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    Sabarimala demands path of peace

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    Sabarimala, the largest Hindu pilgrimage centre in south India, unfortunately, has become a centre of controversy and conflict today. Whatever be the causes, the evolution of things to this situation will be painful to the devotees. Things are moving in such a way as to make the entire social life of Kerala conflict-ridden.

    With the temple gates about to open for the mandala worship as part of the annual pilgrimage, concerns are increasing about law and order. And matters surrounding the issues are getting more complicated by the day. For this very reason, solutions will be hard to come by through straighforward answers . The coming days demand the government, political parties, community organizations and devotees all to rise to act with a high level of responsibility and vigilance.

    Every one knows the reason for the new controversy about Sabarimala: a constitutional Bench of Supreme Court issued an order on 28 September, that women of all ages should be allowed entry to Sabarimala. After extensive and detailed arguments, the bench headed by the Chief Justice decreed that the discrimination against women prevailing in Sabarimala was unconstitutional. There can be difference of opinion about the apex court's verdict. And protection of beliefs and religious practices is also a constitutional right. At the same time, the precept that there cannot be discrimination based on gender, is also a principle of the constituion. In the conflict between the two principles, the Supreme Court gave weightage to gender equality.

    However, a dissenting judgement was written by Justice Indu Malhotra, a member of the constitutional bench differing from the majority judgement of the bench. Her position is that there are limits for the court to interfere in religious practices and traditions. It is for the followers of religions to take decisions about their traditional practices. She also put forward her stances that in a society based on secularism, any religious community can decide their rites and practices based on their faith, and comparisons between religions and court's judgements about religious practices are irrelevant. Which is to say that even as the majority judgement of the constitutional bench prevails technically, there is a stream of thought existing in the country, and that is pertinent too.

    It is not easy, in short, to change practices that prevailed for years merely on the strength of a court's judgement. In other words, there is substance in the criticism that the court's intervention came without being seized of the social complexities or the equations of tradition. It is also true that a good section of Ayyappa devotees, without any political motive, are aggrieved by the Supreme Court judgement. It is equally true that the attempts now being made by political parties in Sabarimala are a frantic endeavour for taking along with them this section of devotees.

    There is no doubt that the Sangh Parivar is in the forefront of making Sabarimala a land of conflict. And their intervention in the matter, right from the beginning, was full of hypocrisy. Before the judgement was issued, RSS national leadership had demanded permission for women to enter Sabarimala. Later, after the court order, they changed tack solely driven by political gain and converted the spiritual centre into a conflict zone. No doubt, their evil motive needs to be exposed. On the other hand, once the Supreme Court issues an order, the state government has no course open before it other than implement it.

    All the same, there is an attempt to portray the government's actions as a clash between devotees and non-devotees. This is not caused solely by the propaganda of anti-government forces. In a way, the intervention by certain overzealous, secular radicals who are pro-government and leftist sympathisers, also contributes to the same perception. Their stance of deprecating the devotees who revere Sabarimala and its practices, is not entirely helpful. The obstinacy to bring in changes through the iron fist of power may only complicate matters. The initiatives that should come from the government should be such as to give a message that it is seeking a path of consensus.

    The all-party meeting called for Thursday, should be a forum for such explorations. There are several factors - some of them mutually contradictory - surrounding the Sabarimala controversy, including Supreme Court's verdict, practices followed for years, the stand of devotees, and the different stances and claims of by Dalit-tribal sections regarding the very same Sabarimala practices. On each of these, the relative stake holders will have their own justifications. If each section is vowed to stand firm on its rationale and fight, that will bring nothing but serious fissures in our society. And if it is in mandala season, it will turn into a grave law and order issue too. Therefore, in the interest of the state and its people, all quarters should search for a path of peace forgetting narrow political goals.

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