In September last year, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on the entry of women of menstruating age into Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, triggering a violent conflict that has lasted for months. While the Left Democratic Front state government accepted it as a duty to implement the court’s verdict, the opposition parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party sided with those protesting the ruling.
The BJP and the Sangh Parivar outfits have emerged as the face of the conservative side, inciting religious passions among devotees. In a bad imitation of the BJP, the Congress has tried to construct the debate as a clash between religious practices and the constitutional principle of equality. One of the Congress’s top leaders from Kerala, Shashi Tharoor, wrote in an article in The Print that “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance—all the more so when they are applied to matters of faith.”
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been unfazed, and has pointed out that the proposed change is not an example of a mindless enforcement of constitutional principles, but part of a long history of progressive movements that have defined the history of Kerala, such as those for allowing Dalits entry into temples. The Malayali lineage of questioning and reform that stretches back centuries seems to have been forgotten by the Congress. While the Congress has never been as progressive in Kerala as it is made out to be, it has historically benefitted from meeting the state’s oppressed communities halfway. As Sabarimala looks more and more like a contest between the Vijayan government and the BJP, the Congress seems to be in no man’s land.
The Congress’s history in Kerala is contentious. Criticising its stand on Sabarimala, the Congress’s liberal admirers tried to remind us, and the party, of its “progressive” past in the state, especially during the Vaikom satyagraha—a movement to ensure that the roads surrounding a Shiva temple in the town of Vaikom did not restrict access for Dalits and other oppressed castes. But these articles—most notable being one by the historian Ramachandra Guha in the website The News Minute—have misrepresented the events in Vaikom, especially the role of the Congress and Mohandas Gandhi.