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On Sabarimala, blame out-of-touch Indian liberal elite not the court

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In a democracy, courts may defy public opinion, but on balance, courts are likely to go with popular sentiment.

Let’s face it. Our constitutional order was defeated in Sabarimala. The Indian state failed, despite trying, to implement a straightforward direction of the Supreme Court.

Let’s not look for easy scapegoats. Yes, the popular protest was orchestrated by Hindutva hardliners, brazenly backed by the BJP. Yes, the Congress played soft Hindutva, not for the first time. And yes, the ruling CPI(M) vacillated in the face of popular sentiment. But it is pointless to pour outrage at their doors. Parties chase public mood and votes. The real question is: Why was the public mood at odds with the constitutional order?

Let’s not kid ourselves: If an “anti-faith” court verdict could not be carried out in Kerala, that too under one of the few surviving Stalinist parties in the world, it cannot hold elsewhere. True, a similar verdict was carried out in the case of Haji Ali dargah despite community sentiment. But would that happen under a ‘secular’ regime? Have we forgotten Shah Bano? Hasn’t the SGPC got away with blatantly illegal actions in the name of Sikh faith?

Also read: Supreme Court cannot become the priest between Indians and their Gods

Let’s not waste our energy moralising about it. Of course, this failure calls for condemnation. You cannot run a constitutional democracy if the orders of the highest court can be defied with impunity. But lament and outrage are no substitute for reflection. More than condemnation, this situation calls for hard thinking: How do we negotiate a clash between constitutional morality and public opinion?

Let’s not sidestep this difficult question by blaming the courts, as Shekhar Gupta does. Yes, judicial overreach is a problem of our system, but not in this instance. If a citizen approaches the courts demanding equal treatment in a public place of worship, the judges cannot plead helplessness. Not under our Constitution that explicitly mentions temple entry. Indian secularism does not follow the French doctrine of strict non-interference. Rajeev Bhargav is right to say that our Constitution provides for “principled distance” that allows and requires principled intervention in matters religious.

Let’s not beat about the bush. The sad and unpleasant truth is that the liberal constitutional order is and has been out of sync with public opinion. The moral sensibility of the judges of the Supreme Court and the liberal commentariat has little connect with the moral sensibility of an ordinary devotee of Lord Ayyappa. Ordinary Indians have high but abstract regard for our Constitution, but when the constitutional principles are spelt out in a concrete context, they are often at odds with it.

Also read: Congress’ stand on Sabarimala can determine BJP’s success in Kerala

Let’s not run from this harsh truth. I learnt it during the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. I used to teach at Panjab University, Chandigarh, and live in Dadoomajara, a working-class resettlement colony. When I expressed my moral outrage at the brazen violation of the Supreme Court orders in the Ayodhya case, one of my neighbours asked me, “Professor SahebRamji ka mandir Ayodhya me nahi banega to kya England me banega?”. I learnt my lessons then, but apparently, the liberal, progressive Indians have not.

Let’s have the courage to look into the mirror: There is more than a grain of truth in the stereotype about the deracinated English speaking Indian elite. Liberal Indians speak an alien language, literally. Ask any leading intellectual of India: When was the last time you read a full book or wrote both sides of an A4 size page in any Indian language other than English? More often than not, they are illiterate, if not contemptuous, about our religious traditions. How many educated Indians can tell the difference between the Upanishads and the Puranas? Or between Shariyat and Hadis, for that matter? No wonder, ordinary, believing Indians refuse to take moral lessons from them. They are not immune to criticism and reform but resist it when it comes in an alien and hostile idiom. Latin America has liberation theology that invokes The Bible to argue for revolution. But why do we not have liberals who invoke and understand Maryada Purushottam to draw new ethical boundaries?

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: There is no political constituency for liberalism in India, not even in the heart of the island that is metropolitan India. You cannot solely depend on the courts to sustain a liberal, constitutional order. The brute fact is that in a democracy, courts may occasionally defy public opinion and have their way, but on balance, courts are likely to go with the overall drift of popular sentiment. If the present trend continues, there is a real danger of our republic being undone by the public.

