The Cognizant Citizen: The Sabarimala Verdict

When you enter the district of Pathanamthitta in God’s own country during the offseason, you can pick one of many things to do. You can visit the diverse wildlife of the Periyar National Park, or you could just bask in the enchanting beauty of the place.

During most of the year, this district is similar to any other in Kerala –picturesque and fully in harmony with nature. It is one of the few rapidly reducing districts in India where the total forest area is unadulterated.

Although Pathanamthitta may appear to be just another Indian district to a passing traveller, there’s more to this enchanted town than meets the eye. If you were to go through this district during the holy period of Mandalapooja Mahotsavam -a forty-one-day period of grace- you would notice a profound change in the topography of the ‘Pilgrim Capital of Kerala’; you would have been passing by during the second largest seasonal pilgrimage in the world after Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

What’s truly incredible about this pilgrimage is that for a period of 41 days, anywhere between a high of two-crore and a low of one-and-a-half-crore pilgrims flock the town of Pathanamthitta to offer their pilgrimage to Lord Ayyappa in the historic ancient temple of Sabarimala.

These pilgrims come from all over the country but most of them are from the neighbouring states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and of course the home state of Kerala. Participation in this pilgrimage is not limited to only Hindus or even a specific caste.

Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple to offer prayers.  REUTERS: Dipak Kumar

There are people from all walks of life including Muslims, Syrian Catholics and even some Buddhists take part in this incredible journey! This speaks to volumes of the tolerance of the Ayyappa cult who too this day still have a small shrine dedicated to Vavar –A Muslim friend of Lord Ayyappa, who is said to have become his disciple.

Although this religious and cultural tolerance compliments the stellar history of Sabarimala, there is something that doesn’t conform to the culture we in the 21st century are familiar with. Right from the steps of Pampa River to the top of Sannidhanam one would have to elbow for even an inch of space in a never ending sea of devotees. But, if you looked around you’d notice that there is something off –there isn’t a single lady in sight, this is where our problem begins.

The 1991 Kerala High Court Ban and the Essential Practices Doctrine

In 1991, the Kerala High Court imposed a ban on the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 inside the temple complex. This ban was imposed based on the legal doctrine of essential practices.

Unlike the United States, the Indian constitution combines freedom of religion clauses with a mandate to the state to intervene in religious affairs associated with ‘traditional’ Hinduism, such as untouchability and caste inequality.

An essential practice is a practice that the Supreme Court of India determines fundamental for a particular religion.

In this case, the banning of women from entering the Sabarimala Temple Complex.

The Controversy

On the 28th of September, 2018 the Supreme Court of India reached a landmark decision where a five-member bench reached a 4:1 decision, permitting women within menstruating age to pay homage inside the temple.

“On one hand, women are worshipped as Goddesses, but there are restrictions on the other hand. Relationship with God can’t be defined by biological or physiological factors,” ~CJI Dipak Misra

The Supreme Court of India. (File Photo: IANS)

This decision was hailed by pro-left groups, who stated that the upheaval of the original 1991 Kerala High Court ban on women entering the temple complex, was a revolutionary break-through on women’s rights in the country.

However, not everyone is pleased. The Supreme Court received tremendous backlash from various parties, and currently, there are 25 review petitions filed by different people and organisations.

Women journalists and devotees who made attempts to exercise their newly re-instated right to practice religion were harassed and threatened by temple devotees and pro-right wing activists.

Things had gotten so bad that an Indian reporter for The New York Times was hit on the shoulder by a stone. Luckily she didn’t face any severe injuries.

New York Times Journalist Suhasini Raj escorted by a police squadron

Members of the local police have given their assurance that if any women want to practice their right, the police will use all necessary means to ensure that it happens. There have been cases where women have been given riot gear and escorted by police squadrons to the temple, but in spite of all of this, nearly one month after the SC’s decision not a single woman has set foot inside the temple’s sanctum sanctorum.

The Parties Involved in the Current Dispute

Kerala Government and Police

The Supreme Court Judgement comes at an extremely tricky time for Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his LDF coalition government. In a world where appeasing vote banks seems to be key to maintaining the political status-quo, credit must be given to his government and the state police for at least attempting to uphold the SC judgement, although unsuccessfully.

Chief Minister Pinarayi and his government have held a firm stance and have reiterated that they have no intention of filing a review against the SC’s September 28 judgement. He also made it clear that it was the constitutional duty of the LDF government to ensure women access to the temple complex and sanctum-sanctorum so they may exercise their right to religious freedom.

A female devotee surrounded by police clad in riot gear

Pinarayi also alleged that there was a larger story afoot, saying that the BJP and some Congress leaders were ‘playing politics’ with the matter. He said that there was a “planned and deliberate” attempt to create an atmosphere of tension in the state, however, he said that his government would ease tensions around Sabarimala with the co-operation of the “actual believers” of Lord Ayyappa.

The Pandalam Royal Family and the Travancore Devaswom Board

The Travancore Devaswom Board(TDB), which manages the Sabarimala temple had decided on Wednesday that it would not file a review against the Supreme Court’s decision stating “there is no relevance of a review petition by the TDB now.” Also, the board is party to currently 25 review petitions filed by different persons and organisations.

In a recent meeting between members of the TDB, board member KP Sankardas said that ‘recent developments’ had not been discussed as they hadn’t been placed on the agenda. There is undoubtedly great concern that the TDB has chosen to remain aloof on such a contentious issue.

Who is the Pandalam Royal Family and what claim do they have to Sabarimala?

Right after the SC’s judgement the Pandalam Royal family wrote a strongly worded letter to the functionaries of the Sabarimala temple asking them to shut the temple down if there was any breach of rituals.

Historically the Pandalam Royal Family are considered to be custodians of the Sabarimala temple but after Independence and the formation of the TDB, the Royal Family do not legally have any say on the matter. The Head Priest of the Sabarimala temple doesn’t answer to the Royal family but rather is held accountable to the TDB.

The involvement of the Pandalam Royal Family in the matter not only causes more waves but also brings up the question on whether they have any real say in the case. The family believes that if any women are allowed to enter the temple, then Lord Ayyappa will curse the families with ill fortune.

What Happens Next?

The Supreme Court will start with the review petitions on the 13th of November. There are huge concerns that the review process will overlap with Mandalapooja Mahotsavam which is scheduled to begin on the 16th of November this year.

The presence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Sangh Parivar factions in the state will only seem to polarise the wings even further. If there were ever a time for unity and acceptance, it would be now.

Although seemingly counter-intuitive to women’s rights in the state there is also a fast growing ‘Ready to Wait’ campaign among the women devotees of Lord Ayyappa. They say that they accept the centuries-old tradition and will willingly wait till menopause to enter the temple.

Whatever the end result is, these are times of nervousness and change. Maybe it is time for the new to replace the old. Or perhaps the time for change has yet to come.

-Rahul Alvares, for MTTN
-Image sources: Google images
-Featured image: Mayank Kashyap

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