*Anxieties over Sabarimala Temple-entry: Menstruation as Sex Strike

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Devotees queue up to offer prayers at Lord Ayappa’s temple, Sabarimala, during the Malayalam month of ‘Vrischikom,’ 20 November 2018.  Photo:  Press Trust of India.

It needs to be said at the outset, and in the most unequivocal terms, that the still ferocious dispute — about which I blogged here around two weeks ago — over the Supreme Court’s decision of September 28 which opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple to females between the ages of 10-50 is fundamentally about the deep and pervasive anxieties among men over menstruation.  Everything else is a camouflage.

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By a majority decision of 4-1, the Court ruled that the prohibition of girls and women from the ages of 10 to 50 on their entry into the Sabarimala temple was unconstitutional.  Though the court ordered that the temple be opened to females of menstruating age, protestors have blockaded the temple doors and completely obstructed the implementation of the court order.  The Supreme Court verdict over the right of women of menstruating age to entry a Hindu temple speaks to problems that afflict women all over the world, but for the present it will suffice to largely confine these remarks to the implications for Indians.

The terms in which the Court’s decision have been debated are clear enough.  Those who applaud the decision have described it both as an affirmation of Indian Constitution’s guarantee of equality between the sexes and as an individual’s right to freedom of worship.  Liberals decry the custom which has encroached on the liberty of women as a remnant of an atavistic past, and they salute the Court’s embrace of law as a tool to remedy social injustices.  As they point out, though restricting women from entering Sabarimala is generally defended in the name of “centuries-old tradition”, prohibitions on women were first enacted into law as late as 1965.  Indeed, to extend the liberal argument, what is given as a brief on behalf of a timeless custom is nothing more than what historians call “the invention of tradition”.  Customs that are often believed to have persisted from “time immemorial” are in fact very much a creation of the modern spirit.  Some liberals have also argued strongly that construing menstruation as something which is disgusting and polluting is not only indefensible but a sign of ignorance and demeaning to women.

The Court’s critics, on the other hand, argue that women feature prominently among the demonstrators who object to the Court’s decision and they are oddly enough being denied a voice in the matter.  Conservatives are firmly of the view that the Court and its secular allies in the media and intellectual class have disdain for Hindu religious customs, and they have put forward the more compelling argument that social change is ineffective and even resented when it is seen as an imposition from above.  Matters of religious faith, it is argued, cannot be legislated.

The dispute over Sabarimala, however, is also distinct from other controversies that have erupted over judicial intervention in matters of religious faith in that the reigning deity of the temple, Lord Ayappa, is said to be celibate.  Thus the presence of females of menstruating age is said to be an affront to his dignity.  As an affidavit filed in 2016 by those who sought to preserve the ban on women states, the temple authorities and devotees are bound to ensure that “not even the slightest deviation from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is caused by the presence of such women.”

The trope of a male ascetic or even a god being fatally tempted by an attractive female is as old as Indian civilization and is present in many other traditions as well.  It is, however, the menstrual politics that more than anything else which informs the dispute, even if menstruation remains the unspeakable.  The notion that a menstruating woman is polluting or should remain in the shadows is scarcely unique to India and anthropologists have documented the practice of isolating a woman during her menses across dozens of societies.  Nor should one suppose that only so-called lesser developed or “traditional” societies treat menstruation as discomforting and polluting.  We might wish to remind ourselves that during one of the Presidential debates, then candidate Donald Trump, rattled by some questions from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, characterized her as having “blood coming out of her wherever”, a barely disguised reference to her periods.  Menstrual pads have been sold in the United States for over a century as “sanitary napkins”.

There can scarcely be a society where men have not sought to regulate women’s sexuality.  The entry of women of menstrual age into Sabarimala, a temple in a state where the female literacy rate is at least 92%, has been curtailed because menstruation is one domain over which men have little or no control. Indeed, if men have often assumed that they have sexual entitlements over women—an assumption in defiance of which the “Me Too” movement has been launched in many countries—a woman’s period constitutes what may be called a sex strike.  It is the one time of the month that, especially in societies where the vulnerability of most women is acute, a woman can refuse sexual advances, whether of her husband, sexual partner, or of any other man, and generally get her way.  This is not a liberty that she is otherwise able to exercise often, but she may still be punished in other ways.  This is the larger and unstated aspect of what may be described as the menstrual politics—of Sabarimala, and, in a wider context, of human societies where a woman’s most intimate bodily function is not merely a “biological fact” but rather a cultural and social fact pregnant with immense implications.

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*The Lonely Battle of the Indian Farmer

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Farmers marching to Parliament Street.  Source:  Hindustan Times.  Some Indian newspapers seemed rather more concerned about the disruption to traffic and gave real time updates on Twitter and Facebook so the public could avoid thoroughfares through which the farmers were marching.  Perhaps in future some intrepid souls will give updates in the hope that people will join rather than avoid the demonstrating farmers.

