Breaking barriers: on two women's Sabarimala temple entry

In facilitating the entry of two women, albeit in stealth and under the cover of darkness, the Kerala government has displayed some resolve in breaking the illegal blockade imposed by some devotees on permitting females in the 10-50 age group into the Sabarimala temple. This is the first time women of menstruating age have made their way into the shrine after a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in September 2018 threw the temple open to women of all ages. Under some pressure to demonstrate that it had not gone soft as a result of the upsurge of protests against the Supreme Court’s order and was keen on signalling that it was in favour of upholding the law, the government appears to have drawn up an elaborate and closely scripted plan, with assistance from the State police and civil administration, to help Bindu and Kanakadurga make their way unnoticed to the temple from the foothills at Pampa. Unfortunately, but not entirely unpredictably, news of their visit has resulted in a cycle of violent and politically orchestrated protests, clashes, and mass arrests. Tragically, one life was lost.

In the face of an illegal blockade to prevent menstruating-age women from visiting the temple, the Kerala government will regard this operation as a victory. But clearly, even it must be aware that covert ops such as this one are not a sustainable solution to the Sabarimala problem. The State government’s dilemma — and also its responsibility — is to find a way of ensuring safe passage for all women who want to visit the temple while keeping the peace at the same time. Given the passions at play, and the cynical attempts to politically exploit them, this is anything but an easy task. In the short term, though — and this may well have been its intent — the Left Front government has managed to alter the narrative in the Sabarimala controversy. The decision of the temple authorities to close the sanctum sanctorum and perform purification rituals has invoked old and regressive notions of purity and pollution, of defilement and desecration. They have focussed attention on the role of the chief priest (or Tantri) of Sabarimala, leaving him open to the charge levelled by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan that his actions violated both the Supreme Court order and the Devaswom Manual. At a larger level, the entry of the two women has, perhaps inevitably, recalled Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s words in the majority judgment in the Sabarimala case. In his judgment, he had argued that the ban on women’s entry was a “form of untouchability”, and their exclusion was a “violation of the right to liberty, dignity and equality”. Meanwhile, as passions continue to escalate, it is important for the State government, the Travancore Devaswom Board and also those representing the devotees to initiate a conversation and prevent the State from being consumed in a further cycle of violence and conflict over this issue.


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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 8:51:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/breaking-barriers/article25902898.ece

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