Two women activists who came under heavy police escort up to the sanctum of the Sabarimala shrine in Southern India beat a retreat on Friday following stiff resistance from protesting Ayyappa devotees and priests and a government order to police to turn back.
The world famous hilltop shrine in Kerala dedicated to the celibate god Ayyappa is witnessing a conflict between centuries-old religious practices that ban entry to women of menstrual age and a weeks-old Supreme Court ruling that lifted the ban ensuring them gender equality enshrined in the Constitution.
The leftist and progressive government in Kerala had vowed to implement the top court’s ruling by assuring women devotees of all ages a safe passage to the temple.
However, the government corrected its stand on Friday by saying that while genuine devotees will be given a safe passage to the temple, activists will not be allowed to score a point by staging a showdown with devotees. Police will not escort them to the temple.
Temple affairs minister K Surendran criticised the officers for giving protection to the two women without checking whether they were activists or devotees. He also instructed them not to resort to force or evict protesting devotees from the sanctum of the temple.
He said journalists should not be allowed beyond a point for covering events.
The minister’s statement came amid a threat from the temple priest Rajeevaru that he will close the temple if women are allowed in. The priest said he is with the devotees and believes in the sanctity of centuries-old temple practices.
For the first time, priests stopped the rituals on Friday and joined the protesters gathered below the 18 steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum.
Surendran said stopping the daily religious rituals and closing the temple would be a disaster which should be averted at all costs.
High drama at shrine
Some 300 police personnel in riot gear led by Inspector General S Sreejith formed a human wall around TV journalist Kavitha Jakkal of Hyderabad and Rehana Fathima of Kochi after the women sought their help to visit the temple.
They were stopped 500 metre away from the shrine by about 50 peaceful protesters chanting hymns.
Sreejith tried to explain police role in implementing the court ruling by helping the two young women reach the temple. The protesters remained defiant and tension mounted.
The minister, who was monitoring the situation, instructed the police chief to escort the two women back to Pamba base camp.
Two motorcycle-borne people ransacked Fathima’s home in Ernakulam. Kavitha said she will make another attempt to visit the temple.
A 46-year-old woman, Mary Sweety, working in the Gulf too tried to visit the temple on Friday. She was turned back mid-way by the police who explained to her the tense situation prevailing near the shrine.
Kerala has been on the edge since the Sabarimala temple gates were opened for the first time on Oct 17 after the historic court ruling late last month.
On that day, a young woman and atheist CS Liby of Cherthala was stopped on her way to temple. On her Facebook post, Liby said she was not interested in visiting Sabarimala temple but made an attempt just to prove that democracy thrives in India.
On Oct 17, a New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj, who was heading towards the temple, turned back when protesters stopped her at Appachi medu.