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KAMAL NATH FIGHTS ON TO PROVE A POINT

Pankaj Vohra

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Citing it as a violation of his and the Congress party’s constitutional and statutory rights, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath has challenged in the Supreme Court the Election Commission’s directive banning him from being the star campaigner. However, even if the apex court sets aside the EC’s order, there would be no time left for the status quo to be restored since polling for 28 Assembly seats would be held on Tuesday. Therefore, the primary reason why Kamal Nath has questioned the EC decision is that he does not concur with the body, and believes that there has been an overreach to prevent him from campaigning. The idea is obviously to make a point, since the ongoing elections are extremely significant for determining the course Madhya Pradesh politics would take in the future.

The BJP needs to win only eight of the seats in order to retain power. The Congress, which is seeking to upset the saffron party’s calculations, is determined to dislodge the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government, by aiming at least 21 or 22. This evidently is a tall order, and it is unlikely that the BJP would allow this upset to happen. Nevertheless, the Congress optimism is based on a feeling of discontent amongst BJP cadres, who are upset that the party has provided the Lotus symbol to those who had joined it along with Jyotirditya Scindia. The BJP activists believe that if these defectors win the polls, it would be at the cost of their chances in the subsequent elections. The principal grouse is that despite having served the party for years, they would lose the claim over the seats, if the newcomers were declared the winners.

Being an astute and perceptive leader whose experience of contesting elections as well as micro-management of booths is exemplary, Kamal Nath is busy drawing a wedge within the saffron ranks. He has been attempting to make forays in the Gwalior region in particular, which is said to be the stronghold of the Scindias. However, within the Scindia clan, there is considerable resentment that Jyotirditya was now seeking to upstage his aunts, who like his grandmother were with the BJP from the very beginning. At another level, ambitious leaders within the BJP are also hoping that if the result is not favourable towards their party, Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s days as the CM could be numbered, and the resultant situation could afford them an opportunity. This is what Kamal Nath is wishing to exploit. While he is on his own in these elections with little or no assistance from Digvijaya Singh, the nine-time MP from Chindwara and currently the leader of Opposition in the Assembly is giving the BJP sleepless nights.

Kamal Nath is determined to fight till the end. A close associate of the late Sanjay Gandhi, he still retains his friend’s never-say-die spirit. He was amongst those who had assisted Sanjay in toppling the Janata Party government. Therefore, he has the wherewithal to achieve the impossible. Victory and defeat are a part of the electoral process, but those who stand up and fight, are always remembered. Regardless of the result, Kamal Nath would remain amongst the most formidable Congress leaders of our times.

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Opinion

AMOD KANTH RELIVES THE TROUBLED DECADE IN THE CAPITAL

Pankaj Vohra

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Amod Kanth has without any doubt been one of the most outstanding IPS officers, who served in the capital. Although, he could not become the Commissioner of Police, yet his professional achievements have been exemplary. In Khaki in Dust Storm, his maiden book on his tenure in Delhi, he has attempted to recreate some of the most horrific cases (from 1980 to 1991) which included the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two bodyguards and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. He was also associated as a key figure in the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic killing by a suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur and helped the Special Investigation Team constituted under D.R. Karthikeyan, to unearth the conspiracy.

Having covered the crime beat very closely for multiple newspapers including the Times of India and The Hindu, I have followed Amod Kanth’s career very closely. Therefore, it is with some authority that I can speak about his various accomplishments. He has been candid while admitting in his book that he was greatly influenced by iconic seniors such as Ved Marwah, K.P.S. Gill, Vijay Karan and Mukund Kaushal. He goes on to recall what Kaushal had told him once that if you are indispensable, then you are a bad manager. However, if you create a system, it shall even function without you. This is an important management principle. The celebrated police officer has been modest about his role which was very pronounced when Marwah was confirmed as the Commissioner. The Centre had sent S.S. Jog as Commissioner, following the Sikh carnage but the upright officer due to personal reasons wanted to return to Maharashtra, his parent cadre. It was then decided that Julio Ribeiro would be the next commissioner. Ribeiro’s name plate had been fixed outside the Commissioner’s earmarked residence on Alipur Road in the Civil Lines area. However, on 10 May 1985, a series of Transistor bomb blasts took place in parts of north India including Delhi. These terrorist acts were to avenge the anti-Sikh riots. However, within 48 hours, the Delhi Police which had Marwah as the acting Chief and Amod Kanth as the DCP, Central, worked out the case following the arrest of three prime suspects, Kartar Singh Narang, Mohinder Singh Oberoi and Mohinder Singh Khalsa. This was sufficient to make the Centre review its decision and Marwah, a legendary officer in his own right, was confirmed as the new Delhi Police chief.

