Kerala in turmoil after women enter Sabarimala temple

Published : Jan 03, 2019 14:04 IST

A video grab of the two women at the Sannidhanam at Sabarimala.

A video grab of the two women at the Sannidhanam at Sabarimala.

Kerala was thrown into chaos, tension and widespread violence during the State-wide hartal called by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi (SKS) with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) on January 3 to protest against the entry of two women into the Sabarimala temple the previous day.

The dawn-to-dusk hartal which began rather peacefully at 6 a.m. on January 3 turned extremely volatile by noon and appeared to escalate and spread further as the day progressed. Protesters threw country bombs and stones, blocked roads and highways, attacked State transport buses, private vehicles and shops and other establishments. Throughout the State, mediapersons came under targeted and violent attack. Madness seemed to prevail on the streets as rioters ran berserk, attacking the police, ruling party cadres, vehicles and shops that dared to remain open, shouting abuses against the Chief Minister and attacking ordinary people as well as motorcades of State Ministers.

Sporadic clashes erupted between the cadres of the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at several places and many, including policemen, were injured. Marches carried out by the SKS, an umbrella organisation of several pro-Hindutva organisations, became violent in almost all districts, targeting several offices, flags and memorials belonging to the CPI(M), the CPI and other ruling front partners. In the State capital, especially, pitched battles were reported between the cadres of the BJP and the CPI(M). At some places, the violence took on a communal colour, as BJP workers tried to close down shops run by members of minorities communities.

Three BJP workers were stabbed in Thrissur, allegedly by the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) workers. The offices of the CPI(M) in almost all districts were especially targeted, with the SKS and the BJP raising allegations that the entry of women had been orchestrated by the State government itself. A participant in an SKS march at Pandalam died in hospital after the marchers themselves came under attack.

The police had arrested 266 persons and took 334 others into preventive custody by 4 p.m. BJP leaders have said the protests will continue the next day also. The Congress-led Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) observed “Black day” on January 3 against what it described as “the State government allowing the entry of the women into the temple”.

On January 2, two women in their early forties, both of them from Kerala, had finally managed to enter the Sabarimala temple under cover of early morning darkness and discreet police protection. Barely a few hours earlier, the previous evening, the State had also witnessed a 620-km-long historic “human wall” comprising entirely of women, who joined hands from Kasaragod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south and took a pledge to fight for “gender equality, secularism and the protection of the values upheld by the State’s early renaissance movements”.

The two women, dressed in loose, temple-black garments, with their heads almost fully covered, had started the trek uphill to the shrine around 1:30 a.m. accompanied by policemen in plain clothes and entered the temple premises around 3:45 a.m. They avoided climbing the “18 holy steps” that most pilgrims take to enter the shrine, but used a staff entrance by the side to walk in and out of the precincts of the sanctum sanctorum. There were very few devotees and hardly any protesters at the temple then, given the early hour of their visit.

They spent hardly a few minutes inside and were escorted out by the police to an unknown destination before day break. The entire episode, from the moment of their entry into the temple to their journey downhill, was videographed and later released to the media.

For the women, Bindu Ammini, a college lecturer and a CPI(ML) activist from Kozhikode, and Kanakadurga, a government employee from Malappuram, it was their second determined attempt to enter the temple, defying the traditional restriction on women of menstrual age visiting the shrine. On September 28, the Supreme Court, in a 4-1 majority judgment, had ordered the removal of such gender discrimination at Sabarimala, which it said ran against the constitutionally guaranteed rights of women. But in the three months that followed, no woman could enter the shrine in the wake of widespread protests and violence perpetrated by the BJP and allied organisations and despite the police trying to offer protection to a few women who sought entry into the temple.

The act of the two women came also in defiance of the ongoing protests throughout the State by the Opposition led by the Congress and violent struggles by the BJP and a variety of its affiliate organisations against what they described as the way the State government set about hurriedly to implement the Supreme Court verdict.

On December 24, the day they made their first attempt, the two women had to withdraw, like several others who tried to undertake the trek, in view of the violent protests all along the hill paths leading to the shrine. The next day (December 25), which marked the end of the first (“Mandalam”) phase of the year’s main pilgrimage season, Kerala also witnessed a massive turnout of women and men lighting lamps (“Ayyappa Jyothi”) from Kasaragod to Kanyakumari under the banner of the SKS, with wholesome support from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, demanding that the “beliefs and customs of the Sabarimala temple should be protected”.

True to the conflicting mood prevailing in the State ever since the Supreme Court verdict of September 28, there was much surprise and jubilation on one side and dismay and anger on the other, when, a few hours after the two women managed to enter the temple, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the media: “Women had tried to go to Sabarimala even earlier. But since there were hurdles there, they could not enter the temple. Today if they have entered the temple, it means they have not faced any hurdles. But it is a fact that they have entered the temple. I had said earlier that the police will give protection to those who wanted to enter the temple. That has also happened.”

Soon after the Chief Minister confirmed that the women had entered the temple, the tantri (chief priest), Kandararu Rajeevaru, in a controversial action, took steps for the closure of the sanctum sanctorum for nearly an hour-long “purification ritual”, traditionally performed in temples across Kerala after any such event of “defilement” that is believed to affect the sanctity of the idol.

A tense situation has since prevailed throughout Kerala. Indeed, the political divisions in the State over the Sabarimala issue came into sharp focus on New Year’s Day itself, when Kerala became the stage for the second massive turnout of women in a few days, this time organised by the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and 172 social and caste organisations and with the full support of State government.

The 620-km-long wall of women, who came together under the banner of the “Navodhanamoolya Samrakshana Samiti”, saw women from all walks of life taking a pledge to “uphold the vales of Kerala’s renaissance movements, to promote gender equality, to oppose attempts to make Kerala a mental asylum and to protect secularism”.

It turned out to be an emphatic statement against the three-month-long protests spearheaded by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations against the State government’s attempts to implement the Supreme Court’s verdict and the police action against protesting “devotees” at Sabarimala and elsewhere. The Chief Minister described it as a “warning to all those elements who were posing hurdles against the implementation of constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a series of review petitions on January 22 (much after the temple closes at the end of the Makaravilakku pilgrimage season on January 14) against its verdict filed at the initiative of several individuals and organisations, including the SKS and those representing the Pandalam Palace, several pro-Hindutva affiliates and allies, the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Congress.

With the BJP finally seeing a political opportunity to gain a foothold in Kerala through the hearts of the Ayyappa devotees aggrieved at the court verdict and the LDF government’s alleged role in facilitating its implementation, the issue of the entry of the two women into the Sabarimala temple is likely to keep Kerala on the boil right up to the Lok Sabha elections. However, it is still a matter of conjecture whether the early morning entry and exit of the two women on January 2 marks a new norm at the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala or offers only symbolic value to the cause of gender equality in matters of faith.


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