Also read: Sabarimala temple row brings atheist Left face to face with religion, yet again

Let’s understand our choices. One option is to go with public opinion wherever it can be made to takes us. That’s a dangerous slope. The only other option is to enter into a conversation with the public so as to change public opinion. This cannot be a monologue. We must be willing to learn a new language, experience a new sensibility, and respect other forms of knowledge. This is Gandhi’s path, the path of a critical insider. Unless we want to explore the third option:  To elect a new people!

Let’s make our choice. Now.

Yogendra Yadav is National President of Swaraj India.

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  1. Imagine those days when india became independent and constitution came into existence—then– was the constitution and its laws were forced on indian people or were accepted by indian public as its own? The fact is that —the constitution and laws were alien to the indian public and majority of people had no idea what it meant. Till this day most people do not know the law of the land—as if the constitution/law is still just on paper and not on ground. The sabrimala case etc are case in point. The khap panchayats are other cases in point .
    Why do we teach our school kids that constitution/law is the “real” and supreme . Why should we not teach our kids that in reality there are many parallel laws in india — laws within a family, community law, religious law, institutional law, panchayati law[village law], society’s norms……and constitutional law.
    I wonder how the forefathers had made the illitrate indians aware [believe] about the constitution and law .What nehru/gandhi had told the indian on street….did they tell him that all other laws are invalid now[all mentioned above] and only constitution is the new “supreme law”…………and what today’s leaders say that SC should not uphold the law as supreme but take into consideration the “religious bhawana of the general public”……….

  2. There must be dialogue. Unfortunately there is none. Not only between the liberals and the great unwashed, but between those holding power of any kind – from the lowest chaprasi holding a government job to the person holding the highest office in the land. Have you seen the chaprasi grovelling before his higher officers (with whom he may be complicit in corruption) and the contempt he has for someone who approaches his office for a piece of paper?

    The Marxist party in Kerala takes the cake when it comes to the hubris of holding office. There is no dialogue or discussion, only one-sided decisions which they violently impose on people “for their own good”. The Supreme Court decision on Sabarimala suited their ideology and they moved with gleeful swiftness to impose it stringently on people whom they thought were hapless and helpless. Now they are reaping the “benefits” of their hubris. There are a baker’s dozen of Supreme Court judgments on Kerala issues pending for years which the Marxist government has neglected in order to appease various vote banks.

    Yadavji, dialogue exists between equals who respect each other’s points of view even while disagreeing. The government, not just in Kerala, and all other bureaucrats and government office holders must come down to the level of the common man and dialogue with him with respect. Leading the pack who lack basic respect and understanding of the common people are the liberals of India. It is passing strange that decades after leaving India the British still produce their offspring successfully.

  3. Mr. Tharoor, you have given a clear analysis of the issue. Often analysis leads to paralysis. Please understand there are others too who have done so as it is one of the easier things to do. And like them you have used your verbiage to conceal what your own position is. As a politician who has been forced to evolve as one the hard way I suppose you have learnt not to make your own position clear. I ask you the question very simply: Should women who come under the age restriction be allowed to enter the Sabrimala Temple?

  4. Just because most of the Indian liberals are atheists doesn’t mean that they are out of order and when they don’t speak in Indian languages other than English doesn’t mean that they are out of order too because English is the fastest growing language in India and which else language has a wider appeal in all parts of India other than English?

  5. Indian Constitution must be included right from school syllabus. It’s high time we learnt that rules are framed according to Indian Constitution and it’s our supreme authority. People should be made aware that it is above all our religious books.

  6. Just goes to show how easy it is to make Indians feel guilty about not being well-versed in religious writing. “Oh, the glorious past!” “You have no right to the future if you don’t bury yourself in the past.” I don’t think so.

  7. A very fair and balanced point here. You cannot force down a governmental position, how much ever, rightful and genuine it be. The approach should be engagement and not confrontation. We’ve seen judiciary overstepping into public choices like in Sabari Mala and jallikattu issues and making it a complex issue. Wherever the judicial writing is against the general public opinion, a governmental panel can ascertain the choices they’ve, in bringing it into force. This cannot be by forcing it down the throats of the general public and calling it the right approach. That doesn’t differentiate the independent government of India from the colonial government.

