Mimic Men

The Congress’s ill-thought-out imitation of the BJP on Sabarimala

Kanakadurga (Left) and Bindu Ammini became the frst women to ofcially enter the Sabarimala temple after a Supreme Court verdict opened up the temple to women. The Congress and the BJP have opposed the verdict. Samyukta Lakshmi
31 January, 2019

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.

According to the historian KN Ganesh, the Dalit struggle for entry into the Vaikom temple preceded Gandhi’s visit by at least a hundred years. “Several attempts were made by Ezhavas and Pulayas and other avarna”—Dalit—“communities to enter local temples across the Travancore region,” Ganesh told me over the phone in January. “The most famous ones were when they attempted to enter major temples, such as the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the Thrissur temple or the Vaikom temple, because here it was not only local savarna”—caste Hindu—“communities that opposed them, but the police of the princely state itself. Vaikom, too, has seen many attempts at entry by various avarna groups prior to this across the nineteenth century.”

In the run-up to the satyagraha, during the 1920s, the Congress had been losing its relevance in the south of the subcontinent. Parts of modern-day Kerala were then spread over the kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin, and the Madras Presidency. During the Moplah Rebellion, in which Muslim peasants rebelled against Hindu landlords, the Congress’s failure to support the peasants hurt its legitimacy.

The Madras Presidency, where a majority of the Travancore elite studied and worked, was in the hands of the Justice Party, which was critical of Brahmin hegemony ever since the start of representative government in the state in 1920.

In this climate of outspoken and determined non-Brahminism, the Vaikom struggle in Kerala became energised under the guidance of TK Madhavan, an Ezhava leader of the social organisation Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana, or the SNDP. Sree Narayana Guru, the Ezhava social reformer, also joined the struggle, breaking his previous distance from active politics.

In 1921, Madhavan was disallowed from presenting the issue of restrictions against Dalits in the Travancore legislature. “You may leave Travancore to solve your problems,” T Raghavaiah, the then diwan—prime minister—told him. Madhavan then met Mohandas Gandhi in Tirunelveli, and the issue was taken up two years later at the Kakinada session of the Congress in 1923. Gandhi arrived in Vaikom another two years later, in March 1925, only after the struggle had been joined by Muslims, Christians and atheists, such as EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, who would lead the non-Brahminism movement in the Madras Presidency. If it wanted to develop a mass social and political base in the region, the Congress had no choice but to engage with the movement.

However, there was a fundamental difference between Gandhi’s approach and that of the local satyagrahis. Gandhi demanded that Periyar and his wife, Nagammai—another of a large constellation of women leaders written out of temple-entry struggles—leave the struggle. In 1924, when George Joseph, one of the earliest crusaders of the movement, was detained along with some of his associates, Gandhi warned in the newspaper Deepika: “If the volunteers are ‘Pure Hindus,’ the Satyagraha would also be pure and strong and including believers of other religions in the Satyagraha would definitely weaken the struggle.” Gandhi’s agenda seemed to be to “save Hinduism” from the subaltern alliances that had formed to fight for equal rights.

When Gandhi reached Kerala, he demanded that Joseph, too, leave the struggle, leading to the disillusionment of the Christians with the Congress. Then, Gandhi sent back the Akali Dal—the Sikh organisation had been running a langar feeding the protesters, in solidarity with their struggle. As the historian Robin Jeffrey noted in a 1976 article, Gandhi and Narayana Guru clashed over the use of force as a mode of resistance.

Gandhi began holding talks with the local dominant castes as a self-appointed leader of the struggle. Talking to Indanturuttil Nambiatiri, the leader of the Brahmins in Vaikom, he agreed that Dalits were suffering because of the misdeeds of their previous lives, but stated that god, and not the dominant castes, had the right to make them suffer for this. Gandhi’s proposal to Nambiatiri was for a referendum to be taken among the dominant castes of Travancore to see if they would allow Dalits into the temple. The Brahmins rejected the proposal.

On the other hand, the Dalit movement fought untouchability not by saying it did not have sanction in Hinduism, but by speaking of universal rights and seeing fundamental problems in the religion itself. Gandhi envisioned the fight against untouchability as one that Dalits were to be excluded from—given that he thought that a referendum among dominant castes was enough to decide the fate of the oppressed. This is also true of Gandhi’s organisation to fight untouchability, the Harijan Sevak Sangh, which initially had no Dalit leaders.

Against the goal of opening up temples to Dalits, the results of Gandhi’s work were underwhelming. The government agreed to remove the police and barricades around the temple, with an understanding that the protesters would not enter the forbidden streets. It would not be until 1932 that the Travancore government appointed a Temple Entry Enquiry Committee, which opened up all temples to Dalits only as late as 12 November 1936. It would take 12 years after the satyagraha for the first Dalit to enter the Vaikom temple. What Guha calls a clamorous victory against untouchability merely weakened the resolve of the movement, deradicalised it, delayed its success and broke its previous multi-religious alliance. The Congress later distanced itself from temple-entry movements in the region—a tradition kept alive primarily by the Dalit, Dravidian and communist movements. This is visible in the temple-entry struggles of Srirangam, Madurai, Tiruvannamalai and Triplicane.

However, Gandhi’s takeover of the limelight during the satyagraha did give the Congress some political dividends. Its electoral offshoot, the Swaraj Party, won the next election in the Madras Presidency in 1926. (Around the time, the Congress did not contest elections in princely states, such as Travancore and Cochin, as a matter of principle.)

Today’s Congress does not seem to possess the acumen it had in the early twentieth century. Its stand on Sabarimala is clearly neither a betrayal of its values nor a new move towards regressiveness. While the party has seen a significant rightward movement during the election campaigns in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, with frequent temple visits, promises of building gaushalas—cowsheds—and Rahul Gandhi proclaiming himself a janeudhari Shiv bhakt—a Brahmin devotee of Shiva—its position on temple entry was always very conservative. But with the emergence of the BJP, an even more culturally conservative party, the Congress seems to be undergoing an identity crisis in the state.

While Congress leaders such as Tharoor claim that the restriction on women’s entry into Sabarimala has nothing to do with untouchability and caste, the sudden support that the LDF government’s actions have received from a range of Dalit and Adivasi organisations that previously opposed them belies that claim. For instance, despite a strained and often confrontational history with the Left, the Adivasi leader CK Janu joined the Vanitha Mathil—a human chain several hundred kilometres long, created in protest by Kerala’s women. The Dalit activist M Geethanandan took out a villuvandi yathra, or bullock-cart rally, in support of women’s entry into the shrine.

The Congress’s position seems to be a weak attempt to hold on to votes of the dominant castes. The Nair Service Society, an organisation that represents Nairs, who constitute roughly 12 percent of Kerala’s population, is at the forefront of the agitation against women entering Sabarimala. Thirteen of the BJP’s fourteen district presidents are Nairs. The Congress, because of its vote base, is more diverse, with several Muslims and Christians in its fold. Of its nine Hindu district-committee presidents, four are Nairs—overrepresented in the Congress as well. When historically oppressed castes—Ezhavas, Dalits and Adivasis—make up roughly 30 percent of the population, the Congress’s desperation to fight the BJP for the dominant-caste vote seems absurd (even if the positions on Sabarimala are not neatly divided along caste lines).

With its present stand on Sabarimala, it is doubtful whether the Congress would please any community, dominant or marginalised.