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Is the Kerala temple battle about gender, law or religion? Unfortunately, all three

To call it big would be an understatement. On Tuesday, a ...

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 12:17 PM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 12:17 PM

To call it big would be an understatement. On Tuesday, a human chain stretching for more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) was formed by millions of women in the southern Indian state of Kerala to demand entry to a major Hindu temple that traditionally barred women of child-bearing age.

It was the largest demonstration of its kind since the issue became a national talking point in September, when a ruling by India's Supreme Court scrapped the gender restriction, calling it unconstitutional.

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For months, attempts to enact that ruling had been thwarted, with female devotees blocked entry to the temple site by angry mobs.

That changed on Wednesday, when two women made history by slipping into the shrine before daybreak, flanked by plainclothes police deputed to protect them.

For many in India, however, this isn't only an issue of gender equality. The battle over who can and can't enter the Sabarimala temple is also a question of tradition and the limits of the law. And then there's the politics, as orthodox and secular forces clash ahead of India's general elections later this year.

Ever since the court handed down its order, advocates for gender equality -- both in and beyond Kerala -- have been calling for it to be implemented. They see the restriction on the entry of women between ages of 10 and 50 as one of the many vestiges of discrimination against women in India.

After the two women entered the shrine Wednesday, the temple was briefly closed by priests for "purification" rituals — a move that leading daily newspaper The Hindu said in an editorial published Friday, "invoked old and regressive notions of purity and pollution, of defilement and desecration."

But religious conservatives and their backers insist that, no, this isn't about gender equality -- it's about the limits of law. For them, the court had no business intervening in the issue, which they see as a matter of religion and faith.

It's a view endorsed by the country's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In an interview with the Indian news agency ANI published just a day before the two women entered the shrine, Modi cited the view of the lone female judge on the bench when the Supreme Court handed down its verdict in September, who dissented. "India is of one opinion that everyone should get justice. There are some temples, which have their own traditions, where men can't go," Modi said, coming down the side of those say this is ultimately a matter of faith and tradition.

To be sure, he's not alone. Other voices from across the political spectrum have echoed this line, including local and national leaders of the Congress, the principal opposition to Modi's BJP.

With India just months away from a general election, the issue has, perhaps inevitably, become more and more politicized, as national parties eye the votes of conservative Hindus who oppose the court's ruling.

Not everyone shares that view. The local communist politicians who govern Kerala state, from the Communist Party of India-Marxist, have backed the court order -- and helped organize the human chain protest.

Divisions over the issue have already turned fatal. A BJP supporter was killed during protests in Kerala's capital over the entry of the two women, as activists from the Prime Minister's party clashed with those allied with local communist leadership. Kerala remains tense, with security forces out in large numbers in an attempt to maintain peace.

And later this month, the argument returns to court, when Supreme Court judges review petitions calling on them to revisit their September ruling. The hearing is set for January 22.

Whatever they decide, one thing seems clear: Many people, on one or the other side of what's become an increasingly fractious public argument, will be left disappointed.

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