When Sabarimala Kept Me Up.

A decade and couple of years back, half a dozen women lawyers moved the apex court in the country against a practise that they found to be a “socio-religious malady in a place of worship managed by a state run body partially funded by public money”. The State Government, the high priest, the Dewaswom Board and the District Magistrate of Pathanamitha were impleaded as parties in the PIL filed by the ladies in question. The temple’s tryst with the law prior to this in the same context was another decade and a half before the one in 2006 when the High Court of Kerala upheld the ban in response to another PIL filed by a male citizen. The issue was never a bone of major contention otherwise in our collective conscience. There were of course other cases in court filed by local communities linked to the legend of the deity who wanted their rights to the many customs which were taken over by the priestly class to be restored. But how many of us were actually bothered by this ban on mensturating women to be honest? It was something that we were conditioned to accept as normalcy, as we do with most things in our puny little lives. If there were indeed people who saw this for what it was like the Supreme Court did in September of the year past, they never thought to act on their thoughts. It took a Barkha Dutt article and a bunch of women from the other half of the country to do that for us. No, not me or you with all our enlightment and sophistication. Even the Left government under E.K Nayanar left it to the Dewasom Board to decide the matter according to the usage of practises in their affidavit in court in response to the PIL of 1991.

Fastforward to 2018 and we have a Left government again at the helm and under the microscope like never before thanks to the rise of the far right in the North and the demise of the centre-left since 2014. The government was doing fairly well and gaining popularity under an able leadership that threatened both the Opposition and the right wingers who were trying everything within their limited powers to gain political traction in the state. The state showed reslience, literally in the face of a deadly epidemic. Then came the floods and the state’s response as a people and a government to it. The Sabarimala imbroglio is definitely something that was not on the menu when the government came into power and it certainly wasn’t looking forward to be in the position it has found itself as I write this. But that’s not to say it isn’t capable of handling it. The governments in power at various junctures during the decade long litigation had filed affidavits that were in lieu of their core principles and ideologies. The Left had always maintained that it’s outlook was progressive on the issue but that it would maintain the status quo if the court ruled otherwise. The Congress government in the interim had filed in opposition. Came the verdict in September in the wake of the havoc that the floods wreaked with a storm of another kind under it’s wings. Rest is history as we are witnessing it.

The State welcomed the verdict and promised to uphold the constituitional rights of citizens as directed by the Supreme Court. The right wingers welcomed it too, in principle. To any independent observer worth his salt, this was just the calm before the storm. In the first few days that followed, almost all major political stakeholders watched and waited to gauge the public reaction. There were other interested parties who expected the verdict and had been strategising during the days that ran up to the verdict. These were mostly non political enitities with interests and claims to the operations of the temple itself. Once the political potential of the crisis unveiled itself in totality to the aspirants in the thick of the game, the tables literally turned. What followed was days of perpetual unrest and dilemma. The Left in Kerala is the only entity that is politically capable of handling a situation as delicate and suicidal as this if you ask me. Unlike the Congress that’s scattered across groups that revolve like satellites around individuals and initials, the Left draws it’s strength from it’s cadre and structure. The Left also has a think tank who formulate strategies to tackle any political crisis that’s thrown their way. They’re almost rigid in that aspect when it comes to resolves which is in fact both a forte and foible at the same time.

The right wingers had cornered and further pushed the State into a spot that it did not like stay for long in. It had to push back with all might and it did just that. It lifted the veils on the rift and the faultlines that ran deep in the psyche of the residents. Identity politics took a centrestage as a counter strategy. Even the Chief Minister wasn’t spared casteist slurs. We saw the Left working a multi pronged approach to deal with the hypocrisy of the organisations that opposed the verdict. There were contradictory statements every other day. Women who came forward initially failed to make it to seat of the deity. At times the State played mute spectator to the antics of the right wingers who had literally fortified the temple premises with their presence. Then after a period of brief lull came a time of turbulence again. If the right wingers had envisaged a battle between Communists and believers, the Left in their reaction had driven a sledgehammer clean into the caste faultines of the state’s social fabric and the usual suspects were only too happy to oblige, on either sides. After much delibertations and negotiations the government was able to bring influential community organisations together and hold a show of resolution and solidarity, literally flexing it’s muscles. Then overnight came the bolt from the blue, the announcement about the entry of two women who laid claim to their rights, finally. This has upped the ante for all the powers that be. Politically too, there are only winners here, mostly. The far right finally has the opportunity it always longed for. The Left has ensured a place in the annals for it’s leadership as heroes of renaissance. The Congress is looking at a bleak future in terms of their customary return to the assembly every five years, which is why they are reeling in contradictions under an uninspiring leadership, if one may call it that. The far right who have used polarising tacticts to gain political foothold in the rest of the country time and again have met their match in this southernmost state, it’s safe to say.

Sabarimala for the longest time has remained a bastion of faith that reached out to people beyond the barriers of religion.The pilgrimage took one on a personal journey of atonement. The legends told tales of camaraderie between a Hindu warrior and his Muslim ally to whom the devotees paid respects in his shrine before they arrived at the famed eighteen steps. Despite being such a timeless symbol of secularism and tolerance, when the temple makes headlines across the globe for the wrong reasons, it’s not the emperor who’s naked, it’s the subjects.

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