Sabarimala row: What the historical opposition to Dalits entry into temples tells us about social changeIndia
Today, as mobs of men and women stop female devotees from entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple — despite a green signal from the highest court of the land — the stakes are equally high.
Is temple entry to be the final goal of the advancement in the social status of the Depressed Classes in the Hindu fold? Or is it only the first step and if it is the first step, what is the ultimate goal? Temple entry as a final goal, the Depressed Classes can never support. Indeed they will not only reject it, but they would then regard themselves rejected by Hindu Society and free to find their own destiny elsewhere. On the other hand, it is only to be the first step they may be inclined to support it.
— B R Ambedkar
BR Ambedkar’s views on the significance of opening temple doors to Dalits (or Depressed Classes as they were then known) were remarkably nuanced as, indeed, his views on most issues. By pointing his finger at what the issue of temple entry was really about — advancement in the social status of the Depressed Classes – one of India’s greatest intellectuals was, in fact, throwing a challenge to Hindu society and its long-held ways of thinking.
Today, as mobs of men and women stop female devotees from entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple — despite a green signal from the highest court of the land — the stakes are equally high. It’s also an apt time to look back at how the controversy over temple entry for Dalits played out in the pre-Independence era in Kerala.
Agitating for rights and honour
Before Trivandrum became the ground zero of temple protests, Travancore’s Vaikom area was the centre of demonstrations in the 1920s. The avarnas (as Dalits were called in Kerala) succeeded in getting the streets in the temple area opened up for their use, but their actual entry into the temple was still barred.
In 1931, Kerala’s ‘Gandhi’ K. Kelappan launched a protest in Guruvayur demanding the entry of avarnas inside temples. This came to be known as the Guruvayur Satyagraha. The elements of change were in place: large-scale mobilization for a good cause, peaceful protests, and an influential section of society that was willing to usher in social change despite the inevitable conservative backlash.
A historic decision
The whole nation’s eyes were now on Kerala. The reformers were determined to not give up till their ultimate demand was met. A report by a government-appointed committee that looked into the issue proved to be a damp squib.
In May 1936, an All Kerala Temple Entry conference was held near the Trivandrum Central Railway Station. The years of protest culminated in a stunning decision on 12 November 1936 when the young Maharaja declared temples would be opened to all and no Hindu would be barred from worshiping at any temple.
In the historic declaration, the Maharaja Sri Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, proclaimed: “Profoundly convinced of the truth and validity of our religion, believing that it is based on divine guidance and on all-comprehending toleration,…we have decided… there should henceforth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering or worshipping at temples controlled by us and our Government”.
Sabarimala and gender rights
The remarkable movement that led to breaking down of caste barriers when it came to worshipping at temples in Kerala has lessons for the Sabarimala controversy. Many arguments used to justify the barring of lower-caste communities into temples are being used for the Lord Ayyappa temple as well. Central to those arguments is the idea of ‘pollution’, though those opposed to women’s entry into the temple avoid using that word directly.
In the 1920s and 1930s, it took a Dalit rights campaign to bring home the point that being allowed to worship at a temple was the just and humane thing to do. Interestingly, today we are in the middle of the most far-reaching gender rights campaign the country has ever seen (though it is currently limited to and led by mainly upper class educated women, the #MeToo movement could potentially shake the very building blocks of patriarchy).
But perhaps, the problem is different today: Could it be the absence of enlightened leaders like Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma?
Courtesy: By Sumeet Kaul, Timesnow.com