Twin trailblazers of Sabarimala: Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga speak to The Leaflet
January 28, 2019
Image Courtesy: The Leaflet
Did Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, the two women who took that bold first step and turned it into a giant leap for Indian women across the board, ever realise the colossal sociopolitical impact of their historic journey to Sabarimala temple? Here were two women who simply believed that the Supreme Court had granted them the sanction to act on their faith and visit Sabarimala temple, the abode of Ayappa, but also, especially for Bindu, the home of Dharma Shastha. And so, steadfast to their faith both in the Supreme Court of India and themselves, they trudged the path that was hitherto impossible. After all they had every right to do so, even as the price, especially for Kanaka Durga, has been heavy, ostracised by her family. Senior Advocate Indira Jaising and her colleague, Nehmat Kaur, undertook a journey to meet in person the two brilliant and feisty women, for whom the former knocked the doors of the Supreme Court seeking State protection.
When Senior Advocate Indira Jaising met Bindu and Kanaka Durga
We were meeting Bindu and Kanaka Durga at an undisclosed destination which shall remain unidentified as it was at a time that they had not “come out.” On January 13, 2019 for the first time at an event called “Hurray Menses” – Aarpo Aarthavam, the two of them made their first public appearance post their journey to the holy shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala, Kerala. They decided to go back to their normal lives and were faced with consequences that proved tragic for Kanaka Durga.
Their bold act of entry into the Sabarimala temple was a conscious decision and an “Ambedkar moment” for Kerala, the significance being no less than Dr BR Amdedkar’s defiant temple entry movement in Mahad, Raigad, Maharashtra, with one major difference — they were the only two. The significance of the moment is not, however, diminished by the fact that they did not have a crowd following them as the backlash to the Sabarimala judgment had been already started by the Right wing BJP.
When asked if she wanted the support of the police this is what Bindu said: “I did not want the support of the police, I had the support of the Supreme Court judgment.”
It was at that moment, for the first time in all these months that I have been working on and reflecting on the Sabarimala case, that the Supreme Court of India came alive as a lived reality in the lives of women and not just a forum in which we lawyers advance abstract arguments based on our understanding of fundamental rights and gender justice. I have no doubt in my mind that she was empowered by her knowledge of the law.
Bindu (right) and Kanaka Durga speak to The Leaflet | Image Courtesy: The Leaflet
Bindu was aware that she faced discrimination both as a woman and as a Dalit. She described the act of purification of the temple, post their entry, as proof of untouchability. Being a lawyer, she was acutely aware that untouchability had been abolished and expressly prohibited by Article 17 of the Constitution of India, and that she had the right to non-discrimination based on sex and caste, and therefore that she had the right to enter the temple. As you will see from what follows in the interview, she minced no words in stating that, “she may be an atheist but for her the deity in Sabarimala was ‘Shastha’, a Buddhist; it was with that belief that she entered the temple. The shrine was originally a tribal one, she said, which had been appropriated by Brahmins. Shastha, she said had two wives and therefore there was no question of celibacy or exclusion of women from the temple.
At once, Justice Indu Malhotra’s lone dissenting judgment came to mind when she said that it was a matter of “belief” “that the deity in Sabarimala was a Naishthik Brahmachari. Yes, I thought to myself that belief belongs to the believer, and the right to religion is an individual right and I am free to believe what I wish to. Bindu believed that the deity that she paid homage to was “Shastha”.
In that masterful stroke, she demolished the reasoning of Justice Indu Malhotra who held that the Court could not interfere in matters of “faith.” But then whose “faith” are we talking about? The individual claims the right to religion and her faith told her that she was paying homage to “Shastha.” It also exposed the hollow nature of the claim to “tradition”. As scholars point out, tradition is not a closed category, nor does it have a definite origin, legal or otherwise.
The meeting was inspiring. Not only was she conscious of being a woman and a Dalit but also of being a lawyer with great “faith and belief” in the Fundamental Right to Non-discrimination based on sex and caste. Having appeared in the Supreme Court of India in a writ petition filed on their behalf, and when informed that the SC had directed 24/7 police protection, her first question to me was “What about the purification ritual?” — it is a form of untouchability and a violation of the judgment of the SC. She now plans to file a petition for contempt of court against the Thantri and the Kerala Devaswom Board.
Kanaka Durga, meanwhile was attacked by her mother-in-law when she attempted to return to her home and had to be hospitalised, but still messaged me to thank me for the order. On being advised by her well-wisher to stay away from her home she said: “Why should I, it is my husband’s home, he owns it, his mother is living with us, I don’t want to live in a shelter or with friends I want to live in my own home.”
