Sabarimala impasse: Sangh blocking access to temple is dangerous, privileges majoritarianism over rule of law

The Sabarimala saga just got a little more complicated. That's saying quite a bit in the light of what's been happening in Kerala ever since the Supreme Court passed an order at the end of September overturning the existing ban on girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50 offering prayers in the inner sanctum.

Briefly, 'devotees' have expressed grave concern and have virtually prevented the previously 'disenfranchised' women from exercising their newly acquired rights. Though Hindu groups have been sedulously trying to promote the idea that this is a spontaneous movement of the ‘elect’, all the evidence available suggests that a considerable quantum of energy has gone into organising these ‘spontaneous’ attempts to disturb the peace and prevent ‘menstruating’ women, that is women or girls of an age at which they are construed as being capable, even if in exceptional cases, of menstruating, from entering the sanctum to offer prayers.

The constituents of the Sangh parivar, most notably the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been in the thick of organising these ‘spontaneous’ protests. We shall return to the BJP’s role in blocking a Supreme Court order in a while, because it is most germane.

Full text of the BJP circular

BJP Circular on Sabarimala by Firstpost on Scribd

Meanwhile, the Kerala High Court has made some observations in response to complaints from some ‘devotees’ that they have been prevented from camping overnight in the last stretch leading to the steps leading to the temple as is the usual ‘custom’. The high court’s observations are curious, if not inexplicable. It has admitted that the Supreme Court order has to be implemented, but has also questioned the heavy police deployment to ensure implementation.

According to the court, the police have intervened excessively, while the devoted petitioners have submitted that the police presence is excessive as is its stringent control over the area, ranging from transport to the working hours of restaurants and shops (which have to close by 10 pm), thus restricting the pilgrims’ access to basic amenities. Other questions have been raised along these lines.

File image of Kerala Police blocking protesting devotees at Sabarimala. PTI

File image of Kerala Police blocking protesting devotees at Sabarimala. PTI

The question, of course, is what is ‘excessive’. The answer equally obviously is that it depends on the context. The court has asked Kerala’s director-general of police to file an affidavit detailing action taken by the police. One does not know what exactly the police will say. But it certainly would not be outrageous to argue that an enhanced police presence is necessary alongside the imposition of extraordinary measures because the implementation of the orders of the Supreme Court is being opposed by many groups, including the mainstream political parties, to the accompaniment of violent means.

The role of the BJP and the Congress has been most invidious. While the latter has opposed the Left Front government's commitment to uphold what is tantamount to the law in a relatively low-key manner, with its usual opportunistic eye to immediate political and electoral gains, the former has elevated its opposition to the Supreme Court order to a point of principle. Its calculations are also rooted in securing electoral gains, but its position is more dangerous because it is inextricably located in an ideological position that privileges majoritarian reflexes over everything else, including the rule of law. Given that the party is in power at the Centre, makes the situation even more dangerous.

BJP president Amit Shah has repeatedly attacked the Kerala government over the past few weeks for trying to implement the Supreme Court order — his most over-the-top statement, issued on Tuesday, accuses the Left Front government of treating Sabarimala pilgrims like Gulag inmates. The most charitable interpretation of this comparison is that Shah’s knowledge of what the Gulag is, or was, has been gleaned from casual conversations. The BJP’s witting falsifications, or those made from pure ignorance, are, of course, intrinsically woven into the fabric of its politics.

The Left Front government must be applauded for trying to implement the letter of the law, in the right spirit, without bowing to electoral ‘compulsions’. It is unfortunate that it has had to moderate its commitment in the face of opposition stoked and fanned by political parties and those with who, in their determination to protect their ‘investment’, continue to pose as the guardians of sacred tradition.

There is every reason to believe that these traditions are not, in the first place, age-old customs, but have been ‘invented’ fairly recently. One tribal community, the Mala Arya Adivasis, a scheduled tribe, for instance, has claimed that they were the original custodians of the shrine but were driven out of the area in the nineteenth century. They also say that the ban on women of menstruating age entering the sanctum is a later accretion which was imposed after they were driven out and Brahmanical practices imposed.

The Mala Aryas have demanded that Sabarimala and other shrines be handed back to them. Whatever the truth of this claim – and this can only be validated or disproved by credible historical research – the basic point cannot change: that tradition or no, the ban is discriminatory, on the basis of gender (and biology, in this case) and infringes a number of constitutional rights, which is why the Supreme Court struck down the ban in the first place.

The Supreme Court has now agreed to give a hearing on 22 January to a bunch of petitions urging it to review its judgement but has declined to stay the September order. In the meanwhile, strongarm tactics have been used to ensure that not a single woman or girl between the ages of 10 and 50 be allowed to enter Sabarimala’s inner sanctum. This is a travesty. There are two appropriate responses to these stratagems: the use of proportionate force to subdue the protestors; or women and girls saying, a plague on your shrine, we’ll worship elsewhere, but will never vote for those parties that have conspired to deny us our hard-won right.

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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 15:02:00 IST

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