India’s liberals who are departed by dilemmas because of the intricacies of the Sabarimala affair may factor in three historical-constitutional variables in order to look at the present situation with a clearer perspective.
First, reformers have always had to challenge opposition when they stood against socio-religious traditions. Rammohan Roy, the first Indian reformer of the modern era, had to fight conservatives for abolishing Sati. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who fought for the remarriage of Hindu widows “died a disappointed man”, as per the Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1925), who even considered in 1925 that “a lot of the Hindu widow today remains very much the same as it was 50 years ago”. Mahatma Gandhi had to apply moral pressure on the members of his own ashram, even of his own family, to persuade them to fight untouchability — a battle even he did not take to its logical conclusion. Reformers are lonely figures. On the resilience of social conservatism at the expense of reformism, see last year’s special issues of Studies in Indian Politics.
Second, some liberals who are uncertain about the proper attitude in the Sabarimala case assume that the people’s opposition is spontaneous, while it vastly results from the instrumentalization of traditions by ideologues. Historically, one needs to distinguish pure conservatives — who believed in Sanatan Dharma, like Madan Mohan Malaviya or Swami Karpatriji, from traditionalists who defended ancient practices in the terms of identity politics, like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak’s worldview is well reflected in the controversy around the Age of Consent Bill — a bone of contention as to the Sabarimala affair. At the end of the 19th century, western India debated the issue of legislating on the age of consent for the consummation of marriages. While reformers comprising Jyotirao Phule were in favor of a law to abolish child marriage, Vishwanath Narayan Mandlik and Tilak were not — for two different reasons. The former, like the Sanatanists, related that child marriage should continue because the shastras allowed such practices. Tilak offered a different perspective. On one hand, he argued in 1881 that “every son of Aryavarta must toil hard to see this custom eradicated”; on the other, he refused any change to tradition: “We would not like that the Government should have anything to do with regulating our social customs or ways of living, even supposing that the Act of Government will be a very beneficial and suitable measure.”
Tilak should have been torn, but his preference is to mobilise “the people” against a reform he approved of, in order to promote his political agenda. Tilakism has done the entry of national-populism on the Indian public scene as he’s the first one to openly use religion in politics. One of the Kesari’s editorials, in 1896, reads: “Why should we not be able to alter religious festivals into political mass rallies?” The Tilakites tried to transform the erstwhile privately-organized Ganesh festival into an ethno-nationalist celebration, as the different editions of the Kesari admitted: “Religious thoughts and devotion may be possible even in solitude, yet demonstration and éclat are essential to the awakening of the masses. By this nationalist appeal, the worship of Ganapati spread from the family circles to the public square.” Note, the masses have to be not followed, they have to be “awakened”; their sensibilities do not come first, they have to be shaped in the course of ethnoreligious mobilizations.
Now, the Sangh Parivar is applying the same techniques in the Sabarimala affair as evident from what the BJP Kerala state unit chief, P S Sreedharan Pillai, declared recently, as per the tapes which were leaked to the media: “Sabarimala is a golden opportunity. It is an issue. Settling the Sabarimala matter in a straight line is not possible. We put forward an agenda and everyone else surrendered to it leaving only us and our enemies, the government and its parties.”