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Kerala is the only state in India governed by the Communist Parties: LDF Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is one of the most outspoken leaders against the far-right agenda of PM Modi, says Vijay Prashad of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research

[Correction: This piece contained references to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple as a “mosque.” These were made in error and were referring to the temple. The error has been fixed.]

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The month of January has been consumed by a storm of protest by workers and women in India. On the very first day of the year, over 5.5 million women protested, forming a 385 mile wall in the state of Kerala, demanding their Supreme Court-guaranteed right to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, a popular Hindu pilgrimage site, that is still banning women of menstruating age. Then there were the university students, university teachers, public school teachers and midday meal laborers who prepare meals for millions of poor school children. They were on strike demanding an end to the policies that have encroached on the livelihood of millions of working poor in India. All of this culminated in a general strike on January 8 and 9, when 150 million workers walked off the job in protest. The two day protests were organized by dozens of unions representing garment workers, government workers, bank workers, transportation workers, steelworkers, auto manufacturing workers, and more. They paralyzed the country for two whole days.

Now, the state of Kerala appears to be a particular site of this unrest, and a contestation is rooted in the governing body there. Now to discuss all of this with me is Vijay Prashad. He’s the author of dozens of books, among them No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism. He’s also the executive director of the TriContinental Institute for Social Research. Welcome, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay, let’s start off with how the Western media has been covering this women’s wall in Kerala. Of course, you know, it is giving it a lot of attention, and it is much-deserved attention. It’s quite the wall, it’s quite the size. It’s visually very compelling, given how long it is, and how many women are participating from all walks of life to fight for their guaranteed right affirmed by the Supreme Court to enter the [temple]. But what are the underlying political issues that is flaring up the continuing protests in Kerala that we are seeing?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is Kerala is the only state in India which is governed by the left, by the Communist Party. It’s the Left Democratic Front which has formed the government in Kerala. The chief minister of the Left Democratic Front government, Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, has been one of the most outspoken people against the far right wing agenda of the BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I mean, this battle between Mr. Vijayan and Mr. Modi has been going on for the last three years, with Mr. Vijayan standing for, you might call it, secular, forward thinking, progressive values against what he considers to be the kind of reactionary ideas being proposed by the BJP and Mr. Modi. That’s the longrunning kind of drama here. India is going to come to a general election in a few months, which means that Mr. Modi is going to once again go to the people with his bona fides. So this is the big broad national context for what’s happening in Kerala.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, why is this coming to a head right now?

VIJAY PRASHAD: The conjunctural issue, or the issue that spurred on this particular clash was over a temple in southern Kerala, the Sabarimala temple, which is dedicated to the so-called celibate god Ayyappa. This temple has never allowed women between the age of 10 and 50–in other words, so-called, the age of menstruation–never allowed women between these ages to enter the temple. This September, in a very farsighted judgment, the Indian Supreme Court said that this is entirely discriminatory. This is not within the values–you can’t justify this saying it’s tradition and Hinduism, and so on. So the Supreme Court said that the temple must allow women between the age of 10 and 50 to enter the temple.

The moment they did this, that big national clash between Mr. Vijayan and Mr. Modi, representing really two visions of India, came into play, because the right wing in India and inside Kerala said that there is no way we are going to abide by the Supreme Court judgment. Meanwhile, the Left government in Kerala said no, we have to abide by the judgement, because this is about women’s emancipation. It’s not just about the entry to the temple. This is about the dignity of women, the question of using menstruation as a political weapon, as it were.

So you know, this sets up a very serious debate in India, a discussion about the place of Kerala. Mr. Vijayan has been giving a series of speeches in which he’s defriended so-called the Renaissance tradition of Kerala. And he’s suggested that traditions that are humiliating should not be maintained just because they’re traditions. And in order to push this forward, he called on January 1st for a wall to be built across the 620 kilometers of Kerala. Five and a half million women gathered to build this wall. Three days later, the right wing held a so-called ban, or a strike, which was entirely unsuccessful except that they came on the streets with bombs and with guns, and started a kind of reign of terror. Mr. Vijayan said that they are trying to make Kerala into a war zone, and that has been actually the cause of these clashes.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, now, the guardians of the [temple] say they have the right to maintain the traditions and the practice of celibacy at the temple, and somehow women of menstruating age interferes with that practice. And this position has gotten more entrenched since the Supreme Court decision was handed down in September, clearly saying that women have the right to enter the temple. So what does celibacy have to do with with this, and the constitutional guarantee that women have?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the Indian Constitution is very clear that there is no bar because of menstruation, there is no privilege because of celibacy. I mean, these are ideas that don’t belong in the realm of the Indian Constitution.

