On January 2, 2019, two Kerala women Bindu and Kanakadurga, made history by setting foot in the Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to enter the place of worship.
They were not the first women to try. Several before them, including well-known activist Trupti Desai, had attempted to enter the temple amidst protests and political wrangling. Four transgender women did enter the temple on December 17 after they were initially blocked, but how did Bindu and Kanakadurga succeed where so many cisgender women had failed? In fact, the two of them had previously attempted to go to the temple on December 24, but had been sent back. So, what was different this time around?
The answer is science. And of course, a great support network.
The 'invisible gorilla' in Sabarimala
Bindu and Kanakadurga, who were determined to go to Sabarimala, found like-minded people online. The third person who accompanied them in their mission was Prasad Amore, a psychologist. The three of them had met on a Facebook page started by bio-medical engineer and social activist Shreyas Kanaran, who lives in Kozhikode. The page called Navodhana Keralam Sabarimalaiyilek was started by Shreyas who felt strongly about women's right to enter Sabarimala.
After Bindu and Kanakadurga's failed attempt in December, they realised that they needed a different approach. On discussing with others, it was decided that they would outwit the protesters with psychology. And thus began the meticulous planning.
Speaking to TNM, Amore says, "Many women had attempted to enter the temple but had failed. The government had taken a stance but was unable to implement it due to various reasons. What we're seeing is hypermasculinity. It became clear that women cannot go to Sabarimala openly demanding their rights. It was also clear that the government could not take any strict action against the people assembled there. That's when it became necessary to take a psychological approach."
After Amore became part of the Facebook group, they would have meetings and at times, phone calls. He facilitated the discussions and helped them work out a strategy.
"I was basically communicating ideas with Shreyas. They (the women) trusted me; some of the plans we didn’t tell even each other in advance," he says.
Amore goes on to say that the minute it was announced that a woman was going to Sabarimala, the attention of the media would be fully focused on her.
"It would become very sensational and this would make it impossible for her to go. So we took an alternative approach – the invisible gorilla approach," he says.
"We decided to follow something similar. We will walk very naturally among the crowd. Nobody will expect that the women will just walk into the crowd like that. They will expect them to walk with the help of the police. Also, the women should not panic and their body language should not be abnormal in any way. They should also not stare at anyone and attract attention. These women were brave and were willing to face any consequence for their actions. So they were able to distract everyone's attention," he explains.
Amore adds that the women had the option of dressing in saris to resemble older women, but that they insisted they wear the churidhar.
"They looked young in the churidhar. But still, when we went into the crowd, and the sannidhanam, nobody noticed them or thought of asking why they were there. The reason such a thought never came up is because of how natural they were, creating a psychological blindness in the people around them," he says.
Calling this a 'cognitive bias', Amore says that the human brain tends to take in what it wants to see. A person who focuses on reading about violent crime, for instance, looks at only such news and tends to not register other listed items.
"People have different attention spans. So what we did was to distract them from focusing on us. Even when taking videos and photos, we did it very casually, without calling attention to ourselves. On the way, there was a Tamil man who did say that a young woman was climbing...this was around the Saramkuthi stretch I think. But we did not stop when he said that and kept going. Usually, when someone spots us, we tend to panic, make noise. But we ignored him and kept walking, so his voice was not heard. We had a plan in place to deal with such incidents," he says.
Amore goes on to say that people who were participating in violence were looking for reasons to indulge and that the team had thought about how to handle a situation of potential mob violence.
"Not everyone in a group will be equally violent. We were able to tackle the Tamil man through this means but there was nobody else who raised their voice in protest. Among them too, there might have been people who didn't want women in Sabarimala, but they did not notice these women because they were not expecting to see them there," he says.
Amore further denies the mainstream media reports that claim that the women entered the temple secretly.
"It's not true that they went by ambulance. They were very much part of the crowd. They did not do any hide-and-seek. We have videos of all this. We even went to a tea shop where they had a sherbeth after finishing the darshana. They used the women's toilet, too. In fact, the whole thing was made possible because they went in a crowd," he says.
Contrary to rumours, the women did not use any backdoor entry to the temple but went through the VIP entrance.
"The people who had come there were only thinking about seeing the deity and they did not notice these women among them. This is similar to how we travel by bus and see so many faces without registering anyone – but if an alcoholic makes trouble, we will remember him, otherwise we simply won't notice. It was extremely crowded but they finished the prayer," he says.
The role of the police
Amore is an agnostic and this was his first visit to Sabarimala. Apart from the three of them, there were four policemen in plain clothes who accompanied them, but not in close proximity. However, these policemen were not from the local force.
Dr Amore claims that they had information which showed that some of the police officers on duty at the sannidhanam had earlier leaked out plans about the women who were attempting to enter the shrine. This meant that whenever an attempt was made, the protesters would assemble and foil the effort.
“These are police officers who opposed the women's entry. Therefore police officers who accompanied us were from some other district. Otherwise, this time also, the plan would have been leaked. The officers in Pathanamthitta came to know about it only after Bindu and Kanaka went," he says.
Asked why he took it upon himself to participate in this mission, Dr Amore says, "I am an adventurous person, I like to travel, take on challenges. I wanted the Supreme Court's verdict to be implemented, but in a way that wouldn't be violent. I'm someone who sincerely believes in gender equality and feel women should experience parity as guaranteed by the Constitution. So I only thought of myself as someone who is upholding the Constitution."
Amore adds that the team had undertaken trial runs with the help of the police, though there was no police protection officially and others in the force were not aware about it.
"But the government did know about it," he admits.
The trials involved observing the devotees and seeing where their attentions were, taking note of the sensitive areas where people tend to relax and notice things more and what activities they indulge in around such stretches.
Amore says that Bindu and Kanakadurga stayed at an undisclosed location before they embarked on their trip. He joined them from Thrissur before they started on the trek around 1.30 am.
Having completed the mission successfully, Dr Amore says that he feels satisfied to have been part of a progressive move to take on hypermasculinity and break patriarchal taboos.
"This is definitely a victory for women," he says.
The support network
Johnson is another person who helped the team reach Sabarimala. It was to his house in Ernakulam that Bindu and Kanakadurga returned after the darshana, and refreshed themselves.
Asked why he decided to support the two women when so many before them had failed, he says, "I felt they were more determined and came across as genuine people."
Though Bindu and Johnson have several mutual friends (Bindu has Ernakulam connections since she studied Law in the city), they did not know each other before this. Johnson met her and Kanakadurga for the first time after their failed attempt in December. They were admitted to the Kottayam Medical College and he went there to meet them.
"We may have seen each other in some events earlier, but we never became friends. But we met properly in Kottayam and Bindu later called me," he says.
Johnson is unfazed by the protests.
“Nothing will happen to Sabarimala temple or the faith if women offer prayers there. The devotees have no issue with women entering the temple. It is a problem for the Sangh Parivar and the Nair Service Society only. I don’t have any fear. The people of Kerala are not afraid of the Sangh Parivar. On Thursday, they came out to the streets to protest against the Sangh Parivar, didn't they?“ he asks.