  8. Yogendra Yadav is spot on. In fact, I read Shekhar Gupta with great dismay.

    People can have their hundred reasons to avoid going. But there is no justification to prevent others? Who the hell are they to decide who will enter and who shouldn’t? As if the God descended down and whispered his commandments into the ears of these goons!

    Sabarimala is opening the fault lines yet again. Truth is, BJP was looking for its Ram Janmabhoomi in the South. It’s so political now with BJP waving their party flags inside the temple campus.

    We are dealing with obscurantists here. Sheckhar should know what DrAmbedkar said about the time it will take for this country to imbibe constitutional culture.

    At least, if women were allowed to be educated in this country and the man were to use triple talaq, the woman can walk away happily, shrugging her burden off, with or without alimony. So deny women every opportunity to empower themselves. Tell them they are impure if menstruating. Give them stigma and construct honour and virginity for them. Put them in perpetual chains. Create dependence and rule over them. That’s the man’s credo.

    CPM govt had to implement the order. And Congress should have stood up for what is right. But here all the parties are so spineless, pandering to Hindu fundamentalists while smugly dividing the Muslim vote with duplicitous sympathy for Muslim women.

    It is almost a throwback to the times where a fear of discrimination had sown the seeds for a bloody partition of this country.

    With such implosive forces at hand, who needs a disgusting neighbour to dismember us.

  9. Yadav ji or shall I say यादव जी to appear more authentic, you have got many things wrong. I ask, how many non-English speaking, educated or otherwise, from rural or metro India know the difference between Upanishid and Puran or more importantly between Shariyat & Hadis? These distinctions are not an index of sensitivity to understanding. It was for this reason that brain washed women are resisting entry of women in Sabrimala. The entrenched patriarchy cannot be uprooted through “soft conversations”.

  10. Its nonsense to say a Temple is a public space. As per law, the diety is a perpetual minor, meaning he/she got all the rights of an individual. Otherwise, how can you have a court case like Sreeram lala Vs xxx? The temple is run on the deities behalf be a trust/board who can take discussions on his behalf. Spo the court is wrong in the case of Sabarimala verdict. After saying that, I support women entry to Sabarimala as there is really nothing but local custom and conventions blocking it. SO the court took the right decision based on the wrong principle.

  11. Each one of us has an IQ (intelligence quotient), and an EQ (emotional quotient). Both these parameters are given to us by our genes or heredity, and they affect our personal life and wellbeing. In addition to these we should have another “quotient”, the SQ, or “Sensibility Quotient”. SQ determines how WE affect, and are in turn AFFECTED BY THE SOCIETY in which we live.

    In Hindi we can call it JAGROOKTA. This is the quality we acquire by interacting with others in the society. It measures our ability to be in tune with the times. Our SQ should rise, so our SOCIETY AS A WHOLE grows into a modern mindset. Otherwise we cannot claim to be a modern people.

    And this is where political leaders could have contributed, but failed. Because we don’t have great leaders, we have political dwarfs who are themselves busy climbing up to higher perches. We don’t have a Jawahar Lal with us any more. I have high regards for Atal ji, but he wouldn’t fit the bill of THAT TYPE of greatness. Believe it or not, though I am no fan of his, but Narendra Modi “could” have been that type of a great leader, but he has been on a different trip of his own, both literally and figuratively.

    My definition of a great leader is one who has the courage and charisma to MOULD his people’s thinking — he does not RIDE PIGGYBACK on his people’s thinking (for personal gains).

    Until we have such leaders, we will have Sensibility Elites (SE) and Sensibility Commoners (SC). Such SE may not be from rich or successful stratas of society. College and school teachers, or even some cynical office clerk can belong to this class. And SC, on the other hand, can be from every strata, EVEN FROM the most moneyed and successful classes.

    In such a scenario, Supreme Court (SC) is trying to fill the lacunae caused by paucity of a great leader. Though it is a commendable aspiration, the SC should desist, because for nothing under the sun can we afford to see our highest court belittled, and its command taken lightly by our people. If we the people behave shamefully, then we the people deserve to live in shame. If daughters of God are being subjected to injustice, then it is God’s job to figure out a solution to it — by, over time, tweaking the conscience of his other children, or giving us a truly great leader who will do it for Him.

