No change in stand on Sabarimala – Kerala CPIM chief

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Kodiyeri with National Secretary Sitaram Yechury

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, state chief for Kerala CPIM and the most vocal proponent of a hard-line stand on the Sabarimala issue, said he sticks to his earlier stand on the issue, despite the negative results in recent polls.

The Left Front in Kerala has been reduced to 1 seat from 8 seats in the Parliamentary elections held last month, partly because the BJP made successful inroads into its core OBC and Hindu vote base.

The Left Front was also hurt by a parallel shift in its already low number of minority voters to the Congress Party-led United Democratic Front.

The heavy drubbing, however, seems to have left no impact on Balakrishnan, who had articulated a hard-line, uncompromising stand calling for the immediate and complete implementation of a Supreme Court order on the entry of young women into Sabarimala was concerned.

The state party chief often corrected the more nuanced statements of ministers like Kadakampilly Surendran, including one where the minister had said the government was not obligated to support the actions of ‘activists’ who “wanted to use Sabarimala as a proving ground for their power”.

“There was nothing wrong in our stand on the Sabarimala issue,” Balakrishnan said, soon after the CPIM state secretariat concluded its meeting to review the election results. “It was the only stand that a progressive government could take.”

Balakrishnan leads the ‘classical communist’ faction within the state unit of the CPIM, even as most other leaders have moved to a more moderate and pragmatic position on major issues.

The classical stand of communist parties sees religion as a unnecessary distraction in the struggle for equality, if not downright evil.

However, to remain relevant, Kerala CPIM has been forced to take a more nuanced approach in its dealings with religious matters and on topics such as democracy and capitalism.

The party, which gets about 70% of its votes from Dalits and the OBC Ezhava community, has also been trying to broadbase its support by attracting the more devout Muslim and Syrian Christian communities by adopting a softer, non-confrontational stance when it comes to religious matters involving these communities.

At the same time, it continues to maintain a somewhat apathetic, if not confrontational, stance on religious matters related to its core, Hindu voter base.

This has given an opening for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been trying to attract Hindu voters in state by ‘exposing the double standards and hypocrisy’ of the communists.

In the aftermath of the Sabarimala controversy, the BJP, for example, did not forget to point out that the state government does not display as much enthusiasm for removing illegal encroachments by minority religious organizations — even after court orders — as it did in taking young women inside the Sabarimala temple.

A MONK’S CELIBACY

According to tradition, Ayyappa — a local medieval folk hero — renounced all earthly pleasures and took up abode at a hill-top shrine dedicated to Dharma Sastha (the giver of Dharma, speculated to be the Buddha) in Sabarimala.

Having renounced all earthly pleasures, Ayyappa did not want young women to visit him at the shrine, even as children and older women were allowed. Other Dharma Sastha and Ayyappa temples do not make such a distinction.

The shrine — located in the middle of thick, impenetrable jungle full of tigers — attracted only a trickle of the most daring of pilgrims till about 50 years ago, when motorable roads to the bottom of the hill made it more accessible to pilgrims from all five states of South India.

Last year, on a petition by a Delhi-based organization, a bench of the Supreme Court of India headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra examined the tradition, and held it to be “without any basis” in logic or the Vedas.

As such, the bench asked the state government to ensure that women are taken in to the temple.

This led to massive protests in Kerala. Parties like BJP and the Congress, which had hailed the Supreme Court order as a massive step towards gender equality, suddenly took a U-turn and came out in support of the protestors, recognizing the emotive potential of the issue ahead of crucial countrywide elections.

The state government, led by Pinarayi Vijayan, tried to avoid taking a stand on the issue, and even managed to “peacefully dissuade” female activists who tried to enter the temple.

However, Pinarayi’s government started coming under heavy criticism from within the Left establishment — most notably from Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the state secretary of the party.

As a compromise, it was decided that the Left Parties would organize a ‘women’s wall’ program to gauge support for the Supreme Court’s order, and if the wall attracted enough support, the government would act.

The party left no stone unturned to make the women’s wall a success, even leading to allegations that women were being made to join the program by threatening them with removal of state benefits if they didn’t.

The wall was a modest success, and within 24 hours, the government sent a team of police officers to take a couple of activists into the temple at 3 AM, the next day. The entry was shot on camera and circulated as a great leap towards equal rights for women’s rights in the state.

As expected, a large chunk of the Left Parties’ voter base seemed to have perceived the action as an encroachment on their religious freedoms, rather than as a step towards women’s equality.

After Saturday’s review meeting, Kodiyeri said denied the allegations that the move had alienated Hindus. He said that if Hindus didn’t vote for the party, it wouldn’t have still got the 35% or so votes that it did.

He, however, accepted that there was a decline in the “traditional votes” of the Left Front. Kodiyeri said the CPIM will hold a meeting of the state committee on the 31st of this month to analyze the result, and further details will be communicated after that.

“We will examine how that happened, going down to the booth level.”

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