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By siding with Sabarimala devotees, Shashi Tharoor has failed the liberal in him

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Shashi Tharoor has displayed the dexterity and flexibility of a skillful politician by making a U-turn on Sabarimala.

It is with great anguish and dismay that I pen this rebuttal to Shashi Tharoor’s latest piece in ThePrint, where he goes to great lengths to explain his conservative position on Sabarimala. As someone who looked up to Tharoor as a wordsmith and public intellectual, he has let me and a lot of others down with this exposition. It wouldn’t be going too far to describe Tharoor’s position on Sabarimala as woefully hypocritical.

To put things in context, Tharoor’s decade-long political innings has largely remained blemish-free from an ideological standpoint. He has, on most occasions, stayed true to his liberal self even in his political avatar, both in the government and in the opposition. In fact, Tharoor’s naiveté and forthrightness as a politician had occasionally got him in trouble, even earning him the censure of his party bosses. However, in choosing to do a volte-face on his original position on Sabarimala, Tharoor has eventually displayed the dexterity and flexibility of a skillful politician.

Tharoor had spoken up for gender parity in Sabarimala long before the Supreme Court’s verdict last September. As early as February 2016, when the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government led by Oommen Chandy had submitted an affidavit in the court against the entry of women, Tharoor had taken a divergent position from his party colleagues in Kerala.

Also read: Forgive me liberal friends, but I can’t completely overlook faith of Sabarimala devotees

When the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on 28 September, Tharoor immediately hailed it. Later, speaking at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad on 3 October, he reiterated his stand by drawing a parallel between the historic temple entry proclamation in the princely state of Travancore in 1936 and the verdict of the day. “Every time a historic change came, there were a lot of traditionalists who resisted,” Tharoor said at the event.

So, what prompted the “instinctive liberal” in Tharoor to betray his instincts and join the ranks of the “traditionalists”?

Tharoor seems to have developed second thoughts on Sabarimala after weighing his chances on getting re-elected from Thiruvananthapuram. The simmering public sentiment against the Supreme Court judgment was becoming apparent and Tharoor’s individual position was largely at odds with his “savarna” constituents in Thiruvananthapuram.

In fact, Tharoor admits as much in his piece.

“Forgive me for pointing out that few, if any, of my critics have faced an electorate, let alone sought to fulfil one’s ideals within the framework of the politically possible.”

And this is where Tharoor failed the liberal in him. While it did not come as a surprise that many of his fellow Kerala Congress leaders adopted a reactionary position, Tharoor was expected to stick to his stand. In fact, unlike many of his peers, Tharoor could well have gotten away with it. In doing so, he would have been upholding the central leadership’s (read Rahul Gandhi) position in this case. Tharoor could also have leveraged his unique standing as a national politician and his skills as a career diplomat to reconcile the two divergent viewpoints within his party as well as outside to emerge as a larger figure.

By siding with the reactionary elements, Tharoor and his party are relinquishing the rich legacy of the Indian National Congress, which championed social reforms in Kerala. It is in public records that the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) – a precursor to the temple entry proclamation of 1936 – was set in motion through the resolution passed in the 1923 Kakinada Congress.

Also read: How saviours of Ayyappa are gaslighting women over Sabarimala

Tharoor makes a silly argument when he says that the entry of Dalits in temples in 1936 was championed by “co-religionists of other castes” and contrasts it with the absence of a mass movement by women to demand entry into Sabarimala. Tharoor is being economical with truth here as he is very well aware that even the “Savarna” Nairs had only graded access (they weren’t permitted into the sanctum sanctorum) to temples till 1936. Ezhavas too had to position themselves beyond the outer walls.

And then he further goes on to say that women of reproductive age who wish to go to Sabarimala today are motivated by “curiosity” than faith. It can be similarly argued that the people (including politicians and social reformers) who championed the rights of the “lower castes” to enter temples back in the day were neither god-fearing nor had ulterior motives.

Also read: Why Sabarimala issue leaves instinctive liberals like me torn: Shashi Tharoor

By advocating the primacy of faith over constitutional morality, Tharoor makes a dangerous argument that may come back to haunt him on the question of Ayodhya. When he argues that his party would “pursue the matter only through constitutional means”, Tharoor may not really have contended with the fact that even a law would not stand judicial scrutiny if it is in violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Constitution.

