Pathanamthitta (Kerala): A devout Sabarimala devotee and believer in Lord Ayyappa, 45-year-old Aneesh N.N. has been a Congress worker since his youth, and is now serving as the party’s general secretary for Pathanamthitta district — where the Sabarimala temple lies.
In the last three years, however, he has seen what he calls a ‘radical shift’ within his own family: His 67-year-old father has turned into a passionate BJP supporter, as has his 12-year-old son.
The reason, the father emphatically says, is that to their mind the “BJP is the only party promoting and protecting Hindu people”.
The controversy surrounding the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has been a hot-button religio-political issue in Kerala for the last couple of years, and Pathanamthitta has been the nerve-centre of the protests.
These protests, led by Sabarimala devotees, began in 2018 against the Supreme Court verdict ending age-restrictions on women looking to enter the hill shrine.
While Aneesh is amused with his father’s support of the BJP, he isn’t entirely surprised. In fact, he has his own share of praises for the party.
“I am a strong Congressi but I like K. Surendran. He is doing so much for Hindu people; he was imprisoned for fighting for the Sabarimala cause,” he said.
In November 2018, days after the apex court verdict, BJP’s Kerala president K. Surendran led massive protests against the judgment and was subsequently arrested and kept in custody for over 20 days.
Much of the anger against the verdict, specifically in the district’s Pandalam town, is also because of the severe reduction in the footfall of devotees impacting businesses surrounding the temple.
“The LDF’s (Left Democratic Front’s) support for women entering the temple has meant that many devotees have avoided coming to the temple. So my revenue has taken a big hit,” said Suresh Kumar, who runs a restaurant close to the Pandalam Palace.
While the palace is about 90 km from Sabarimala temple, devotees visiting the shrine often visit the palace too.
In December last year, the BJP scripted history by winning the Pandalam municipality in the district, a significant gain considering that it is the Pandalam royal family that runs the Sabarimala temple. The family-run trust has strongly opposed the SC verdict.
Earlier this week, the former Congress Pandalam panchayat president Pandalam Prathapan quit the party and joined the BJP and even shared the stage with Home Minister Amit Shah who addressed a campaign rally here.
Where the 3 parties stand on Sabarimala
The BJP, which is looking to exploit the Sabarimala issue, has a dreadful record in Kerala. The party has won just one seat in the state’s history — Nemom constituency of Thiruvananthapuram — which it did only in the 2016 assembly elections
This, however, will be the first Kerala assembly elections since the Sabarimala controversy gained traction — with almost all political parties trying to gain political mileage out of it to some extent.
While the BJP has promised in its manifesto that it will bring in legislation to protect the Sabarimala tradition, the Congress-led UDF has made a similar promise in its manifesto as well.
Earlier in February, the Congress even went ahead and released a draft of the law that it has called the ‘Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (protection of religious rituals, customs and usages) Act, 2021’, banning entry of women between the age-group of 10 and 50. The draft also says the violation of the entry ban can lead to imprisonment of anywhere between three months to two years, and that whoever promotes or incites such acts shall also be subject to punishment.
This, of course, is a sharp U-turn from what was the Congress party’s original position on the Sabarimala issue initially — especially at the national level.
In 2018, when the Supreme Court announced its verdict lifting the ban on the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, the Congress party had officially welcomed the verdict calling it “progressive and far-reaching”.
Party leaders in Kerala, however, have been indulging in damage-control for the past couple of years, trying to whitewash the party’s original stand on the issue. The KPCC president, Mullapally Ramachandran earlier told ThePrint that “bygones should be bygones” and that the party will now ensure the Sabarimala traditions are now protected.
But more than the UDF, it is the CPI(M)-led LDF that finds itself cornered over the issue. The LDF government, in 2018, welcomed the Supreme Court verdict and even provided state protection to the women who wished to visit the Sabarimala temple.
It went a step ahead and on 1 January 2019, in a response to the protestors, formed a 620-km long “women’s wall” from Kasaragod to Sabarimala to reiterate its commitment to implement the SC order.
After all that, the LDF government’s Temple Minister Kadakampally Surendran last week expressed “regret” over police action against the Sabarimala devotees and has also said the SC’s verdict should not have been implemented without consulting the devotees.
In 2019, when a five-judge constitution bench of the apex court decided to refer women’s entry at Sabarimala temple to a larger seven-judge bench for re-examination, the temple minister had then too attempted to backtrack from the party’s earlier position.
“The government will not allow any activists to display their activism in the hill shrine,” he had said.
LDF leader and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has, meanwhile, largely remained mum on the issue, even as opposition parties have challenged him to take a stand on the matter.
‘Devotees but that’s not reason enough to vote for BJP’
There are, however, a chunk of voters in other assembly constituencies of the district, who despite being passionate Sabarimala devotees are unwilling to vote for the BJP.
For most such voters, issues concerning development and governance take precedence over the Sabarimala row.
Among them is Santosh Kumar, a 51-year-old resident of Konni constituency in Pathanamthitta, who had been with the RSS since he was five years old.
“I used to attend RSS shakhas all my childhood and then I was with ABVP in college. I had officially joined the BJP as a member. But today, I support the LDF,” Kumar said.
His reasons are two-fold: One, he was tired of “wasting” his vote by supporting the BJP, and second, his devotion to Sabarimala isn’t reason enough to vote for the BJP.
“The BJP will not come to power in Kerala, so no point repeatedly voting for them,” he said, “More than that, I am uncomfortable with their attempts to push privatisation in the country, and don’t like their other policies either. Their position on Sabarimala isn’t enough for me to disregard everything else and vote for them.”
Kumar, who has visited Sabarimala temple “over 100 times”, said he doesn’t even know what the LDF’s position on the Sabarimala controversy is, adding that he couldn’t care less.
“I have visited a couple of their rallies and they don’t mention Sabarimala at all. They talk about pension schemes, and other development projects. That’s all I care about,” he said.
Another Sabarimala devotee in Konni, Mini Kumar, said she “admires BJP’s commitment to the Sabarimala cause” but that she is more concerned with “issues like diesel price and middle class’ economic security”.
“Sabarimala is rendered an election issue only when parties like BJP exploit sentiments for votes, but it is wishful thinking,” she said.
‘Lord Ayyappa over politics’: Pandalam royal family
The Pandalam royal family, which says it has a “family connection” with Lord Ayyappa, and whose members are part of the temple’s board of trustees, had earlier hit out at the LDF government for “disturbing Sabarimala rituals”.
Then, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the royal family had said that the BJP “will win three seats in Kerala as a result of Sabarimala fallout” but that did not happen as the BJP drew a blank in the state.
Earlier this month, media reports claimed that the family’s members had been offered tickets by the BJP for the upcoming polls, but that they refused.
Speaking to ThePrint at the Pandalam Palace, P.N. Narayana Varma, secretary of the palace body, said that “all parties come to the palace for support”.
“All parties come to us, in order to gain political mileage. But Lord Ayyappa is above all politics,” he said.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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