The debate around Sabarimala is unlikely to end with the two menstrual-age women using guerrilla tactics to reach the shrine.
Two women in their forties, Bindu and Kanakadurga, made history early on Wednesday when they breached a local Hindu taboo of not permitting females below the age of 50 to offer prayers at the famous Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala. Their bold action, aided by the government of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, historically places them alongside the leading participants in Kerala’s social reform movements of nearly a century ago, notably the Guruvayoor satyagraha and the Vaikom Satyagraha, and the processes that culminated in the Travancore Maharaja’s Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, which permitted the lower castes to pray at temples in then Travancore state, and had an impact across the country.
If the earlier social reform efforts centred on untouchability, what we have seen of late around the Sabarimala issue, culminating in the breaking of taboo on Wednesday, has been a turbulent debate leading to mass mobilisations on gender parity in the matter of worship.
Not unexpectedly, the two women’s brave action has set off social turmoil in the state, with the Sangh Parivar and the BJP in the forefront of the backlash of the conservative folk — including women — who defer to the popular belief that Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala is worshipped in his celibate state. This has, by custom, prevented women of menstrual age from entering the temple.
Striking a blow for gender equality, the Supreme Court had ruled in September that females of any age could pray at the famous hilltop shrine. Since then the old order has hit back, and the court’s ruling has been observed more in the breach. Violent Hindutva mobs have thwarted several attempts by women devotees of the “wrong” age from reaching the shrine.
With the Lok Sabha polls just a few months away, it would appear there is politics in the conservative resistance, not just devotion. Not long ago, a top Kerala BJP leader was caught on camera telling his political squads that milking the Sabarimala issue would be useful in elections. As a counter-tactic, the chief minister backed the civil society move for a “Women’s Wall” on New Year’s Day to demand an end to gender injustice and to promote “renaissance values”.
The debate around Sabarimala is unlikely to end with the two menstrual-age women using guerrilla tactics to reach the shrine. Since the temple priests conducted a “purification” ceremony after Bindu and Kanakdurga gatecrashed the sanctum sanctorum, a new element in the debate is whether they should be hauled up for contempt of the Supreme Court order and violating untouchability laws.
Prudence demands that this extreme course be eschewed. What we are witnessing is a contest of social forces, being played out through politics. All points must be made through social action, avoiding violence and extreme tendencies.