Amod Kanth has also written at length about the murders of Congress leaders Lalit Maken and Arjun Dass as they were perceived by militants as amongst the people responsible for the Sikh genocide. The two murders were also linked to the assassination of General Vaidya in Pune as the missions were executed by Harjinder Singh Jinda. In fact, Jinda was first arrested by the Delhi Police team under Amod Kanth but escaped when his custody was handed over to the Gujarat police. He was again re-arrested by Amod and his men on a tip off provided by Ajit Doval, then working for the Intelligence Bureau. If Amod was inspired by some of his seniors, he also influenced a whole generation of his junior colleagues. Udai Vir Singh Rathi, then a Sub Inspector, was awarded the Gallantry Medal for his daring act of challenging members of the Ravi Subhash Gang on the Yamuna Pushta. It was a do or die situation and Rathi escaped unhurt after shooting Bharat Bhushan, a gang member. The Delhi Police had come under massive criticism for its inaction during the 1984 genocide. Amod Kanth was amongst the few officers who brought the situation under control in several areas of his district and for his efforts was awarded the gallantry medal along with the then Paharganj SHO, S.S. Manan.

My first meeting with this officer took place in 1980 when Dr Patole, a resident doctor of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, committed suicide which led to an extremely tense situation. Fortunately, he and his colleagues were able to defuse this volatile matter. After that I covered him extensively when he was the DCP of West District and Central District and also of the Crime Branch. In the book, he has referred to an incident where his superior officer tried to shield looters who had attacked the Sikhs in the Karol Bagh area at the behest of two Congress leaders.

Amod’s book is a must read because it provides perspective on how the police function. However, there are many other of his professional exploits which do not find any mention. It appears that he has reserved them for his second book. Other than police, he has distinguished himself as someone who worked against child trafficking and drug abuse through Prayas, his NGO. Amod continues to be revered by his police colleagues.

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Opinion

Long-standing issues and imperatives in higher education

Indian higher education provided in its majority of institutions needs a boost in its quality. Some of the important factors influencing quality are infrastructure, teachers and the teaching-learning process.

Ved Prakash

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School education and higher education have a symbiotic relationship as the former is the basis for influencing the quality of the latter. Higher education in real sense is the basis of social, cultural, political and economic transformation of the country. The role of the universities thus becomes of paramount importance. We need to emphasise that universities are not only for dissemination of knowledge, they have an onerous responsibility to create new knowledge in all domains as this is the perspective which is at the heart of the idea of a university.

The idea has been beautifully expressed in the Report of a Committee on “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education” chaired by Prof Yash Pal, where it states: “A university is a place where new ideas germinate, strike roots and grow tall and sturdy. It is a unique space, which covers the entire universe of knowledge. It is a place where creative minds converge, interact with each other and construct visions of new realities.  Established notions of truth are challenged in the pursuit of knowledge”. This vision of a university needs to be embedded into the thought process of the academic faculty and the students alike.

The annual growth rate of enrolment in higher education in India was frustratingly elusive until the mid-sixties. It showed some sign of improvement in the seventies when it registered an annual growth rate of about 2.5%. It remained in the commando crawl phase for a long time registering an annual growth rate of about 4-5% until 2005-06. Thereafter, it registered a sudden spike in 2012 crossing the Gross Enrolment Ratio of 20%. It was great but short-lived. Since then the annual growth rate has not maintained the same tempo, though the GER has crossed the 26.7% mark.

The current position reveals that the gender and social gaps seem to be narrowing down. Though the expansion process has accelerated during this century, it is still low for the country to become globally competitive. Therefore, there is a need to expand the system. It is also important to further pro-actively address the concerns of social and regional equity in higher education, as its futuristic agenda. This will require continued special support to historically disadvantaged groups for their faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth and enhanced effort to improve enrolment ratios and reduce drop-out rates, especially for girls among Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities. 

