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octoBER 13, 2018

A Tangle of Temple Entry and ‘Pragmatic Politics’

Is gender justice being held to ransom by vote bank politics in the Sabarimala controversy?

he question of the entry of women, between the ages of What has got lost in the din of the present controversy is that
10 and 50 years, into Sabarimala temple in Kerala, is as it was the state legislature that passed the Kerala Hindu Places of
old as the formation of the state itself. The debate around Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965. This meant
Sabarimala temple has involved the judiciary, successive state gov- that the TDB’s two successive notifications disallowing the entry
ernments, the priestly class and socio-religious organisations, and of “mature” women, traditionally barred only from the sanctum
devotees of all ages and genders. However, parties to the debate sanctorum of Sabarimala, into the temple premises altogether,
do not constitute a homogeneous whole, as they hold diverse were endorsed by the legislature. In reality, however, this rule
standpoints on the issue. The resultant differences between was more strictly adhered to during the pilgrimage season of
these standpoints have further widened the political fault lines November–December and the Vishu festival, and not so strictly
following the much-awaited verdict of the Supreme Court in late during the rest of the year, barring access to certain areas within.
September 2018. The Court revoked the existing ban on women’s In 1990, a vigilant devotee filed a case against routine transgres-
entry into the temple during their menstruating years. sions by VIP women among others in the Kerala High Court, which
The judgment, delivered by a five-member constitutional bench, upheld his objection and instituted a complete ban on women’s
was divided 4:1. The majority opinion judges, all male, affirmed entry into Sabarimala in their menstruating years. Thereafter,
“constitutional morality” over “discrimination in devotion” and women had to provide proof of age to enter the temple premises.
“patriarchy in religion.” The lone dissenting judge, also the only In 2006, this ban was challenged in the Supreme Court by a lay
woman on the bench, differed on the grounds that “notions of group. Since then it is the state government that has been changing
rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion.” While its position in the Court. While the Left Democratic Front (LDF),
many in the country celebrated the verdict that upheld gender in power in 2006 as also now in 2018, opposed the ban, the United
equality, women devotees in Kerala thronged the streets to protest Democratic Front supported it. While this ping-pong battle has
the same. Arguments against the verdict primarily centre on been laid to rest by the Court’s verdict, the contest continues to
fears of increased state intervention in religious affairs. While play out on the streets with political parties adding to the hyper-
these fears are valid in a multireligious country like India, the bole. As the Communist Party of India (Marxist) defends its stand
case of Sabarimala temple and other public temples in Kerala is and compels the TDB to toe its line, the Congress party and the
unlike many other pilgrimage sites in the country. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been demanding a review of
Nearly 1,700 Hindu temples in Kerala, Sabarimala included, the petition in a bid to attract the dominant-caste Nair voters.
are governed by state bodies. This includes the minister of The unique state-led governance of public temples in Kerala
devaswom affairs in the Government of Kerala (that oversees notwithstanding, it is worth questioning the propriety of the Kerala
their matters), regional devaswom boards (in charge of the legislature officiating the ban on women’s entry into Sabarimala
management and administration of temples), and the Kerala in their menstruating years. This legislation, above all else, is in
High Court (that audits the activities of the boards). Temples in violation of constitutional morality brought to attention by the
South India have historically been patronised by a combination Court. While the Indian model of secularism has entailed distance
of local elite and prevailing political authority, who managed of the state from all religions, the principal political contradic-
their coffers and resolved disputes. The transfer of authority tion in India has come to be centred on religion. This has been
from the princely regimes, to colonial rule, to finally the Indian engendered and fuelled largely by political parties and their
republic paved the way for such state-centric complex of associates. Various cases, at distinct points of time, have been
temple governance in South India in general, but Kerala in raked up beyond proportion to polarise opinion and outcomes
particular. Thus, state intervention in Sabarimala goes back on them. This can be traced back to the Shah Bano case (1985)
to the Travancore–Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, and, more recently, the triple talaq petition (2017). Once again,
1950, when the temple’s governance was transferred from the the dichotomy and opportunism of present-day political parties
Travancore Royal Devaswom Commission to the Travancore stands exposed for their entirely contrary stands vis-à-vis the
Devaswom Board (TDB), a statutory body. triple talaq and Sabarimala cases.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW octoBER 13, 2018 vol lIii no 41 7

Temple entry forms one of the grounds to articulate the con- seems to have become vulnerable to pragmatic politics. It most
cerns of justice. The state has, and will be, an important stake- commonly takes a back seat in the quagmire of vote bank poli-
holder in this agenda. However (gender) justice, as a value, tics and larger demands for religious/communitarian reform.

8 octoBER 13, 2018 vol lIii no 41 EPW Economic & Political Weekly