Flare-up over Sabarimala again after Supreme Court order is interpreted variously

Published : November 27, 2019 15:36 IST

Bhumata Brigade chief Trupti Desai speaks to the media in Kochi after her failed attempt to visit the Sabarimala temple on November 26. Photo: AFP

Bindu Ammini being escorted by the police after Hindu organisations protested outside the Police Commissioner's office in Kochi against her attempt to trek to the Sabarimala temple, on November 26. Photo: PTI

The practical difficulties of implementing a Supreme Court judgment that gives ample room for a variety of legal and political interpretations were much in evidence in Kerala on Constitution Day, November 26, when a group of gender activists led by the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade leader Trupti Desai arrived in Kochi declaring their resolve to visit the Sabarimala temple.

The six activists of the Pune-based organisation who arrived at the Nedumbasseri airport before day break were, however, denied police protection to proceed to the temple amidst protests by the BJP, and the Ayyappa Karma Samiti, an umbrella organisation that includes several right-wing groups.

For many hours the women remained at the Police Commissioner’s office in Kochi, seeking protection for their journey or a written statement from the police why they cannot proceed to the temple.

“Today is Constitution Day and we will go to the Sabarimala temple as it is our right. There is no stay on entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. No one can stop us from going to the temple. If the government or the police stops us it will amount to contempt of court. If they are denying us entry into the temple, they should give it in writing why they are doing so,” Desai had told the media at the airport.

A large number of BJP and Ayyappa Karma Samiti activists had gathered before the Police Commissioner’s office early in the morning to protest against the plans of the women to go to the temple. Although the agitation was stopped for a while by 11 a.m., it resumed with more vigour by late evening amidst reports that the group was adamant on visiting the temple.

Bindu Ammini, one of the two women activists who managed to enter the temple in January under controversial circumstances, was attacked near the Police Commissioner’s office with what looked like pepper spray by an activist belonging to the Antharashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP), one of the protesting groups. She had joined Trupti Desai’s group at the airport.

The brazen attack was a quick reminder of last year’s ugly and violent incidents at Sabarimala and surrounding places following the September 28, 2018, judgment of the Supreme Court that upheld by a 4-1 majority, the right of women of all ages to pray at the shrine

But while hearing a large number of review and writ petitions against this judgment, a five-judge bench led by the Chief Justice, who has since retired, in a 3-2 decision on November 14 ordered that a seven-judge Bench ought to decide on a range of seminal issues relating to religious freedom before the court could take up the review and writ petitions in the Sabarimala case.

Since then opinion has been divided on whether this amounted to a stay of last year’s landmark verdict allowing all women to enter the shrine and whether women should be allowed to visit the shrine (at all) until the seven-judge Bench passed the final verdict. While gender and many social activists argued otherwise, legal opinion obtained by the State government was that there was no compulsion on the government to allow women of the barred age-group into the shrine or to offer them police protection for darshan.

State Law Minister A.K. Balan, while strongly condemning the attack on Bindu Ammini, said the government would not give protection to “any such person, including Trupti Desai”, to enter Sabarimala. “The government will ensure that there will be a peaceful pilgrimage season at Sabarimala this year. Nobody will be able to enter the temple with the government’s help or with police protection. There is lack of clarity in the latest Supreme Court verdict. If that lack of clarity is to be resolved, we will have to wait for the verdict of the full bench of the Supreme Court. The government can take a firm stand on the issue only after the decision of the court.”

The former State president of the BJP, Kummanam Rajasekharan, however, said in response to the latest incidents following Trupti Desai’s visit (her second such attempt to travel to Sabarimala): “It is based on the assurance given by the government that lakhs of additional devotees are visiting the shrine this time. If the government fails to act according to its assurance, then it alone will be responsible for the consequences because the devotees will be forced to seek some solution. For them, tradition [of the Sabarimala temple] is something that they need to guard carefully. It is a question of existence for them.”

Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran, meanwhile, said the government had doubts whether there was a conspiracy behind Trupti Desai’s visit. “She begins her journey from Pune where the RSS and the BJP have a strong presence, claiming that she was going to Sabarimala. She reaches the Nedumbasseri airport in Kochi early morning at 5 a.m. Only one media organisation comes to know of her visit and they carry live the news of her arrival and the statements she made at the airport. Thereafter the group announces that it is going to Sabarimala via Kottayam and starts from the airport. We see them next at the Police Commissioner’s office. There, a few people, one of them allegedly with a pepper spray, await their arrival and attack them. The media takes up the incident in a big way. I believe that there is a script, a conspiracy and a scheme behind all this.”

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was away in Japan on an official visit. But another senior Minister, Mercykutty Amma, said that though the demand of the gender activists seeking entry to the shrine was justified, they should be prepared to wait until the Supreme Court’s final decision.

Opposition Congress leaders accused both the BJP and the CPI(M) of trying to foment trouble at Sabarimala and capitalise on the issue. While opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala warned that such a conspiracy would only lead to a serious law and order situation at the temple, Pradesh Congress committee president Mullappally Ramachandran said the women were again trying to visit Sabarimala “because of the ambiguous stand of the State government”. “Although the State Ministers are saying that women will not be allowed to visit the temple, the Chief Minister does not have a clear stand on it. The Chief Minister is still welcoming the initial verdict that allowed entry of all women into Sabarimala. The affidavit favouring women’s entry filed by the State Government before the Supreme Court still remains valid. Such a confusing atmosphere is what has led to the current situation,” he said.

The angry protests before the Kochi Police Commissioner’s office ended only late in the day on November 26, after Trupti Desai and her group agreed to return home after waiting more than 12 hours. She said before leaving: ‘We are returning as the police leave us no other option. But we will come back soon and try our best to visit the temple again.”

Bindu Ammini told the media that she will file a contempt petition and also visit Sabarimala again with several other women on January 2, to mark the anniversary of her first visit to the temple.

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