Sabarimala 2.0 brews ahead of verdict

The verdict is expected by then or else a new bench will have to rehear the petitions.

Sabarimala is a riddle and its key is politics. The by-poll season in Kerala this month bears this out.

The Sabarimala verdict of the Supreme Court on September 28, 2018, removing age restrictions on women worshipping the celibate Lord Ayyappa at the hill shrine, continues to be a poll refrain in Kerala. It helped the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) win all but one of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the May general elections, leaving one to the ruling LDF and the NDA none.

But the NDA, for the first time, garnered almost 29 per cent of the Hindu vote, showing the “Sabarimala controversy as a repeatable emotive investment like the Ram Mandir issue”.

By-elections to five Assembly seats are slated for October 21. Between now and November 17, when Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi retires, his five-judge bench is expected to deliver the crucial verdict on Sabarimala petitions seeking a review of the SC order of September 28. In February, the court asked petitioners to submit their contentions in writing. There are roughly 64 review petitions, both for and against.

Other judges on the bench are Justices R.F. Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra. It is generally expected that the verdict would either be to uphold the previous decision or refer it to a larger bench.

The annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala for the 41-day “mandala puja” starts on November 16. The verdict is expected by then or else a new bench will have to rehear the petitions.

Petitioners have pointed out the post-verdict churning in the state, especially thousands of women massing on the roads albeit against a progressive decision that removed the centuries-old shackles on equal rights to worship. But a large section of society feels the reform cannot be implemented by a mere order: Women who do not visit temples during the monthly cycle, as a matter of belief, are not yet ready to accept the change.

Already, state Congress president Mullappally Ramachandran has announced Sabarimala would be a main campaign point in the by-elections, especially in Konni in Pathanamthitta, where the hill shrine is located, and Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram, with a sizeable section of the state’s upper caste Nair community. The Nair Service Society (NSS) has been at the forefront, fighting the “brazen manner” in which the government implemented the top court’s verdict. The NSS was angry with the “government for being soft on the SC directive on the Jacobite-Orthodox church row while at the same time being overzealous on the Sabarimala verdict”.

The Sabarimala agitation 2.0 will see the Opposition UDF and the ruling LDF taking the NDA to task for its “grandstanding” on Sabarimala. At the state convention of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Thrissur on January 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, in reference to the Sabarimala temple, “The people of India are seeing the Communist government of Kerala disrespecting all aspects of Kerala’s culture... Let me tell you, neither the Congress nor Communists have any concern for women’s empowerment. If they did, they would not be opposing the NDA’s efforts to end triple talaq. India has had many women chief ministers, but has even one of them been a Communist leader?”

Mr Modi was sore with the Pinarayi Vijayan government for the way in which it implemented the Supreme Court’s verdict. However, Mr Modi’s Communist-Congress bashing exposes the BJP’s own double talk: While the party saw the law on triple talaq as a blow for women’s empowerment, the party state unit pilloried the LDF government for trying to enforce the pro-woman Sabarimala verdict.

The BJP has since taken a U-turn. Union law and justice minister Ravishankar Prasad said in reply to a question by Shashi Tharoor in Parliament that the Centre would not bring any ordinance against the SC verdict on Sabarimala.

On June 21, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav told a news channel in Thiruvananthapuram that the Centre could not bypass the Supreme Court. “What is possible legally will be explored. The Supreme Court is also involved in the matter, so we cannot completely bypass the Apex Court and take decisions,” he told a regional news channel.

The top brass are confused and there is resultant ambivalence about how to reap electoral dividends. The BJP had smelled “a golden opportunity” in Sabarimala ahead of the Lok Sabha polls and succeeded in increasing Hindutva backing for its campaign.

The RSS on its part prefers to see Sabarimala as an assertion of gender justice just as it would the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code, a highlight of the directive principles of the state policy. That is perhaps why leaders like Subramanian Swamy had wanted Central forces to be sent to Sabarimala to enforce the SC verdict.

But the RSS also resents the government “riding roughshod” over women who may not yet appreciate the logic in the pro-gender verdict. “We do not approve of the way the LDF government sought to hector women to the hilltop”, said Bharatheeya Vichara Kendra deputy director R. Sanjayan.

In the rival camp, the LDF is still smarting from the LS rout. By the CPM’s own admission, it had failed to convince the people of its intent to comply with the verdict.

The government had its own quota of confusion as evident in the LDF-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board’s (TDB) stance on the verdict. After being initially sceptical of the verdict, the TDB, which administers the Sabarimala temple, did a somersault at the Supreme Court, backing the ruling allowing women of all age groups to enter the shrine. The board told the court that it is high time that a particular class was not discriminated on the grounds of “biological attributes”.

The Opposition UDF also exhibited its share of duplicitous politics, which Union minister of state for external affairs, V. Muraleedharan, called out recently. In keeping with the UDF assurance, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and the RSP’s N.K. Premachandran moved private members’ bills, which were rejected by the government in the Lok Sabha. Mr Muraleedharan said that instead of such moves with predictable outcomes, the Congress should back the government in the Rajya Sabha to bring in an ordinance.

Meanwhile, Bindu, 44, and Kanaka Durga, 42, the first to enter the temple post-verdict in January, have moved the SC and await clarity on the part of the state government rather than regret a laudable step it had taken to uphold the verdict.

This is in the light of the government’s own vacillation. The state went back on its statement in Supreme Court, saying that only two women and not 51 women of menstrual age as originally claimed had entered the Ayyappa temple. It had proof of only two women entering the shrine, the government said, even as sources privately confirmed that many young women had worshipped at the temple these few months when the temple opened for puja at the beginning of every month.

Mr Vijayan tried to clarify the government’s position: “Despite our stand in favour of opening the temple to young women, we are duty-bound to enforce the verdict of the highest court of the land”. So for now, over to the top court.

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