Her strength, too, comes from the memories of having faced menstrual discrimination in her parental home and she was determined to fight it. As she said: “I am a Hindu and worship many Hindu deities including Ayyappa of Sabarimala, women are not unwelcome in his temple.”
Both pointed to the secular nature of the deity, drawing attention to his friend, Vavar, who has a mosque of his own on the way to the temple at which all the devotees pray. On the way to the temple and back I thought to myself, this could only happen in Kerala where many women, if not all, have imbibed the spirit of a secular and gender-just Constitution. Both women displayed an unwavering faith in the Supreme Court of India and were determined to exercise their fundamental rights against all odds.
Meeting them made it clear to me that they needed no disguise to enter the the temple: they wore no burqas, but were dressed in black and had a black shawl to battle the winter on their climb up to the temple. Both said that they encountered no resistance from the devotees who were also at the Sabarimala temple for a darshan of their beloved Ayyappa.
Observations by Nehmat Kaur*
The following day, we visited the two-day public event organised by the State of Kerala — “Aarpo Aarthavam”, meaning “Hurray Menses” — celebrating everything about the basic physiological functions of a woman’s body. The event, open to all with no entry fee, was not paying mere lip-service to its theme. The entry gate in the form of a vagina was an unabashed celebration of being a woman, almost as if signifying that one has to pass through the vagina, literal and metaphorical, to be born. It was heartening to see discussions on issues such as menstrual taboos in educational institutions taking place in fluent Malayalam, with a diverse attentive audience, that to my surprise had a significant percentage of older men.
With slogans of “Aarpo Aarthavam” ringing in the audience, and cut-outs of vaginas displayed everywhere, along with portraits of women, and a Constitution of India, the celebration of being period-positive was in full swing.
The two-day event had a dedicated section to medical and biological facts about menstruation, with information displayed in Malayalam about sex organs, puberty, pregnancy, common complications in pregnancy. The volunteer medical students were ready to explain the processes along the way. With the displays of period positive memes, cartoon strips, and art, I was surprised beyond joy to see a large audience of diverse ages enjoying the program which was being anchored and managed by women of all age groups, rushing around and making sure things were running smoothly. A beautiful way to normalise menstruation and having a celebration on it with a public event in a language that everyone understands.
[Nehmat Kaur is an advocate and assists Indira Jaising, including in the Sabarimala case.]
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM THE LEAFLET INTERVIEW WITH BINDU AND KANAKADURGA
The Leaflet: Tell us about your background and upbringing.
Bindu Ammini: Both my parents are Dalits. My parents are illiterate and my father is no more. I am the only graduate in my family. I began my LLB in 2001. I am running my business, and also teach at the University of Kannur, Law Department.. I was brought up near Sabarimala, and have visited there(the shrine) twice in my childhood years, once before I was10 years of age, second time when I was 11 years, and now at 40.
Once when I was attending polytechnic college, one girl of 15 years was killed and her body was thrown in a well. I went to the police to complain regarding this along with a few other women lawyers. A false case was registered against me for attacking a man and knocking of his teeth in the process. I was asked to stay in the police station for one night, but I jumped out of the first floor and ran away. However, when I was taken to the Magistrate, the police accused me in another case of escaping police custody. The Magistrate said that I will be arrested again if I am out on the street, so he said he was constrained to send me to jail for a day.
While at the polytechnic college, I joined the CPI (ML)’s Student Wing and the Women’s Wing. However, I have had no connection with any of the CPI(ML)’s organisations since the last 8 years.
Kanakadurga: I am from a Menon-Nair family, and the fifth child of my parents. We followed all rites and rituals of the Hindu system.
Shunned due to menstrual taboos
The Leaflet: Is menstrual discrimination practised in your family?
Kanaka Durga: At the time of menstruation, I was forced be in my room and not touch anything, not allowed to go to the well and touch the water. Someone else had to bring it to me. I was not permitted to take a bath on the third day of the menstrual cycle, and on the fourth day, I had to clean all the utensils and mats. Being rebellious, I used to take a bath on third day! In my husband’s family, they don’t have these practices.
Bindu Ammini: Growing up, I did not have to face any menstrual taboos. However, in my husband’s family, they follow them. I lived in his family’s house for 5 years and had to stay in a different room and was given food separately in a plate for the duration of my menstrual cycle every month.
