Bindu Ammini was busy drafting a solidarity statement for farmers’ protest raging around New Delhi when she heard of the Congress’ election promise on Sabarimala ahead of the Kerala Assembly polls.
The 44-year-old was the first woman of menstruating age to enter Sabarimala on 2 January 2019.
Earlier this week, the Congress raked up the Sabarimala women’s entry debate by promising to make such “violations of tradition” a cognisable offence. Slamming the party for resurrecting “religious sentiment” for electoral gain, she tells The Quint that a party which claims to be secular “should not have supported a regressive stand” on Sabarimala.
Congress Resurrects Sabarimala Row
On 7 February, the Congress released a draft of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rights, Customs and Usages) Act, 2021, which will be tabled if it gets voted to power in the upcoming state elections.
In Kerala, the contest is between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The CPI(M) leadership has not yet explained the party’s stand on the Congress’ impending legislation. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPI(M) has only promised to follow the Supreme Court’s imminent order on the matter. The apex count in November 2019 had referred the Sabarimala case to a larger bench.
The bench is expected to revisit the 2018 judgment even though a time-frame for the same has not yet been set.
In the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2019, the UDF alliance had won 19 out of the 20 seats, in a clear indication of people’s support for its stand on the Sabarimala agitation. The Congress leadership, including MP Shashi Tharoor, had held rallies to “save Sabarimala” when a Supreme Court order in 2018 allowed entry of women to the shrine.
‘A Step Backward’
Ammini, who had faced death threats after she and her friend Kanakadurga entered the shrine in 2019, says the “Congress leadership is stuck on the Sabarimala issue” whereas she has moved on to real issues on which fates of millions of people in the country are dependent.
“The country is going through severe turmoil as farmers are protesting draconian farm laws of the Centre. Earlier, millions were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act which is still not repealed. In such turbulent times, how can a party like the Congress dwell on religious matters?”Bindu Ammini
As per the draft legislation, “abetment of a violation of Sabarimala’s religious tradition”, too, is punishable, she rues. The legislation promises a penalty of up to two years in case of violation, indicating that for the Congress, Sabarimala will be a poll issue in the state.
Ammini, a Dalit woman who is also Kerala state leader for Chandrasekhar Azad’s Bhim Army, entered Sabarimala to “preserve gender rights of women”.
During the run-up to her entry, she had closely watched attacks on several women who had tried to enter the shrine.
“Any self-respecting woman would have tried to do what I did because other women were getting attacked for merely trying to exercise a right which the Supreme Court had provided them.”Bindu Ammini
She had observed religious rituals and austerity measures before she entered the temple.
Traditionally, Sabarimala, which is home to a celibate deity Ayyappa, has allowed only women above 50 years to enter its premises. Girl children of non-menstruating age of below 10 years are also allowed inside the shrine.
However, she says the Congress should not have insisted on 41 days of deeksha because nowhere in Hindu religious scriptures has it been made mandatory.
“I have grown up in Pathanamthitta district where my kith and kin have been going to Sabarimala for ages. Nowhere do real devotees insist on imposing 41 days of deeksha,” she reminisces.
The Congress’ draft legislation insists that only “devotees” should enter the temple. The draft defines a devotee as someone who has followed 41 days of austerity measures. Girls below 10 years and women above 50 years alone can be considered devotees, the draft stresses.
‘Sabarimala for Adivasi Mala Arayas’
At a time when the Opposition party of India should be fighting “fascism” and “communalism”, the Congress has not envisioned what really matters to the people of Kerala, Ammini alleges.
This legislation will affect the livelihood of Mala Arayas, an indigenous Adivasi population living in the Sabarimala hills, she stresses. “Should the Mala Arayas not enter these hills anymore? Should the women in their community not set foot on these hills?” she questions.
Mala Araya leaders had earlier insisted that Sabarimala belongs to them – and that the Brahmin priests of the temple should give them the right to perform rituals in the temple.
Ammini insists that the legislation is a way to “distract people”.
A lawyer who teaches at a prominent college in Kerala, Ammini says if not the Congress, the CPI(M) leadership should stand up for rights of women.
“The CPI(M) had shown real courage when it decided to implement the Supreme Court order. Now with the Congress relying on sectarian politics, the CPI(M) is largely silent. I would request the Chief Minister to stand with progressive thought,” she says.
Despite being the first woman to enter the shrine, Ammini does not think that a large number of women would want to enter Sabarimala.
“But those who want to enter have the right to enter as the Constitution of India upholds gender equality,” she says.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party that had mobilised scores of people in 2019 to hold protests across the state, the electoral benefit was reaped by the Congress. The Hindu vote had shifted to the party which routed the CPI(M) in 2019 polls.
With Sabarimala receding from public memory over the past year, the party, however, lost by huge margins to the CPI(M) in the recently held Panchayat elections.
Will the Sabarimala legislation win the Congress the next election?