The expansion of higher education in India is accompanied by widening disparities across different regions, genders and social groups. The inter-state disparities in enrollment have increased over a period of time. Though the social disparities continue to be large, the disparities between gender groups are narrowing down. The state policies need to focus not only on expansion but also on equity in expansion. Some of the states like Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, etc, need to accord greater priority to higher education in the coming years.

In spite of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, a large number of differently-abled persons continue to exist on the margins of the society and have yet to fully benefit from participation in higher education. Initiation of special action plans in consultation with the stakeholders need to be ensured so that their concerns are adequately met. 

Indian higher education provided in its majority of institutions needs a boost in its quality. Some of the important factors influencing quality are infrastructure, teachers and the teaching-learning process. Many universities and affiliated colleges have poor infrastructural facilities and face severe shortage of qualified teachers. In general, around 40% of the teaching positions remain vacant in many institutions which is a cause of concern. Scaling of teachers in the university system should become a priority agenda for the country.

The UGC established External Quality Assurance (EQA) mechanisms to carry out accreditation through the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in 1994, and the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) by the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in the same year. Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) mechanisms have also been established at the institutional level. However, the progress in accrediting institutions is very slow in India and a majority of institutions are yet to be accredited. Recently, the UGC has stipulated regulations that accreditation is a pre-condition to become eligible for funds. Similarly, the AICTE has made accreditation by NBA mandatory for all technical institutions. The ministry has also introduced another quality initiative in September 2015 in the name of National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). This framework is used for ranking universities and institutions based on nine broad parameters. Efforts need to be intensified to meet the expectations in this regard as a significant input towards qualitative transformation of education.

Quality of higher education basically determines the level at which our university system is functioning. It sets a basic benchmark for ensuring the quality of mind of the youth coming out of the university system and their capacity to generate knowledge commensurate with developments taking place globally. In addition, it also has to ensure parity with international systems of higher learning. There is a need to move through the milestones which still have to be covered in bringing us closer to the coveted achievements in higher education. 

Curriculum reform is at the heart of what happens to the young minds in enriching them with knowledge and values and inculcates in them a spirit of inquiry, courage to question, creativity, objectivity, problem solving skills, decision making skills and aesthetic sensibility. Updating of curricula in different subjects was undertaken in 2013 in Central universities but this exercise needs to be attended to periodically so that our students do not learn things which may have to be unlearnt later. It may be helpful in reviewing some basic concerns, namely: Do our curricula in different subjects match indigenous expectations and also match requirements of international competitiveness? Do our assessment and evaluation procedures go beyond recall of information embodied as content of different disciplines? To what extent have we become at home with Choice Based Credit System (CBCS)? What curriculum transactional approaches will shift the focus from only teaching to ensuring learning?

Good teaching is as important as good research. Proverbially, we have focused on assessment of performance of our academic faculty largely in terms of their research publications. The result of this has been that faculty and students develop greater interest in increasing the number of publications unmindful of what the publications contribute to knowledge. It has added to sub-standard research. There has to be much greater focus of the faculty to produce quality research which meaningfully contributes to the body of knowledge. 

While research is important as a prime function of a university, it is no less important that the primacy to excellence in teaching is also catapulted to its place of rightful dignity. Good research has a symbiotic relationship with good teaching. Academics who have established their credentials as good pedagogues should also be treated at the same level as good researchers. Therefore, some fresh thinking is called for, namely: Should there be incentives for good teaching as for research? What parameters will assess it? Should we move to student assessment of teachers? Should publications of faculty on innovations in teaching not have parity with research publications?

Patents of innovations, based on research accomplished in the universities, have not received the attention they deserve. Multi- and interdisciplinary research, cutting across disciplines and the departments of a university, is confined only to a few islands in the university system. How do we ensure that interdisciplinary research takes firm roots in the culture of our universities? Can individual universities undertake substantive research initiatives to address issues of critical national importance like renewable energy, community health, climate change and disaster management? We have been talking about the university-industry interface to give a boost to research and development (R&D) for long, but there is not much headway. How this interface works in other countries could be studied so that we can adopt/adapt international best practices to strengthen this interface in our national context.

