Sabarimala, and the quest for equality

Sabarimala, it appears, could be our new touchstone for understanding liberals, especially from Kerala. The intellectual emptiness in the arguments of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Menon Rao on the Sabarimala imbroglio require both investigation and introspection.
Mr. Tharoor contends dangerously that “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance”. As pointed out by lawyer Suhrith Parthasarathy “This wasn’t a verdict based on abstract notions of equality. On the other hand, it gives meaning to the Constitution’s abstract guarantees.” Would Mr. Tharoor also recommend that the triple talaq pronouncement be rethought if conservative Muslims took to the streets in large numbers? And it scares me to think of what his position will be on the Ayodhya case if it does not satisfy his prescription.
The court’s mandate
The Supreme Court does not, and should not, take into account mystical notions and practices as the foundation for its considered opinion. While it does consider the culture of people, every practice of culture or faith must pass the test of the Constitution of India. It is a cultural document in the sense that within its intentions, principles, pronouncements and guidelines lies the fibre of the people who make up this land. Hence its limitations are also our own social, cultural and political wrinkles. But the makers of the Constitution wished and hoped that the fundamental rights would represent an ideal of India. They were, and we are, yearning for an India where all forms of discrimination and segregation cease to be practiced. The Constitution is not a heartless, emotionless document; it is a passionate seeking for human upliftment.
Therefore, the court should respond with care, compassion and empathy for the citizens of India, especially those who are at the receiving end of a discriminative practice, disregarding society’s majoritarian impulses. Simply put, if the wishes of Ayyappa lead to an unjust limitation of access for women between the ages of 10 and 50 who want his blessing, then his wishes have to be set aside. The cornerstone of the Hindu tradition is bhakti. And there is nothing more sacred than the unconditional love of the devotee. Ayyappa has to surrender to its power. Philosophically, this is in alignment with the Supreme Court judgment of September 28. It was remarkable, reminding us of the profound vision of the architects of our Constitution. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud put it succinctly when he said, “Religion cannot be cover to deny women the right to worship.”
Mr. Tharoor and the Congress, meanwhile, are playing a dangerous game in Kerala. Please do not cry foul when the BJP uses exactly the same arguments you are making to oppress certain sections of society. This duplicity will come back to haunt you.
Soon after Mr. Tharoor’s observations came a series of tweets from Ms. Rao. She argues that we should leave Ayyappa and his world of male-purification, self-control, abstinence alone. Shockingly, she makes the case that barring Dalits from temples was the result of upper-caste hegemony, but the Sabarimala practice is founded on the legend of Ayyappa and is, therefore, acceptable. But isn’t it that very same ‘purity’ that forbid Dalits from entering temples being perpetrated here in the name of Naishtika Brahmachari-ism? Even today, women are advised not to enter places of worship when they are menstruating. Esoteric arguments of positive/negative energies and purity are expounded in order to cultivate fear and restrict women — a result of discriminative legends, stories, tales, social rituals, manuscripts and treatises.
Ms. Rao went on to say, “the men bond together, beyond class and hierarchy and status during the pilgrimage, while the women are left free and unhindered in a blessed sisterhood.” People of all castes do throng to Sabarimala but that does not mean it dissolves caste. By that argument, every temple is then casteless because today people from every section of society offer prayers and undertake pilgrimages. But we all know that this is entirely untrue. Most temples in their traditions, ritual practices, control and organisation are inherently casteist. And “sisterhood” in this context is unmistakably patriarchal.
She makes the celibacy of Ayyappa central to her reasoning, forgetting that if she is going to grant Ayyappa that right, then the devotee has as much right to question his nature. Very soon, Hindu fundamentalists and conservatives from every religion will be expressing exactly these notions of tradition in varied contexts to justify the unjustifiable. Which is exactly why bigoted Islamic groups are lending support to the Sabarimala agitation.
Be that as it may, Mr. Tharoor and Ms. Rao have also brought into focus the inherently casteist and patriarchal nature of Kerala society. Social reformers Narayana Guru and Ayyankali fought this deeply entrenched caste discrimination and untouchability in Malayali society — the success of reservations and positive social indices suggest that they made a big dent in casteism. But it is obvious from the upper-caste noise being generated in Kerala today that much work remains to be done. Within every one of us hides casteism, and it reveals itself in such situations. Patriarchy and male hegemony are the foundations on which caste operates, and Kerala is no exception.
Mr. Tharoor’s misguided attempt to reconcile his prejudices on the Sabarimala issue — and that of his constituents, presumably — with his liberal interior undermines the Constitution. What he should be doing is grapple with his own implicit, unconscious acceptance of casteist and patriarchal religious practices. Ms. Rao, who has implied that Sabarimala is a mythologically sanctioned male domain for self-purification, should look at every domain that women have challenged and succeeded within. There was always some form of supernatural or socio-ritualistic restriction blocking all those avenues for women. It is just too convenient for caste-privileged liberal feminists to be selective in their idea of feminism.
Every sphere of activity, including the religious, needs to be questioned on feminist grounds, and practices that are restrictive must be reconsidered. Surely, the supreme being also hopes that we move forward as sensitive, questioning beings? Isn’t that the very essence of being Hindu?
Updated: December 21, 2018 — 6:24 pm

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