The ways of the Supreme Court, like that of God, are inscrutable. In one case the apex court declined to embark on “a fishing and roving expedition”. In the other, Sabarimala case, the court appears to have done precisely that.
The SC let its order of September 2018, allowing women of all ages to enter Sabarimala temple, to prevail. But by clubbing it with cases of other religions -- on broader issues of including what is essential religious practice -- and referring these to a larger bench, the SC is entering into unexplored waters.
Thus, no verdict on the Sabarimala entry or otherwise of menstruating women is likely before Kerala’s assembly election in 2021. Like the mills of God, the wheels of the SC grind slowly.
Once again, it is open season on Sabarimala entry. Since the court, like God, is beyond reproach, affected mortals have to fend for themselves. The worst hit by the Sabarimala case is the godless CPM, which leads Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF).
Last year, when the SC allowed entry of women of all ages to the Ayyappa shrine, it fell to the LDF government to ensure implementation of the order. Again this season, too, the CPI(M) is damned if it does (uphold the SC order) and damned if it doesn’t. God-fearing parties like the BJP and the Congress -- and the temple’s board -- which had opposed the SC order then, face no such dilemma now either.
The BJP and the Shiv Sena were in the forefront of the political campaign to obstruct implementation of the SC’s order. The Congress, too, hit the streets to show that it was no less a Hindu party.
At the national level, the Congress did not back the Kerala unit’s line of keeping women of menstruating age out of the temple. Yet in the Lok Sabha elections in May, the Congress reaped a rich harvest – winning 19 of the 20 seats -- from the seeds of religious discord it had sown, along with the BJP. Rahul Gandhi, who won handsomely from Wayanad, was a beneficiary though he never touched on the issue.
The Lok Sabha election dealt a mortal blow to the LDF. Precedent is that every five years, the LDF and Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) take turns in government. Even an LDF resigned to the UDF taking office in 2021 would shudder at the thought of the Lok Sabha election trend repeating in the assembly polls.
Last year, the LDF was proactive in providing security and protection to women devotees in the 10-50 years age group, who were headed to the Ayyappa shrine. Activists took advantage of this to score their own point amid the clashes and violence that broke out between forces opposing the SC order and the police.
The LDF government’s resolve to uphold the SC order, including by providing security to women pilgrims of menstruating age, was not appreciated in any quarter. The LDF’s enforcement of the court order was attributed to its commitment to ensuring gender justice on the ground and upholding the state’s renaissance traditions.
While the Left in Kerala rose to the defence of the Constitutional realm, the BJP (in power at the Centre) was firmly on the side of those flouting the SC order. Such an approach has cost the CPM enormous political capital. The Left is now loathe to further wreck its electoral prospects for progressive principles, using caution when it comes to issues of faith.
Although the SC has not altered its ruling of last year, the CPM has now opted for a softer line. The government will not be proactive in providing protection to menstruating women pilgrims. It has set itself firmly against activists, who are on a ‘political pilgrimage’.
Kerala’s Devaswom Minister K Surendran made it clear that any woman who wants police protection has to show a court order to that effect. He underscored that no display of activism would be allowed in the shrine. State Law Minister A. K. Balan bluntly said that the verdict has created more trouble for the government.
The Left in Kerala is literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. For all its political correctness, it is unlikely to earn any kudos from any section. From Ayyappa board members to the activists, from those courting trouble in Ayyapa’s name to the court, none is with the Left, no matter how it deals with the situation in this Sabarimala season.
Hence, the Left’s sole concern now is to duck the crossfire of a politico-religious conflict over menstruating women between two sections of the faithful; and, not make its electoral prospects any worse. That leaves the field wide open for the BJP and for the Congress.
(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV. Views expressed are personal)