The Ever Shaky Stand on the Sabarimala Issue Continues

The debate on the entry of women in Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple has reached its next stage as the ruling government’s majority party CPI (M) has come out in support of it. The previous Oommen Chandy-led UDF government’s decision to not allow women devotees in Sabarimala, as it would be against centuries-old beliefs and rituals, is likely to be changed by the new government.

Surprisingly, even last week, the State government in the Supreme Court had stuck to the UDF government’s decision. The current stand by the CPI (M) has put the government under immense pressure, as rejecting the party’s stand may give the people a feeling that the party and the government have two different stands.

As per tradition, menstruating women are not allowed to enter the temple. When the Supreme Court asked the previous government to submit an affidavit mentioning its stand, the UDF decided to not allow temple access to female devotees.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan decided to rethink the issue when CPI (M) party secretary and senior leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan addressed the media and stated the party’s position on the issue. He said, “CPI (M) is of the view that all women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala Temple. The party also feels women should be allowed in all temples.” He added that the government would file a fresh affidavit in court stating its willingness towards the entry of women in Sabarimala.

Bindu Krishna, Kerala Mahila Congress President, who has talked in favour of women’s entry in Sabarimala, said to The Kochi Post, “The current CPI (M) stand cannot be considered believable. It is injudicious and at the same time would not help the public. There is a difference in the governance of the Congress and CPI (M). From the smallest to the greatest issues, the Left government takes every decision with the consent of the CPI (M). If there is any earnestness in Mr. Kodiyeri’s words, is he ready to correct Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran? Or is he ready to say that what the Minister did is wrong? Till this moment, he has not done that. He did not say that the government should change the affidavit.”

Ms. Krishna went on to question the CPI (M)’s stand and said that when, under the leadership of the then Devaswom Minister V.S. Shivakumar, the Travancore Devaswom Board went on to file the affidavit,  CPI (M) leaders protested throughout Kerala and termed it as discrimination.

According to her, the specialty after this government’s swearing in is that, when it is in power, it has one policy and it is out of power, it has different policies on the same issue.

Mr. Kadakampally has said that a public opinion poll would be taken before making a decision. But, such a thing would only result in continuing the current practice. The Devaswom board officials say that the devotees’ emotions should be considered. But, the fact is that it does not include a wider section of people who worship Lord Ayyappa.

“Women coming from Hindu families, including I, have been taught that women between the ages of 10 and 50 should not enter Sabarimala. It would be a sin, if we do that. But, there is no evidence of this. They do not have any authoritative reference to this. Those who argue that before 200 years the custom was like this, also do not have any evidence,” she said.
When asked if the government would file a fresh affidavit saying it is not against the entry of women, Ms. Krishna firmly said, “Whoever does the right thing, we will welcome it.”

Rahul Easwar, Indian author, activist, who is also the grandson of Kandararu Maheshwararu, the supreme priest of Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, said, “Nearly 1.5 lakh women visited Sabarimala last year. So, it is clear that there is no gender discrimination happening there. There is only an age regulation. Women are allowed there. The restriction is only for young women.”

When asked if rituals or rights are more important, he said, “In both cases, it is in favour of Sabarimala. Most of them are considering these as rituals and customs. We are dealing with this case under Article 25 and 26, the Right to Freedom of Religion. Sabarimala has a right to set its own customs and rituals. If tomorrow somebody comes and says that a person wants to enter the temple without Irumudikettu (the baggage of offerings to the Lord Ayyappa), Sabarimala has the right to stop him.”

This issue will emerge as a serious debate in the coming days. But, it will also be a stepping stone for the judiciary to inspect religious beliefs.

Cover photograph by Abhilash Pattathil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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