Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Should faith be a barrier to gender equality?

The issue is not about religious faith but about the anguish of half of India’s population

The inspector general of police in Kerala was looking into the TV camera and boasting: “We’ve deployed the requisite police force. Our personnel won’t allow anybody to take the law into their own hands. The honourable Supreme Court’s verdict will be implemented in entirety. We’ll ensure that no faithful person is prevented from having the darshan of Lord Ayyappa."

Despite his grandstanding, the way the two women from Andhra Pradesh’s Godavari district were heckled was beyond imagination. The women had somehow managed to cross the base camp in Pamba, but couldn’t stay hidden from the eyes of protestors. They made sure that the buses went back with the women, who had been insulted and humiliated. Accompanied by two sobbing children, they were feeling vulnerable and fearful, but this didn’t perturb the “faithful". Where were the police when this was happening? The television channels could have captured the violence on their cameras, but couldn’t the police have done more to stop the protesters?

Clearly, the angry mobs were not deterred by the enormous police presence. They were bent upon putting obstacles before the women.

What I saw on TV made me recoil. Even before a couple could reach the base camp, they were surrounded by protesters. The so-called devotees beat the husband up in front of his wife. The scene of the helpless woman crying as she clung on to her husband was really distressing.

They were not the only ones feeling helpless. Groups led by women were searching buses and passenger cars for any woman aged between 10 and 50 years in order to stop them from reaching the temple. Every woman traveller was viewed suspiciously. A number of women journalists were at the receiving end of their wrath. Even as they were being assaulted, the police kept silent.

Even the police were not in a position to do anything when their political masters were themselves in a dilemma. Kerala has the nation’s only left front government. The Supreme Court’s verdict is in line with the government’s policies, but at times it appeared that even they were reluctant to get singed in the flames of politics.

These contentious times are unprecedented in India’s politics. It appeared that the BJP and the Congress were standing together on one platform. The question before them was not one of religiosity or faith, but of electoral compulsions. The 2019 general elections are round the corner. Who’ll want to risk playing with the sensibilities of the majority?

That is why, despite the apex court’s instructions, women had to turn back from Ayyappa’s doors on Wednesday. At the time these lines were being written, even those dispensing justice were feeling helpless. But the issue is not merely about religious faith. It is connected to the anguish of half of India’s population. These scenes brought back some traumatic childhood memories resting in the recesses of my mind.

As a child, I remembered my mother and her friends would suddenly fall “ill". Since they didn’t have fever or cough, why were they not feeling well, I used to ask. The aunts would respond with sheepish laughter.

Similarly, when a number of families visited the temple together, a few women would stay outside since they were “ill". As I grew up, the reason behind this mystery illness was revealed to me, but a question still bothers me. This “illness", which lasts for five out of 30 days in a month, is one-sixth of a person’s productivity. How can society not benefit from their productivity every month? This tradition has given rise to a number of complications. The Sabarimala controversy is intrinsically linked with this.

Why have those who are bent on killing or getting killed outside the Ayyappa temple forgotten that at one time our ancestors took on societal evils such as sati, child marriage and dowry? A civilization that cannot progress in sync with the sensibilities of time cannot be long-lasting. Look at the history of the nation if you need further testimony. Everything will be crystal clear. But what can one do?

One more point. If we evaluate Ayodhya in the light of Sabarimala, it will lead to misgivings on a number of fronts. The Sabarimala issue is limited to a particular region. The Ayodhya controversy is decidedly much bigger. The court’s decision in the Ram temple issue may go against the wishes of crores of supporters of one party. What will happen in these circumstances?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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