July 05, 2020
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Sabarimala Fiasco Reveals Fragility Of Kerala's Much-Vaunted Progressiveness

Not so very long ago, Sabarimala would have been an unknown entity outside Kerala. Now, this debate over gender bristles with implications on a host of questions relating to society, politics, law and religion across India.

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Sabarimala Fiasco Reveals Fragility Of Kerala's Much-Vaunted Progressiveness
Stare Case
Ascending Sabarimala’s 18 steps
Photograph by AP
Sabarimala Fiasco Reveals Fragility Of Kerala's Much-Vaunted Progressiveness

This story is about Ayyappa the devotee—the pilgrim named after the deity he’s about to meet. He is distinct from the throngs that journey to Badrinath, Vaishno Devi, Kashi or Tirupati. Firstly, it’s always a ‘he’—at least canonically so, by custom. But if the new law of the land takes precedence, he will lose that special status. The shock value in that news has scythed through the public imagination so forcefully that the tectonic ripples are being felt way beyond Kerala. It’s become one of those handful of cases in recent times where the Constitution of India has been interpreted by the other lordships—the venerable judges of the Supreme Court—in a way that runs counter to accepted custom or belief. Across religious lines, there was the Triple Talaq verdict in February 2017 and the opening up of the Haji Ali dargah to women by the Bombay High Court a year before that. Also, the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra. All these moments of transitions, created by pro-women verdicts, passed off relatively peacefully. Sabarimala, however, has upset the pattern; it’s a right royal conflagration. And it comes on the eve of the next big one. Next January, law and faith will encounter each other again, perhaps even more momentously, with the Ayodhya case. The ordinary Ayyappa may be oblivious to all this churning—events that will go into modern India’s noisy and disputatious history—as he ascends the final pathinettampadi (18 steps), magnificently plated in gold, chanting swamiyae sharanam ayyappa (In Lord Ayyappa I seek refuge). For, he is on the threshold of what he believes is a union with Godhead: Ayyappa himself.

He is, of course, not exactly alone. Some 70 to 80 people climb up the sacred 18 steps per minute during the mandalam season; each devotee gets only two seconds for darshan of the pratishtha. That’s when the devotee, in adoration, comes into the presence, palms folded and eyes closed: transcending externalities, he internalises the experiences. The vows of abstinence he undertakes for that single moment are rigorous. For 41 days, from the time he dons the maala (chain), he must fast and abstain from meat, alcohol, toba­cco, sexual activities, wear black or blue vestments, not cut his hair and beard, must bathe and pray twice a day, sleep without a pillow and, if possible, walk barefoot. The journey too is arduous. He may be a city-dweller, an NRI or a subaltern from the farthest of villages of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh.... Caste and class are supposed to vanish while the pilgrim moves, in dense congregations, to the forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala.


This photograph, showing women at Sabarimala, ­appeared in the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi in 1981

Even formal faith lines blur. The Sabarimala temple, perched on a hilltop amidst 18 hills, embraces devotees of all religious hues. In the best syncr­etic tradition, there’s a shrine nearby dedicated to Ayyappa’s friend Vavar, a Muslim. In the 1920s and ’30s, when the temple entry movement for the depressed classes was under way in Kerala, Sabarimala needed no special order or coaxing to open its doors wider. That was, after all, its unique characteristic: that each Ayyappa devotee, from the moment of his initiation, takes on the name of the god himself. That, once clad in the homogenising black or blue, all human divisions vanish. In this terribly graded society, there is equality—at least for a brief passage.

Only among men, of course. Female devotees of Ayyappa are known as mal­ikappuram (‘those outside the palace’). Girls below 10 and women above 50 do go, but are numerically fewer. Of the mind-numbing 10 million pilgrims who flock to Sabarimala in a year, only some 4 lakh are women. One rule was in place: women of menstruating age, bet­ween 10 and 50, were barred from worshipping at the temple. Many exce­ptions have been recorded—especially before custom became law—but they only prove the rule. The law came via two temple notifications (Octo­ber 21, 1955; November 27, 1956). Temple priests admitted in court that, despite those laws, women did come to the temple during the first five days of each Malayalam month for choro­onu (rice-­feeding ceremony of babies). The PIL that occasioned those hearings led, in 1991, to a full ban on the entry of young women by the Kerala High Court. It was this ban that anot­her PIL, filed in the SC by the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association in 2006, asked to be lifted.