Creating Global Alliance for Institutes for Research, Innovation and Technology Development needs serious attention. It is admitted that establishing global alliance is more feasible among institutions operating at the same frequency of intellectual productivity as their counterparts in other parts of the globe. The issues of raising standards of research, innovation and technology development within the country would require to be addressed at various levels to improve the possibility of their becoming partners of a global alliance. Institutions that have had a long and reasonably good academic culture of research and innovations too have been facing serious procedural problems such as lack of administrative support, delay in clearance of research proposals, timely release of funds and institutional monitoring of research needs. Most of our universities need to strengthen the support for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) related initiatives in order to encourage successful patenting as well as innovation in teaching and research. The problems which impede the intellectual output of the university system need to be mitigated for enhancing global partnership in higher education.

These are the long-standing concerns that have repeatedly been raised, debated and investigated in piecemeal manner with no end to problems faced by the ambivalent university system. The time is running out when the yesteryears’ fail-safe approach needs to be replaced by a shared understanding of the issues and the strategies to resolve them.   

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

AVOIDABLE CONTROVERSY OVER THE MOTERA STADIUM RENAMING

Pankaj Vohra

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By renaming the newly-built Motera stadium after Narendra Modi, the Gujarat Cricket Association and the state administration have created a totally avoidable controversy which could cause acute embarrassment to the Prime Minister. Many of the BJP’s opponents have been most critical of the fact that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose name was synonymous with the venue, has been insulted. On its part, the BJP has been at pains to clarify that the stadium was going to be one amongst many that would be part of the Sardar Patel sports complex. The Prime Minister is an iconic figure from the state but there are many amongst his own party colleagues who believe that places should not be named after living persons. If that was happening in the past, it was wrong and should not be repeated. Two mistakes do not constitute a right.

The entire matter has snowballed into a political battle where the BJP is claiming that Wankhede Stadium is named after a politician and so is Chepauk in Chennai which is now known as the Chidambaram Stadium. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru and Rajiv Gandhi ground in Hyderabad are other examples. This may be so but renaming any place is like erasing history. In New Delhi, most of the roads that existed in Lutyens’ zone were given a new identity. The Curzon Road, for instance, is now Kasturba Gandhi Marg and the Willingdon Crescent is called the Mother Teresa Crescent. Similarly, Irwin Hospital was rechristened as Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital and the Willingdon Hospital became the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Very few people may be aware that many years ago, even the famous Eden Gardens was briefly renamed as Ranji Stadium but the old name was restored. In Delhi, there was a huge uproar when the historic Ferozeshah Kotla was named as the Arun Jaitley stadium, something which my university senior and friend himself would not have supported, had he been alive. Ferozeshah Kotla should always remain Ferozeshah Kotla and like cricket venues around the world, should have stands named after famous cricketers. The bust that needed to have been put there should have been of Lal Amarnath, independent India’s first cricket skipper who used to spend most of his time watching and guiding youngsters at this place.

There are cricket lovers who would have been pleased to have Vinoo Mankad’s name associated with the Motera stadium. The late Indian allrounder was perhaps the greatest cricketer who hailed from Gujarat. We must learn to honour our sportspersons. Milkha Singh became a legend in his lifetime but never got his due. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, along with Bishen Bedi, E.A.S. Prassana and B.S. Chandrashekar, have been ignored for too long. Ajit Pal Singh was the most gifted hockey centre half of his time who led India to a monumental World Cup victory in 1975. Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone, P.T. Usha, Ashok Kumar, Rahul Dravid and Salim Durrani have inspired so many youngsters.

The main point is that if many wrongs were done during the Congress regime, the party is now bearing the consequences. Surely, the BJP does not want to emulate the Congress by replicating the mistakes. It would not like to land in a similar position ever. PM Modi is the most popular leader of the country. His contributions would be acknowledged by posterity and he would get due recognition in history.

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Opinion

Women and the case of Sabarimala pilgrimage

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala has often found itself in the eye of a storm because of the ‘ban’ on women of reproductive age from entering the temple. The tradition needs to be scrutinised in detail to address certain misconceptions about it.

