As Sabarimala’s annual pilgrimage season draws to a close on Sunday, the Kerala government doesn’t seem quite sure exactly how many women of the previously barred age group entered the shrine. The confusion puts a big question mark on the impact their entry has had in the state, which has been rocked by protests since the Supreme Court verdict.
The state government on Friday submitted a list of 51 names to the Supreme Court of women of menstruating age who they think entered Sabarimala. The list included Kanakadurga and Bindu Ammini, the first women to enter the shrine after the top court order. Since their return home, Kanakadurga has been attacked by her mother-in-law and is currently admitted at the Kozhikode Medical College. Bindu, a law lecturer at Kannur University, has returned to work and resumed taking classes. This is a sign of the mixed reception their efforts have had.
After the top court, in September 2018, lifted the ban on women of menstruating age entering the temple, several women attempted to trek the shrine and offer prayers amid widespread protests by right-wing groups and political opposition by the BJP and the Congress-led UDF.
Did it make a difference?
Kanakdurga and Bindu Ammini’s visit to Sabarimala was facilitated through a Facebook group titled Navothana Keralam Sabarimalayilekku, roughly translated as ‘When Kerala’s Renaissance Enters Sabarimala’. The group, which started with the support of Left-liberals and the CPI-ML, was created as an intervention to help women enter the temple after several attempts by others had been unsuccessful.
Shreyas Kanaran, a 46-year-old biomedical engineer who started the group, feels the women’s entry has made an impact. “Already we’ve seen that the first two-three women who entered have changed the minds of devotees who don’t have any political motivation, who now feels it’s okay that women enter the temple. I see that as a positive development. If a few more women enter, it could change more minds,” he told Huffpost India.
The day Kanakadurga and Bindu entered the temple, BJP called a two-day strike while the Congress observed the next day as a ‘Black Day’.
Seena TK, a 39-year-old housewife who runs the group with Karanan, says that members of the public coming out against the hartal is a positive sign.
The group says it made its next announcement of Dalit activist Manju’s entry 28 hours after it took place. In that time, they reached out to other organisations and Dalit groups who assured them of their public support.
“The first time Manju attempted entry, her house was attacked. But the second time (when she was successful) it wasn’t,” Seena told Huffpost India.
“Today, Manju isn’t facing the backlash that Kanakadurga or Bindu did. She is taking part in all social activities. Bindu has gone back to work. The women have not faced problems at their workplaces. From attacks and protests at the houses of these women to this — isn’t that a sign that society is changing?” Kanaran asks.
The temple will next open in February for monthly puja. One would get a better sense of the impact if efforts are made then to enter the temple, he feels. If there are enough women interested, the group may try again.
Seena doesn’t think the problem is with public opposition. “The protests (against the women) are politically motivated.”
The last set of women to attempt entry into Sabarimala before the temple closed were Reshma Nishanth and Shanila Satheesh who made a second unsuccessful attempt on Saturday.
Hours after they had to turn back, Nishanth wrote on Facebook of Sangh Parivar groups circulating messages about their retreat, of death threats being issued and of thousands of workers gathering at the shrine. “If you’re making this much of an effort to stop two ordinary women devotees, it is clear you are very scared of us,” she wrote.
Her sentiments find an unlikely echo in the statement of Kerala BJP PS Sreedharan Pillai who admitted the party’s protest in the state had not entirely been successful.
“There were notable achievements during certain phases of the agitation, but, our fight to protect the faith was not entirely successful,” he said at the party’s protest venue in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
Pillai, however, said the party was able to garner more public support “due to the blessings of Lord Ayyappa.”
The Kerala government’s list
A furore has now erupted over the veracity of the Kerala government’s list of 51 women which was submitted to the Supreme Court on Friday during a hearing to provide security to Kanakadurga and Bindu Ammini. It includes names, addresses, phone numbers and Aadhaar details of women who have entered the temple.
Multiple media reports have however pointed out holes in the list, with several names turning out to be those of men, or of women above the age of 50.
President of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple, has refused to take responsibility for it. “The board has neither taken any numbers, nor submitted any list. It’s for those who made the list to alleviate the doubts regarding it,” A Padmakumar told Manorama.
Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran has said that his department has no role in preparing the list while Kerala DGP Loknath Behera has asked senior officials to revise it, IANS reported.
Meanwhile, EP Jayarajan, private secretary to Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan was quoted as saying by The Indian Express, “They (pilgrims) give the details for registration and bring the printout of the downloaded form at the time of their visit to the temple. There is no further cross-checking on these details by police. If someone has wrongly given their details at the time of filling the form for online registration, they have to explain it.”
The controversy over the list reflect badly on LDF government which has firmly placed itself in opposition to the Sabarimala protests and butted heads with the BJP and Congress.
Kerala govt’s stand
Time and again the Kerala government has reiterated that it intends to implement the Supreme Court verdict and help women who wish to enter the temple. The state government organised the Women’s Wall on 1 January in response to the widespread protests against the Sabarimala verdict in which over 5 million women participated. The Women’s Wall initiative was intended to uphold renaissance and progressive values in the state.
Hours later, at 3:45 am on 2 January, Kanakadurga and Bindu became the first women to enter the temple with the help of the Kerala police. Their entry was officially confirmed by CM Pinarayi Vijayan. The Kerala CM had also reacted sharply to the purification rituals carried out by the temple’s chief priest after the women’s entry, saying he should quit if he could not carry out the Supreme Court’s orders. When the apex court hears review petitions, it will also decide whether the priest’s move was a contempt of court.
Despite its help in their entry, Both Kanaran and Seena feel the state’s interest in this case is limited.
“Perhaps at the time, the state must have also wanted at least one person to enter the temple. The Women’s Wall had just taken place. But the steps they have taken since then seem to show they are not interested beyond this. At the checkpost at Nilackal, police stops buses to see if there are women (of the barred age group) heading to the temple and ask them to get off. We can gauge the state’s interests from the way the police acts,” Kanaran says.
Seena says the police tries to make women retreat at every point. She also questions the government’s commitment to the effort. “If they really meant it, the police should have taken Reshma and Shanila in.”
On Sunday, at a workshop in Thiruvananthapuram, Pinarayi criticised the row over Sabarimala and the BJP’s protest. “Conservative attitude is growing among people. A strong movement should be made against this. People with such attitude are fielding devotees against the government as they could not oppose the supreme court. They make devotees believe that government is against devotees and their belief,” he said, quoted Mathrubhumi.
Kanaran says the group’s intent was to change minds. “We don’t intend for this to be a continuous effort. The hope is that more women will come forward, more progressive forces will come together to intervene and help take this forward.”
Seena, a native of Vadakara who now lives in Haryana, says the government should set aside a day for women to offer prayers at the temple.
“It is the democratic right of women to go wherever they want to, to have the freedom to travel and for dignity,” she says. “It is their responsibility to help women exercise this right.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.