And I want to return to the left Democratic government in Kerala for a minute. Last year, this government took a very farsighted decision in providing free sanitary napkins–in other words, you know, pads and so on–inside public schools in Kerala. The reason for this was that the government or Piranayi Vijayan made the argument that because a young woman is having her period, she should not be disallowed from coming to school. And girls were not coming to school because they didn’t have, for instance, sanitary napkins, pads and so on. So the state gave these for free in order to make a school itself a place of equality for boys and girls.

So this argument against menstrual cycles being a barrier is something quite fundamental to the dignity and rights of women. And so I think that the temple’s argument about celibacy and menstruation really is on the wrong side of history. You know, we know historically inside not only Hinduism but other traditions as well, we know that the menstrual cycle has been used as a weapon against women, to make women subordinate to men. And this is exactly what the temple is doing; at least, the head priest and so on who’ve close the temple to so-called purify it. You know, there’s a kind of ridiculousness that they’re, you know, maintaining in their position. But as I say they’re on the wrong side of history on this one.

SHARMINI PERIES: So Vijay, this kind of a demonstration, just the mere science of it is so profound and unbelievably effective. What impact will this have beyond the demand for the entry of the [temple]?

VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, it’s five and a half million women who stood in the wall just in Kerala, and tens of thousands of women outside the state. Kerala as a state of 35 million people. So if five and a half million women were standing in that wall, Sharmini, that’s a very large percentage of the population of the state of Kerala. And you have to understand that these demonstrations, as much as one might call them symbolic, these demonstrations give people a great deal of strength, and there are going to be cascading protests out of this. I don’t think the government is going to back down on the campaign to open the temple, and to fight, in a sense, against this kind of culture of discriminating against women based on things like menstruation, and so on. I mean, I feel like the existence of this women’s wall, the success of it, that five and a half million women stood in line to take a pledge to protect the Renaissance values of Kerala, and so on, I think this is going to stiffen the spine of the government. It’s not going to back down. And I think this is a serious and important cultural debate inside India about the status of women and about the emancipation of women.

SHARMINI PERIES: And finally, Vijay, earlier you said that there is an upcoming election. This is the upcoming general election in India that may happen in May. What impact will these demonstrations–the women’s demonstration, as well as the demonstrations, hundreds of them, going on across the country–what impact will they have on the upcoming election, the national election possibly happening in May?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the BJP–that is, the government–the party of Mr. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has certainly had some defeats in the regional elections, the state elections, in Chhattisgarh, in Madhya Pradesh, and in Rajasthan. In Kerala the BJP unit has taken a position firmly behind the temple authorities. It has essentially shown its hand. It has also used very dangerous, and I think quite disgusting, cost rhetoric against the Chief Minister of Kerala, Mr, Pinarayi Vijayan. But what’s also quite shocking is that the principal national opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has come out on behalf of the temple authorities. They have not staked the position for progressive values against this reactionary kind of thing. In fact, Mr. Shashi Tharoor, who is a member of parliament from Kerala, has come out saying, you know, we are for women’s rights, but we are also behind tradition.

I think this is quite shocking, that the other principal opposition party in India, the Congress Party, hasn’t clarified its position, come out fully behind women’s rights, against this kind of reactionary patriarchy. I mean, here, standing behind tradition means that you’re defending patriarchy. It’s quite clear. I don’t think this is about tradition, per se. This is about patriarchy. It’s quite shocking that the Congress Party, particularly Mr. Shashi Tharoor, who puts himself forward as a progressive liberal, would defend the temple authorities.

So I mean, I don’t know if this issue itself is going to define the election that is coming up in a few months, but it will certainly be in the backs of a lot of people’s mind when they go to vote around India.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay, we’ll leave it there for now. Obviously there’s so much more to discuss leading up to the May elections, and we’ll cover that as much as we can. I thank you so much for joining us.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.