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Sabarimala is a pilgrimage centre in mid-east Kerala, dedicated to the deity Ayyappan. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and surrounded by eighteen hills, it is among the major pilgrimage centres in south India, and even in the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘Kumbh Mela’ of the South on account of the large number of devotees it attracts, numbering anywhere between 17 million and 50 million pilgrims annually. Lord Ayyappan has many temples dedicated to him in Kerala; nonetheless, the Sabarimala temple is perhaps the best known among them (Vaidyanathan, 1978).

THE FOUNDING MYTHS

Ayyappan is said to be the product of the union of Vishnu and Shiva, the two major foci of devotional Hinduism. Both gods are typically represented as male, so his birth through them requires a word of explanation. Shiva possessed a demon devotee called Bhasmasura, who, through severe penance, won a boon from Shiva which gave him the power to reduce anything to ashes by pointing his finger at it. Once he received this boon, Bhasmasura attempted to test it on Shiva himself. Shiva thus found himself running across the cosmos with the demon in hot pursuit. Vishnu decided to intervene and save Shiva. He, therefore, metamorphosed into a beautiful damsel by the name of Mohini (or ‘the Enchantress’) whose sight distracted Bhasmasura from his pursuit. Bewitched by her beauty, Bhasmasura wanted to please her. Mohini, then, induced Bhasmasura to learn a bit of dancing to win her over. In the course of these movements, she made him point his finger at himself which instantly reduced him to ashes, thereby saving Shiva (Vaidyanathan 1978, 21–22). The legend maintains that Ayyappan was the son which arose from the union of Vishnu—in the form of Mohini—and Shiva. This story can be found in the Puranas (Bhagavata Purana).

Thereafter the child was abandoned in the forest where he was picked up by the King of Palan, who brought him up as his own. At this point, the depredations of another demon by the name of Mahisi enter the narrative. It just so happens that it was Ayyappan’s destiny to slay this demon and at the age of twelve, Ayyappan confronted Mahisi and defeated it (Vaidyanathan 1978, 27). Out of the vanquished demon arose a beautiful damsel by the name of Panchambika (also known as Malikappurathamma), who had been condemned by a curse to the state of demonhood (Vaidyanathan 1978, 19–21). This beauty, now released from her curse, asked for Ayyappan’s hand in marriage (Vaidyanathan 1978, 28, and 46). He initially resisted her offer but then accepted the proposal on one condition: He would marry her only after there were no more petitioners left for him to take care of. Panchambika accepted the condition and still awaits him in a separate temple north of his.

According to this narrative, there are two main reasons why women of reproductive age do not visit the shrine of Ayyappan. The first is that women do not wish to dishonour the resolve of the ‘bride-to-be’ who awaits her groom, and the second is that they do not wish to offer any temptation to Ayyappan, who had decided to remain celibate while taking care of his petitioners. These explanations are important as they indicate that the reasons underlying the practice of women of reproductive age refraining from visiting the shrine of Ayyappan have nothing to do with menstrual taboos, as has often been suggested rather rashly (Sridhar 2018). To emerge now from the midst of tradition into the hopefully clear light of history, the adoption of Ayyappan by the King of Palan is assigned by devotees to the period between 1105 and 1121 (Sridhar 2018, 47).

THE PILGRIMAGE

The people who undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage may belong to any faith or caste and mingle unreservedly as pilgrims. In fact, they are all supposed to be in a state of Brahmanhood (Sridhar 2018, 50). Before embarking on the pilgrimage, there is a formal function at their residence where they put on a garland of tulsi or rudraksha, which will be worn for the full duration of the pilgrimage of at least 41 days. This ceremony is known as maladharam. During this period, the pilgrim leads an ascetic life which includes bathing regularly, eating sattvika food, abstaining from meat, drinks and drugs, and observing the life of a celibate. One also carries with oneself a holy bundle called irumudi which has two compartments: one reserved for the material needs for regular puja or offerings to be made to the deity, the other for holding personal items. As the pilgrimage starts, the pilgrim-to-be undergoes the ceremony called kettunira or ‘pali kettu’ (Sridhar 2018, 66). 

