For all of its standout social development indicators, the southern Indian state of Kerala is going to polls roiled by a deeply religious issue this time.
Only a few months before the ongoing parliamentary elections began in India, the coastal province had witnessed a high-pitched drama around the Hindu god Ayyappa’s Sabarimala temple. For years, women of menstruating age were not allowed inside it, but in September 2018, this tradition was overturned by the supreme court of India sparking intense protests, often giving way to violence.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has hitherto been a marginal player in the state’s Leftist politics. After welcoming the apex court’s verdict initially, it flipped its stand, realising the potential to expand its own support base. Since then it has spearheaded large scale protests against it and, despite a warning against it from the election commission of the country, vowed to make the row a poll plank.
“Equality means the coexistence of multiple forms. But the supreme court never applied its mind on that area. Instead, it said men and women are equal in the ‘uniformity’ sense, which is absolutely wrong,” KS Radhakrishnan, a former Kerala public service commission chairman, told Quartz in an exclusive interview.
For long a backer of the Indian National Congress, which leads one of the two poles in the state’s politics, Radhakrishnan recently shifted allegiance to the BJP. He is now contesting from the Alappuzha constituency in south-central Kerala.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Why have you been protesting on the Sabarimala issue?
Faith is an important factor. No one can lead by reason alone. The aspects related to faith cannot be ascertained by logic. The recent verdict on Sabarimala is illogical in that sense. They believe that the judgment means equality. But equality is not uniformity. If everyone gets the height of (Bollywood star, 6 feet 2 inches) Amitabh Bachchan then that is not equality, that is uniformity.
Is it reasonable to stop women from entering Sabarimala even after the verdict?
The belief envisaged by the gurus says there must be plurality and that is the Indian system of life. There are other lord Ayyappa temples where everyone can go anytime and there is no restriction at all. But Sabarimala is a unique one. There is no total prohibition, but a reasonable one. Whether that is reasonable or not can only be ascertained by looking at traditions.
One of the sharpest criticisms against the BJP has been that it is fuelling communal tensions in Kerala.
Rahul Gandhi has also raised the Sabarimala issue recently. Moreover, he fielded himself as a candidate in Wayanad to get the minority votes. Is it not communalism? Every political party is communal. In elections, they field a candidate on the basis of their chances of winning and since Hindus are majority, such (Hindu) candidates are fielded. So such allegations are not even relevant.
Do you think Sabarimala issue is being raised to win elections?
Yes, definitely it is one of the factors. The winning criteria cannot be ignored at all. There are 253 criminal cases registered by the government against me so why should I not talk about it?
There were violent protests in the aftermath of the ruling. Do you think that was justified?
No, we did not do any violent protests. The videos circulating are wrong. The fact is not a single women devotee has ever tried to enter Sabarimala, only a few activists have. They don’t have faith in god or the temple.
But aren’t you violating gender equality by stopping women?
No, it is not violating gender equality, because young women and old are allowed and there is only an age restriction.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.