The Sabarimala case has taken an even uglier turn, with the relentless harassment of Kanaka Durga, one of the two women who entered the Ayyappa Temple under police protection earlier this month. Her social ostracism makes a mockery of the Constitution and of Kerala’s status as the most educated state in India. In a frightening example of social tyranny and its potential to subvert the rule of law, Kanaka Durga has been denied her fundamental rights as a citizen. She was debarred from her ancestral home — to which she has a right — by her brother. The police has quite rightly registered a case against him.
A week earlier, she had been denied entry into her marital home. Bizarrely, she was attacked by her mother-in-law when she attempted to set foot inside the house. Both parties — Kanaka Durga and her mother-in-law — have filed complaints of assault against each other. The braveheart’s husband, meanwhile, has refused to ‘take her back’ after the incident, leaving her homeless and at the mercy of the state. The fact remains that Kanaka Durga has a legal right to her marital home and the government cannot brush off its responsbility to uphold the law by parking her in a women’s shelter.
Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini succeeded where dozens of women before them had failed. From October 2018 onwards, several women below the age of 50 years had attempted to enter the shrine, but were physically prevented from doing so by protestors. Among them were journalists and women’s rights activists. On December 23, a group of women from Chennai who were climbing towards the temple were chased away by a mob, despite the presence of the Kerala police.
Determined to assert their rights and braving the threat of physical violence, the two women chose to climb up to the shrine before daybreak on January 2, at a time when few devotees were present, and entered the premises under police protection. They offered prayers and left quietly, without a fuss. It was a symbolic act of defiance against a patriarchal shibboleth and that should have been the end of the matter.
The temple authorities, instead, decided to close the premises and hold a ‘purification’ ritual. Even as Kerala minister EP Jayarajan dubbed the act as contempt of court, because “untouchability is against the law”, protests erupted across the State and threats from hardliners forced the women to go into hiding. Since then, Kanaka Durga has been declared a paraiah by her own family and is being ruthlessly bullied in an effort to make her recant — she must apologise for having dared to stand up for her rights, or face life-long social opprobrium. She has even been denied access to her children.
Both women are a product of Kerala’s highly-acclaimed education system. Bindu Ammini, 40, is a law lecturer at Kerala’s Kannur University and Kanaka Durga, 44, is a civil servant and a social worker. Her brother first attempted to portray her as a hapless pawn being used by the CPM, but turned against her when she denied the charges.
While the protests against the Supreme Court decision permitting entry of women aged 10 to 50 into the Sabarimala shrine may have been spontaneous to begin with, there is no doubt that political support has emboldened the nay-sayers. Both the Congress and the BJP have played a retrogressive role, by taking an official stance against the entry of women into the temple.
Politicians, including women, have sought to justify their nakedly retrograde posturing in a variety of ways, citing faith, respect for public sentiment and the fact that Lord Ayyappa is a perpetual celibate. The counter-argument, that the Constitution allows every individual the freedom to practice ones religion and disallows discrimination on grounds of gender, obviously carries no weight.
To publicly contest an order of the apex court is one thing, but to play a key role in engineering protests is another. BJP state General Secretary K Surendran was arrested for participating in violent demonstrations, while the Congress held a rally near the shrine, led by former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy and Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. When the state government called an all-party meeting to discuss the issue, both national parties staged a walk-out.
Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini have stood up for the right of all women not to be discriminated against and declared impure’ on grounds of biology. As a result, the full force of the patriarchy has come down on their heads and the State finds itself unable to protect them. The idea, clearly, is to ensure that no other women will have the courage to defy the blatantly illegal ban on their entry into the shrine. The infringement of women’s rights on a daily basis, in a purportedly democratic system, is shameful. But the fact that our leading political organisations are party to it, is intolerable.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.