Opinion | Indian suffragettes galvanize the church versus state war4 min read . Updated: 04 Jan 2019, 12:54 AM IST
When timeline on women's equality is written, the women's wall in Kerala will find a mention
Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?"
— Supreme Court of India, April 2018.
The advent of the new year in India is being seen through the prism of politics, with general election due in May. Much of the coming five years of politics is set to be defined by the interplay between two sections of society—those who demand a leading place for Hinduism and Hindu rituals and practices in Indian society, and those who have been repeatedly emphasizing the supremacy of the Indian Constitution. Everything India has seen in the past nearly five years of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been leading up to this political denouement.
Arguably, the fault lines between tradition and modernity in Indian society far predate the advent of the BJP government at the centre and in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. Yet, a sharpening of rhetoric, accompanied by a certain stridency in action, points to a looming finale of sorts. However, whether it will end with the coming general election remains to be seen.
The months leading up to the new year saw the Congress party oust the BJP from three states in the all-important Hindi heartland—Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Victory was decisive in only Chhattisgarh though, with the party having to enlist the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the two other states. It is an alliance model the opposition hopes will deliver it a win in the general election.
New Year’s day itself was dramatic. Up to five million women in the southern state of Kerala formed a 620-km human chain in support of gender equality, spearheaded by the state’s left-wing government, amid protests against a traditional ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple—an important destination for Hindu pilgrims.
Just to put it in perspective, if the government figures are correct, this human chain was almost exactly as large as the 2017 women’s march against Trump in all of America.
The Indian march comes more than three months after the Supreme Court overturned the ban on women entering Sabarimala—a ruling that has been followed by its open violation as protests organized by right-wing Hindu groups—including the BJP’s parent body the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—have physically barred women pilgrims from the entering the temple.
New Year’s Day brought one more piece of news that electrified the constitutionalists: after an unsuccessful attempt a fortnight ago, two women in their 40s—Bindu, a lawyer, and Kanakadurga, an activist—managed to enter Sabarimala and offer prayers. They were hooded. “It is a fact that two women entered the temple," confirmed state chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “Earlier, their trekking was foiled due to inadequate security. Police are duty-bound to give them protection."
Arguably, the action of the two women is no less significant than those of the British suffragettes who answered to calls to “rise up" in support of their demand to be given the vote. As it happens, 2018 was the centenary year of some women (there were age and property stipulations) being given the right to vote, a process that ended in 1928 with universal suffrage in Britain.
When the timeline of the campaign for women’s equality is written in India, New Year’s Day 2019 with its Bindu, Kanakadurga and the five-million-strong human chain will necessarily find a mention.
Nevertheless, Sabarimala is not the only fault line between religion and constitutional politics in India. A conflict also looms in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, over a long-standing demand for a Ram temple to be built on the spot where a mosque was torn down in 1992 on the grounds Lord Ram was born there. With the matter pending before Supreme Court, the RSS and other right-wing Hindu organizations want the BJP government to pass legislation that would skirt a court verdict and enable the temple to be built.
That, too, would be a flagrant breach of a court order for status quo to be maintained over the Ayodhya dispute. Mindful of it, in an interview broadcast on New Year’s Day, Modi said, “Let the judicial process be over. After the judicial process is over, whatever will be our responsibility as the government, we are ready to make all efforts."
Amid such turmoil, is it possible to write a fun piece about 2019? We can only borrow from fiction.
In the first of his celebrated Don Camillo series of books, pitting the eponymous Catholic priest against Communist mayor Peppone in a small Italian village, humourist Giovanni Guareschi has the priest turn to Jesus for advice one night. It was election time and Don Camillo, carrying 70 eggs on his bicycle, had just been whacked with a stick by Peppone, who was unimpressed by the priest using the pulpit to deliver a sermon against “left-wing activists".
After Don Camillo launches into an argument, Jesus cuts him short, saying, “Just between ourselves, it serves you right. That little misfortune will teach you to play politics in my house." Months later, Peppone turns up to confess to the whacking, but his defence was: “I didn’t beat you as a Minister of God, but as a political opponent."
Don Camillo, fuming inside, nevertheless absolved the Communist mayor with “ten Our Fathers and ten Holy Marys" (because the priest must forgive). One can’t help but wonder: wouldn’t it be great if these interminable conflicts in India somehow ended with such graceful solutions?
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1