On Sabarimala, Congress is treading the difficult middle path of standing by believers, but pursuing matter only through constitutional means.
It’s never pleasant to suffer the opprobrium of one’s friends, and I have had to endure a fair degree of unpleasantness since laying out my views on Sabarimala in this space a few weeks ago. Many of those who have stood by me on other issues that matter to liberals have turned on me in language ranging from disappointment to fury. Their disillusionment with me is evident in dozens of articles and tweets, and echoed in a hundred social media barbs directed at me daily.
The reason for all this is easy enough to understand: I have consistently, for over four decades, advocated liberal principles in our public life and in our political space, even when it was not ‘safe’ to do so. In my speeches, articles and books, I’ve critiqued the Emergency, stood by Shah Bano, defended Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots, and stood up for M.F. Husain to paint as he pleased. I have been an early and consistent voice on women’s rights, advocating that stalking be made a non-bailable offence, criminalising marital rape, supporting every woman’s bodily and personal autonomy, endorsing the #MeToo movement and signing up to the Women’s Reservation Bill. I do not believe menstruation should confer any disability on women or restrict them from any position or activity, and have submitted a private member’s bill in Parliament to protect women’s menstrual rights.
Then why am I – to quote the words of my friend Thomas Isaac, finance minister of Kerala – now “on the wrong side” on Sabarimala?
My liberal friends would nod appreciatively at the phrase. For them, the issue is clear: the Supreme Court has decreed women of menstruating age cannot be denied entry into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the name of traditional customs. Liberals see this as a welcome step forward in favour of women’s equality, a stand no liberal can possibly oppose.
I envy them their clarity. But as a public representative myself, daily discussing the issue with hundreds of the people I represent in Parliament, including large numbers of women of precisely the age that is intended to benefit from the Supreme Court’s judgment, I find the issue anything but clear.
Liberals confuse the restrictions on women’s entry into Sabarimala with earlier restrictions on the temple entry of ‘lower’ castes, whose abolition a few decades ago (in the teeth of conservative opposition at the time) is now almost universally taken for granted. That’s how change comes, liberals assert. The diehards resist, but in the end, everyone accepts, and after a few years everyone wonders what the fuss was about.
Except that Sabarimala worshippers – and there are millions of them – don’t see it that way. They make the arduous trek up to the shrine because they believe in its legends the way Catholics believe in the Virgin Birth or Muslims in the divine revelation to their Prophet, as beliefs integral to their faith. Just as a Supreme Court verdict ordering the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests and bishops in the name of gender equality would occasion outrage rather than compliance, so also this verdict has been rejected by those who believe it assaults the very foundations of their faith in the deity installed at Sabarimala.
The cause of Dalit entry into temples was championed both by large numbers of Dalits and by many of their co-religionists of other castes, who all felt that the ban was an abominable social practice with no religious sanction. There has been no similar mass movement of believing women clamouring for entry here. Indeed, as many have pointed out to me, the nature of the deity at Sabarimala is such that if you believe in Him, you would not wish to disturb Him as a naishtika brahmachari. They are therefore “Ready to Wait”. Those few women of reproductive age who seek to go there are by definition going not out of belief, but curiosity.
So what, the liberal might say – why shouldn’t they? It’s an issue of women’s rights after all, and it doesn’t harm anybody. But to the believers, the harm is real – this violation of the essential principles guarding their deity is an assault on their place of worship, and they feel personally violated.
And then there’s the politics of it. The Communist state government of Kerala – which has shown no similar eagerness to implement a longer-pending Supreme Court verdict on an issue that divides Jacobite and Orthodox Christians -smuggled in two women to the shrine, covered in black and escorted through a side-entrance reserved for police, rather than up the holy Eighteen Steps. Their zeal has little to do with women’s equality, still less with religious faith. It was cynical politics – a deliberate provocation.
My liberal friends took exception when I used that word in a TV soundbite on Sabarimala. Headlines alleged that I “slammed” the women who sneaked into the temple. I did not. I slammed the state government’s role in arranging their entry in this way, with the deliberate intention of inflaming passions for their narrow political purposes. They are needling the Sangh Parivar to overreact in the streets (as the Hindutva elements can be counted upon to), because they calculate that the resulting polarisation will be to the Communists’ political benefit. As for the BJP, which could easily have defused the situation through legislative action at the Centre, they have no desire to see the crisis resolved, since unrest in the streets serves their interests — by convincing voters that Hinduism is threatened, and only the BJP is standing up for them.
So, I did not use the word “provocative” for the women, but for the actions of the state government, which is acting in the service of a dubious political strategy – promoting communal polarisation in order to drive enough Hindu Congress voters to the BJP, for the Left to win elections as a result. Neither the Communist government nor the BJP is animated by principle, but their cynical theatrics are driving the issue. I believe the liberal values I cherish require me to place some value on the political viability of the Congress Party, which is treading the difficult middle path of saying that we stand by the believers, but will pursue the matter only through constitutional means, not through violence, obstructionism or provocation.
So forgive me, my liberal friends, if I am not ready to join you in asserting the unconditional right of women of reproductive age to enter Sabarimala. Forgive me if I am not willing to overlook how much their faith means to my people, the people it is my duty to represent. Forgive me if I am not willing to ignore the political cynicism of the Communist-led state government and the country’s ruling party. Forgive me for choosing to respect the sacrosanct beliefs of my constituents rather than substitute my liberal rational judgement for their faith.
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. Forgive me for believing that the larger issues one is in politics to fight for should not be sacrificed at the altar of misplaced zeal on this one issue.
It may well be that the Supreme Court might have its way in the long term and that in the future, young women will gaily breeze in and out of Sabarimala, with future generations amazed that in 2019 so many opposed this happening. But as a popularly-elected politician, I think of the future, yet must live in the present.
As novelist Manu Joseph memorably wrote on this very issue, “If you keep pampering the future, you will disregard the present of the people, and they will drag the future deep into the past.”
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.