“We will uproot this government if it continues arresting people who protested the Supreme Court verdict on women’s entry into Sabarimala.”
Amit Shah, BJP president

After 12 years, on September 28 this year, the Supreme Court held that ban to be unconstitutional and infringing on the rights of women to worship. In a severe critique of patriarchy in religions, the five-judge consti­tution bench led by CJI Dipak Misra said, “Patriar­chy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over the element of pure devotion...and the freedom to practise and profess one’s religion. The subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physiol­ogical factors cannot be given the seal of legitimacy. Any rule based on discri­mination or segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only unfounded, indefensible and implausible, but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality.” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud even referenced caste metaphorically, citing Article 17 to say the exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability—anathema to constitutional values.

There was a lone dissenting voice: Justice Indu Malhotra. Her arguments in that 4-1 judgement are widely cited by those resisting change now. She held the ban to be an esse­ntial religious pra­ctice and not violative of any fundame­ntal rights. The right of an individual to worship a specific manifestation of the deity, in accordance with the tenets of that faith or shrine, is protected by Article 25(1) of the Cons­titution, she said. “...the worshippers of this temple believe in the manifestation of the deity as a ‘Naishthik Brahma­chari’. The devotees...have not challenged the practices followed by this temple, based on the ess­ential characteristics of the deity. The practise of celibacy and austerity is the unique characteristic of the deity in Sabarimala. Hindu deities have both physical/temporal and philosophical form. The same deity is capable of having different physical and spiritual...manifestations. Worship of each of these forms is unique, and not all forms are worshipped by all persons.”

Political parties in Kerala, barring the Congress-led UDF, welcomed the judgement. The BJP, both at the Centre and in the state, was of the opinion that women should be allowed to worship at Sabarimala. R. Sanjayan, deputy director of the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Vichara Kendram, wrote in favour of the verdict, in an article written in his personal capacity for right-wing mouthpiece Janmabhumi. Lifting the ban would not affect the basic tenets of Sabarimala, he said. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiru­vanantha­puram and “instinctive liberal”, an epithet he gives himself, too had welcomed the judgement. And Pinarayi Vijayan’s CPI(M)-led government readied itself to implement the verdict from day one. It decided not to file a review petition. And the Travancore Devaswom, supposed to be an autonomous body, too decided against doing so even as calls against the judgement grew louder.

What was unexpected was the force and stridency of public resistance, and the number of women devotees taking to the streets to uphold the tradition (see Kerala, You’ve Got Male). The Save Sabarimala agitation took no time gaining in depth and volume. ‘Nama japa yatras’ protesting the verdict drew large crowds of women and men. The ‘Ready-to-Wait’ sloganeers, young women who wanted the practice to be protected, were vocal on TV deba­tes and social media. The temple’s tan­­tris (chief priests), the Pan­da­lam royal family and the big caste-based org­an­isations too opposed the judgement.

“It is a very emotional issue and my personal view is different from my party’s Kerala unit... My personal view is, all women should get to enter the temple.”
Rahul Gandhi, Congress president

The gathering momentum saw opp­ortunistic political parties make 180-degree turns. Shashi Tharoor himself managed a remarkable volte-face. The BJP-RSS suddenly spied a “golden opportunity”, as BJP state president Sreedharan Pillai would later call it. V. Muraleedharan, a Rajya Sabha MP of the party, admits popular sentiment had to be taken into account and that forced them to change their stand (see From Temple Town to War Zone). “We cannot understand why the state government decided to implement the judgement in such a rush. What was the need to give police escort to women activists and make them wear riot gear?” he asks.

On October 17, when Sabarimala opened for the first time after the judgement, the pilgrim route was a theatre of sorts. Interestingly, a letter from the Union home ministry, to the chief secretaries of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, advised that sec­urity precautions be taken since the state had decided to implement the judgement. It spoke, warningly, of the ominous split between the anti-verdict dev­­o­tees and civil/women rights activists and Left parties/fronts. Even Sec­t­i­on 144, however, did not deter the pro­­­t­esters, now openly backed by the Sangh parivar. On the first day, 20-odd km from the temple, they turned violent, smashing media vehicles and atta­c­king journalists, and heckled and chased the few young women who had turned up.

