In Kerala, Sabarimala temple entry issue back on the table

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As the Kerala Assembly election campaign enters the last fortnight, the issue of entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has returned to haunt the CPM. The Opposition hopes to use the issue to push the CPM, particularly popular Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, into a corner. Vijayan’s vociferous support to the 2018 Supreme Court decision allowing women of menstruating age into the temple — disregarding popular opinion against it and reluctance among own cadres — is believed to have played a big role in the rout of the CPM in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Vijayan has been trying to dodge the issue saying the matter rests with the Supreme Court (review petitions have been referred to a larger Bench). The LDF manifesto is nebulous, saying the front will support “all activities to protect the faith”… “ensuring space for the atheist to live”.

However, under increasing pressure to take a stand, CPM leader and Temple Affairs Minister Kadakampally Surendran last week expressed regret over “the incidents of 2018 at the temple”, adding, “Everyone is sad over what happened there.”

Surendran is contesting from Kazhakuttam, where he faces the BJP’s Sobha Surendran, the face of its Sabarimala agitation.


CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury immediately distanced the party from Kadakampally’s statement saying there was no change in the LDF policy on Sabarimala — that the Supreme Court order was in line with renaissance traditions in Kerala — and that the government was duty bound to implement the apex court verdict.

Not just Kazhakuttam but across Central and South Kerala, the BJP is campaigning on the single-point issue of Sabarimala. Says Sobha Surendran, “Sabarimala and the protection of faith are the major issues of this election. When the CPM trampled over traditions, BJP workers were fighting for protection of faith. Minister Surendran himself took activists to the hill shrine (the state police had escorted women who wanted to visit the temple).”

In Tripunithura constituency, both the BJP and Congress are highlighting CPM candidate M Swaraj’s statement at the time that Lord Ayyappa was not an “eternal celibate” (the reason behind keeping menstruating women out as per tradition).

Rajya Sabha MP and BJP Thrissur candidate Suresh Gopi says this election is aimed at “ending the Tandava Nritya of the LDF government”.

The anti-CPM voices are being magnified by umbrella Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Aikya Vedi and Sabarimala Protection Samithi, which are conducting prayer sessions across Kerala urging voters to “teach those who took women to the shrine a lesson”.

Says Samithi convener S J R Kumar, “We don’t want a repeat of 2018. We are not asking anyone to vote for any party, but we want a government that will protect the Hindu faith. Even the LDF government decision to withdraw criminal cases against the faithful who protested against entry of young women came too late. There are 18,000 cases with 58,000-odd people listed as accused.”

The Vijayan Cabinet’s announcement withdrawing the non-serious cases was issued on February 26, the day the Assembly election schedule was announced, meaning police could not proceed with it. The CPM has also been saying that after the final verdict of the Supreme Court, the government will consult “all stakeholders”.

The Congress too is walking a tightrope on the matter. At the time of the Supreme Court decision, the central leadership, including Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi, had supported entry of all women, though the state unit had advised caution. The Congress’s attack on Vijayan’s handling of the issue had helped the UDF to 19 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, even as the BJP increased its vote share.

Now, while the Congress-led UDF manifesto has promised a legislation to “protect the interests of the faithful”, the party is largely firing from the shoulders of the upper caste Hindu outfit Nair Service Society (NSS), which had led the agitation to “protect traditions” at the shrine and which has been pro-Congress.

After Kadakampally Surendran’s expression of regret, the NSS said the CPM was being dishonest on the issue. NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair challenged the LDF government to withdraw its affidavit in the apex court favouring entry of young women to the temple.

When CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran said the government wouldn’t do so, Nair retorted, “Faith is like oxygen. Those who have forgotten that fact while in power are destined to face setbacks.”

However, should the Hindu vote get split between the BJP and Congress on the issue, it is the CPM that may end up making gains.

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