Tharoor lists several instances of championing progressive causes and women’s issues to burnish his liberal credentials. One can only say that liberalism is an article of faith and it cannot be applied selectively. When in doubt, Tharoor needs to merely ask himself what his idol Nehru would have done in his place. I rest my case.

The author is a columnist and political commentator.

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  1. Liberals accept the equality of women; they also accept the individual right to opinion. Tharoor has swayed a little towards individual preference because of valid reasons. Sabarimala is not like other temples. In the Shani temple women were not allowed near the deity because they were women and didn’t deserve equal rights as men. Not in Sabarimala. Here women refrain from going near the deity because they love a God who keeps away from women. An eternal bachelor is an enigma for all women. If he is human, women would like to take up the challenge of seducing him. If he is God, women consider him as an ideally perfect male concept. That is why women willingly keep away from Aiyyappa. In Kerala this has been the case for the last one century. It has been concretized in day to day life of the wives of every Aiyyappa devotee. The devotee of Aiyyappa himself becomes an Aiyyappa, the day he wears the string of beads on his neck and his wife treats him as Aiyyappa, ie. an eternal bachelor till he returns from the Sabarimala temple and removes the string in a local temple. During 41 days of Vrath, wife may sleep in the same room, sometimes on the same bed, without touching her husband. This is voluntary worship of the bachelorhood of the Aiyyappa by the wives of the devotees of Aiyyappa. Number of such women in Kerala would be in crores. If they can keep away from sex with their husbands for one and a half months just because they love the bachelorhood of Aiyyappa, they easily accept the custom of not visiting the Sabarimala temple. So ban of women’s entry is not imposed by men, but voluntarily imposed by women themselves. This cannot be compared to any other temple. Tharoor is right in honouring the individual choice of Kerala women.

  2. You said “liberalism is an article of faith which cannot be applied selectively” but according to you a faith itself can be applied selectively just because it’s not liberal….what a reasoning . As far as weighing different articles like Ayodhya and Ayappa is concerned, don’t know why but i get smell of pseudo rationalism in it which isn’t liberalism perse!

  3. The population of pseudoliberals have increased so much that the real ones are being opposed now or sidelined

  4. Gender equality is the need of the hour.I would request the critics of Tharoor to vociferously campaign for unisex public toilets.It is indeed the height of gender discrimination that even in this cyber women in India are prevented from entering male public toilets and vice versa.The situation is worse in the religious/spiritual domain.In the interest of gender equality a case needs to be filed to permit nuns and priests to live under the same roof.”Equalitarians”should move the court in this case because they know better then others that constitutional morality overrides social/religious morality in a “civilised state”

  5. He is a rapacious politician under the veneer of an instinctive liberal.
    No sagacious person could ever espouse what those bigots are doing over there and.

  6. The print 1st read the post properly and share it as a sensible news source. I have watched the movie and i don’t find anything abusive against muslims. We all indians have our believe in our army and the surgical strike happened.
    And we don’t need to read some pakistani’s post about surgilcal strike who are senselessly claiming for kashmir.

  7. Kochukudi too made an error by saying, Congress championed the socialist reform in kerala, which is far from truth. It was not Congress, but the socialist faction of Congress Party which later on developed into Communist party brought the change. Post independence Congress always adopted a reactionary approach to social issues. Tharoor is now a seasoned politician, who mastered the trepeze of deceiving people.

    • Tharoor cannot be blamed for his somersault.I live in an area of Trivandrum which is dominated by the so called backward castes(myself included).What I could guage from the public mood in my area is that the overwhelming majority see the Sabarimala verdict as a transgression on their freedom to believe in a celibate deity.They believe that only a person who believes in the brshmacharya bhava of Ayyappa is a true devotees of “Sabarimala Ayyappa”.This unique bhava,to the devout,should remain unchanged.This bhava mandates the observance of 41 day vrata. The fact that many pilgrims do not observe vrata is as true as that of people driving without valid licences.Justifying such acts would amount to justifying the unjustifiable. Entry of women in Sabarimala is acceptable to pseudo-liberals whereas entry of women into mosques isn’t.Why adopt double standards.Ask the govt to act fairly by allowing women to enter Sabarimala and also to the thousands of mosques where they are denied entry.To maintain fair play,the govt should move the court to facilitate the appointment of women as bishops.