The accusation that the state government had “blinkers” on and moved “too hastily” seemed at least partly justified. It was as if it had not read the ground situation before going ahead with imp­lementation, with no discussion with the stakeholders. When women in riot gear, accompanied by police, tried to get to the temple, they faced a blockade by large, slogan-shouting flash mobs that quickly congealed in the foothills. The disguise did not go down well with devotees. Nearly 10 women— including a New York Times journalist, aged 50—tried to enter the temple during those five initial days, but were turned back.

A communal air did not take long to emerge. The fact that some of the women were not Hindus angered the mobs, already fed by an avalanche of prejudiced social media comments. Fake news flourished on soc­ial media and political parties had no qualms about using it for their own gains. A hartal was called by the BJP in Pathanamthitta on the basis of fake news. Rumours that one of the women, Rehana Fathima, was carrying sanitary napkins were openly propagated by politicians and right-wing activists. Though she did not enter the temple, her house was vandalised by miscreants, and BJP activists protested outside it. An article in News­laundry scotched the rumour, though. IG Sreejith told Newslaundry that he had examined Rehana’s irumudi kettu (bag of sacred items) and it only contained pooja items—contrary to what a right-wing channel continues to propagate.

Kerala was to see worse. The anger soon morphed into actual—and exemplary—violence, designed to induce fear, beyond the Sabarimala hills. It was as if, to twist social psychologist Ashis Nan­dy’s lines a bit, the use of violence to sustain religious ideologies had become the new opiate of the masses! The targets: those who hold contrarian viewpoints or depart from maj­oritarian ideas. And they came in various shapes. The office of Left-leaning academic Sunil P. Elayidom was vandalised, he received death threats (see interview). So did scholar and writer Lekshmy Rajeev. Several of Swami Sandeep­ananda Giri’s vehicles were torched; so was his ashram, partially. Women who made an attempt on Sabarimala continue to be hounded by mobs even after a month. Among them is Bindu Thankam Kalyani—a horrifying story of caste-inflected misogyny.

Bindu, 43, a government school tea­cher and Dalit activist, had a premonition that the SC verdict would be favourable to women, and had already started on her penance to go on the pilgrimage. On October 22, she informed the police that she and her two male friends had reached Erumely. They sought police protection to go further; the police took them to Mundakyam police station, advising them not to reveal their location to anyone, narrates Bindu. What they thought was secrecy was actually a game the police were playing, she alleges. Even as they sat in the station, news flashed across TV channels that she and her friends were going to Sabarimala. Then began the drama. She was taken in a public bus. En route to Pampa, protesters waylaid them and threatened to kill them if they did not turn back. She and her friends decided to return, but they were trailed up to Kozhikode in north Kerala. She found she could no longer go back home and had to take refuge in a friend’s house. Even there, vigilante mobs, egged on by a news channel that projected her fals­ely as a Maoist, or a Christian activist determined to desecrate the temple, continued to hassle her. She says, “Even the students in my high school protes­ted, till the PTA put an end to it. I have not been able to rent a house in the place I’ve been transferred to. Auto drivers refuse to take me around. Teachers in my school are routinely called and told not to associate with me. All this stems from deeply entrenched caste politics, because I’ve been talking about the claims on Sabarimala made by the Mala Arayans.” (see The Tribal Ayyappan?)

The pervasive air of violence and inti­midation is now revealing the fragility of Kerala’s much-vaunted progressiveness—as if the path of reform pioneered by social visionaries like Sree Narayana Guru, Pandit Karuppan and Chattambi Swami, and assimilated by society over a century, is in peril. Intellectuals and social scientists are as shocked as the commoner. Says Prof Ajay Sekhar, of Sree Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, “In every society, it’s the educational system and the media that take forward progressive values—basic liberal and human values, a sense of justice—and bequeath them to posterity. The silence of the media on religious patriarchy is glaring. Even minority-run media turns a blind eye to it. With some exceptions, no one dares to offer a critique.”

Mruduladevi Sasidharan, Dalit activist and editor, too feels the Constitution must be taught from primary school on. She is especially irate over the Bindu Kalyani case, which she sees as the nadir—more so in the light of the Mala Arayan narrative about Brahminical appropriation. “The black clothes, and not shaving or cutting the hair, are symbols deeply connected with the blackness of the depressed classes. They at one time were not allowed to wear any other colour except black. It’s definitely not the colour of the savarna castes.”

