The Dharma Sastha Temple at Sabarimala will not open to the public this month as was announced earlier, Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said.
The move comes as a setback to opposition parties Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, which had been trying to portray the Left Front government has ‘anti-Hindu’ for its decision to allow temples to reopen after the COVID-19 lock-down.
The Congress, in particular, was quick to switch its position on the issue after the government announced two weeks ago that it was going to give permission for temples and churches to open early June.
The opposition party had repeatedly criticized the government for a delay in opening the temples during the lock-down, pointing out that if people can go to liquor shops to buy alcohol, they should also be allowed to go into temples.
Due to fervent demands from the Congress and some religious organizations, the government decided to allow the opening of temples, churches and mosques, as recommended by the central government.
However, it did impose stringent conditions such as the provision of hand sanitizers and the imposition of limits on the number of simultaneous users.
The move stumped the opposition parties, and forced them to change tack. They then attacked the government for coming up with a plan to endanger the lives of devotees.
Both the BJP and the Congress Party called on the government to reject the central government’s recommendation that places of worship should be allowed to reopen from this month.
At this time, the chief priest of the Sabarimala temple waded into the controversy by writing a letter to administering body Travancore Devaswom Board announcing that he was no longer in favor of reopening the hill-top shrine, given the risk of infected pilgrims coming to the temple from Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran today said the government had conducted discussions with all stakeholders, including the chief priest, and in view of the danger of viral transmission, a decision has been taken to keep the temple closed to the public for the foreseable future.
He said the government had to go through this circuitous route given its previous experience with Sabarmala temple.
The Left Front had suffered its most ignominious defeat in the 2019 general elections after it lost on 95% of the seats from the state due to a successful campaign by the Congress and the BJP to paint it as anti-Hindu following a fiasco at the temple.
The government had, in late 2018, sent a posse of police to escort two women into the shrine to enforce a Supreme Court order, violating the customs and traditions of the shrine.
Surendran said LDF’s rivals were hoping for a repeat of the situation this time too, assuming that the government would not the central recommendation that places of worship be opened from this month.
“You can imagine the kind of demonstrations and protests that they were gearing up for. We wanted to avoid such a situation,” Surendran said, when asked about the flip-flop.
He said the government is fully seized of the risk of viral spread via religious congregations. “We are fully aware of the risks, where were highlighted by the chief priest. But imagine if we had not opened the temples after the central government gave its permission? Can you imagine what would have been the situation in Kerala,” he said, in a reference to the widespread agitations and protests seen in 2018.
He said the decision by the state government to heed central government’s advice and allow places of worship to open had thwarted anyone who was conspiring to create mass mobilization over the issue.
“People who were raising slogans every day to open the temples have suddenly changed their tune,” he said in an obvious reference to Congress Party leaders like Ramesh Chennithala.
At present, most of the big temples in the state are open, albeit with severe restrictions, as are a substantial number of Christian and Muslim places of worship.
At the same time, a large number of Hindu, Christian and Muslim organizations have decided to keep their institutions closed to the public in an effort to aid COVID-19 control measures.
Kerala is set to go to polls in April next year, and opposition parties are desperate to puncture the goodwill generated by a relatively successful government effort to control the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
Most political observers believe that the Left Front government is set to create history by becoming the first government in the history of the state to win a consecutive second term.