The Leaflet: Where does discrimination based on menstruation come from?
Bindu Ammini: Such a restriction is not mentioned in any of the texts. It was the 1991 High Court judgment (Mahendran v. State of Kerala) that made this criteria.
Double whammy: Being Dalit and Woman
The Leaflet: (To Bindu) The fact is that you are a Dalit. Did you expect that after you went to the temple, the priest would do purification? Were you emotionally and mentally prepared for it?
Bindu Ammini: I feel ashamed because the people in Kerala are educated and cultured, and the educated people are also supporting the protesters. It is shameful and I feel as if my dignity and status are diminished. All Indians have Fundamental Rights under Articles 14, 17 and 21 — all these rights are violated. The impact has been that my privacy has been infringed, protesters and the media are hounding us and all this has affected my dignity.
Kanaka Durga: People in Kerala say that they are educated and cultured, but they did purification after we entered. It is saddening.
‘Wanted to see my Shastha… Dharma Shastha’
The Leaflet: How and why did you decide to make the visit to Sabarimala?
Bindu Ammini: I strongly wished to go to Sabarimala. I wanted to go as a right. I am a Dalit and I do not come under “caste” Hindus. The culture is different for caste-based Hindus and Dalits. My beliefs are different. Parsi, Christian beliefs are also different from Hindus — they are also allowed to come.
I went to Sabarimala not for Ayyappa, but for Shastha, who is the same deity but he has two wives, Purna and Pushkana. All the beliefs of Shastha are related to Buddhist temples.
Later, this temple was shifted under the Thantri by the Pandalam family. After that they said that Shastha merged with Ayyappa and they think that Shastha doesn’t exist. For me, the deity is Shastha, who has two wives. It is a belief held by many people that both are the same person, but it isn’t, Shastha and Ayyappa are different. Shastha isn’t Naisthik Brahmachari; Ayyappa is.
There is a banner at the entrance which says tatvam asi or ‘I am that’. How much more secular can you get?
All men are allowed to go there, no parameter on which their bhakti is measured. We want to go to Sabarimala, and some media persons are saying that we aren’t devotees. How is that measured? Belief depends from person to person: one sanyasi’s beliefs is different, my father and my siblings’ belief is different. No parameter is there to measure belief. I am Shastha devotee — and I want to go there and I want to take darshan.
A man is allowed, and the politicians say that women come from political parties. My contention is that even a non-devotee and any woman should have a right to visit there.
Kanaka Durga: It is Shastha. More people believe that there is Dharma Shastha, who believed in Buddhist principles.
Thoughts on the dissenting judgement by Justice Indu Malhotra
The Leaflet: What is your view on Justice Indu Malhotra’s judgment?
Bindu Ammini: A majority of the judges did not agree with her. In case of men, members from all other religions are allowed to visit Sabarimala. Are they all devotees? So why this kind of discrimination against women of a certain age? Justice Malhotra says says devotees’ belief is that they should not enter. Belief varies from person to person. one sanyasi’s belief is different, my father and my siblings’ belief is different. No parameter is there to measure belief. I am a Shastha devotee. I wanted to go there and I want to take darshan of Shastha.
Did politics hijack Sabarimala victory?
The Leaflet: Allegations are being made by people that you entered in a surreptitious manner.
Bindu Ammini: What gives other people the right to obstruct our visit there? These people are trying to make some obstructions and hurdles for all the women who wish to go there. I used my constitutional right, and the Supreme Court judgment is there. The State of Kerala is there backing this right and the verdict of Supreme Court. During the first attempt, there was no support; we created some pressure and then there was some support. The protest has diminished after we entered.
The Leaflet: There is criticism that this whole entry of women into Sabarimala has given an opportunity to the BJP to become stronger; that Kerala is getting communalised.
Bindu Ammini: I am hopeful that after our visit, party leaders of the BJP and Congress also support the verdict. The VHP and Sangh-affiliated people also support the verdict. They played a double drama — central leaders were in favour and the state Kerala unit opposed it. It is a political drama. These politically motivated people behind the protests lost their space in Sabarimala. If we aren’t able to visit, then the violation maybe more than that. The fact that we entered will reduce communalism. Manju, Sundari, the Sri Lankan lady and many other women have visited. Now these protesters didn’t make any problems.
The Leaflet: What about the stand taken by people like Rahul Easwar? Who and what does he represent?
Bindu Ammini: An interesting fact is that in his Brahmin family, he has become an outcaste by virtue of his marriage. Some changes they will accept in their own favour, they enjoy some privileges. Some people in his family also say that he is not their representative.
