The storm after the flood: Sabarimala protests and the misplaced priorities of Kerala

Harshajith S H, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

There are thirteen ways to look at a blackbird, the poet Wallace Stevens once said. There are different lenses through which one can examine the ongoing protests at Sabarimala that emerged after the Supreme Court verdict lifting the age-restrictions on women for temple entry. The author tries to extract and present the different themes that emerges in Sabarimala protests, that erupted even before Kerala woke up from the shock of a devastating flood.

Sabarimala – Who’s speaking ?

The first thing to be said about the Sabarimala protest, primarily seen as a women’s right issue, is that it has become one of those issues about women where it is the men who discuss and decide. It has become a space to show male pride, insecurity and violence. In the public space, especially in media discussions on the issue, what is hidden in plain sight is that it is predominantly the men who have an upper hand in the speeches and discussions. In the discussions panels on this issue, you can find one woman against three or four men. Neither the viewers, nor the panelists seem to have a problem about this. Even in a media programme where the chief minister interacts with the viewers, the presence of a woman in the discussion was limited to one among six or seven men. And this is a programme primarily in favour of the ruling government which argues for women’s rights.

That being said, it is also to be noted that women are also seen to be protesting against the entry of women in the menstruating age to the temple. In social media, posts of women pleading and threatening to ban women’s entry into Sabarimala are being shared.

What should one make of these different kinds of female voices in the little spaces given to them? Keeping aside the fact that many of these women’s voices are coming from members of opposition parties merely reflecting their parties agenda, it is also true that there exists women devotees who are pained by the the recent court verdict and who see the happenings at Sabarimala as a threat to an age-old tradition that they have grown up believing.

When women are denied their constitutional rights

How do we understand these dissenting female voices? What is the context in which  we can understand these voices? Are we supposed to enumerate the number of women who are for and against the verdict and then decide accordingly? Or are we supposed to hear the words of rationality in religion? Or should we go with tradition?

Luckily, we have a reference book to understand the issue – one which binds the entire nation together. The one on which our nation, home to incredible religious and ritualistic diversity, is built on. It is the constitution of India, a contract of conduct that we have all agreed to adhere to by virtue of being the citizens of this country.

When an issue is interpreted by the Supreme Court as violating the fundamental rights or the basic tenets of the constitution, even if the majority of the population seeks to empower is protesting against it, it would still stand. The constitution guarantees the rights of every indian citizen even if all the others are against it. Even if it is only a single woman who wants to enter the temple, the law is obliged to to provide her that right. Now, even if all the women collectively say that the status quo needs to continue, a constitutional moralist can argue that the verdict should still stand as it would be unethical to deny the rights  a woman of a future generation who would want to enter the temple. In that way, constitutional morality triumphs over social morality.

Sabarimala – when caste becomes loud again

Kerala, owing to a renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is believed to have ousted caste. The general public also strongly believes that caste is something alien to them and it does not influence their daily lives, as it does in other parts of the country. But caste was lingering silently in the malayali psyche, just that it too was hidden in plain sight. To site an example, marriages are predominantly within castes and there are even online marriage portals for specific castes. The appointment of temple priests have also exclusively been from the Brahmin community until recently.

In the Sabarimala protests, if you look at the composition of leading voices,  it is the voice of upper caste Brahmin and Nair communities that are predominantly heard. The voices which are heard in speeches and media are predominantly upper caste, as they are the ones who will stand out to loose from the verdict.

As prominent Dalit Activist Sunny Kappikad observes, the Sabarimala protests can be seen as a neo-brahmanical movement that seeks to bring the caste hierarchy back into the forefront, obliterating whatever good the Kerala renaissance brought in. It is an unfortunate fact that it is the people belonging to castes lower in the caste hierarchy that are joining the mass movements on the ground ready to be givers and takers of violence, while the upper caste elite watch from their ivory towers, leading and gaining from the protests.

The economics of Sabarimala politics

What do they stand to loose?  By allowing women to enter the temple, the hitherto beneficiaries of the Sabarimala institutions – the Pandalam dynasty who has a say in matters of the temple and the associated priestly class – will have to accept the Supreme Court observation that Sabarimala is a public place. That would mean a substantial reduction of control over the resources and power over this large pilgrimage site. The ones who stand to lose, have much to lose.