Tharoor blames the wave of materialism in Kerala post the Gulf boom for the neo-Hindu revivalism in Kerala and the consequent change of attitudes. C-Voter surveys have now equipped the Congress with some confidence about its ‘soft Hindutva’. It has emboldened the UDF to wade slowly onto centrestage, in a fight being fought bitterly bet­ween the Pinarayi regime and the BJP-RSS. Tharoor rationalises his about-turn, confessing he was unprepared for the resistance by Hindu women. “There’s definitely a reactionary tendency on the rise in Kerala, a sort of backlash to the unflagging success of the progressive movement for several decades. The Gulf boom brought a lot of money, a lot more exposure to successful societies elsewhere—and, with it, a change of attitudes to some of the questions that used to def­ine Kerala,” he tells Outlook. “Kerala was known as reflexively left of centre...all ideological debates and contestations took place within the crucible of Kerala alone,” he adds. But now the BJP’s assiduous propagation of a message that Hindus are being discriminated against is beginning to work—and Sabarimala has turned out to be a godsend for the BJP, Tharoor adds. And unlike the temple entry movement, there was no demand by women for entry into Sabarimala, he points out. The SC took a decision too radical even for non-BJP Hindus, Tharoor feels.

Interestingly, even as Pinarayi takes on the BJP-RSS, Communist leaders worry about a potential voter backlash. Almost 90 per cent of the Communist cadre are devout Hindus, and there is resentment against the CM’s stand. Political analysts point out only Pinar­ayi is speaking boldly; second-tier leaders are mostly silent. Ker­ala has, meanwhile, not fully emerged from the aftermath of the devastating floods. Pampa, an important base camp for pilgrims at the foot of Sabarimala, has been completely washed away. The base camp has shifted to Nilakkal—the heavy police deployment there means devotees are under severe restrictions. And politicians do not want to cede any of the space they have newly found. Criti­cising the Left government, BJP MP Muraleedharan says, “Nilakkal has fac­ilities only for 1,000 devotees and nothing has been done in Pampa.” Nor is the BJP rushing to ease hardships. The call for a lightning strike by pro-BJP outfits on the first day of Mandala pooja last week saw devotees from other states struggling to find transportation and food. The apex court will hear the 49 review petitions only on January 22, at the end of the season. Meanwhile, one side ratchets up a riot-like situation in the sacred hills; the other deploys wall-to-wall police. Neither helps the ordinary Ayyappa.


  • 1902 The Brahmin Thazhamon family is said to have taken over custody from the tribal Mala Arayans, who had a shamanic cult.
  • 1920s The Maharaja of Travancore visits, with a priest, performs pujas. The royal house actively promotes the pilgrimage.
  • 1939 The Maharani of Travancore visits the temple. She was under 50 at the time. One of the many such cases.
  • 1950 A fire guts the temple.  Arson with a communal angle is alleged; others say poachers might have set the shrine ablaze.
  • 1955 The first formal ban on women’s entry; the Travancore Devaswom Board says women aged 10–55 can’t enter.
  • 1965 State rules bar from any Hindu shrine “women at such time during which they are not by custom or usage allowed....”
  • 1991 The final ban. The Kerala HC issues a blanket ban on women aged 10–50, even on the first five days of the non-season months.


From The Rabid Rumour Factory

October 10: Journalist Meena Das Narayan tweeted images of broken sticks from an apparent police lathicharge. The account she cited was later deleted; Alt News found that the pictures were from an NSUI protest from July 4.

October 18: K. Surendran, the BJP general secretary in Kerala tweeted a picture of a woman with a head wound, apparently from police action, but Asianet’s footage of the event showed she was hit during stone-pelting.

October 23: Smriti Irani’s comments on menstruation and Sabarimala were apparently in response to Janam TV’s claim that an activist had planned to carry soiled pads to the shrine. The activist denied it.

October 25: A video on WhatsApp showed Stephen Hawking with the caption: “This is what happened to the SC judge who pronounced the verdict....”

November 2: Rebel AAP MLA Kapil Mishra posted a video saying an Ayyappa devotee died after falling into a gorge to escape police action. News Minute found the man is alive.

November 3: Hindu Mahasabha’s Kamlesh Tiwari tweeted an image of a man, police shoe on chest and stopping a lathi. Alt News found the image to be from a photo-shoot.

November 5: Janam TV put out a news flash saying Sumekha Thomas—married to a CPI(M) leader’s son—was making her way to the shrine. Hours later, Thomas denied the story to News Minute.

November 17: Janam TV was at it again, saying that activist Trupti Desai was involved with the ‘conversion lobby’ and had adopted Christianity three years ago. BoomLive found the claim to be false.

By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi

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