When the pilgrim arrives at the shrine, he has to climb the eighteen granite steps known as patinettampadi. It is said that “at no other temple is so much importance attached to the steps leading to the sanctum” (Sridhar 2018, 106). The devotees must fulfil two conditions in order to tread up the steps: (i) Observe the 41-day penance prescribed for the pilgrims, and (ii) carry the irumudi on their heads. These granite steps may be used only twice: Once when approaching the sanctum with their irumudi, and when leaving the temple once the pilgrimage is over. Separate steps are provided for use on other occasions.

HISTORY OF RESTRICTION OF WOMEN

The preceding sections were meant to prepare us to deal with the main issue this article addresses, mainly, whether the prohibition of women of reproductive age to participate in the Sabarimala pilgrimage is discriminatory.

The first thing to inquire into is the history of this restriction to discuss the question comprehensively, as there is considerable misunderstanding surrounding the issue. A respected Indian scholar Rajeev Bhargava recently asserted during the course of the Hindu Huddle of 2019 in Bengaluru that the restriction was first imposed in 1991 by the High Court of Kerala and that the restriction imposed by the judgement of the court could always be removed by the judgment of another (superior) court (The Hindu, 2019).

This creates the impression that the issue surrounding the restriction is merely a legal and recent matter. However, the material presented in this article indicates otherwise. Let us examine the antiquity of this restriction by moving backwards in history.

It was just noted that, according to Professor Rajeev Bharagava, this restriction goes no further than 1991. This was the year in which the High Court gave its decision on the public interest litigation (PIL) filled on 24 November 1990 by S. Mahendran, the secretary of the WMA Library in Buzhavathu, Changanassery and supported by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Ayyappa Sewa Sangham (S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore, 1991). It is worth noting that he was prompted to make the application upon seeing a photograph in the Janmabhoomi Daily newspaper on 19 September 1990 in which the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika was seen conducting the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at the Sabarimala temple in the presence of her daughter, the mother of the child, who was apparently within the reproductive age bracket of 10 to 50 years of age (Nair, 2018). This clearly shows that the evidence of this restriction can be moved from 1991 to 1990 and even beyond it, as the petition was filed on the basis of the perception than an existing restriction being violated.

The Kerala High Court, in acting on the PIL examined the then Sabarimala temple thantri, or high priest, Sri Neelakandaru, on 5 April 1991. In the course of this examination, the thantri asserted before the Division Bench that “women belonging to the 10 to 50 age group were prohibited from entering the temple even before 1950” (Rajagopal, 2016). This means that the evidence for the existence of the tradition concerning the restriction can be moved backwards not only from 1991 to 1990 but further to 1950.

That the restriction was in place even earlier is suggested by the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States carried out by Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner, two lieutenants of the Madras Infantry, and published by the then Madras government in two volumes in 1893 and 1901. The survey was, however, completed earlier in 1820, after nearly five years of research and refers to the restriction as follows: “Old women and young girls may approach the temple, but those who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life are forbidden to approach [it].” It is, therefore, clear that the restriction was already in place in the early years of the 19th century (Rajagopal, 2016).

According to historian M.G. Sasibhooshan, the ban was an “unwritten law for decades” (Press Trust of India, 2018). This seems to be a reasonable assumption, although we have no solid evidence as to how far back it can be traced. The High Court of Kerala eventually concluded that “the usage was prevalent from time immemorial” (The News Minute, 2018).

We take up next the questions of exceptions to this rule which have been cited to challenge the authenticity of the tradition. Five such exceptions have been discussed in the literature of the subject and pertain to cases involving (i) Devaswom Commissioner (Shrimati) Chandrika, (ii) Tamil actress Jayashree, (iii) Kannada actress Jayamala, (iv) T.K.A. Nair and (v) the Queen of Travancore. The first example relates to the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika, which initially prompted the litigation in 1990. She conducted the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at Sabarimala in the presence of her daughter. Although she and her granddaughter fell outside the reproductive age bracket, the same could not be said of her daughter. The next case to consider is the claim that a Tamil film-song called Nambinal Keduvathillai, which was shot at the temple in 1986, featured women of reproductive age on the famous ‘eighteen steps’ leading to the deity. Jayashree was one of the featured actresses at the temple (The News Minute, 2018). Then comes the case of the Kannada actress Jayamala, who has claimed to have touched the idol of Lord Ayyappan in the temple when she was 27 (Press Trust of India, 2018). The fourth case pertains to the putative restriction being broken in 1939, when, according to T.K.A. Nair, former advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his choroonu (the first meal-eating ceremony for children) was performed at the Sabarimala temple when he was sitting on his mother’s lap, facing the deity. He repeated this claim several times on public television (The News Minute, 2018). Also, in 1939, the Maharaja(King) of Travancore visited the temple accompanied by his Maharani (Queen) in connection with the choroonu ceremonies. It is clear, however, that this could have been a case of royal privilege being exercised (Nair, 2018).