Kappikad points out in one of his speeches that the Tantric scriptures not only banned the entry of women, but also entry of lower caste chandala groups into the temple. He argues that just as chandala groups are now allowed entry, thanks to the renaissance influence, these ‘age-old’ traditions can, and are meant to change. So the argument of tradition holds little water.

Sabarimala – where politics try to fish in muddy waters  

If one tries to look at the different stakeholders in Sabarimala protests, one can identify – first and foremost – two prominent groups: the ayyappa devotees who genuinely believe that the supreme court verdict is against their age-old tradition and feel threatened; and the proclaimers of constitutional morality, gender equality and neo-renaissance which includes activists, intellectuals, the ruling CPI(M) and all the women ayyappa devotees who feel that this verdict just and necessary.

Apart from these, there is the Pandalam family which claims a say in the matters of the temple due their ancestor King’s relationship with the Lord Ayappa. The other major stakeholders are the political parties who have a lot to gain and lose.

Sabarimala has turned out to be a huge political opportunity. The opposition parties, namely the BJP and Congress, have decided to make the most out of it, while the ruling party stands firm on its decision to follow the Supreme Court verdict and provide protection for any women who wish to enter the temple.

When the verdict came out, all of them had initially been hesitant about dealing with it. The ruling partly was the first to come out with a statement of support while the BJP opposed the government’s decision after a while as protests brewed at Sabarimala, and Congress followed suit.

The BJP, which has been sidelined in elections in Kerala since its inception (the first seat it managed to capture was one seat in the previous assembly elections), seeks to make significant inroads into Kerala. The speeches by BJP president Amit Shah and state President P.S Sreedharan Pillai stand testimony to this. While Shah threatened that the state government will be dethroned, Pillai went a step ahead in proclaiming to Yuva Morcha activists that the Sabarimala protests are their golden opportunity and that people of the state had fallen in line with their agenda. A non-bailable case was soon registered against him.  

Sabarimala – where the protest doesn’t know itself.

The BJP and Congress have led protest rallies all over Kerala, spending a good amount of money and energy. However, when asked by the press what the protests are for, they are unable to openly declare that they are protesting the Supreme court Verdict. As a result, their protests have had vague goals. The best they can say is that they are against the state government’s move to destroy Sabarimala or that the move is against non-believers entering Sabarimala.

Thus, while the protests are in full swing, with occasional acts of violence, nobody really knows what they are protesting against, or atleast cannot muster up the courage to say that they are protesting against the Supreme court rule by preventing the government to enforce it.

The future of women and Ayyappa in Kerala

Kerala is waiting for the hearing on the review petition filed by the Pandalam family and other organisations like the Nair Service Society that will happen in January. As Justice Indu Malhotra has noted, the verdict will have far reaching impacts across the country and its temples. The verdict is likely to stay. For a review petition to be have an impact on a supreme court verdict, especially one that deals with fundamental rights, there should be an ‘apparent error on the face of record’. It is doubtful that this verdict has such an error.

Although the one month interval in hearing the review petition has led to a lot of confusion and a little dilution in the strong stand taken by the state government, the current verdict is likely to stay, as is observed by many noted lawyers.

While the political parties and vested interests will try to make the most out of the chaos and uproar, what is being ignored is the tragic condition the floods have left Kerala in. While much energy and time is wasted on this, other social and development issues are at stake. While it is important to fight restrictions on menstruating women in a temple, as author Tasleema Nasrin has noted, it is essential to get our priorities right, especially in Kerala, where women generally don’t feel safe in the streets post 8 p.m.

On the part of devotees who cling on to traditions, their misplaced priority on tradition pushes them further away from the greater values that their religion teaches, which is, as is often said, a love for all universal beings. Of the deeds of fundamentalists and political parties, I have nothing to say. That is a callous farce that is created to continue – and a discourse that can be corrected only by counter discourses of a  people who prioritises constitutional and ethical values over the rest.


Harshajith S H
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Harshajith writes on the Economy and Development. He studied Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Previously he has worked with The Economic Trail and The Indian Economist.

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