THE battle over the Supreme Court verdict allowing women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple has now become entirely political. The Bharatiya Janata Party has scaled up its opposition to the implementation of the verdict and the CPM-led Kerala government has decided to fight the BJP escalation with more and more arrests. The BJP has condemned the arrests and decided to portray the state government as ‘anti-Hindu’ with the obvious intention of mobilizing Hindu votes in the next elections. Surely, the judges of the Supreme Court must be watching the naked dance of politics over the order they passed. The judges’ intention was clear: according to the Indian Constitution, women enjoyed equal rights, so they cannot be denied entry into the Sabarimala temple. The argument presented by the temple management and others that the denial of entry of women of menstrual age was done according to the religious faith of the followers of Lord Ayappa, the presiding deity of the Sabarimala temple, was rejected by the Supreme Court.
Although they lost in the Supreme Court, the temple management, the high priests of the temple and orthodox followers decided to oppose the implementation of the verdict on the ground. They first put pressure on the Kerala government to file a review petition in the Supreme Court, threatening protests if it did not. When the CPM-led government refused, the orthodox sections decided to create such a situation when the temple opened for visits by devotees that no women dared to go into the temple. As it happened, looking at the aggressive postures and statements of the hardcore elements, only a few women, mostly rights activists, gathered courage to take the journey to the temple. They were not allowed by the hardliners to enter the temple. The women were shocked to see that even the police of the Kerala government did not intervene to help them go into the temple. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, though expressing resolve for implementing the Supreme Court verdict, obviously had given his police bosses an instruction that their men should not use any kind of force to stop the hardliners stopping women visitors. It was clear that while Vijayan remained committed to the implementation of the verdict, he did not want any of the hardliners to be hurt, because that could trigger an explosion of protests by followers across the state, leading to religious polarization that would benefit the BJP and harm the CPM.
Nevertheless, the BJP is seeing a great opportunity in the controversy over the verdict. The BJP does not have much of a base in the state, though the RSS has been active in certain districts. In the Kannur district, the RSS supporters have been engaged in a bloody feud for decades with CPM supporters. Many supporters of both organizations have been murdered and cases have been going on in the court and several people have been convicted. However, politics in Kerala has remained bipolar, with one camp led by the CPM and another by the Congress. The BJP has made inroads in West Bengal and is making every effort and using all means to making inroads in Kerala. The Sabarimala verdict has come as a godsend to the BJP. It suits their politics, as it paves the way for religious mobilization of Hindus in the name of ‘defence of faith.’
The BJP stance on the Sabarimala verdict is totally contrary to the position it had taken on the Bombay High Court verdict ending prohibition on the entry of women to the Haji Ali shrine at Worli. The High Court had founded its verdict exactly on the same ground as the Supreme Court did its order on Sabarimala: women enjoyed equal rights under the Constitution, rights which included freedom to worship, and hence cannot be denied entry to the Haji Ali shrine. The BJP lauded the High Court for establishing the supremacy of the Constitution over religious faith in the Haji Ali case. But it is criticizing the Supreme Court for doing the same. Does it not show that the BJP uses separate yardsticks for women of Hindu and non-Hindu faiths? RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat gave a three-day lecture in Delhi two months ago in which he emphasized two points: the RSS swears by the Constitution and believes in inclusion of women. Why is the BJP in Kerala then insisting on exclusion of women from the Sabarimala temple? What was good for Muslim women in the case of Haji Ali should also be considered good for Hindu women in the case of Sabarimala. Modi’s BJP prides itself on doing a lot for women. However, the party position on Sabarimala shows the BJP is ambivalent on women’s right to equality.