When Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga’s entry into the Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala on January 2 elicited a ‘purification ritual’ from the shrine’s priests ( picture ), one was reminded of the purification of the Chavdar Tank at Mahad in 1927, following B.R. Ambedkar’s satyagraha for ‘Untouchables’ to drink water there. Brahmins from the area poured 108 earthen vessels of panchagavya , five organic substances associated with the holy cow, including its milk, urine and dung, into the tank to undo the supposedly “polluting” effects of close to 10,000 Mahars drinking the water.
The memory of Mahad
Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha had two chapters, on March 19-20, 1927 and on December 25, 1927. The symbolism of mass drinking of the water, with Ambedkar himself taking the first sip, was akin to an act of civil disobedience. Both were carefully planned, peaceful and disciplined protests, and yet were violently disrupted. Mobs, rioters and police colluded to attack and disperse the Mahar satyagrahis; the local British administration ended up siding with the Hindu hardliners under the guise of not wanting to hurt the religious sentiments of this socially dominant and politically powerful group.
“The orthodox Hindu is a strange fossil of humanity,” wrote Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar’s biographer, narrating the events at Mahad. At that time Ambedkar’s efforts were focussed on claiming that the tank was a public resource and drawing water from it was a basic human right for ‘Untouchables’ as much as for others. He was not interested in entering the Veereshwar Temple nearby. But he did play a role in temple entry satyagrahas at the Parvati Temple in Pune in 1929 and the Kalaram Temple in Nasik from 1930 to 1934.
All these campaigns ultimately failed: upper castes pushed back using Brahmin strictures of adhikar (entitlement) and bahishkar (exclusion), arguments from private property, outright physical violence, as well as the law and order machinery of the colonial state to keep Dalits out. Adding insult to injury, first they performed purification rituals, then they obtained stay orders from government authorities, and later they filed legal cases. At no point did they hesitate to use tactics of intimidation.
At Mahad, Ambedkar endorsed the Gandhian language of satyagraha. He was inspired by a recent struggle in the princely state of Travancore, where the reformists T.K. Madhavan and K.P. Kesava Menon led a movement in 1924 to allow the extremely stigmatised castes of Ezhavas and Pulayas to worship at a Shiva Temple in Vaikom. In historian Ramachandra Guha’s telling, it was a rare moment in modern India’s history when progressive and dissenting voices, from distinct political streams and different regional backgrounds, rose together as one. Vaikom saw a convergence of Kerala’s Sri Narayana Guru, Tamil leader E.V. Ramasamy “Periyar”, and Mahatma Gandhi himself, who asked Namboodiri Brahmins point blank to explain their refusal to allow devotees from these castes to worship at their temple.
But a decade later, Ambedkar was disgusted by the resilience of caste discrimination, terminally alienated from Gandhi on the question of Untouchability, and disillusioned about the political efficacy of satyagraha. At the end of his tether, in Yeola outside Nasik in October 1935 he declared that he was born a Hindu but would not die one. He abandoned the logic of his own earlier position on tank and temple entry, and decided instead that he did not want any part of a religious system and its attendant social structure that would simply never let go hierarchical and discriminatory principles to affirm the claim for equality, dignity and respect for all.
Apart from the reactionary impulse to “purify” what has been sullied by the proposition of equality, Sabarimala is and is not like Mahad. True, a specific group is targeted for exclusion in both cases: women of ages 10-50 (deemed reproductively active) at the Ayyappa Temple, and Dalits at the Chavdar Tank nearly a century ago. But in today’s India, Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality, and the Supreme Court verdict of September 2018 further reiterates that females of any age have the right to perform the 41-day pilgrimage and worship at the Sabarimala shrine.
Fittingly, as the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it is precisely Ambedkar’s momentous intervention in our life as a nation that gives us an egalitarian Constitution and a strong judiciary. He did not have these institutions to back him up during his own shattering struggle against caste, but he ensured that Untouchability was outlawed, and that equal citizenship and fundamental rights — regardless of gender or community — were enshrined in the charter document of the Indian Republic. The historic precedent of Vaikom, together with the gains of decades of progressive politics in postcolonial Kerala, make the resurgence of religious orthodoxy, caste mentality and misogynistic patriarchy at Sabarimala hard to swallow.
The 5-million strong, 620 km “Wall of Women” on New Year’s Day saw Kerala’s women asking for the right to worship Ayyappa like their male counterparts. Was this wall in 2019 like the “Walk on Mahad” in 1927? Yes, in a certain sense. Ambedkar’s procession leading thousands of Mahars on March 20, 1927 gave “a new turn to the history of India”, wrote R.B. More, the main organiser of the Mahad satyagraha. Thirty years later, in Nagpur in October 1956, Ambedkar led half a million Dalits to convert to Buddhism. He wanted them to leave behind their Hindu identity and with it the caste system that discriminated against them.
But women — whether in Kerala or elsewhere — cannot “convert” en masse out of their religious background because of aspects of patriarchal tradition that oppress them qua women. Gender and caste are both definitely grounds of discrimination in Hindu society, but they do not occasion similar responses from those who are at the receiving end. Hindus who disagree with caste can embrace Buddhism, emulating Ambedkar’s example, but what are women supposed to do? India’s feminist movement, Kerala’s long engagement with Communism and the verdict of the Supreme Court all offer different avenues to women seeking justice at Sabarimala. However, a radical resort to Ambedkarite religious conversion does not seem to make sense in this situation.
Reform and renewal
In Sabarimala the Bharatiya Janata Party and Sangh Parivar are stoking the fires of religious conservatism, and acting against the interests of women. This is only to be expected of the right-wing Hindu nationalist political platform that is thoroughly reactionary. What is so disappointing is that even the Congress has taken a regressive stand on this issue, with prominent leaders in Kerala claiming that they are torn between two equally strong constitutional principles — Article 14 guaranteeing equality and Article 25 guaranteeing freedom of religion. To make this argument is to display a basic misunderstanding equally of the Constitution and of Hinduism.
Freedom of religion means the freedom to practise and pursue one’s own religion, not the freedom to undermine the fundamental rights of others. Nor does freedom of religion warrant contravening the writ of the Supreme Court, which explicitly grants women the right to worship at Sabarimala. Hinduism as a faith is capacious, inherently diverse and continually evolving, with strong themes of self-criticism, self-correction and self-improvement written into it. This is particularly true in southern India, where inspiring figures like Andal and Nandanar, Chokhamela and Kanakadasa, Basavanna and Akka Mahadevi, Ayyankali and Narayana Guru challenged the bounds of orthodoxy, broke the rules of caste and gender, and triggered popular movements of reform and renaissance over centuries.
Fellow citizens of all religious persuasions are as much the heirs of these dissenting, progressive and indeed provocative traditions from the deep past, as they are the children of a modern-day enlightenment brought about by Gandhi and Ambedkar. We owe it to ourselves as democratic Indians to throw open the doors of the Ayyappa Temple to all those who wish to enter and worship there.
Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,