Allowing women to enter a temple should be a no-brainer and it is, for the most part. There are exceptions, as always, most notably at the Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala, where women of “menstruating age” are banned on grounds that the celibate deity wants to avoid the gaze of nubile women. So when the Supreme Court recently upheld women’s right to enter the temple for worship, all hell broke loose when small groups of women tried to walk up to the hill shrine. 

Despite a strong police presence, groups of male devotees protesting against the order mobbed the women and physically prevented them from entering. They sounded a note of triumph when the temple closed its doors on October 22 at the end of the five-day monthly pooja. But they promised to be there for further exertions on behalf of the Lord at the next opening of the temple doors on November 5. 

The anguish and outrage of devotees at this breach of what they believe is a divinely inspired rule is understandable but it is a trifle overblown. For one thing, the ban on women is far from a “time immemorial” tradition. Apparently “menstruating women” were barred outright only from 1965 under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules 1965. It states that “Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship”. So the pious may be on thin ground when they claim the weight of tradition.

There are many critics and criticisms of the verdict, some perhaps valid. In addition, of course, there is the question of faith. Sabarimala attracts millions of worshippers through the year, most of whom scrupulously observe the penances and sanctions that precede the pilgrimage to the shrine. Their consternation when they see a rule they considered entirely sacrosanct overturned by a court that has no religious authority is not unreasonable. But the decision to take the law into their hands in defiance of a clear order from the highest court cannot be justified on that score.

The question before the court was a complex one. It involved matters of faith, protection of male privilege, public commons and gender discrimination. But once it announced its decision everything became extremely simple. Its verdict was law and you either followed it or defied it. The state is duty-bound to implement it and take measures to ensure it is effective. Anything else smacks of contempt. 

The Kerala government has tried more than one way to resolve this tangle, including an attempt to rope in actors with no locus standi such as former Travancore royalty and the shrine’s chief priest or tantri, but it is caught in political quicksand. And no one is extending a hand, either. Major political parties are openly or quietly backing mob violence to prevent the order from being implemented, a disquieting thought, to say the least. They are sending the signal that it is all right to break a law if you don’t like it, especially where a question of faith is involved. The facts, whatever they may be, don’t seem to matter either. They seem to have the eye fixed on distant political horizons rather than the immediate threat to peace and the erosion of authority of the Supreme Court that is bound to result. 

This goes beyond mere defiance of government. It throws the Constitution out of the window in the process. As things stand, the protesters have asked the court for a review of its orders in 19 separate pleas, all of which have been listed for November 13. If the Supreme Court refuses to change its position, as is entirely possible, will the agitation be resumed in the same way? And will the politicians continue to play both sides? The one thing that has emerged from this episode is that neither moderation nor decency has a chance against political expediency.

So far, there has been no serious incident but the October push was just the initial foray. A new order confirming their right could make women even more determined. And the next three months until January 15 (Sankranti) are the busiest. The crowds are so thick that it might take up to eight hours to get to the top of the hill. Any attempt to prevent women from entering the temple could quickly turn into something far uglier than what has been seen so far. The potential for tragedy is appreciably higher now unless the protesters take a step back. The politicians, as always, remain mute.