Sabarimala: NYT reporter stopped on way to temple

New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj, who was proceeding to the southern Indian Hindu shrine of Sabarimala under heavy police escort, beat a retreat along with her male friend amid strong protests by Ayyappa devotees at Appachi medu early on Thursday.

Devotees of the celibate god Lord Ayyappa are protesting against a recent Supreme Court ruling that granted women entry into the temple, lifting a centuries-old ban on pilgrims of menstrual age.

Police assured the reporter protection up to the shrine but Raj said she is turning back because of the violent situation. Raj said she was verbally abused and stones were hurled at her.

Earlier, devotees stopped her at Pamba base camp as she was not wearing the traditional black dress which devotees wear and she looked below 50 years of age.

Raj showed them her ID card and explained that she came to report and not to offer prayers at the shrine.

Police finally took the reporter and her companion to Pamba police station for their own safety.

Officers are unable to identify the protesters near the hill temple as all Ayyappa devotees wear the same black, saffron or blue long flowing garment called ‘mundu’.

Eight journalists were attacked by protesters at Nilakkal ahead of Pamba on Wednesday. The incident sparked nationwide condemnation. Protesters also hurled stones at police posted in Nilakkal around 4 pm, an hour before the temple gates opened for devotees for the first time after the historic court ruling.

Despite Prohibitory Order in force in the district since Wednesday midnight, devotees assembled to stop young women from proceeding towards the temple.

On Wednesday, no woman of menstrual age entered the shrine which was a victory of sorts for the protesting Ayyappa devotees.

Hindu groups said women were leading their protests on Wednesday and they had no role in the violence unleashed at Nilakkal.

B Gopalakrishnan, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which heads the federal government, said goons of the leftist provincial government were responsible for Wednesday’s ugly incidents.

According to BJP state chief PS Sreedharan Pillai, from morning, police were hell-bent on provoking the peaceful protesters who were singing hymns at the tent set up near the Nilakkal bus stop.

For no reason, they abruptly destroyed the protesters’ tent, threw away the holy lamp along with their personal goods and tore up the photo of Lord Ayyappa. They then resorted to baton-charge and drove away the protesters to the hill behind.

At Pamba base camp, an 82-year-old family member of Sabarimala priest was arrested along with others as she was singing Ayyappa hyms. Such police high-handedness led to sporadic violence, according to Pillai.

He said the Devaswom (temple-related) board is acting as a tool in the hands of the Left Front Democratic government led mostly by atheists who do not respect Hindu sentiments and want to destroy the world famous Sabarimala temple.

Pillai said BJP will stage month-long peaceful protests.

Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala questioned the timing of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s trip to the Middle East. The comrade should cut short his Gulf tour and return to Kerala which is facing a grave situation, Chennithala said.

Police on Thursday arrested seven members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (Indian People Youth Front) for violating the Prohibitory Order at Nilakkal.