    • I AGREE….leaders are to lead….we miss great leaders like nehru/gandhi etc.
      imagine those nascent days of freedom when “few indians were aware about our constitution yet constitution came into effect” at that time how these leaders took the “process of enforcement of these laws” to masses…… seventy years on we miss them…….

  12. I am a great admirer of Yogendra Yadav. However I would like to point out that his inferences are too sweeping and off the mark. Sabarmala problem is how the Supreme Court, the parties to the petition, the political parties, and the common man including me could not anticipate the tsunami of protests that arose as a reaction to the court verdict. In hindsight I think the cause for such a strong reaction was simple. The Supreme court changed the deity of Sabarimala while in other cases of women’s entry into places of worship the court did not alter the deity. I will explain. A devotee has to keep fast for 41 days before he can make a pilgrimage to the holy shrine. The core practice required during the fast is abstinence. Ninety five percent of the male pilgrims are young or middle aged husbands. They cannot touch their wives though living with them in the same house or even sleeping on the same bed. They may have temptations. They overcome them by chanting ‘Sharanam Aiyyappa’. The wife also may have urges. She also chants Sharanam. The strength they derive is from their rock-like faith in the celibacy of their deity. Their image of Aiyyappa is that of a god who has mastered his sexual urges to the extent that he does not even wish to see women of a reproductive age. What the devotees cannot tolerate is that the Supreme court has altered their Aiyyappa into someone else who is okay with the proximity of women and doesn’t mind if they even touch him. The raison d’etre of keeping fast for 41 days is gone. Now husbands and wives have no reason to avoid touching each other during the fast. This has disturbed the core psychology of an Aiyyappa devotee and that is what has prompted them to pour out into the streets. This kind of alteration of the object of veneration has not happened in Haji Ali or in any other temple where women were allowed entry. We all failed to see this coming.

    • George, you have written a very lucid piece, congratulations. But tell me, are you trying to tell us that OUR GOD HATES SOME OF US — read, “the women”? Are women not God’s own children? I fail to understand. If a woman loves and craves to visit her Father, will the Father start giving her the celibacy spiel? Most of the 10-50 age group women will VOLUNTARILY not try to visit the temple during their periods, out of their love for lord Ayappa. Why should the temple authorities presume that women are VILE and they will defiantly disobey, so they as a complete group should be kept away? And then they put the onus on the lord saying that “He does not want them”. HOW do you and your like-minded friends “know” lord Ayappa’s mind?!

      I surely know that you people are, even if unwittingly, doing a great disservice to the IMAGE OF GOD.

  13. You too, YY? I agree with the people who have commented, but with a difference. I am hopeful. This order of the apex court may be reversed by a new law or the orders of a bigger bench. But, the process has begun. Let us not despair at every battle that is lost. There are wars to be won. We have won many. (This is the view of a 73 year old person more or less on the very end of his life – caused by illnes – , who has seen India limping to victory many a times at the end of a painful battle each time.)

  14. Quite a thoughtful piece.There are questionable legal aspects of the Order.Without going into that aspect, a more reflective approach by the agnostic liberal lot can help.
    Thumbs up to Me Yadav !

  15. Though I have a huge respect for Yogendra Yadav ( I am one of those handfuls who voted for him in 2014) and stopped supporting AAP after his eviction, I cannot agree with this broad-brushing of liberals with anglophiles. This is common trick employed by right-wing all over the world to discredit liberals. Starting from Premchand in Hindi and MirzaGhalib in Urdu, most of the writers in Indian languages have been liberals and most of their readers, naturally are rooted Indians and not anglophiles. The most popular literary magazines in Hindi from Hans to Naya Gyanoday to Kathadesh and so on have liberalism in their veins ( alas, I can’t claim the same about their English counterparts).