Thirty-five thousand farmers, from across the nation, marched in Delhi this past weekend to highlight their long-standing grievances and to move a largely indifferent country into giving some thought to the fact that Indian agriculture is in a state of acute and precipitous decline.  To say that the farmers also acted to stir the conscience of the present government would be true but for the circumstance that there is little to suggest that the vast majority of those who run the country have any conscience at all. Even the word “crisis” is inadequate to describe the depth of the problems which afflict farmers, constituting a monstrous assault on their dignity and reducing them to a state of destitution.  Their plight and unfathomable despair is captured by the fact that, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 300,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995-2015.  The NCRB has thus far not released final figures for 2016 and 2017, and even the data that it released for 2014 and 2015 suggests that some of it was doubtless manipulated.  Who will believe, for instance, that there were no farmers’ suicides in 12 states in 2014?  The brute fact of the matter is that conditions for Indian farmers have not improved an iota in recent years.  The problems did not begin with the present government, but they have doubtless become much worse under the present dispensation.  The BJP led by Narendra Modi ran in 2014 on the electoral promise, “Acche din aane wale hain” (“Good days are about to come”), and farmers have seen what misery that has been wrought in their lives in the wake of the present administration’s unabashed collusion with many of the country’s wealthiest men.

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A typical newspaper headline from an English daily in India.

I remember a visit with Sunderlal Bahuguna, the renowned Chipko activist, at his ashram near Ghansali in the Tehri-Garhwal region three decades ago.  He told me then, “Bharat ki atma desh ke lakhon gaon me hain” (“India’s soul resides in its countless villages”).  Some might construe this as an idealized account of the torpid Indian village, the village that never was except in the imagination of those who are critical of industrialized modernity, but there can be little doubt that village life revolved around agricultural seasons and agriculture was the main source of livelihood.  The classics of Hindi cinema, from Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mother India (1957) to Upkaar (1967), spoke to this sensibility.  Even with the extraordinary growth of Indian cities over the last several decades, it is only with the last census in 2011 that urban India for the first time added more people than rural India.  The recent report, “State of Indian Farmers”, by the nationally reputed Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based on a survey of over 5000 farming households across 274 villages in 137 districts, confirms that 76% of farmers would rather do some other work, and 61% of the farmers said they would rather be employed in the city.

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The children of an Indian farmer who committed suicide hold up a photograph of their father.  Source:  BBC.

If farmers are abandoning their ancestral profession by the droves, or would like to give it up for good, they are doing so for sound reasons. The problems are too numerous, but some may be enumerated briefly.  Many farmers—62% of the interviewed farmers in the CSDS study—are not even aware of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), and those who are agree that this price is woefully inadequate.  Water shortages have critically impacted Indian agriculture and the evidence is overwhelming that such shortages will become more acute in the near future.  Climate change has introduced more unpredictability, and aggrieved farmers everywhere complain of damage to crops owing to unseasonal rains, floods, and droughts.  Rural indebtedness is a grave calamity, accounting for a huge number of suicides, and the scourge of the moneylender remains even as Indian banking has truly expanded its tentacles throughout the countryside.  Indian farming cannot be understood without an appreciation of the fact that large farmers, each owning ten acres or more of land, account for only 7% of all farmers; 60% are small owners, in possession of 1-3 acres, and another 14% are landless.  The remaining, 19%, are farmers who own 4-7 acres of land.  The huge majority of those who have benefited from government schemes, subsidies, and bank loans at low interest rates are large farmers:  thus the credit crisis afflicts mainly the small and poor farmers, since most of them are compelled to take recourse to the moneylender who lend money at usurious rates.  The intensification and corporatization of agriculture under capitalism, though it does not account for every ill, has certainly played a huge part in the impoverishment of the small farmer. It is for this reason that there have been sustained protests and demonstrations against the encroachment upon Indian agriculture of the notorious biotechnological giant, Monsanto, whose predatory practices have been the scourge of farmers in India and elsewhere.

The present agitation of Indian farmers is shaped both by short-term demands and long-term grievances. The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018) and the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018) have been languishing in Parliament since the early part of the year.  Though loan waivers and an increase in the MSP are critically important, it must be understood that these are of little if any interest to landless laborers; among them, there are other problems, such as the fact that in most states, women are paid only half of what men earn for the same amount of labor and as little as Rs 100-150 a day. The farmers and their supporters are demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the commission headed by the eminent agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan which issued five reports between December 2004 and October 2006, and insisting that Parliament devote 21 days to a discussion of the plight of farmers and the perils to Indian agriculture.

Volume Two of the Fifth and Final Report of the Swaminathan Commission commences with two epigrams, one from Gandhi—“To those who are hungry, God is bread”—and the other from Nehru:  “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”  The majority of Indian farmers and members of their households have only two meals a day, and at least 10% have only one meal a day.  That those whose labour helps put the food on the tables in the country’s towns and cities should not have enough food for themselves is particularly odious and cruelly ironic.  The indisputable fact is that a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India, just as it is clear that the problem is not one of scarcity but rather of accessibility to food.

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Farmers march to Mumbai, March 2018.  Source:  The Hindu newspaper.

However, this is not just another “crisis” and what is at stake is more than even the dire state of the Indian farmer and agriculture.  Though I advert in the title of this article to the “lonely battle” being waged by farmers, it is heartening that the march organized by the Kisan Sabha earlier this year which saw 40,000 Maharashtrian farmers walking over 200 kilometres before making their entry into Mumbai earned them the goodwill of the city and the support of students, academics, urban workers, and many others.  Nevertheless, the work of reigniting the links between the rural and the urban has barely begun, and urban India has to recognize that it has brutally eviscerated the village and excised the farmer from its imagination.  What we banish in this fashion will come back to haunt us.  India cannot be made whole until and unless it confers on farmers the centrality that they, the toilers of the soil and the sustainers of the nation, deserve.

[First published under the same title but in a shorter version on ABP Live, 5 December 2018]