Sabarimala: A Catch-22 and the Failure of a State
Today, in denying Trupti Desai's team protection for their Sabarimala pilgrimage, the Kerala state and police machinery failed, irrespective of politics.
At around 4 AM this morning, activist Trupti Desai arrived in Kochi, intending to make the pilgrimage to Sabarimala to offer prayers at the Lord Ayyappa shrine.
This is not her first time.
Last year, ignoring massive protests, she had made a similar landing in Kochi. Then, however, she was not allowed to leave the airport, much less make it to the shrine.
This year, her attempt has made progress but doesn’t seem to be faring any better overall. She was spotted at the airport, but she was allowed to pass through the gates and enter Kochi. She gave news outlets a brief statement and then proceeded to travel towards the city.
On the way, however, the driver, worried about facing an attack on the road, abandoned them. Trupti and her entourage were forced to seek protection from the Kochi Police Commissioner. "I will leave Kerala only after offering prayers at the shrine," Trupti said.
Women's rights activist Trupti Desai at Kochi, early morning today: We'll visit #Sabarimala temple today on Constitution Day. Neither state government nor police can stop us from visiting the temple. Whether we get security or not we will visit the temple today. pic.twitter.com/7f4WMK6opI— ANI (@ANI) November 26, 2019
Along with a handful of other activists, Desai was taken to the Kochi City Police Commissionerate.
Armed with the 2018 order of the Supreme Court, which allows the entry of all women into the shrine at Sabarimala, she strode in with the firm belief that the police would do what they were supposed to - protect her.
This is where the story gets weird.
Expecting the State police to uphold the Supreme Court order, and moreover, their mandate to maintain order, the team of activists were shocked to realise that they would find no protection here.
As the hours dragged on, Desai et al found themselves having to convince the police of the legitimacy of their venture, despite their trip coming after multiple letters written by Desai, to the Prime Minister, Home Minister Amit Shah, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the state police chief.
While this was happening, Bindu Ammini, who Trupti calls her colleague in her pilgrimage, also reached the Commissioner’s office to join the team of activists there. Both Bindu and Trupti had booked pilgrimages online for tonight. Bindu lent her voice to the team clamouring for security and protection.
By this time, right-wing activists and Sangh Parivar members had amassed outside the same office, raising slogans and threats in protest.
Brace yourself - here’s the worst part.
Taking a moment to step outside to retrieve some documents from her car, Bindu was brutally attacked by one of these right-wing protestors.
Videos have surfaced on social media, seeing her being set upon by members of this group. They threw chilli powder and pepper in her face.
Chilli spray being sprayed at Bindu Ammini outside the Kochi Commissioner's office by one of the protesters. She was one of the first women who went to #Sabarimala last year. https://t.co/7cjWvQEzqa@TheQuint #Kerala pic.twitter.com/vGZnvG683v— Smitha T K (@smitha_tk) November 26, 2019
One of them even sprayed home-made pepper spray directly onto her face, refusing to relent even as she tried to spin away.
Shocking visuals of pepper/ chilli spray being sprayed at Bindu Ammini outisde the commissioner office by one of the protesters . She has been moved to the hospital. Six other women including Trupti Desai inside the police commissioner's office. #Sabarimala #Kerala @ndtv pic.twitter.com/d24chgs8b3— Sneha Koshy (@SnehaMKoshy) November 26, 2019
The News Minute reports that a few police officers outside the Commissioner’s office then tried to intervene and end the scuffle. However, the visuals of the episode show no police intervention.
Following this, Bindu submitted the documents to the officer. She was then admitted to the General Hospital in Ernakulam.
Kerala: Bindu Ammini, one of the two women who first entered the #Sabarimala temple in January this year, says, "a man sprayed chilli and pepper at my face,"outside Ernakulam city police commissioner's office today morning. pic.twitter.com/lt2M58264k— ANI (@ANI) November 26, 2019
Despite the attack that occurred literally in the police’s own backyard, after a meeting with the activists and the ADG of Police, the Kerala State and the police refused to grant protection to the team.
Asiaville spoke to Trupti Desai when she was still in the Commissioner’s office. Despite the lack of protection, she said she still planned on making it to the shrine today. She said that along with Bindu Ammini, she had booked an online Darshan specifically for today, as it was Constitution Day.
“As women, what we’re doing right now, we’re doing for our constitutional rights. The greater point being made is that all women should be granted the constitutional right to equality. We’re working against a mindset that pervades society, which impedes our daily fundamental rights.”
When asked about the attack on Bindu Ammini, she said, “The Police needs to take a strong stance against this brutal use of force. The additional commissioner has made a decision against us instead. They have told us that as the matter is sub judice in their view, we cannot make the pilgrimage, we cannot enter the shrine, and most of all - they will not give us protection.”
She continued, “The police told us that our lives are in danger, and we would not be allowed entry into the shrine. Our response was simple - if we aren’t allowed entry, this will be contempt of court.”
As Desai says, this is an absolute breakdown of the Police’s duty to uphold the law and maintain order. The state machinery and the police together are showing a clear double standard, working against the rights of women.
Rather than protecting a group that is clearly vulnerable to attack at the moment - as we saw this morning - the state of Kerala is being held hostage by the demands of conservative right-wing groups.
The counter-argument being made is this - Desai is a bhakt, a right-wing activist, and is simply trying to stir trouble in Kerala. The government could deny her entry - and end up in trouble. Or it could let her in - and end up in trouble. The catch-22 here is very visible. However, there are two things we must keep in mind: First, the government’s foremost objective ought to be protecting the people, not maintaining its optics. Rather than being concerned about how it looks, the State, already having recognized that these women are in grave danger, should have granted them protection, irrespective of the politics of it.
And second, about Desai’s politics - we cannot be oblivious enough to simplify and distil her internal politics down to either woman or bhakt or right-wing activist. She could be all that and more, she could be a layered person made of an infinite set of identities. What matters here, over and above her personal politics, is the fact that she, as an Indian citizen, approached the state for protection - and the state refused.
On Constitution Day, how do we, in good conscience, continue to applaud a state for progressive measures, when basic fundamental rights - reaffirmed by the Supreme Court - is being largely ignored? How do we turn a blind eye to homegrown terrorism that the state acquiesces to?
I’m from Kerala, and as a Malayali woman through and through, I mark today not as Constitution Day, but as the day my home state utterly failed at upholding basic fundamental rights. Today, my home state, which I have been immensely proud of in the past, let me down, while the gaze of the nation was upon us. Today, we could have done better, but we failed.