In the aftermath of the entry of two women in their 40s into the Sabarimala shrine, reports of violence are pouring in from different parts of Kerala, with outfits—including political workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress—protesting the entry by taking to the streets. They are being taken head on by what many allege are front organisations of the state’s ruling party, the CPM. Rioting has escalated to such a level that blood is being shed. Politics is being played in a matter which should not be anything more than a dispute between faith and gender justice. Amidst this, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s Communist government, which facilitated the entry of the two women into the shrine in the dead of night, appears helpless to bring the situation under control. Accusing the Sangh Parivar of turning the state into a battle zone is not going to absolve the LDF government of its responsibility of maintaining law and order. Emotions were running high, and it was natural that those in the Opposition, specifically the BJP, which is trying to make its presence felt in this southernmost state, would use the Sabarimala issue to expand its footprint there. So if the Chief Minister was unmoving on following the Supreme Court’s order allowing the entry of women of all age groups into the shrine, he should have prepared the law and order machinery to face predictable repercussions. And there were bound to be repercussions. But the clandestine manner in which the two women were taken to the shrine, in the middle of the night and through a side door, speaks more of the approach of the LDF government than anything else. If the ruling party could mobilise lakhs of women on the streets of Kerala to build a 620-km long “women’s wall”—let there not be any doubt that it was a political show of strength in the name of gender justice—the question that arises is: why couldn’t it flex its organisational muscles, apart from calibrating its law and order machinery, to take the two women and several others to the temple in broad daylight in front of the protesters? Why not face the latter down in full view of the media? What was achieved by indulging in subterfuge? Also, even the Left’s best friends will admit that the whole operation smacks of tokenism. In fact, feminist activists celebrating the entry as a great triumph for gender justice need to realise that just as the Thantri (chief priest) “purifying” the temple post the entry is in a way humiliating for women, it is equally inexcusable for women to indulge in such means to achieve their goal. Surely, women are made of sterner stuff.

News reports suggest that one of the women who entered Lord Ayyappa’s shrine was a post holder in an ultra left organisation until recently; while the other one, says the Opposition, is a member of the ruling CPM’s trade union, CITU. This has led to the allegation that the LDF government facilitated the entry of women from “godless” leftist ranks just to score an atheist point over believers. It is hoped that CM Vijayan will prove this very serious allegation to be false. Perceptions matter and as the head of the state government, he should neither be perceived to be stoking an already raging battle of ideologies, nor should he be seen to be taking sides. The Sabarimala debate is about tradition and involves the faith of millions of people. Force-feeding “modernity” to the believers is not a solution to this very complex situation—in fact, if the Left does so, it will end up playing into the hands of its political opponents. If the LDF government is serious about following the Supreme Court’s order, it needs to prepare the ground for implementing it. It needs to create conditions conducive to the entry of women into Lord Ayyappa’s shrine. It needs to reason with the protesters and believers, even “educate” them about why women of a particular age group were barred from entry into the temple in the past and why, with the invention of modern sanitary accessories, that need is no longer there. This is the basic duty of any government. Certainly the LDF must realise that it is electorally foolish to trample on the faith of millions of people.

Feminists and the flag-bearers of “liberalism” too need to introspect that there is nothing heroic about ridiculing the beliefs of the deeply devoted and painting them as “regressive right-wingers”. In fact, doing so is both irresponsible and cruel, and shows a lack of empathy. This is a sensitive matter and needs to be handled with care. As for the immediate problem of law and order which may spiral out of control, both sides of the ideological divide need to rein in their cadres. Kerala can do without any further shedding of blood in this battle of tradition versus gender -justice.

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