Opinion

Hand Stand On Temple Hill

Congress plays Hindu card, proposing a law to punish ­those who violate the Lord Ayyappa temple’s ‘age-old traditions’

Hand Stand On Temple Hill
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In God’s own country, faith can take unexpected turns. Two years after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on entry of menstruating women (age 10-50) into Sabarimala temple, the Congress is bracing to reignite the embers of a ‘holy row’ over the issue. Violent agitations after the LDF government decided to implement the court order and provide protection to women who headed to the temple had shaken Kerala for three months in 2019. The issue had been lying dormant since the apex court referred the questions of law arising out of review petitions to a larger bench. With Kerala going to polls in two months, the Congress has released the draft of a proposed law titled ‘The Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rituals, Customs and Usages) Act’. “Violation of the traditions or any act challenging the traditions, as per the proposed legislation, would be reckoned a cognisable offence,” reads the draft, which prescribes imprisonment of up to two years.

The Congress move hasn’t gone down well with many activists and the CPI(M)-led LDF government. “Raking up the Sabarimala issue when ­elections are around the corner is ­simply an uncivilised, nefarious, ­opportunistic move to garner votes,” says CPI(M) politburo member and former minister M.A. Baby. The LDF is clearly in no mood to take any ­electoral chances after the Congress-led UDF won 19 of the 20 seats in Kerala in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The state government also seems to have modified its earlier stance of ­facilitating women’s entry as per the court order. “If LDF is in power when the verdict of the larger bench comes, we will take the initiative to talk to all concerned and evolve a consensus as to what we should do,” says Baby.

The Congress’s proposed legislation came as a shock to Bindu Ammini, one of the two women who entered Sabarimala on January 2, 2019. The 42-year-old lawyer was forced to go into hiding after entering the temple and has faced violence from Hindu right-wing groups. “The Sangh parivar and the Congress want keep the Sabarimala issue on the boil as it will give them political benefits,” says Ammini. “The draft law also says ­whoever enters the Sabarimala hills will be penalised. The hill is inhabited by tribals and women also go there. The Congress’s proposal shows it doesn’t have faith in the judiciary as the case is still pending.”

The Congress move is also seen as a last-ditch effort to regain ground after its debacle in the recent local body ­elections, which was swept by the LDF. Political analyst J. Prabhash says the Sabarimala issue has the potential to influence the assembly polls. “The Congress seeks to gain political mileage rather than protect the interest of the faithful. It’s a political gimmick. The LDF may also use this against the UDF, painting it as communal,” he says.

While the Congress has been widely criticised for its Sabarimala move, the party itself is divided over the issue. “The proposed legislation was a ­promise made by the party, but the draft is not final and needs deeper ­deliberations over the provisions of punishment and other details,” says Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief Mullappally Ramachandran, who dismisses the allegation that his party is resorting to communal ­politics by proposing such a law to protect “the age-old traditions of the Sabarimala temple”, as the draft puts it. “Sabari­mala will not be a major plank in the assembly elections and is only one among many issues that will be raised. Our stand is that faith needs to be ­protected. The government ­allowed activists to enter Sabarimala, and they visited the shrine as if it were a tourist spot. It is a violation of faith,” adds Ramachandran.

Another senior Congress leader also tells Outlook that he does not agree with the provisions of punishment in the proposed legislation. The move, however, has the blessings of the party high command. The stand of the Congress’s central leadership on Sabarimala has been under scrutiny since the 2018 Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages entry into the temple. Though both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi welcomed the ­decision initially, the party took a U-turn later. Along with the BJP, the Congress was also at the forefront of agitations against the entry of women.

Tariq Anwar, AICC general secretary in charge of Kerala, says the party changed its stand after “strong opposition from the Hindu community” over the 2018 verdict. “We are not trying to beat the BJP by proposing a law on Sabarimala. The Congress has always cared for the sentiments of people and tried to take every community into confidence. It’s a sensitive and ­religious issue. We don’t want to force it on people. Faith should be protected. The state election committee has been given a free hand to decide upon the manifesto. Shashi Tharoor, who is in charge of the manifesto committee, was asked to consult all sections of ­society,” says Anwar.

Many have expressed apprehensions about the feasibility of bringing in a law regarding a matter that is under the Supreme Court’s consideration, but Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer at the Kerala high court, says nothing ­prohibits the state from amending the law in order to restrict entry into the temple. “There are many precedents. And such legislation can also be challenged. If the court finds it unconstitutional, then the amendment will have to go,” says Vasudevan, who feels that the penalising provisions are “irrational”. “A custom can be irrational and nobody would question its rationale, but punishment for violating a ­custom cannot be irrational,” he adds.

According to historian and author Lekshmy Rajeev, the Congress is shooting itself in the foot. “Faith ­underwent a drastic change during the pandemic. People think less of God and more of themselves these days. You will find temples mostly empty and rituals being changed. It will be ridiculous if someone proposes that I will be jailed if I enter Sabarimala,” she says.

Rajya Sabha MP N.K. Premachan­dran of the RSP, an UDF ally, says the draft legislation “spells our stand on Sabarimala and now the CPI(M) has to spell out theirs”. “They are scared to talk about it,” he adds.

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Baby retorts that the CPI(M) has ­always stood for the principle of ­gender equality, but “that doesn’t mean the party’s view would imposed on unwilling people”. Citing the ­example of Mahatma Gandhi leading the temple entry movement in Vaikom in 1924, he says temple entry was achieved only 12 years later.

Meanwhile, the BJP hasn’t been ­sitting quiet. Close on the heels of Congress unveiling the draft law on Sabarimala, the party that spearheaded the agitations against the Supreme Court order promised to bring in legislation against ‘love jihad’ in Kerala, on the lines of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. “The Congress is shedding crocodile tears on Sabarimala,” says BJP state chief K. Surendran. “Rahul Gandhi supported the Supreme Court’s verdict, while thousands of BJP workers courted arrest in the protests.” 

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