Violence and high drama as Sabarimala shrine reopens

The path leading to the ancient Hindu shrine of Sabarimala in southern India witnessed violence and high drama on Wednesday as it reopened amid a clash between centuries-old religious belief of Ayyappa devotees and the progressive Supreme Court ruling that lifted the ban on temple entry to women of menstrual age.

Following the day’s violence, the leftist Kerala government imposed Prohibitory Order from midnight in four places near the shrine including Nilakkal and Pamba banning assembly of more than four persons in an area.

Condemning police high-handedness in dealing with the situation, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called for a statewide shutdown on Thursday.

People were expecting a showdown between Ayyappa devotees and police as the shrine reopened for the first time after the historic court ruling late last month.

The devotees representing several Hindu groups had vowed to stop women of menstrual age from entering the shrine. The government was duty-bound to ensure that the top court’s ruling is properly implemented. Anticipating trouble, it deployed more 700-800 police personnel at Nilakkal and Pamba on Wednesday.

Violence peaked around 4pm, an hour before the temple gates opened for devotees, when police posted in Nilakkal were pelted with stones by protesters opposing young women’s temple entry. Police arrested some 30 protesters.

Earlier, some eight journalists, including women reporters of Republic TV, CNN-News18, India Today, NDTV and News Minute, were attacked near Nilakkal Gate as they were heading towards Pamba to cover the events. The reporters said police did not stop the protesters from breaking the windscreens of vehicles and destroying the equipment of TV crew.

Asked to explain the violence, K Surendran of BJP said neither his party nor the cultural group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has anything to do with the day’s ugly incidents.

Surendran said BJP and RSS protesters were following the Gandhian way by sitting cross-legged and chanting hymns. He said they had invited only senior women to take part in the agitation.

According to B Gopalakrishnan of BJP, the stone-pelters and those who attacked the journalists at Nilakkal may be goons who came to mar the peaceful protest.

Visuals of the violence showed police taking away some of the stone-pelters wearing jeans. Ayyappa devotees wear only black, saffron or blue ‘mundu’ (long, flowing garment).

The leftist government blamed RSS “criminals” for the days’ violence.

Kerala’s Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala blamed it on the leftist government’s provocative approach towards the devotees.

He also questioned the timing of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s Gulf tour. The state is facing a grave situation and Vijayan should cut short his tour and return, he added.

The atmosphere was tense since morning in Nilakkal where elderly women Ayyappa devotees blocked state and private buses to check whether women of the 10-50 age group were heading towards Pamba base camp to start the trek to Sabarimala.

Soon, hundreds of police personnel arrived in Nilakkal and stopped protesters from blocking buses. They also removed the tent, where a peaceful protest was going on, removed the holy lamp and god’s image and resorted to baton-charge sending the devotees fleeing to the hill behind.

When more Ayyappa devotees began to arrive in buses far outnumbering police, the devotees set up the tent again and the protest continued.

In the meantime, at Pamba, tension mounted as two family members of Sabarimala’s temple priest were arrested and taken away as they were singing hymns. The police strategy was clear: they wanted to provoke the peaceful protesters.

The devotees kept chanting  prayers while keeping a close watch on the pilgrims taking the narrow path leading to the shrine. They did not spare even a vehicle — a red tractor with a trolley covered with a sheet — heading towards the shrine. After a brief chase, they stopped the tractor and found three policemen hiding inside the trolley under the cover. They forced the cops to get down. This could be a rehearsal by police for secretly transporting young women to the shrine, they thought.

A family of six from Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh led by a 40-year-old woman Madhavi dropped the idea of proceeding to the shrine under police escort after reaching Pamba. The protesters gathered there and too much media attention might have unnerved them.

A young woman from Cherthala, Libi, too gave up her plan to proceed with police protection because of intense protests. In her Facebook post, Libi said she is an atheist and has no desire to see the Ayyappa temple. What made her start the pilgrimage was to prove democracy thrives in India.

When the Sabarimala temple reopened at 5pm, most of the elderly women gathered at the sanctum were from other states. Not a single woman of menstrual age entered the temple on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Sept 28 said women’s right to worship a God cannot be restricted by biological or physiological factors (like menstruation).

But thousands of women of menstrual age in Kerala are not willing to visit the shrine despite the court ruling as they want to respect rules followed by temples over centuries.