Pinarayi Vijayan is known as an uncompromising chief minister, whether on political or administrative matters. Months after steering Kerala through unprecedented floods that ravaged the state, he is now faced with an equally daunting task of implementing a Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages into Sabarimala. As he battles stiff opposition by a section of the public and opposition parties, Vijayan talks about the challenges ahead and how his government intends to tide over the crisis in an interview with Preetha Nair. Excerpts...
Kerala is on the upheaval over the issue of women’s entry into Sabarimala. Is the stand-off all about religion or the politics of it?
Sabarimala is (being) used by the RSS and BJP for political mileage. The RSS’s only intention is to create polarisation in society. Sabarimala and its customs are being dragged in just to camouflage their heinous political intentions. The RSS found the Supreme Court’s verdict an opportunity for divisive politics in the state. All the entities opposing the verdict now had earlier welcomed it, terming it historic. Why did they make the volte-face? They want to whip up sentiments of the people to create a vote bank. People can see through this game and would eventually give a befitting reply.
Has the issue put the state government in a tight spot?
The court heard this case for almost 12 years. We had consistently said that equal rights must be ensured. We also filed an affidavit supporting the entry of women of all ages. However, we also suggested that the SC can look into this particular custom by appointing a committee consisting of religious scholars. The court ruled in favour of entry of women. Our only option was to uphold the verdict. Can a state government play petty politics? It is a sad state of affairs that parties like the BJP and Congress want to place customs above the Constitution. If one were to accept the stand of these forces, then it is tantamount to sabotaging our Constitution.
You said that the government won’t allow the RSS to turn Sabarimala into another Ayodhya and that its leaders are fomenting trouble. Are there any conclusive evidences to that?
Sabarimala is an important pilgrim centre which has thrived through the course of time. The verdict gave the RSS an opportunity to lay siege to the shrine. They had a multi-pronged strategy, to destroy the unique character of the temple. They whipped up sentiments by propagating that striking down of a particular custom is detrimental to the shrine. The government could not allow such a situation and we took strong steps to restore Sabarimala’s sanctity.
What are the implications of the verdict being flouted in an organised way politically? Will the Sangh use it as a dry run ahead of SC’s Ram Janmabhoomi hearing?
There are parallels between Ayodhya and Sabarimala. The Sangh used Ayodhya politically before and tasted blood. They think they can use Sabarimala to raise their heads in Kerala. Their only intention is to get some votes and nothing else.
The slugfest between the state government and the BJP continues and it has been reported that some of Union ministers are planning to visit Sabarimala. The BJP leadership has openly threatened the government…?
The BJP has drawn up a plan woven around Sabarimala. Party president (Amit Shah) had the audacity to declare that he would pull down our government. This only shows its fascist and authoritarian nature. Central ministers came down to Sabarimala to be a part of the stir. That is precisely to undermine the SC and the Constitution.
The state government has proposed ‘women-only days’ in Sabarimala. How practical is the solution?
The Kerala high court asked our response and we suggested this course of action, provided all concerned parties agreed. There has been an evolution of Sabarimala’s customs and traditions. The practice of opening the temple every month was not there before. The number of days of darshan was also increased. If that is so, dedicating a couple of days for women can indeed be considered.
The SC is also hearing review petitions on January 22. Does religion have the right to claim exemption from law, as the petitioners argue, for defending ‘traditions’?
In many cases, the SC has clarified where customs stand and where the Constitution stands. I don’t think there can be any ambiguity on this.
The women who attempted to reach Sabarimala were forced to return, though the government had assured secure entry. They feel the government failed to keep its promise. Some of the women were turned down because they were activists.
We don’t intend to play into the hands of communal forces by creating bloodshed at the abode of Ayyappa. I don’t want to create any distinction between an activist and a non-activist. If a political leader can be a pilgrim, what prevents an activist from being a devotee? Many women ventured, but they were physically prevented by the RSS and were forced to return.
Some scholars faced death threats and abuse because they took a favourable stand on the court verdict. Threats against Dalit teacher Bindu Thankam Kalyani, who tried to reach Sabarimala, continue. Why isn’t there a clampdown on these unruly elements?
The government is clear on such issues. I issued a statement condemning the threats hurled against all people. We will give complete protection. We have registered cases against more than 3,000 people for criminal acts.
There is a view that the government failed to gauge the ground situation and could have bought some more time to implement the court order after holding consultation with stakeholders.
This point has been raised by a section as an afterthought. Once the SC gives a verdict, it becomes the law of the land. There is no question of consultations on implementing it.
There is a feeling that you have taken a tough stand and the second-tier leaders are silent. Is there disenchantment in the party, as some leaders feel the government committed hara-kiri by rushing in to enforcing the order?
I would like to invite you to see the rallies being held by LDF against communal forces. Some fertile minds could have wanted some spin. The Left is absolutely united and there is no confusion or division.
Has the issue helped BJP-RSS consolidate their support base in the state as the upper-caste Hindus seem to have offered allegiance to BJP?
It would have been their intention, but in reality they have exposed themselves and they stand isolated. The national ruling party, which boasts about economic growth, might have called for half-a-dozen hartals in a month. They did not even spare the pilgrims. The people now know their real character.
Do you think the contradictions within the Congress on Sabarimala have weakened the secular polity of Kerala?
The Congress in Kerala is lead by Amit Shah. I don’t think Rahul Gandhi has any role here. His statement, terming the SC verdict as historic, has been dumped in the waste bin by his fellow-Congressmen in Kerala. They even became part of the protests under the banner of BJP. Can there be anything ridiculous than this?
Once, their senior leader A.K. Antony had said that many Congress men turn to RSS after sunset. But on Sabarimala, they all came out as RSS even in broad daylight. This policy of being the B team of RSS will be a disaster for the Congress.
It’s surprising to see hundreds of women out in the street opposing a pro-woman court order. Has the state’s much-touted progressive image has taken a beating after the protests against the SC order?
It is true that a small section of women would have been misguided by propaganda. And none of you would have ventured to gauge the opinion of women who are not participating in the protests. Let us not be confused by the presence of a microscopic minority. Such minorities have been always there, resisting reforms. But Kerala has the resilience to overcome such disruptions. We have proved it in the past and we will prove it in the future too.