The Kerala unit of the BJP has decided to suspend its ongoing protests and demonstrations at Sabarimala temple, even as these seem to have resulted in an unusual decline in the number of pilgrims who undertook the annual pilgrimage this year.
As part of the decision, Yuva Morcha, the youth front of the BJP, canceled today’s march to the police station at Nilakkal, the ‘base camp’ for the trek to the hilltop shrine.
BJP state chief Sreedharan Pillai said the party will now focus on conducting a statewide campaign to create awareness about “how the Left Front was trying to destroy the Sabarimala pilgrimage tradition”, as well as on the ongoing detention of K Surendran, one the party’s general secretaries in Kerala.
Surendran was arrested at Sabarimala for obstructing police officers in discharge of their duties last week.
The move marks a small victory for the Left Front and symbolizes BJP’s realization that continuing with protests and demonstrations at Sabarimala is only diluting the goodwill that the party generated with its strong, pro-tradition stance in the initial days.
The Supreme Court had last month held that the traditional belief that young women should not to go to the temple made no sense and had ordered the state government to ensure that all women were allowed entry into the temple. The order was hailed by all parties, including BJP, the Left Front and the Congress, but sparked massive protests by Ayyappa devotees in the state.
Sensing popular anger, the BJP quickly changed its stance when it saw how unpopular the move was and joined the anti-judgment protests.
The Left Front government, which had initially tried to take women inside the temple using a posse of armed policemen, too realized that the issue was helping the BJP build massive political capital in a state that has traditionally been hostile to the saffron party. It too therefore adopted a more cautious stand after the first week or so, and made it clear that it will not allow the police to be used by ‘activists’ to prove themselves.
Separately, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear review petitions in the matter in January also reinforced the view within the government that the Left Front must not spend its political capital in trying to implement an order that the court itself has agreed to review.
Currently, the police’s strategy revolves around trying to dissuade women in the 10-50 age group who approach them for protection to undertake the pilgrimage. In keeping with the new policy, the police refused to arrange transportation for Bhumata Brigade chief Trupti Desai from the Cochin Airport to Kottayam when her way was blocked by protesters led by members of the BJP and Hindu organizations.
The change in the government’s stand has taken the wind out of the BJP’s sails, just as the saffron party was eyeing its biggest success in Kerala’s political landscape since the party’s formation nearly half a century ago.
Another factor that contributed to today’s decision by the BJP to suspend protests at the site is the fear the continued protests are proving to be counterproductive.
For example, the demonstrations and disquiet seem to have scared off many of the yearly pilgrims, with Sabarimala seeing unusually thin crowds this year.
As the two-month Mandala pilgrimage crosses the 10-day mark, it is believed that only half the pilgrims have turned up this year compared to normal.
This has raised worries in the BJP that the pilgrims may be feeling intimidated by its ongoing protests and demonstrations at Sabarimala.
With the poor numbers at the pilgrimage site, the party also risks alienating many of the people associated with the Sabarimala complex, including local traders who stand to suffer massive losses in case of a dip in the number of pilgrims.