  8. A true liberal would never insist on imposing his views on a community of men and women who have followed the tradition of Sabarimala Ayyappan worship in a particular way for centuries. A true liberal would say that it is your way for spiritual development, I may or may not agree, but will never disrupt your way. If we respect another’s freedom of expression, it should include respecting a group or community’s freedom of expression too. Sanatan dharma practised this tolerance to multifarious ways of seeking the divine without stepping into anyone’s toes from times immemorial, long long before the West even contemplated the principles of liberalism.

    This community of Ayyappa devotees have caused no harm to anyone. Crores of men, women and children worship their beloved Deity in a selected form and mode. Women support and pray for the men’s s successful pilgrimage to Sabarimala, men exercise control of mind and entire families feel blessed mentally and spiritually.

    Their practice has not stopped anyone to build Ayyappa temples anywhere else, nor prevented anyone worshipping Ayyappan at homes or other temples, including the young women. So where is the issue of gender oppression? Why then the so called intellectuals read irrelevant things into this, raising questions on the deity which even in West would have attracted action for being blasphemous? Couple of women who are neither devotees, nor from Kerala wake up one day to file a PIL ( which public came to them as distressed asking for relief, may I know? And why the withdrawal by one of the women petitioners, who was from Kerala not even inquired into? ) and the judiciary make a mountain of a mole hill to stretch the constitution and hurt innocent crores of common citizens, men and women, at the behest of couple of ill advised women with blinkers aided by a politically motivated atheist state government going against its own people and the State’s heritage? The whole case reeks of fraud perpetrated on our highest court by leading false and incomplete information by vested interests. The honourable court hitherto held in highest esteem by the ordinary citizens today is reported in poor light. And once, the judgement is given, the so called liberals across media and other elitist groups belabour using it to hammer on everyone their perverted case!! Isn’t it the classic case of a vicious cycle? Are judges not human? Can they not get carried away and err? Is it not then the job of a true liberal lobby to say, ” hey guys, something has not gone right here. Probably, we missed to hear the community of crores who are the real stakeholders. Let’s remediate” If Anand had kept Shashi on pedestal as liberal, and is himself a true liberal, then he should be able to appreciate that Shashi’ s about turn can be as much about the liberal values he is wedded to as perhaps his valid interest in the interests of his constituency. In Anand’s own words, Shashi has never hesitated to take contrary position; that he is holding one now contrary to his party leadership, only reinforces his consistency, even if it is coming through an about turn. It is time Anand and other liberals introspect too. More important is for the judiciary to view the protests and the ceaseless Twitter’s as valuable additional information not placed before them, than as some abominable dissent or insubordination, and graciously bring justice to the crores of the community affected by the mischievous action of couple of activists. Judiciary will only rise in the esteem of common man in this process.

    We have been an advanced civilisation for millennia preceding our constitution founded on the edifice of Dharma as the first and foremost Purushaartha. Western world has just reached the concept of Rights, but this great land went beyond and ordained Duties and obligations for the harmonious functioning of the society – duty of individual and of community, of the ruler and the ruled, of the teacher and the student, of the parent and the children and so on. Our constitutional morality in my view has to be to sustain the Dharmic way of life . Unlike with Yoga, let us not wait for the West to sell us very soon our own concept of Dharmic life for an orderly society. Dharmo rakshathi rakshitah. Satyameva Jayathe


  9. It seems extremist liberals are trying to control the nation without being responsible. Another reprehensible aspect of their behaviour and thought process is relentless unjustified hatred of Hindus, particularly the Non-Reserved Class Hindus. Not very different from behaviour of vicious caste-extremist groups of TN and the evil Nazis.

  10. Shashi Tharoor’s stand shows his patience to listen to public, unlike the liberals who watch only the introduction and climax of a movie and make judgment based on their peripheral perspective. Try to understand that there is no God in temples, but deity who are very human like us. Unlike the perfect flawless concept of God in Semitic religions, Hindu Gods/deity do make mistakes just like humans. Remember, Ayyappa himself was born due to the uncontrolled sexual urge of Shiva over Mohini, though Shiva himself is a Adiyogi.

  11. He took right stand in Shabarimala Mr.Anand! Being liberal is not opposing Hinduism. Mind it! We devotees are hurt by the Supreme court verdict. They failed to understand us. They will change their verdict on Jan 22.

  12. More sanctimonoius preaching of distorted liberalism that only aids neocolonialism and cultural imperialism by a globalized metropolitan elite.

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