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The Sabarimala temple entry issue is back at the time of Assembly election campaign in Kerala

As the Kerala Assembly election campaign enters the last fortnight, the issue of entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has returned to trouble the CPM. The Opposition holds to use the issue to push the CPM, particularly popular Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, into a corner. Vijayan’s vociferous support to the 2018 Supreme Court decision allowing women of menstruating age into the temple — neglecting popular opinion against it and hesitation among own cadres — is believed to have played a big role in the rout of the CPM in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Mr Vijayan has been trying to avoid the issue saying the matter rests with the Supreme Court. The LDF manifesto is vague, saying the front will support “all activities to protect the faith”… “ensuring space for the atheist to live”.

Though, under increasing pressure to take a stand, CPM leader and Temple Affairs Minister Kadakampally Surendran last week showed regret over “the incidents of 2018 at the temple”, adding, “Everyone is sad over what happened there.”

Surendran is contesting from Kazhakuttam, where he faces the BJP’s Sobha Surendran, the face of its Sabarimala unrest.

Sitaram Yechury, CPM general secretary, instantly distanced the party from Kadakampally’s statement saying there was no change in the LDF policy on Sabarimala — that the Supreme Court order was in line with reawakening traditions in Kerala — and that the government was duty-bound to complete the apex court judgment.

It is not just Kazhakuttam but across Central and South Kerala, the BJP is campaigning on the single-point issue of Sabarimala. Says Sobha Surendran, “Sabarimala and the protection of faith are the major issues of this election. When the CPM trampled over traditions, BJP workers were fighting for the protection of faith. Minister Surendran himself took activists to the hill shrine (the state police had escorted women who wanted to visit the temple).”

In the Tripunithura constituency, both the BJP and Congress are of the opinion that CPM candidate M Swaraj’s comment at the time that Lord Ayyappa was not an “eternal celibate” (the reason behind keeping menstruating women out as per tradition).

Suresh Gopi, Rajya Sabha MP and BJP Thrissur candidate, says this election is aimed at “ending the Tandava Nritya of the LDF government”.

The anti-CPM opinions are being increased by umbrella Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Aikya Vedi and Sabarimala Protection Samithi, which are leading prayer sessions across Kerala urging voters to “teach those who took women to the shrine a lesson”.

Samithi convener S J R Kumar says, “We don’t want a repeat of 2018. We are not asking anyone to vote for any party, but we want a government that will protect the Hindu faith. Even the LDF government decision to withdraw criminal cases against the faithful who protested against entry of young women came too late. There are 18,000 cases with 58,000-odd people listed as accused.”

The Vijayan Cabinet’s announcement dissolving the non-serious cases was issued on February 26, the day the Assembly election schedule was declared, meaning police could not proceed with it. The CPM has also been saying that after the final judgment of the Supreme Court, the government will consult “all stakeholders”.

Congress too is leading a tightrope on the matter. At the time of the Supreme Court decision, the central leadership, including Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi, had supported entry of all women, though the state unit had advised caution. The Congress’s attack on Vijayan’s handling of the issue had helped the UDF to 19 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, even as the BJP increased its vote share.

Presently, while the Congress-led UDF manifesto has pledged legislation to “protect the interests of the faithful”, the party is mostly burning from the shoulders of the upper caste Hindu outfit Nair Service Society (NSS), which had led the unrest to “protect traditions” at the shrine and which has been pro-Congress.

After Kadakampally Surendran’s word of regret, the NSS said the CPM was being dishonest on the issue. NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair challenged the LDF government to withdraw its affirmation in the apex court favouring the entry of young women to the temple.

When Kanam Rajendran,CPI state secretary, said the government wouldn’t do so, Nair retorted, “Faith is like oxygen. Those who have forgotten that fact while in power are destined to face setbacks.”

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