#Sabarimala: Pinarayi and Ayyappan

By John Cheeran

On Sunday morning one read a political joke—that “there is a consolidation of the Left in Kerala beneficial to the CPI(M) and the Kerala chief minister has played his cards extraordinarily well.”

Normally one would dismiss such intellectual vacuity. But this was an attempt to explain largely to people outside Kerala what’s happening in the state in the context of young women’s entry to Sabarimala temple, a place devoted to the celibate god Ayyappan.

One can contest the ruling of the five-judge bench in the Supreme Court lifting the Kerala high court ban on menstruating women’s entry to the temple, in an honourable effort to uphold gender justice. But more than that the important point to remember is that the decision has been met with huge roar of disapproval from the tiny majority of the Hindus who form the base of any political coalition in Kerala.

When one says the huge roar of disapproval from the Hindus, it would not be accurate. In fact, every community in Kerala is upset with the SC verdict—that means Christians and Muslims, too, are aghast at the verdict, pointing out that logic has no place in what an individual prefers to believe. That has resulted in the Muslims and the Christians stepping up to lead protest marches, if not in all, but many places, showing how colossally the four eminent male judges in a froth of gender justice have misread the people’s mood.

You cannot fault judges, though. They live in a cloistered world where quotidian realities do not bite them. It is the failure of the ruling CPI(M)’s failure to read the Malayali psyche that has come as a shock. Now the party—not everyone that makes up the party but the rank and file—fears the government’s affidavit favouring entry of menstruating women would be used against it by Hindutva forces, namely, BJP. It is in this context that the morning’s political absurdity should be read.

Everyone with a political bone in Kerala has realized that CPM played a dangerous game and has played into the hands of the Sangh Parivar. Most hardcore CPM cadres are Ayyappan bhaktas and if you didn’t know it, Marx is just another god to the countless party families in Kerala. The Hindu rage over Sabarimala in Kerala is real so that even among women, apart from stray intellectual rabble-rousers at highly overrated anachronisms such as the Centre for Development Studies, and activist junkies, there are few takers for the trek to Sabarimala. And it would be outright balderdash to dismiss these women’s stand as Pavlovian servility to patriarchy. Men of true liberal values and ever responsive to gender justice, too, have been skeptical about the SC’s activism on the Sabrimala entry issue. You should not be upending all customs just for the heck of it.

As for political reality, it is not what is legal that people want at all times–as is proven by the public response. As Jesus correctly said, man does not live by bread alone. Pinarayi Vijayan, a highly overrated party apparatchik in the role of a chief minister, has failed to anticipate the Hindu mood, and would probably go down in history as the man who buried the Malayali brand of Marxism in the state unless sensible elements in the party—at the state and the national level—intervene. But even the national leadership has given indications, going by politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai’s statement on Sunday that it prefers intellectual grandstanding, instead of keeping BJP at bay. That would be a real pity, considering the role played by the party in mobilizing the poor and the working class to guarantee individual and social rights.

Or is it CPM’s grand design of decimating Congress by bolstering BJP as the Hindu vote gets consolidated in favour of the Sangh parivar and, thereby, pulling the minorities away from Congress to the party? Does CPM believe its Ezhava Hindu base would not be swayed by the Sabarimala entry issue to offer political prayers at the Sangh dwar (door)?

It is not for nothing that the most articulate politician of this era, Shashi Tharoor has played it safe on the women’s entry into Sabarimala. His Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency is one in which the BJP could pull off a stunning win, with a significant upper caste Nair votes playing the winning hand. Tharoor does not want to reiterate the views of his party’s national leadership, welcoming the verdict, including that of the Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

The other day CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, however, reiterated that the party is determined to implement the SC verdict. But what the state police are doing is deeply problematic—they tell the few willing females the force will protect them only to later coerce them into saying that they don’t want to take the final steps because of the protesters—count Rehana Fatima, Kavita Jakkal and Mary Sweety. But if the CPM means business, then the police should clear the protesters, aren’t they? Are Pinarayi and Kodiyeri running with the hare and hunting with the hounds?

One of the key strengths of the CPM is its cadre. It can mobilize people to sing praises for Stalin, Mao and Che Guevara. Why can’t Kodiyeri and Pinarayi ask the CPM’s young women cadre to go on a long march to Sabarimala, seeking a date with Lord Ayyappan? Do Kodiyeri and Pinarayi want to tell us that their women cadre are not believers but follow dialectical materialism? That would lead to non-stop laughter in a state still recovering from the misery inflicted by the floods.

Even among hardcore CPM followers, including gender justice seeking women, belief and custom is an issue that agitates them, if not spiritually, but in more public ways than one can imagine.

For all you know, Lord Ayyappan may not have a problem with young women having his darshan but for a party that trotted a jaded comedian such as Innocent to win Lok Sabha elections in Kerala in 2014 in desperation and identity crisis, its failure to understand what people wants is an incredible rite of passage.

Maybe the late EMS would have to return like the Mahabali, although comrades do not believe in spirits and reincarnations, to explain away the temple deadlock in his party’s favour as he once bravely attempted to do with the Sharia in the 1990s.

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