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Meet SP Manju, The Dalit Activist Who Braved Hindu Right Wing To Enter Sabarimala Temple

Dalit activist SP Dalit said her devotion to Lord Ayyappa and the harassment and insult from the Hindu Right to women in Kerala inspired her to enter Sabarimala temple.

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Women could only enter Sabarimala temple in Kerala after a Supreme Court verdict
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SP Manju, a Dalit woman and a daily wage labourer and a political activist, quietly took the decision to trek to Sabarimala and to get a glimpse of the celibate Lord Ayyappa for two reasons. First, she was an ardent devotee. Secondly, she was furious and hurt to see women on streets being harassed and insulted by the Hindu Right in the name of protecting customs.

Manju made her first attempt on October 20, 2018, but she was sent back by the police for the reason that they had to do ‘background checking’ of women who wanted to go to the temple. The background checking did not come out very favourable to Manju as it was found that there were criminal cases against her. She was the President of Kerala Dalit Mahila Federation, the women’s wing of Kerala Dalit Federation. Being a Dalit activist, she had active participation in struggles. 

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Manju told Outlook, “I had cases not because I had done any criminal act, but because I participated in a struggle demanding land for Adivasis.”

Manju learned a few lessons from her first attempt which got aborted. 

She said, “I decided to avoid the police and media next time. Thus I set off the next week without even telling to my party comrades.”

On January 9, 2019, Manju reached the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple. It was reported by the media that she applied hair colour and turned her hair grey. Elderly women who crossed the age of menopause were free to go to the temple. Manju, however, denied that she had done anything to create a false impression about her age. 
She said, “I usually wear holy ashes over my head whenever I go to temples. Every year, I go with a group of people and visit almost all the famous temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.” 

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As soon as the news broke that Manju trekked to the top of the hill and reached at the sanctum sanctorum, her house at Chathannoor in Kollam District was attacked. 

“It was done by the BJP activists in my locality. Many of them were known to me personally,” said Manju.

Manju, born into an economically backward Dalit family, had been a political activist since her student life. She was affiliated to the Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of CPI-M. She later a member of CPI-M. Over a period of time, Manju distanced herself from the communist party and started her association with the Kerala Dalit Federation. For a short period of time, she even aligned with Congress and contested the 2015 local body election as a Congress candidate. When the news of Manju’s victory in trekking Sabarimala came out, the local Congress leaders denounced her and declared that she had no connection with the party. 

Manju does not have a smart phone and hence she is not on social media. Apparently, Manju is not showered by cyber abuse like Rehna Fatima and Bindu Ammini. The LDF in power also showed no displeasure to Manju. She is a member of the Renaissance Collective formed by the Chief Minister and was absorbed into the State SC/ST Welfare Board as a member. 

The BJP activists who were accused of vandalising Manju’s house tried to strike a compromise with her and to withdraw the case, but Manju did not yield to the pressures. 

Manju told Outlook, “I will not go for any compromise. The Sangh Parivar must remember what they had done to the women who wished to go to the temple legitimately only after getting the approval by the Supreme Court.”
Manju’s entry into the Sabarimala temple caused a vertical split in her party as well. 

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“There were disputes and discussions within the party regarding the temple entry of women. There was a faction that did not approve of the same, but many of the state leaders were in favour of women entering the temple. Hence party formally took the position supporting women entry and made a public statement,” said Manju. 

Despite that, a section of the party leaders left the party and joined Congress. 

Manju has not attained formal education. She has a brother who is autistic and an aged mother to take care of. Though she had not read any theory on patriarchy, class, and caste, she is very clear about the impact of the entry of women into Sabarimala. 

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She said, “Only a few women could enter the temple, it does not matter. It created a huge debate in Kerala society regarding caste, class and gender. That was our point of victory.”

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