CPM governments have time and again given the impression that they would not be burdened by principles if they are intent on getting something done.
At Nandigram, for instance, poor farmers resisting the takeover of their land were fired at in 2007. Or much earlier in 1977 at Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans, Bangladeshi refugees whose cause the CPM had initially championed were shot at by Jyoti Basu's police.
Here in Kerala, there was the recent arrest of two young CPM activists for pro-Maoist activities using Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law that was deeply troubling for the CPM. Then there is the issue of women rights. The party that had charged the BJP with saving the accused from Kathua to Unnao was unapologetically lenient towards its own leaders accused of female abuse.
And now, in what looks like yet another instance of the CPM kicking ideology out of its way, the party has decided to keep women out of Sabarimala at least till the Supreme Court gives a clear verdict. Just a year ago, the party had positioned women's entry into Sabarimala as the start of the second Renaissance Movement in Kerala. The party officially branded the BJP and the Congress opposition to women's entry as “Manuwadi politics”.
Galileo and Manusmriti
After the shock of the Lok Sabha loss, and the post-defeat realisation that even the CPM cadres were unhappy with the government's proactive steps to get women into Sabarimala, it looks like Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has given renaissance a holiday.
Some CPM leaders are worried this change of stand could look like an endorsement of “Manuwadi politics”. “It is as if we are suddenly confused about the need to establish gender equality,” a CPM state secretariat member told Onmanorama. “Just imagine Galileo saying he was actually not very sure that the sun was the centre of the solar system after the Roman church called him a heretic. It would have killed science,” the CPM leader said.
The leader also feared the 'Supreme Court order was confusing' excuse the CPM state secretariat had trotted out to suspend women's entry would not carry conviction. “If the government is so confused, it is common knowledge that the government can seek clarity from the apex court,” he said. The government, however, has already ruled out the option saying it is not party to the Sabarimala dispute.
Silence on menstrual taboos
Another CPM state secretariat leader said the government had its heart in the right place but had positioned the battle wrongly last year after the Sabarimala verdict in September 2018. “There is no change in the party position that there should be gender equality in all spheres of life. But if the party looks stuck now, it is because we had messed up the message last time,” he said.
According to him, there was a fierce debate within the party on how to fight what he called “regressive forces” in Sabarimala. “The overwhelming opinion was that the larger issue of menstrual discrimination should be given prominence over the entry of women into Sabarimala. Many in the party felt the entry of women into Sabarimala alone could not be convincingly called a gender issue. We wanted the party to use Sabarimala to speak about the primitive taboo surrounding menstruation in Kerala,” the CPM leader said.
Noted historian K N Ganesh said those opposing women's entry at Sabarimala had cunningly shifted the focus of debate from menstrual taboos to Sabarimala. The upshot was, commendable efforts that went into fighting such taboos got lost in the melee.
The Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, for example, had initiated statewide awareness classes in an attempt to rid menstruating women of the shame and guilt that tradition had instilled. Yet, the image that played in the minds of the voters was a government too keen on smuggling women into Sabarimala in the cover of night. Now, it is as if the government is chastised.
Pinarayi's grand betrayal
Feminist and author J Devika is furious. “We have learnt a lesson. This government cannot be trusted,” Devika said. “First they spoke about renaissance, encouraged women to enter the shrine and promised them all protection. Now, not only have they betrayed the women but have also kicked them hard,” she said.
Devika, too, is of the opinion that the government was unnecessarily showy last time. “The flood waters had not yet receded, and there was vast ecological destruction in the area. The government could have advised restraint,” she said.
“They could have said they were for women's entry but, at the moment, not on a grand scale. We have to create the necessary conditions. Also, they could have said they need to secure civil society support and should have asked the RSS, which was for women's entry, to pick some 100-odd women to trek up the hill. That way they could have put the ball in their court,” Devika said.
Instead, Devika said the government's and the Devaswom Board's greed was given full play. They salivated at the prospect of the revenue more women would bring,” Devika said, highly dismissive of the government's approach.
Tight-rope walk in high winds
Left scholar Sunil P Ilayidom, the most compelling voice on the side of the government during the Sabarimala struggle, is not willing to find fault with Pinarayi government. “This is a government that had done the maximum, taken the highest risk for the women's cause and had suffered for it. Now when the Supreme Court had given an ambiguous verdict, it will be difficult for the government to take forward its earlier position. There will be repercussions, law and order issues. It cannot allow itself to play into the hands of forces hell-bent on creating communal polarisation in the state,” Ilayidom said.
Historian Ganesh argued that the government had no choice but to do what it did then and now. “Then, the verdict was very clear. Women of child-bearing age should be granted entry. For a party that vows to fight religious customs that are degrading to women as part of its political programme cannot back off from a Supreme Court order that grants religious rights to women,” Ganesh said.
“But the latest verdict is highly vague. Neither were the review petitions rejected nor were they accepted, it has only been kept pending. The government cannot even go for a clarification as the bench that pronounced the verdict stands dissolved after the retirement of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi,” Ganesh said.
He also felt that the government's dilemma should be separated from the CPM's policy. “A government's compulsions are different from a party's,” he said. The nationalisation of the plantation sector, for instance, was the Communist party's major agenda in the 1950s. However, he said the EMS Namboodirippad government that came to power in 1957 could not implement the policy for practical reasons.
Ilayidom said the Pinarayi government had done whatever it can on the issue. “Now it is up to the civil society to take forward the fight. It should begin by questioning the very content of the latest verdict,” Ilayidom said.