  16. For once, cannot agree with the columnist, whom it is always a pleasure to watch on TV, calm, incisive, reasonable. It is not about out of touch liberals, knocking English which even the poor – especially they – want their children to learn, as the passport to material advancement. Stirring the pot in India is not difficult, is now being done more visibly, vigorously. Getting goons / toughs onto the streets, to throw stones, damage cars, traumatise decent folk is not difficult. By the logic of this column, the Jats had a legitimate grievance, it is out of touch liberals who fail to empathise with their emotion when they destroy 20,000 crores of property. 2. The Kerala government – whether out of decency or realpolitik, or both, has taken the right approach. Letting a few women enter a temple is not an issue for which the police should open fire. There is an SC verdict which is now the law of the land. The review petitions will be dismissed, as they deserve to. Like marinating meat before grilling it, let the fundoos understand the law is here and the state will implement it. It will take time, but the message will seep in. 3. Let us not put heaving street emotion on a pedestal, mock the educated, liberal, decent folk who believe in the Constitution and the law of the land. The new sort have a slender CV to showcase as their achievements.

  17. If we claim to be a constitutional democracy, then we have to uphold whatever is written in the constitution, namely, non-discrimination and equality. These are written in the preamble of the constitution. If we are not able to uphold these, then let us not pretend to be a constitutional democracy. Instead, we should call ourselves as mobocracy.

    • In a democracy who is Supreme? Currently our Supreme Court thinks it is Supreme. I have lot of contempt for Supreme Court for subverting the democracy.

      When judges interpret constitution to suite their needs (selection) they are subverting the constitution. Current Supreme Court is full of judges related to judges retired. Do you expect them understand the nuances of religion? They do not and people will not accept judgments which they cannot relate. Do not think people of India stupid. It is the common people of India who upholds the spirit of India. Not the english speaking elite who is ready to ditch motherland for some dollars.

  18. Whats the guarantee that if you elect new people bring forth the changes there is a ample of evidence in front of our eyes AAP party & their misdealing, blame game, their Ministers, their Rowdy elements etc., It is very complex even courts have to study the religious practices, believes, whether such traditional practices not allowing women & men , yes in 6 major temples in India does not allow the men to enter the sanctum of the temple by men, these practices must be perceived as prescription rather than discrimination before pass judgement must decide on case to case basis rather than merely interpreting constitutional aspects.

    Why people are suspicious about judgement & the pattern is that some unrelated group files the case in tandem with the Kerala govt. which will see that by filing its affidavits favoring the judgement to their likes etc., some so called non Hindu activists for their photo ops is escalating the matter & confirm their suspicion. If a single Hindu religious women from Kerala would have preferred to enter the Temple stating it is discrimination yes the movement would have been failed on its own.

    But none of the parties including communist/atheist ready to stop the peoples’ movement why? at the end of the day they have to listen to the mass, respect public opinion & their sentiments. Every common man’s demand is this. Such acts will save us to move from Plural Society to Polarized society.
    Over all a good well balanced article. plz do write regularly Tx.

  19. I am almost a fan of yours YY but your contempt and loath for the liberals is something I vehemently disagree with. Liberalism is one of the key factors that have played a major role in to making India what our Cousin PAKISTAN is NOT. Otherwise trust me, we are even worst then them. Liberals may be few in numbers and yes may not have any political constituency but have been allowed to still be an influential voice since 1947. And we as a nation have reaped good rewards for that. If you think that bigots and intolerant Indians can be talked in to softening their hard- line stances by using some other language, you are highly mistaken.

  20. Ultimately, what decides how political parties react is to count the ‘VOTES’. Today’s news is that Congress wants a REVIEW of the verdict and is engaging its stalwarts Sibal & Singhvi to fight against the Supreme Court’s order. (Ditto the LDF) This, after so many days of the decision and the turmoil in Kerala, ONLY means that Congress has DONE with the counting, and has decided that there are either more votes for it in going AGAINST the decision OR, there is perhaps more advantage in VOTES for the BJP, if Congress ACCEPTS the decision. Is there a single word that describes this somersault ? Yes, it is ‘HYPOCRISY’, typical of Congress and the Left.

    • Please. EVERY party, whether it is BJP, or Congress, the Left, or any other, are ONLY concerned about the votes and public perception. That is not hypocrisy, that is the very NATURE of parliamentary democracy. Look around the world at other democracies, and fjnd me one party which is not doing the same.

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