These five instances seem to represent special cases or exemptions. In the first case, the person involved was the very commissioner of the board which ran the Sabarimala temple. In the next two cases, film actresses are involved, who could perhaps claim special access on account of the exigencies of filming. One should keep in mind the Indian obsession with films and film heroes and heroines, and especially with their glamour. Similarly, the obviously high status enjoyed by Nair’s family perhaps explains the privilege enjoyed by him, and of course, the Queen represented royalty. Moreover, in relation to the last case, historian M.G. Shashibooshan claims to have photos of the Queen of Travancore’s visit to the temple taken by her son, indicating that she did, in fact, stop before the eighteen steps (The News Minute, 2018).

These cases suggest that the ban was not strictly observed in the latter half of the 20th century, rather than that it did not exist. One would require more evidence to conclude that the cases of the presence of women at Sabarimala, noted above, do not represent exceptions to the rule, but instead constitute proof of the very non-existence of the tradition placing a restriction on women.

This is part one of a two-part article.

The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

THE ‘CONGRESSISATION’ OF BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY

Priya Sahgal

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With the renaming of a cricket stadium (of course it had to be the world’s largest) after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP has completed its final step towards its ‘Congressisation’. Of course, various BJP spokespersons are arguing that the Congress has no right to criticise considering the number of buildings, schemes, airports and chowks that have been named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. And it is right when it makes that point but now has lost the moral right to lecture the Congress. The fact that the said stadium has an Ambani-end and an Adani-end of course gives a delicious twist to the Opposition, which has for long been claiming that the BJP is a party of “Hum Do, Hamare Do” (run by PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the benefit of Adani and Ambani). Rahul Gandhi was the first to tweet this.

It’s not just the naming and renaming game. There is much more to it. With PM Modi we are also seeing the centralisation of power in the BJP, of the same kind that exists (or is it existed?) in the Congress. The culture of High Command is not new to the Congress but certainly new to the BJP. Even during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership there were comparisons to Jawaharlal Nehru but they were related to the kind of secular brand of Hindutva he espoused than anything else. In fact, the Vajpayee-Advani era saw its fair share of revolts from state leaders, the most famous being when Uma Bharti stormed out of a party meeting in full camera glare. Today no one would have the nerve to contradict the Modi-Shah duo, let alone plot a revolt.

In fact, we see the opposite happening in the Congress where a group of 23 leaders got together and wrote a letter to the party high command complaining about the lack of leadership. This would never have happened to a Congress led by Indira Gandhi or even Sonia Gandhi in her earlier stint as Party President (recall what happened when Pawar & Co raised the banner of revolt). But sadly, today, it’s a very different Congress; and it’s also a very different BJP.

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Opinion

Chabahar Port, North-South Transport Corridor & Uzbek deal: A game-changing trio

India’s operations in Chabahar Port, development of the International North-South Transport Corridor and partnership with Uzbekistan will not only strengthen New Delhi’s influence over the region and improve connectivity with the larger Eurasian space, but will also counter China’s attempts at gaining ground in the region.

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We all love our great country India and we believe in our Bhartiyata. We are people with 20,000 years of grand history, culture and civilisational values with us, which we are proud of, cherish and are in love with. We had been contributing almost 25 percent of the global GDP just before the British came. Our clout was known around the world for centuries and has been responsible for shaping our history to a great extent.

But, change is a constant factor as time passes by, and we were no exception to it. We all know about recent occurrences in history and how we have been a part of it. Today, India has emerged as a global powerhouse, with an over 800 million youth population, the fastest growing economy in the world, the third most powerful military force, the fifth biggest economy by GDP and third by PPP, and the contributions of its 1.3 billion people, who make India the largest democracy in the world. Believe it or not, this has all happened in the last 70 years.

