Sabarimala priests reject Kerala CM’s offer of talks on SC order allowing women entry to temple
Head priests of the Sabarimala hill shrine and erstwhile rulers associated with the Lord Ayyappa temple on Sunday rejected Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s offer for talks over the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to worship at the complex, saying the government had already decided to enforce the order.
Hundreds of devotees have protested in Kerala since September 28, when the Supreme Court, in a 4-1 verdict, lifted the centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age from entering the temple, saying it was upholding the rights to equality of worship.
The temple authorities have said the ban is essential to the rites related to the deity, who is considered eternally celibate.
Mohanaru Kandarau, one of the three priests at the Sabarimala temple, said there was no point in talking with the government as it had already decided to enforce the order.
“Let the government first file a review plea in the Supreme Court. Then we can talk,” he said. Kandarau said they will “go for a review petition”.
The Pandalam royals, who are associated with the temple, also rejected the offer of talks, which were scheduled for Monday.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Kerala government, which has accepted the order of the apex court and is making safety arrangements for the women devotees, reiterated its stand after the ‘tantris’ (chief priests) backed out of the talks.
“We don’t have any other options left. We will go ahead with the order of the highest court,” said state temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran.
The verdict has come in for criticism from Union minister and top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley, who said the court was selective in targeting one practice.
“If you want to take a progressive step under article 14 and 21, it will apply uniformly against all religions. It cannot happen that you select a practice and apply it because that will have many social consequences in a pluralistic society like India,” Jaitley, the Union finance minister, said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday.
Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone dissenting judge and the only woman judge in the five-member bench that struck down the ban on women at the temple, said in her judgment that “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion.”
The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which runs the temple, has issued a circular to appoint women officials and police at the hilltop temple. “We have to comply with the court order. We will make arrangements to appoint women officials and others to ensure safety of women devotees,” said TDB commissioner N Vasu.
Kandarau said on Sunday that allowing women to enter the temple will obliterate its divinity. “Entry of women of reproductive age will affect temple customs and will destroy the divinity of the temple,” he said, adding that deploying women cops will hurt temple customs. About 600 women security personnel will be stationed at the shrine, according to the state police chief, Loknath Behra.
The temple is set to open on October 18 for monthly rituals and the TDB has said no woman devotee will be stopped from worshipping there. Many outfits have, however, threatened to prevent women from entering the shrine.
Amid protests against the SC order, the state units of the BJP and Congress have supported the demands of a review petition.
Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma on Sunday defended the state unit seeking a review of the SC judgement urged the central and state governments to take a call on the issue. “They (state unit leaders) are the best judges to connect with the local tradition, historical practices and sentiments to ensure there is a balance,” he told reporters in Kochi.
Speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Jaitley said that for instance, the court’s observations could mean polygamy, oral divorce, or other religions where women are not allowed entry into places of worship are no longer allowed. “If you want to be progressive and bold, you can’t be selectively so,” Jaitley said. “If you are willing to proclaim you must be willing to strike – not only willing to strike at one target but willing to uniformly strike.”
In her order, Justice Malhotra, whose dissenting voice sparked hope among those supporting the ban, said: “Religious practices cannot solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality. It is up to the worshippers, not the court, to decide what is the religion’s essential practice.”
Pathanamthitta district, where the Sabarimala temple is located, observed a shutdown on Sunday called by the BJP’s Yuva Morcha. Kottayam and Tripunithura in Kochi also witnessed big rallies by political outfits to demand a review of the apex court order.
The Left Front government blamed the BJP and Congress for “trying to exploit the sentiments of believers”. “Eyeing votes, some parties are fanning trouble. Their mischief won’t succeed. It is nothing but cheap politics,” said Surendran.
On Saturday, scion of the Pandalam royal family and the custodian of the temple, Sasikumar Verma, and chief priest Rajeevaru Kandararu participated in a protest rally in Kottayam district.