Politics is now more about realpolitik that people have to think several times before appreciating even a convincing noble gesture by a politician. There could be many who look at Kerala minister K.T. Jaleel's unprecedented Sabarimala temple visit with suspicion, taking it to be another gimmick to satiate popular sentiments; but that seems to be the worst way to interpret this brave act.
K.T. Jaleel's Sabarimala visit was hailed as making history by media and celebrated by social media. Nevertheless, the minister's act needs to be remembered also as a strong message that underscores Kerala’s syncretic traditions as well as a brave and timely political and secular gesture.
Let's be clear; this is not to say that all non-Hindus need to prove their secular views by visiting Sabarimala or any temple which claims to be a hub of religious amity. What makes Jaleel's visit to the hilly shrine stand out is its timing. We live in an age when people who believe in secular principles are intimidated, to the point that one even doubts if the achievements of the so-called Kerala renaissance were for real. We live in vicious times when fundamentalist elements are on the rise across all religions and their sectarian discourse and acts are often extended wholehearted support overtly and covertly by political elements of every religion.
Jaleel is a communist but also is a practicing Muslim. He joined the CPM after quitting the Muslim League and is known for his secular and progressive views. He could have easily stayed away from the meeting at Sabarimala to discuss preparations for the coming pilgrimage season. Instead, he chose to attend the meet and share his happiness about it with all. Not surprisingly, after the visit he invoked the legend of Ayyappa and his Muslim friend Vavar to make a point about the need to preserve religious amity and the secular values of society. He is of course not the first non-Hindu to visit a temple. There are a number of non-Hindus, believers and non-believers, who visit the temple frequently. Singer Yesudas, a born Christian, has even made it a habit.
Yet Jaleel's visit stands out – it’s probably the first time a Muslim minister has done so, even in progressive Kerala. And it seems to reflect the commitment of not only Jaleel as a person but also of the political ideology and party he represents to strengthen the bonds of religious amity in the state.
The act also has some strong political implications, especially at a time when Hindutva forces are striving to overturn the state's political equations and grab power. Even as they try to ride the rhetoric of development and nationalism, it's clear that their’s remains a divisive agenda. The narrative of minority appeasement continues to dominate their discourse, and they claim that a major reason for the CPM-led LDF's thumping election win was a massive slide of minority, especially Muslim votes, to the Left's side. These saffron forces offer several so-called reasons to argue that the Left front is sacrificing Hindu interests to woo minority votes. Jaleel's Sabarimala visit works out to be a perfect defense against all such charges.
Political rivals may call it majority appeasement, and academicians and even Islamic fundamentalists can explore jargons to brand Jaleel as a traitor of his community's identity and interests. But from a broader perspective, seeing Jaleel at the Hindu pilgrimage center offers a sense of confidence to the common man. A message that is loud and clear -- live with love for others and respect for all beliefs.
(Views expressed are personal)