Enforcing Sabarimala order was going to be hard; govt, Oppn made it harder

I’m disillusioned by the response of the Kerala police and politicians to the Supreme Court judgment lifting the ban on entry into the Sabarimala shrine by women between the ages of 10 and 50. The police response suggests scant respect for the judgement whilst that of many state politicians exhibits a clear hint of deliberate defiance.

Everyone knew that enforcing the Sabarimala judgment would not be easy. Emotions have been aroused and protests were expected. Tradition-minded devotees would make every effort to prevent menstruating women entering the shrine. But this was also the challenge facing the police.

On Wednesday, when the shrine opened for the first time after the Supreme Court order, the police were found wanting. Not a single woman in the 10-50 year age group was able to get within 5 km of the shrine. Madhavi, a 45-year-old lady from Andhra, made it to Pamba but the lack of police security ensured she couldn’t get much further. NDTV reported that the police provided security for approximately 200 metres of the 5 km trek to the shrine but then, inexplicably and unforgivably, deserted her. Thus, protestors were able to intimidate and force her return.

It was the duty of the police to provide Madhavi security all the way. Their task was to ensure protection against intimidation. Not only did they fail, they didn’t even try.

Reports on NDTV and CNN-News18 show the police were present in Pamba in inadequate numbers. Frequently, they stood and watched as the protestors attacked journalists and TV crew. They became spectators rather than law-enforcing policemen. 

I have no doubt this was a tricky situation. Some measure of violence was probably unavoidable. But did the police prepare for this? Should they not have enforced Section 144 with greater diligence? And why were they not seen in action when women journalists were under attack?

The role of politicians is no less inglorious. The Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, promised there would be no hurdles for women who wanted to make the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Yet on the day itself, he preferred to be in Dubai mobilising funds for post-flood reconstruction and left industry minister E P Jayarajan to handle matters. This was unwise if not irresponsible decision. 

The behaviour of Kerala state Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress leaders was worse. Instead of respecting the Supreme Court judgment they chose to join loud public protests. Whilst everyone has a right to criticise Supreme Court verdicts surely responsible politicians need to think carefully about how they do this?

BJP General Secretary, K Surendran, said “no police or party can stop” the devotees from defending the temple’s traditions. “The BJP cannot remain a mute spectator when it is a grave matter of religious belief.” TheWire reports Congress state working president, K Sudhakaran, participated in protests in Nilackal, which were amongst the most violent.

Politicians need to ask themselves how they should articulate opposition to Supreme Court judgments. The language of defiance is inappropriate. I would add joining protests is also wrong. There’s a greater responsibility on those who head political parties and are elected representatives than on the ordinary citizenry. This seems to have been disregarded.

Consequently, the improper and inadequate response of the police as much as the defiance of certain politicians made an already difficult situation measurably worse. Now it remains to be seen if corrective action will be taken. The problem is, in the first instance, it falls on the state government to act. Will it? The Chief Minister’s absence at a critical point is hardly reassuring. It’s even possible the police were under instructions to respond the way they did. This could have been under official direction rather than dereliction of duty.

However, who will call out the BJP and Congress politicians who joined the protests and stoked defiance? That can only be done by their central leadership but it’s not just silent, it seems to be understanding of this misbehaviour. I doubt if Amit Shah or Rahul Gandhi will do anything.

So where does that leave us? The media, both television and print, have exposed the police. Websites like TheWire have revealed the dubious behaviour of many politicians. I have a horrible feeling that’s as far as it will go.

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