The decision of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the autonomous body responsible for the running of the Sabarimala shrine, to seek more time from the Supreme Court to implement its order on the entry of women of all age groups to the temple is a step in the right direction. The annual Sabarimala pilgrimage, even in normal times, attracts large crowds and poses security risks on account of the difficult terrain. The heightened anxieties among the faithful in the aftermath of the court ruling, and the subsequent political mobilisations have pushed the pilgrimage to the edge. In this background, any step that may help to alleviate the tension is welcome. The TDB’s conciliatory gesture will hopefully help in the smooth conduct of the pilgrimage.
The Constitution Bench had overruled as unconstitutional what many among the faithful believe is a custom fundamental to the sanctity of the shrine. The court’s privileging of the individual over a shrine-specific custom, which it deemed a discriminatory practice, seemed too radical a reading for the “traditionalists”. The conservative backlash, marked by the consolidation of Opposition parties and Hindu groups, called for a tactful response from the authorities. However, the state government saw the mobilisations as politically motivated gatherings aimed at discrediting the ruling party, and refused to engage with restive sections of the society. The all-party meeting, belatedly convened by the government on Thursday, saw all parties reiterating their stated positions. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stuck to his stance that the government will implement the Supreme Court order, which limited the possibility for any negotiation with the Opposition. The latter walked out, protesting the government’s percieved intransigence. The government’s endorsement of the TDB move since indicates a softening of its position. This could open up the space for the government and the backers of tradition to return to the discussion table and explore ways to make the temple customs compatible with the apex court’s directives.
Much of the government’s time and resources have been directed towards resolving the controversy around the SC order. It should now spare more attention to rebuilding as well as upgrading the facilities for pilgrims. The recent floods had destroyed much of the physical infrastructure on the pilgrim route and only a part of it has been restored. The Sabarimala pilgrimage also has a bearing on Kerala’s economic well-being. Stakeholders in the shrine should realise that a disruption in the pilgrimage is not in anyone’s interests.