The Politics Of Religion: The First Dalit Woman To Enter The Sabarimala Temple Speaks Out

The Politics Of Religion: The First Dalit Woman To Enter The Sabarimala Temple Speaks Out

The following is an interview conducted by Bhavani Kunjulakshmi, a Berlin-based writer and researcher of gender at UCL. It’s an exclusive interview with Bindu Ammini, a prof of Law and the first Dalit woman to enter Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court verdict in 2019.

Tracing the gendered violence that plagues women in India under sacrosanct religious extremism, the interview reveals Ammini’s explanation of why no other women felt safe to enter the temple after her although they’re legally free to do so.

This is a story that repeats itself time and again in the historical context of a country that is constantly tip-toeing the fine line between state and church. The collision of the two often causes unrest and atrocities, the brunt of which is mostly borne by minorities and women.

The September 28, 2018 Supreme Court ruling to open up the Sabarimala temple to all women devotees regardless of their age, caste, or gender was followed by one of the biggest transitions directed toward a pro-woman verdict by the judge and jury. On November 16, 2018, Pinaravi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala announced that the state will implement the order which overturned the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 that banned menstruating women from entering.

The decision caused nationwide ripples that were felt across the country and shocked the otherwise progressive society of Kerala. Thousands swarmed the city to protest against the implementation of the ruling and laid siege to the streets and the temple vicinity, vowing to block any woman from entering.

Denoting themselves as ‘save Sabarimala activists’, the self-declared protestors clashed directly with women journalists and activists who dared to visit the temple.

While the religious fiasco seemed to have fizzled over the years, the story of Bindu Ammini proves the severity of women’s issues in India. An oppressive regime and a culture of deep-rooted patriarchy masked under the trope of religious divinity is the root cause of it all.

Bindu Ammini is a Dalit activist and professor of law. Bindu Ammini got on a Zoom call with me on the 26th of January 2022, while she was admitted to the hospital, recovering from the injuries caused by Mohandas, the Sangh Parivar activist who assaulted her publicly on the 5th of January.

On the 5th of January 2022, Bindu Ammini was brutally attacked, when an RSS party member assaulted her repeatedly on the street. Many people gathered to watch and cheer the attacker. Videos of the public assault were shared widely on social media, again. No action was taken against her attacker and police protection for her was withdrawn. The Supreme Court’s order to the State to give her full-time police protection has been violated. Cyber bullies made a fake porn video of her. The perpetrators faced no consequences.

This is the devastating reality of Bindu Ammini, the one Dalit woman out of the two women who exercised their legal right to enter Sabarimala temple on January 2, 2019, has been attacked over ten times since she entered the temple.

If it was another feminist activist who entered the temple, how would you have shown your solidarity? Do you wish society as a whole had supported you differently?

Since I entered the temple, I have been hospitalized multiple times. Not due to natural illness but as a result of the violence I had to experience in response to my activist work. Who would be my carers at the hospital? Who would take care of me? No one but my partner and my daughter. No one else cared enough to be there for me. I’d wish for people to imagine extending care and nurture beyond their ‘traditional families’. I was attacked multiple times. One was a murder attempt. They drove over me with an auto-rickshaw. When other activists or social workers face similar attacks, I call them. I ask them if I can be their carers at the hospital. This is especially important for women who are social workers. We often deprioritize our familial duties to give more to our communities and our society. Social women must be considered akin to family.

I’m not looking for a reward or financial support for what I do. What I wish is for our people to hold one another with care. Oftentimes, the only people who offer me support are other social workers who are also surviving their own crises.

Your work benefits each of us and we owe you protection and support. How did you decide to enter the temple?

I remember being a school student who felt haunted by the pain of my community and I was moved to act. Bringing healing to Adivasi-Dalit women became the focus of my work and I soon realized that such a movement wouldn’t exist without trans people and other silenced voices coming together. After studying law and starting to teach the constitution at a law college, I’ve felt acutely aware of the rise of Hindu fascism targeting Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims.

Sabarimala was once a place of worship for Dalit and Adivasi communities before it was taken over by Brahmanical dominance. So when I read about the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, I was elated! However, I didn’t plan to visit the temple. Soon protests and mob violence broke out. The women who attempted to enter the temple were getting attacked. I began to feel haunted by the scars these incidents were leaving on women’s self-respect and sense of autonomy. I was witnessing the terror of Brahmanical domination. It was deeply disturbing. I was moved to act so I decided to enter the temple. I only did what any self-respecting woman would have done.

What has it been like since you made that decision?

BA: Well, I didn’t imagine it as an individual’s act of resistance but as part of a collective movement. I was a part of a collective, which is also where I met Kanaka Durga (the other women who entered the temple). As we drew closer to the date of entering, the commotion had grown tense so I had to be careful to make sure I could successfully enter the temple.

BK: At the time, did you worry about what would happen after you entered the temple?

I was doing it to reclaim the dignity of womanhood, so what after-eIect could I have imagined. Afterwards, people said I deserved the attacks since I must have expected consequences. It was too hurtful to hear that. When someone takes action for a social cause, ideally, everyone must have their back… at least other activists but what I experienced was a social boycott and deliberate acts to exclude me. Some refused to share state with me. It’s only now, after I was attacked again, that some of them reconnected with me.

BK: Are you feeling comfortable talking about the recent attacks you had to experience?

Television news channels are inviting misogynists like Rahul Easwar to speak on this issue so it becomes an echo-chamber. The reality is far from what the media shows us. Out of the three crores of Kerala’s population — how many people attacked me? How many people attacked the other women who entered or tried to enter the temple? The answer is, just a handful! But somehow, these few attackers are made to look representative of the entire population of three crores! There are less than 0.001% of people radicalized enough to attack women like me! These radicalized attackers who constitute 0.001% of the population together with the possibly 5% of people who are against women entering the temple get to represent society. This is a failure for progressive political parties. They just gave up on it due to fear of losing votes.

I meet so many young women who just run up to me, hug me and embrace me with so much pride for the work that I do. They consider me as family. When I think of the number of people who support my work, the number of people who attacked me is less than a fraction of a fraction. I’m not saying that the majority supports the entry of women, however, in my personal experience, in my social circles, most people support the verdict. They support me sometimes explicitly, sometimes silently. However, the number of people who attack women, the number of these criminals is very low so I consider it a failure of the Left that these fifty-or-so people criminals seem to be ‘representing’ the larger population.

We have a left-wing government in power but they make some poor assumptions about our people e.g. ‘the majority is religious’, ‘the majority is against gender equality’, ‘the majority is against women entering the temple’ etc. Based on these presumptions, they do a balancing act, which goes like offering selective support for women entering the temple while also conveniently choosing silence when it’s inconvenient for them to speak out.

Why else would the state withdraw police protection? The only time I asked them to briefly pause the protection was during the floods. I trusted the words of our Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. I entered the temple because he assured us that women can do so. Then why am I not safe?

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