The Leaflet: What is that you expect the Supreme Court to do for you in respect of your security and safety?
Bindu Ammini: The Prime Minister wants some report from the state of Kerala. I have some suggestions. The Prime Minister and Amit Shah should implement the verdict with courage, give proper directions to police officers and the Government of Kerala. I think that the PM should give strong directions to stop these troubles.
The question of Untouchability
The Leaflet: An important question is what is the relation between untouchability and where do we get the purification ritual. Can you tell me a little bit more about the purification ritual and how the same thing is applying to women? Is this untouchability based on sex? And how do you proved whether the person is untouchable?
Bindu Ammini: “Kurikachanawada Tantravadi” is a book that deals with old customs in the temples. It says that untouchables don’t have the right to go to the temple. This practice was abolished after the Temple Entry Act. Older Dalit women and other Dalits were also allowed to go to Sabarimala. So yes, this is untouchability based on sex.
Untouchability is not only based on aspect of touch. After the purification process organised by the Sabarimala Thantri on January 2, 2019, my right in the society has been diminished and restricted. After me and Kanaka Durga, other women entered the temple and then there has been no purification process since. So, why in case of us? A Sri Lankan lady entered the temple even though she was not above 50 years of age, and did not have a uterus. Yet entry of other women was not allowed.
The Leaflet: Then what is the explanation? is that you were a Dalit and that is the reason behind the purification process? Or was it was based on having a uterus and menstruation?
Bindu Ammini: The book deals with many customs of Thantra, but it does not deal with anything to do with menstruation. If there is an “ashuddhi” within the premises of the temple, which is considered to be sexual intercourse, or by urine, faeces, or blood in the sanctum sanctorum, or someone dies in the temple pond, or by ‘untouchables’, then there shall be a “shuddhikaran”. However, the practice against untouchables was abolished by the King’s proclamation.
Executing the decision
The Leaflet: You met on Facebook before you went to Sabarimala together? Tell us about that.
Bindu Ammini: There is a Facebook page that was created in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s judgment. I told the person running that page that I wanted to go to Sabarimala. Kanakadurga was also following the page. On the night of December 22, 2018, we met at Thrissur with a larger group of women. However, only both of us continued our journey towards Sabarimala.
We hadn’t informed the police, but we accidentally met with the police officers and they tried to convince us not to go to Pamba as it could lead to trouble for our families and in the society. However, we kept on moving forward and some police officers agreed to go with us. Around 700 metres away from the shrine, more than thousand protesters surrounded us and they threw stones and coconuts. We were forcefully removed half a kilometre away from shrine and they admitted us to a hospital in Pamba. The police officers said that they were ready to cooperate with us and take us home. However, we stood strong that we want to go to Sabarimala.
Police officers even informed our family members that take them home. My husband said she has the right to take her own decisions.
I declared a hunger strike because I wanted to go to Sabarimala. After one hour, a senior police official said that he would support me. After a few days, we again tried to reach out to the police to let us know the date they will support us to trek to the shrine. The police said that if we reach Pamba on December 31, 2018, they would give us protection.
We reached Pamba on January 2, 2019 and demanded protection from the police officers. They joined with us, we used the normal path, among other devotees. Just a single person shouted out “ladies, ladies”, as if asking the others to give us some way to move. We completed our darshan at 3:45 am and after that we used the normal way back. I got water and snacks, and we also talked to other devotees — some devotee asked us if we have completed our darshan. We didn’t face any difficulty at all.
I think there were no protesters on the path to the shrine, the protests were happening outside the premises as no devotee had any problem. Some devotees have difference of opinion but they did not attempt any strong agitation or protest. The protest is only from politically motivated people.
The Leaflet: Do you intend to go again?
Bindu Ammini: In the last visit, I did not get a chance to climb the holy steps. That is my wish. I want to go via the holy steps.
Surviving the backlash
The Leaflet: Since you entered temple, have you been facing any threat or attack?
Bindu Ammini: I want to go back to my normal life. I do feel fearful that these politically motivated people might kill me. I trust the government of Kerala and the police. I need protection from police, government and judiciary. Many persons from politically motivated sections have threatened us through Facebook. There are grievous threats against Kanaka Durga and me. I hope the police officers take complaints and these issues seriously.
Kanaka Durga: I am hopeful that my family accepts me. My friends have gone and met my family, my husband and my brother in my support, to convince them of what I had to do.
First published in The Leaflet.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.