats in the Assembly polls, they are worried over the decline in their vote share. The drop in the LDF's vote share from 45 per cent in 2011 to 43 per cent in 2016 and the consequent increase in BJP's vote share from 6 per cent to 15 per cent during the same period is a clear indication that the LDF cadres are find BJP to be a credible alternative,” Shobha said.
The BJP leader added that by intervening in the spiritual affairs of the majority community, CPI-M was trying to prevent a further flight of cadres. If the party is sincere in its stand on gender equity, it should launch a campaign for entry of women not only in all temples but also in prayer houses of other religious communities, she added.
Shobha pointed out that the CPI-M and other mainstream parties kept mum when a section of Muslim women at Kozhikode came forward with a demand for entry into mosques a few decades ago. She said that the CPI-M, which is eloquent on gender equity, was not even ready to debate the issue let alone support it.
BJP state vice-president MT Ramesh, who hails from Pathanamthitta district where the temple is located, denied there is any discrimination against women at Sabarimala, saying it's just propaganda. The restriction applies only to women between the ages of 10 and 50, he said.
"This is part of the belief system being followed at the temple for centuries. Neither the court nor executive should attempt to change it. The temple authorities are competent enough to take a decision on it. They will do so if there is a need for it. The court and the government should leave the matter to them," Ramesh said.
He said that the CPI-M is trying to make political gains by creating confusion in the minds of the devotees, and that this will not succeed. "True Hindus will not be carried away by such political gimmicks. The demand for entry of women of all ages at Sabarimala does not have the support of Hindu women in the state," Ramesh added.
Political analyst NN Pearson has viewed the contradictory stand on the temple issue as an indication of the erosion in the Communist parties' ability to take a firm stand on progressive issues. He said that the party has been moving away from its core ideology in its pursuit for power. "The CPI-M, which had taken a firm stand against communal forces in the past, is now ready to join hands with them. I personally do not feel they would mount pressure on the government to take a different stand in the court since a majority of its Hindu cadres are in favour of continuing the age-old custom at Sabarimala," Pearson said.
He feels that Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran's suggestion for a referendum on the issue may be intended to justify its pro-ban stand, as he feels that the Hindus in the state are still not ready for any dilution in the customs and traditions of the temple.
Pearson said the problem can be solved only by allowing entry to women outside the pilgrim season that attracts millions of devotees from all over the country and abroad. During the two-month-long season that lasts from 15 November to 14 January, it becomes difficult even for men to offer prayers at the temple as it is very chaotic.
"A practical solution is to permit women to worship during the off-season. This may also address the 'purity' concern that the conservative sections of society cite while denying entry to menstruating women. The custom insists on a 41-day celibacy before undertaking pilgrimage during the season. It bars entry to menstruating women as it is physically not possible for them to maintain 'purity' for 41 days. As there is no need for the 41-day celibacy for normal worship at Sabarimala, women can enter the sanctum sanctorum without desecrating the deity," he adds.
The entry of women at Sabarimala is barred because of a belief that Lord Ayyappa is a chronic bachelor and the presence of women could shake the vow of celibacy he took.
However, the progressive sections of society demanding entry for women do not buy this argument since other temples in Kerala and in other parts of the country where Ayyappa is worshipped have not imposed any such restrictions on women. Women of all ages are allowed to enter and offer worship there as men do.
Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran, who had backed the petition of the Young Indian Lawyers' Association seeking entry of women of all ages at Sabarimala during his term as Devawom minister in the last LDF government, said that the argument that the ban on women’s entry was based on customs and traditions followed for centuries was wrong. He said that there exist evidence to prove that women of all ages had entered the Sabarimala temple in the past.
However, he said that he was hopeful that the right the women enjoyed earlier will be restored to them sooner or later. However, he does not think that it can be made possible through a judicial or executive order. Sudhakaran wants the issue to be resolved through consensus. He had proposed a commission in this connection during his term as temple affairs minister.
Women activists, however, are not hopeful that a consensus on the issue will be easy. They are pinning their hope on the pending petition in the Supreme Court to end the discrimination. The apex court, which favours the transfer of the petition to a five-judge Constitutional bench, is scheduled to take up the petition for hearing in November.