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OPINION | Notions of Purity and Progress Wage Battle Over Sabarimala

The SC’s 4-1 split verdict had held that “the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender,” thus overruling the notion of gender discrimination based on custom.

Binoo K John |

Updated:November 14, 2018, 2:30 PM IST
OPINION | Notions of Purity and Progress Wage Battle Over Sabarimala
Lord Ayyappa devotees take part in the 'Ayyappa Namajapa Yatra' (chanting the name of Lord Ayyappa) in New Delhi on October 14, 2018 . (Photo: PTI)

Two months after the Supreme Court judgment allowing women of all ages to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, society, state and politics is torn between, tradition and modernity unable to come to terms with the leap-frogging and progressive content of the judgment. The SC dealing with a clutch of review petitions has refused a stay on its own order till the case is heard on January 22, 2019. By this time the temple would have been closed for another year.

This leaves the state government to deal with street violence during the peak season of December when the temple will remain open for a month, after two brief openings in September and November. Chief Minister of Pinarayi Vijayan in true Communist fashion, has stood his ground saying that it is his duty to implement the SC order and allow women ‘fertile’ ages to worship. Till now despite the presence of more policemen than pilgrims, no woman has been allowed to enter the temple precincts by violent mobs claiming to preserve the sanctity of the Ayyappa temple where the deity is considered by the weight of tradition, to be celibate.

The state government has cracked down on the mob and arrested about 3000 people, an unprecedented move in Kerala where any arrest can bring the state to a standstill. The mob violence mostly by the RSS and the BJP with subtle support from the Congress cadre is bound to continue throughout December.

CM Vijayan has also warned the chief priest against closing down the temple doors if a woman tried to enter. This situation is likely to happen in December when during the long season any woman can with the help of the police enter the temple for darshan. Vijayan said that a temple does not belong to the priest but to the government. In Kerala all temples come under the Devasom Board, a government office. If the priest shuts the door or does a purification ceremony after a lady enters, this in turn will turn the conflict into another level. The head priest will be removed and another appointed. This cycle is likely to go on, since few priests will allow women to enter the temple. A non-Brahmin priest, whose notions of purity are different, will then have to be appointed but that will open up another set of problems.

Progressive forces which have come together under the CM have the following arguments in support of the Marxist government stand which backs the SC judgment:

1. Traditions needs to be changed, just as earlier traditions preventing lower castes from entering temples was changed. It took close to 20 years after the Temple Entry proclamation of 1936 for lower castes to be actually allowed into temples. The government does not have the luxury of waiting for society to change its conservative notions.

2. Religious and caste systems were unusually cruel to women in Kerala and the Ayyappa custom is seen as part of this entrenched misogyny. Women of lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts even till the first quarter of the 20th century. To get liberated from such shocking practices took a long time. Women as ‘objects of impurity’, a completely patriarchal notion, is unacceptable. So the temple has to be opened up to break the last barrier.

3. Ayyappa celibacy is only a custom and has no sanctity from any Hindu text. In any case temples cannot be fortresses of misogyny and backwardness in a state which only last week, gave a literacy certificate a 98-year-old lady who lived through the ravages of a crippling social customs of the last century .

The RSS and staunch Ayyappa devotees argue:

1.There are many temples where men are not allowed. So what’s wrong with keeping out women from this one temple?

2. In any case, women can go after the age of 50, so why break a custom?

3. It is just that in this temple Ayyappa is considered to be in a state of ‘nashtike bramacharya’ (eternal celibacy)

The SC judgment was actually not against any custom. The question of whether the judgment interfered into the realm of religious practices and questions of faith is being debated. The SC’s 4-1 split verdict had held that “the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender,” thus overruling the notion of gender discrimination based on custom. Overall the judgment has emphasised the primacy of Article 21 (right to personal liberties) over Article 25 (practise and propagation of religion) which can have wide-ranging judicial ramifications in future. Ayyappa devotees cannot be seen as a sect with different set of practices.

The ruling Left Front has stood solidly behind the progressive judgment. The Congress, however, is caught in a bind and says religious custom should be respected. Rahul Gandhi has said that he supports the SC judgment but the local leadership fearing the loss of upper caste votes has toed the RSS line. So it is a loss-loss situation for the Congress, with the BJP now seeing the violent reaction to the judgment as sure-shot way to nibble into the Congress vote-bank. And even liberal bigwigs like Shashi Tharoor has taken a nuanced position basically backing the RSS line.

(The writer is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)

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