India’s influence is increasing by the day and we are seen as a global player and powerhouse. So, it is important for us to increase our sphere of influence within Asia and around the world. Let there be no mistake about this, as this is sacrosanct and not optional. The emergence of India on the world stage has been noted but some people are still reluctant to acknowledge and accept this fact. A wonderful thing is that time is on our side and we are progressing in leaps and bounds this time. Whether one acknowledges it or not, it makes no difference in the scale of our plans and ambitions.

Our imminent focus is Asia. When we talk of Asia, Central Asia takes centre stage as it is the gateway to Europe. Most often, in the noise created by our domestic politics, international issues and achievements get lost unfortunately. Just look at a few weeks back when, in the middle of the Covid crisis, we achieved a few breathtaking milestones and checkmated our arch rivals with our multifaceted, robust and aggressive diplomacy under PM Modi ji and Dr Jaishankar ji.

Chabahar is one of the biggest ports in the region which gives us our desired gateway to Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and its warm waters. Chabahar is no ordinary port – it has a handling capacity of 12 lakh tons of cargo and 82,000 containers. The Chabahar port is operational today and has been run by an Indian company since August last year.

We already have partners like Afghanistan who are going to use this port. It also cements our ties with Iran. At the peak of the Covid crisis, we have shipped more than 75,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan as humanitarian assistance and sent other help during the pandemic through this port. It might be worth it to mention that China has been trying hard, along with Pakistan, to stop our access to and influence on Central Asia, but has failed at it after we took over the operations of the Chabahar port successfully. We all recall how China tried to woo Iran and ruin our investments there, which we managed to overcome without too much noise and chest thumping.

Chabahar helps us to balance the influence of China on the Gwadar port which is just a few nautical miles away. China has been seen recently fortifying Gwadar, and, if the need arises, Chabahar will be a great balance of power and military paradigms and help to offset the relevance of the CPEC, which is anchored around Gwadar and has already hit serious roadblocks in the GB and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan. However, looking at the current state of things, I doubt if Gwadar will ever be a viable commercial option and how far it will pull down the OBOR.

India is also working on the INSTC, i.e., International North South Transport Corridor, which will be an MMTC, i.e., multimodal transport network or corridor with ship, rail and road links. It will start from Mumbai and pass through India, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Europe. This route is 7,200 kms in length and will start from Mumbai and end in Baku, Russia and will have the potential to be extended to Europe. It will help reduce both freight time and costs. To give you an idea, it will cost USD 2,500 per 15 tons of cargo, which is quite an amount, looking at the quantity of cargo which can pass through this route in a year.

Recently, India signed a $440 million deal with Uzbekistan which was announced by the MEA on 11 December, immediately after PM Modi’s meeting with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is a strategic win as this has been done for the first time in the history of India. Uzbekistan has agreed to use the Chabahar port and also be a part of the INSTC which makes it a more potent and viable option. We all know that Uzbekistan is land-locked and needs reliable port access. It is also a land full of petroleum, coal and uranium with some sizable reserves of mica and other minerals. I won’t be reluctant to say that we as a country need these resources. So, this deal gets us trade, minerals, and a partner for Chabahar and INSTC, which is a great achievement and also counter balances a few things.

We have countered the Iran-China petroleum deal worth $480 million with a better deal where we stand to gain as explained above. Moreover, the INSTC will only get stronger with more partners joining, ultimately strengthening the Chabahar port and increasing our influence in the region. Needless to say, we also managed to do it without China and Pakistan being involved.

Thus, PM Modi’s visit to the land of Timur and Babur was a phenomenal geopolitical milestone in terms of long-term strategic gains, and something to be proud of, especially if we consider the fact that it was achieved during the Covid-19 pandemic with the ongoing tensions on the LAC and LoC.

Chabahar helps us to balance the influence of China on the Gwadar port which is just a few nautical miles away. China has been seen recently fortifying Gwadar, and, if the need arises, Chabahar will be a great balance of power and military paradigms and help to offset the relevance of the CPEC, which is anchored around Gwadar and has already hit serious roadblocks in the GB and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan.

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