When blind faith fights reason

Political drama ensues from Sabarimala verdict in the backdrop of belligerent protests

Two big women-focused news items of the last one week have been: (a) women journalists taking cudgels against many sexual predators, and forcing one of the known offenders, MJ Akbar, to resign from the ministry of the government of India; and, (b) the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to pray at Sabarimala temple in the hills of Kerala, but being prevented by goons, misguided youth, and political miscreants on ground from praying. One rejoiced the collective power of women and the other made a mockery of progress made by women to claim their rights.

The liberal argument

As the news about the Sabarimala temple entry violence against women disciples and women journalists kept trickling in over the last 30 hours, I expressed through a Facebook post:

"When the Supreme Court had given a verdict against Triple Talaq and for removing obstacles against the final Ayodhya decision, the Sangh Parivar groups were ecstatic. Now the same Court has opined in favour of all women, of all ages, to be allowed to pray at Sabarimala Temple. So why are the Sanghi groups on the streets with knives drawn, beating up every woman on the road to the temple who is below 50 years of age? Selective ecstasy and rage is a trait of a fascist mind which brooks no diversity of opinion. The governments, Central and State, must allow court decision to be executed. This is not about politics, but about women's rights and Court decision."

The counter-argument

Interestingly, in response to this post, a former female student of mine from Kerala wrote a series of comments and this gives the world-view of those who are convinced that the status quo should be mentioned in Sabarimala, which after language editing are as follows:

"Sir, it's not about "Sanghi". When the majority of women in Kerala don't want to go to Sabarimala because of our belief, then why this judgement? There was no injustice or inequality happening here. Lord Ayyappa is not just confined to Sabarimala, the deity is there in many temples across Kerala and other states, no restrictions are being put there. There is a certain belief attached to Sabarimala. It's very simple to understand that it's a political move, the women who are desperate to go there are CPI(M)-led, and CPI(M) is incompatible with religious faith."

In response to my comment questioning the misconceived menstrual impurity and reminding the past progressive steps against Sati, etc., she further writes,

Who said it's because of menstruation! And, yes, in the past there were many revolutionary verdicts and progresses made, as said by u like Sati, widow remarriages, including the Channar revolt. In all of these cases, it was injustice towards women or inequality where men were not required to do the same what women were asked to. But here the case is quite different. In Hinduism, a temple is an adobe of deity and not a prayer hall. One should follow the deity's principles inside any temple. In Sannidhanam, the deity here is Lord Ayyappa who has chosen to be celibate and doesn't wish to see fertile ladies inside Sannidhanam. As every temple rituals are different across all over the world, Sabarimala also has an identity where the temple is open on all 1-5 (Malayalam calendar) and 41 days from the month of Vrishchikam. There were many violations of this ritual of the entrance of fertile ladies and a "Shudhikalasham" was done each and every time which is a hectic task for the tantriks and temple, which costs huge money. A case was filed for these violations and follow-ups for violations as per temple rituals. Justice Paripoornan, who was assigned, asked the temple authorities how to allocate a restriction where physical appearances can only be viable to determine if a lady is old or young. To avoid such clashes, a lower judicial decision only ordered restriction of ladies from 10-50 age group and not temple authorities. Nowadays, children below 10 and ladies above 50 may also be fertile, but as it is the principled practice of the deity in Sannidhanam these age groups can travel only till Pamba which is the base camp.

A case was filed by Young Lawyers Association on 2006 demanding temple should be opened to all, and was backed by the atheist LDF government then by filing an affidavit saying Government is ready. This decision was chosen without asking the temple authorities (Thantri), as Sabarimala is now owned by the Government ruled Devaswom Board which has taken over from HH Chithiruthirunal Balarama Varma's rule after Independence. Devaswom Board should have a representative of Raja, but after Independence a government appointed person has held the position of the Devaswom Board President. The then atheist Government took the decision as their own will without consulting temple or devotees. This was changed after the next UDF govt came to power, proclaiming that the women's entrance should be banned considering the religious unity and harmony in the state. This decision was toppled down again by the next LDF govt, by dethroning the then Devaswom Board President Parayar Gopalakrishnan by forcefully reducing his tenure as President. An affidavit was again filed that both Devaswom and government are backing women's entrance whereas lakhs of devotees were protesting.

"The case was backed by BJP and RSS at the centre. Paradoxically, the LDF government who was almost in lead to destroy the Hindu unity for vote bank in Kerala, wisely played politics with other issues. The SC verdict over Piravom Church, the Beef Ban, the Liquor Ban were all amended or slowed down by their own political will, but the government is now gearing up for women's entrance at Sabarimala. The CM could have even asked for a time period as the temple and its premises are in short of resources due to the recent flooding. But he was adamant here to play his political tricks and to grow a communal distress in the state. This is a political drama where only atheist or ladies from communist fronts are coming to provoke and to create a scene. This is not devotion but an aggression or vengeance. Sabarimala holds a uniqueness as it is an epitome of religious harmony and where devotees also visit Vavar Mosque in Erumeli. Every male devotee visits Ayyappan and female devotees visit Malikapuram.

Equality in faith & in law: Both violated

The fundamental premise, thus, is that a lady in fertile age-group should not be visiting Ayappa! This fertility obviously is connected to menstruation and that is discrimination against women based on their menstruation age. Those who hold these customs so dearly to their heart need to answer if the Lord is so nubile and weak that a 'fertile' woman coming close to pray shall make him lose his focus or piety? And, when we discriminate a disciple based on gender or age, how is it that God is the same for all? And if some custom or tantrik belief has been in vogue for long, how does it make it infallible and not ever changeable? Such centuries-old beliefs will then make human progress, law and judiciary, movements of equality, etc., meaningless and futile. That is exactly the reason why Sati burning with dead husband or ban on widow remarriage has been banished on the grounds of ill-founded beliefs, discriminatory and anti-human nature of these.

When Muslim community bans women from entering mosques or certain Dargahs, Christian power-structures are often seen tolerant towards rape and molestation accused priests and Bishops, Hindu Shani temple prevents women from offering prayers, the same logic of discrimination or violation of modern equality and human rights in the eyes of law must be seen at play.

Yes, it is a political game now, but that is more of the Sangh Parivar and its political front, BJP, which wants to set a strong footing in Kerala by being seen to uphold a centuries-old discriminatory belief. The Left Front is rather on the back foot, executing a Court order, bearing the brunt of law and order disquiet close on the heels of its commendable role in flood reliefs. It does not gain through this, but BJP hopes to, while Congress sits confused, if not outrightly in favour, of violent protests against the verdict like the Sangh Parivar, both being on soft and hard ends of Hindutva in Kerala on this issue.

And beyond all, the incidents of stone-pelting, breaking and burning vehicles, beating journalists, threatening women with the violation, etc., as seen over the last three days, all in the name of religion and faith, in Kerala, are nothing less than terror tactics. And when even a quarter of these are done in Kashmir, albeit wrongly, the protesters get pellet bullets and at times real ones.

(Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury is Dean, Media School, Pearl Academy, Delhi & Mumbai, and earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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