The Southern state of Kerala delivered a double whammy to the right wing over the first two days of the new year. On January 1, between 3 million and 5 million women gathered across the length of the State to form a ‘wall’, upholding progressive values. On January 2, two women in their 40s finally entered the shrine of Sabarimala, over three months after a landmark court verdict that struck down the tradition that women between the ages of 10 and 50 [of menstruating age] could not set foot in the shrine due to concerns of ‘purity’.
The events of the two days are linked. Ever since the Supreme Court verdict in September, Hindu fundamentalist groups led by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the center but is a marginal force in the State; the priestly community; and a variety of obscurantist groups had sought to polarize the State, terming the decision an attack on Hindu customs. The religious custom associated with the temple sees menstruating women as impure and prohibits their entry. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government in the State met the attack head-on, declaring its intent to implement the court verdict. The right wing groups launched a massive series of campaigns in an attempt to whip up communal frenzy. Protests were held and violent attempts were made to block any women between 10 and 50 who attempted to enter the temple. A prominent State leader of the BJP was caught boasting about how all the planning to prevent the entry of women had been coordinated.
The government mounted a steady response. On the one hand, it detained a number of anti-social elements who were involved in the violent campaigns of the right wing. On the other hand, led by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI(M) and the ruling alliance, the Left Democratic Front, organized mass rallies and door-to-door campaigns about the significance of the verdict. It also reached out to a wide variety of religious, social and cultural organizations to mobilize support on this issue. It was during such a discussion that the idea of the ‘Women’s Wall’ was proposed by Punnala Sreekumar of Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS), an organization of a caste once considered untouchable. The idea was welcomed by a vast number of organizations.
In the run up to the event, the media and the right wing tried to paint it as ‘communal’, divisive and anti-Hindu, and mocked the organizers’ expectations that women from across the State would turn up. However, on January 1, over three million women formed the over 600-km long unbroken ‘Vanitha Mathil’ (Women’s Wall). It was the largest political gathering recorded in the State’s history. Men formed another human chain parallel to the Women’s Wall in solidarity. State health minister and CPI(M) leader K.K. Shailaja was the first member of the human chain at the northern end in Kasaragod district. At the other end in the south, in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, stood CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat. Later, addressing a public meeting, Brinda Karat lauded the women of Kerala for creating history, and said, “This wall is just not for Kerala but for all the women in the country.”
She lashed out at communal and casteist forces in the State, accusing them of “back-stabbing the progress of the society and conserving regressive traditions.”
As many as 176 organizations from various social, religious and cultural fields took part in organizing the event. In the forefront were leftist organizations of women, students and youth. A key aspect of the mobilization was the channeling of the values of what is called the Kerala Renaissance of the early 20th century. During this period, great reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru and Mahatma Ayyankali led movements against caste discrimination and for social justice. The period also saw temple entry movements to fight for the right of entry of the untouchable castes into Hindu temples. On January 1, the millions participating in the Women’s Wall took an oath to fight for gender justice and women’s rights, and to preserve the values of the renaissance movement in Kerala.
“The CPI(M) considers addressing women’s issues as part of the party’s class struggle. Such an initiative (women’s wall) is required to protect the renaissance tradition of the state,” Vijayan was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.
A large number of political and cultural leaders, artistes, writers, sports personalities, spiritual leaders, etc. participated in the women’s wall and addressed the gatherings organized simultaneously in various parts of the State. The wall also saw substantial participation from the Muslim and Christian communities despite calls by certain religious organizations to boycott the event.
Even as the human chain was being formed, an incident of stone-pelting at women participants took place in Kasaragode district, while in Chettukund, a CPI(M) member was attacked.
Just hours after the millions of women demonstrated their resolve to fight against misogyny, two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, entered the shrine early on January 2. They were among a number of women whose earlier attempts at entry had been stopped by mobs mobilized by right-wing forces. On Wednesday morning, the duo, accompanied by plainclothes policemen finally managed to complete the pilgrimage.
Over the past few months, various right-wing leaders have made provocative, inflammatory statements, threatening social chaos if women entered the temple. On Wednesday, stunned silence was the first response from many of these sections. They later resorted to sporadic protests and have called for a shutdown of the State on January 4, which was later postponed.
However, all these acts cannot obscure one thing – history has been made in Kerala.