Kerala’s Sabarimala temple is the latest flashpoint in the fight between conservatives and liberals, an issue that promises to deeply impact local politics. The ruling Marxist government is caught in a spot as it can neither join nor ignore conservative Hindus protesting against the Supreme Court order which overturned an age-old practice barring women of menstruation age from entering the temple premises. In an interview, Kadakampally Surendran, Kerala’s Devaswom (temple trusts) minister responsible for implementing the SC order, while ensuring peace at the site, said Sabarimala is an issue of law and order, and not faith. Edited excerpts:

Given that things have come to a head, what will you do now?

If anyone comes saying she is a devotee and wants to visit Sabarimala, doesn’t the government have to stand by her and give protection? Going ahead, things will depend on the stance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They have raised this as a political problem. They have negated their previous stance (in favour of women’s entry). Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has changed its earlier stance. They are seeing if this can be converted into winning the state. Normally, once RSS takes a position, they stick with it. But here, even Mohan Bhagwat, who was once in favour of women’s entry, has changed his stance.

On one side, the central government has given strict direction to our chief secretary that there should not be any violation, and whoever comes as a devotee should be admitted to the temple. On the other side, their own party workers are against giving such protection to women devotees. The trouble makers have taken hideouts in the jungle. They are camping there to create a law and order situation, and the BJP is heading these efforts. I don’t think peace will prevail over there unless their attitude changes.

What will be your plea before the Supreme Court?

We will explain the situation in the SC and see if the court takes a bold stand on this matter. Given they might soon take up a clutch of review petitions, the board will ask for a little more clarity on it and, most importantly, make the court aware of the law and order situation.

Sabarimala is a law and order problem, not about the faith of the devotees. How can one say the ones who are protesting constitute the majority of devotees? There is a voice of the voiceless. There are thousands of women who want to enter, just that they are not hitting the streets shouting slogans. Currently, there isn’t anyone leading them to street protests, but it does not mean they don’t exist.

Why can’t CPM do it if it thinks so?

We are liberals, but we can’t just do it that way. We don’t have the responsibility to gather people and send them to Sabarimala. CPM can never say: Oh, 25-year-olds and 30-year-olds of the world, unite, come let’s go and see Sabarimala Ayyappan. That’s impossible. As a government, we have our limitations. We don’t want to create a law and order situation, unlike the BJP and others who want to exploit this.

What really happened on Friday? Things got really flared up after the police made an attempt to admit an activist and a journalist with heavy force deployment. Did the government know that the police was going to do so?

How can the government know? The government intervened (to stop the effort) when it came to know (of it).

The police did not intimate the government or share the intelligence?

Is it practical for the police to share all that happens all the time with the government? They did something based on their own reasoning and knowledge. The government came to know about it after some time. One of them was not an activist, she was an anarchist. The police had to be more careful. We even think it was a conspiracy by the BJP to create trouble. The anarchist and Kerala BJP leader K. Surendran know each other really well, a close friend of her has revealed (Surendran has denied the allegation). The police officer who led the operation also knew this lady really well.

Why can’t the government then ask the police officer for an explanation?

It would be better if you ask the chief minister (Pinarayi Vijayan) that question. It comes under his discretion.

Will Sabarimala reshape politics in Kerala?

It won’t make much of an impact in Kerala. Whether in the old days or now, Kerala has always been a land that did not quickly accommodate any societal change. There had been huge opposition against entry of untouchables in the famous Guruvayur temple here, which led to the famous Guruvayur Sathyagraha (1931).

Some might say that unlike in Guruvayur case, we don’t see hundreds of people out on the streets who are demanding to enter Sabarimala?

That will happen. Here, women have so many limitations to come out now. On the one hand, there are these violent protests against women, and on the other, they might be afraid they will be seen as social outcasts among other women.

The government has its limitations, too, to intervene using its force. It is these limitations that they (the protestors) are using as an opportunity. As I said, thousands of women want to enter, from all over the country. But can the government take them inside as a procession? We have no doubt that Kerala will eventually welcome this judgement, as the society here has always sided with progressive movements over the course of time.

Do you think the government could have done anything differently? May be tone down its initial speed and aggression to implement the order, which seems to have riled the devotees?

No. The government has only done what it had to do. The only thing they can say is that we have been a little fast, that’s the nature of this government. In decision-making, we are a little fast. Isn’t that what we need in these times? And one can’t say the government was aggressive.

Just hours after the SC verdict, the state made plans to deploy women police personnel in Sabarimala, even before discussing it with the devotees. The CPM paraded thousands in a rally in the capital, where the CM said he was going to break traditions. The devotees seem to think of these as provocative actions of a government biased against them?

We can’t help it if they feel provoked listening to anyone apart from their own.

How will this stalemate end?

Well, I’m not Sabarimala Ayyappan to predict the future. I’m only an ordinary human. Let’s wait and see.

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