In an interview with Liz Mathew, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan says the Kerala government is committed to implementing the Supreme Court order allowing entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala temple, but some forces want to instigate devotees to divide society and draw political mileage.
The state government has the responsibility of implementing the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala issue. How do you think this has become such a raging controversy?
I hope everyone will agree that a government, at the Centre or state, has no option but to implement the order of the Supreme Court. Having said this, let me come to the present controversy. The case goes back to 1991, where the Kerala High Court ruled banning entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50. Few individuals and organisations decided to contest the order in the Supreme Court, and hearing the arguments for more than a decade, the constitution bench of the Supreme Court came to a conclusion. The government of Kerala was not instrumental in triggering this legal battle. When HC gave its verdict in 1991, we abided by it. I should underline the fact that all the subsequent Left governments fully adhered to the HC verdict. When the matter came before the Supreme Court, our prayer was that the government would go by whatever it says. As things stand now, the Supreme Court has emphatically given its verdict and we have no option but to implement it.
Coming to the controversy part of your question, vested interests made it a controversy, they wanted to create divisions in society.
Will you elaborate on the vested interests?
All the major formations, including RSS and Congress, were in support of women’s entry. RSS had made public statements, which were echoed by BJP leaders in the Centre and state. The Congress also made it clear that they would uphold the Supreme Court verdict. The AICC comment soon after the verdict termed it historic. Senior leaders at the state level were also in favour of the verdict. The BJP and Congress later made a volte-face and came out to ridicule the Supreme Court order. They went to the extent of claiming that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the matter of rituals. These statements came from respected political leaders who held important positions in the government.
It is obvious that both BJP and RSS want political capital out of it, and are instigating devotees. Their only intention is to polarise the society for a few votes.
Several people, including women, were seen on the streets protesting the entry of women. Do you think it is a decision that hurts sentiments of the community?
Undoubtedly, many believers would have some confusion. It is natural when such a change happens in society. If you look at history, a more aggressive response has come up from different sections, including women, when steps to reform the society were undertaken. For example, in the 19th century, women in Kerala were not allowed to wear clothes that covered their breasts. There were struggles to attain the right to cover their breasts, and when the ban on wearing tops was lifted, women were instigated to protest against that.
However, it is for the leaders of society to guide them and lead them. On the contrary, some organisations that I have mentioned came out to exploit the sentiments and mislead them. Kerala society has the resilience and will certainly make them aware of the reality.
The RSS and BJP had earlier taken a stand in favour of women entering the shrine. Why do you think they changed their stand?
I have already made it clear. These forces have a long history of adopting such diabolical political games. Their only intention is to polarise society on communal lines. For this, they have gone to the extent of indulging in violence and creating strife. Even the abode of Ayyappa was used as a camp for anti-social elements and criminals. We have maintained restraint, considering the sanctity of the place. Let me make it very clear that the Government of Kerala will not tolerate any such acts henceforth. We will ensure that the Supreme Court verdict is implemented in letter and spirit.
There is a view that the protests witnessed the return of upper-caste Hindu conservative section into dominance? How do you see it?
I don’t want to analyse the situation on the basis of caste or creed. Sabarimala is a unique place of worship where members of all faiths are free to go. It may be true that RSS and its B team, Congress, may be trying to whip up caste sentiments.
Some have challenged the historicity of the traditions, including the ban on entry of women into Sabarimala. What is your view?
History gives us a different picture altogether. A cursory look at the documents and affidavits submitted, including from the Devaswom Board and Chief Secretary, in 1991 before the Kerala High Court will underline the fact that women of all ages were permitted at Sabarimala before. However, the High Court took a position that it was not in tune with the rituals and hence the verdict. The Left Front, being an egalitarian political force, has always supported removing untouchability and discrimination in society. In this specific case, we left it to the Supreme Court. We had also submitted that the Supreme Court may appoint a committee comprising Hindu scholars of repute and reformers to put across a view.
Kerala has a tradition of social reforms. Political parties had a role in pushing these socio-religious changes. How can they be taken forward?
Why is Kerala distinct from many other states? It is simply because of the glorious movements of reforms that brought the Renaissance to the state. This was a place that was castigated as a ‘lunatic asylum’ by Swami Vivekananda. But reformers like Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali unleashed relentless battles, followed up by leaders like T K Madhavan, K Kelappan, Mannath Padmanabhan, A K Gopalan, E M S Nampoothiripad, etc. Gandhiji himself lent his support to the Vaikkom Sathyagraha against untouchability in 1924. The Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 was a result of all these struggles. Kerala evolved to this level by consistently obliterating all shades of discrimination. The so-called movement against the Supreme Court verdict is essentially to take the state back to the dark ages. It is unfortunate that a party like the Congress, which had a role in social reforms as part of the national movement, has aligned with RSS and BJP. It is curious that the Congress in the State chose to join the protests under RSS banner, discarding its own flag. I want to ask their national leadership whether this is their policy or whether a state unit can behave in such a fashion? Congress leaders have the only physical presence in their party where they are mentally pledged to the RSS in Kerala.
Some of the protests, statements from RSS leaders and mobilisation seem to have dented the secular image of Kerala. Your comment?
I do agree that the protest against the Supreme Court has denied the image of Kerala, at least partially. In fact, RSS always wanted to defame Kerala because they had no role in its evolution as a modern state.
Do you think the state government could have handled the issue more sensitively?
The state government took the right position as it has no option but to implement the Supreme Court order. At the same time, we have maintained utmost restraint to avert any major mishaps.
The developments have apparently upset a considerable number of Hindus in the state. What can be done to placate them?
The government has categorically made its position. We want to protect the interest of the believers. In fact, it is RSS which brought anti-social elements, which hurt the sentiments of devotees. We will continue to earnestly appeal to all sections to see through the evil designs of RSS. Let me also note the fact that it is the ruling party at the Centre that is trying to subvert the sanctity and authority of the Supreme Court verdict.
A major part of CPM’s traditional support base is considered to be the Hindu community, will it be hit by the government’s stance?
The CPM is steadfast in its stand of protecting secularism. We have support from all sections. RSS and Congress may confuse people, but I am sure even the people who are misled by this propaganda will understand the facts.
Has the government reached out to Hindu religious outfits or community leaders to implement the verdict? If not, does the government plan to do so?
There can be no discussion on taking a view on a Supreme Court verdict unless the Supreme Court itself amends it. The government has no difficulty in involving anybody to remove their apprehensions if they are genuine. How can we discuss with such a force that knows everything, but is bent on exploiting the situation for narrow political gain?
Is the entire CPM, including MLAs and MPs, with you on the issue?
The Left is united, whereas you can see divisions are in BJP and Congress. Even now the RSS leadership speaks in different voices.
Minister Kadakampally Surendran that Sabarimala shrine is not a place to show strength for social activists. What is your view?
It is a place for worship of Ayyappa. Anyone who has faith in Ayyappa can visit there. Anyone who has faith in Ayyappa can visit there. If an activist has faith in Ayyappa he/she can also be a pilgrim.
There is a view that the court should not intervene in matters of faith. Your view?
India has a Constitution which is supreme. The same Constitution has given the courts the authority. This is not the first time the court has entered the area of religious customs. I hope you remember the instance when Bombay High Court removed a similar ban at Shani Shingnapur temple and the BJP government in Maharashtra implemented it.