India's Supreme Court ruling to allow women entry into a revered Hindu temple in Kerala is exposing the country's communal and political fault lines.

The ongoing resistance among a section of people to the entry of women aged 10-50 into south India’s Sabarimala temple in Kerala exposes a deep fault line separating those wanting the nation to transit into a modern democracy from those unwilling to let go outdated practice.

When the country’s Supreme Court, in a historic judgment just last September, lifted the ban on entry of pubescent women (age 10-50) into the temple because it violated the fundamental right to equality,  it seemed that the country had crossed yet another milestone.

All political parties and formations, including the federal ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the main opposition, Congress, hailed the judgment. 

Some women prepared to enter the temple at Sabarimala, which houses the Hindu deity Ayyappan, and to which thousands from the south of India go to every year on pilgrimage. Murmurs of protests against the judgment from a section of people in Kerala started springing up. Then, overnight, the BJP followed by the state Congress unit changed their positions and termed the judgment as an affront to Hindu tradition. They vowed to physically prevent any eligible women from entering the temple.     

Eventually, last week, two women successfully evaded the protesters and entered the holiest part of the temple. More violence ensued in various parts of the state with protesters attacking government vehicles and offices. News quickly filtered out claiming that ten more women had entered the temple on the sly, including a Sri Lankan and two Malaysians.

What is ironic about the protests is that legally there is no ban on the entry of women in the right age group. The Supreme Court’s order should have made entry to the temple as easy as a walk in the park. In fact, the court ruling makes it mandatory for the state government to ensure that it is obeyed - and the Communist-led coalition government in Kerala has done just that in the face of severe opposition.

Politically, Kerala is a state where right-wing pro-Hindu BJP has never been able to make a mark electorally.  Governments have either been led by the Communists or the Congress party. The BJP sees the present situation as an opportune moment to find a foothold in the state by backing the protesters, and, the party has proffered several explanations for its stance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the way by terming the court ruling as 'against' Hindu tradition.

More surprising has been the reaction of the Congress party which has joined the BJP in supporting the protesters. Its national chief Rahul Gandhi conceded that while he was personally in favour of women entering the Ayyappa temple his party unit in Kerala was against it and he was supporting the local view. The Congress, which almost came to the point of decimation in the rest of the country possibly fears losing its hold in the state if it did not back the protesters.

Its high profile member of parliament and former United Nations official Shashi Tharoor, considered a liberal, turned out to be no different from conservative protesters. Reacting to the entry of the two women into the temple last week, he tweeted saying that it was an “unnecessary provocative act”.  

The larger issue arising out of the stubborn moves to defy the supreme court ruling is fraught with consequences. In 70 years of independence India is still trying to break out of its feudal mindset and emerge as an economic powerhouse with social cohesion, but the protests threaten to undermine not only the nation’s apex court but also the constitution. 

If India is today a secular, parliamentary democracy with all the attendant rights and privileges that people enjoy, it is thanks to the country’s constitution. Considered one of the most progressive documents of its kind in modern history, the constitution, envisages a modern nation with equality for all in every which way, be it on the grounds of gender, religion or community. From this flowed the temple entry judgment.

The Supreme Court ruling did not make the decision overnight. It came about after all stakeholders were given a chance to have their say. That the court has agreed to hear a petition asking to reconsider the judgment is an indication that it has been a transparent process.

The defiance resembles the opposition when the traditional practice of Sati was banned by British colonial rulers in 19th century India. Sati was a practice among Hindus in parts of the country in which a woman would have to die by jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband on his death.  

Despite the ban, for years the practice continued covertly, and in some instances, police and state officials who intervened were attacked.  Even after independence, there were at least 30 reported instances of Sati with the latest recorded in 1987 in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.

Compared to other Indian states, Kerala has recorded enviable progress in literacy, healthcare and political consciousness. Despite these indicators, it is infamous for rampant misogyny.  

Even more paradoxical is the fact that the dominant communities in the state follow a matrilineal system where property is transferred from the mother to the daughter. But alongside this exists a skewed system where women feel intimidated by men in addition to innumerable accounts of harassment. A UK-based sociologist Shoba Arun calls it a “troubling conundrum”.

Viewed from this perspective,  it is no surprise that there has been such a violent reaction to the court’s pro-woman  ruling. Though there are women too who are protesting against the court orders alongside the men, this could be the result of internalising patriarchy. At the same time, some 3.5 million women came out on to the streets and held each other hands forming a 620 km long human wall from the northern tip to the southern edge of Kerala earlier this month in support of the court’s ruling.  The jury is out on which side the majority is.

Eventually, the violence will have to come down but what the judicial ruling has done is shine the light on contradictions in Indian society and politics that need to be resolved sooner rather than later.

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