Battleground Sabarimala

The hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala erupts in unprecedented violent protest as young women try to make their way to the temple following the Supreme Court order allowing women of all ages to pray there.

Published : Oct 24, 2018 12:30 IST

Pro-Hindutva activists  attack the car carrying a mediaperson at Nilackal en route to Sabarimala on October 17.

Pro-Hindutva activists attack the car carrying a mediaperson at Nilackal en route to Sabarimala on October 17.

THE hills and forests surrounding Sabarimala were ablaze with religious passion, violent protests by pro-Hindutva groups and severe police action from October 17, when the gates of the Ayyappa temple opened for monthly rituals for the first time after a Supreme Court verdict lifted the customary ban on the entry of women in the 10 to 50 age group at the shrine.

Amidst high drama and tension throughout Kerala, attempts by several women in ones and twos to trek to the temple and enter its precincts failed even on the fourth day, when this report was being filed. Earlier, two young women, under heavy police guard and wearing protective gear, had reached within 500 metres of the sacred 18 steps leading to the shrine by mid-morning on Vijayadashami Day, October 19.

A highly sensitive situation arose then, after the women, Rehana Fatima, an actor and activist from Kochi, and Kavitha Jekkala, a reporter of Mojo TV from Telangana, were forced to wait before a crowd of “devotees” chanting bhajans and raising shrill cries invoking “Ayyappa” for over an hour. With the police trying to pacify the protesters, and the women insisting on proceeding to the temple, the atmosphere was thick with tension.

The police tried to defuse the situation by announcing that they would not resort to action against the protesters, among them old women and men and children, if they remained peaceful—unlike as in the two previous days when sporadic violence and police action took place on all uphill roads leading to the temple.

But the standoff continued for quite a while, with the police conducting parleys with the women, the devotees and their own superiors. Then, unprecedented in the history of the ancient temple, the majority of its priests too gathered in front of the 18 steps, singing bhajans and abandoning all but the essential rituals inside. The temple’s tantri (chief priest), Kandararu Rajeevaru, then announced that the sanctum sanctorum would be shut and all rituals stopped if the women entered the temple, as “it would affect the sanctity” of the shrine itself.

It was perhaps the most volatile moment in the first three days since the temple opened on October 17 for the monthly rituals. But then, in full glare of the media, the State Devaswom Minister, Kadakampally Surendran, announced in Thiruvananthapuram: “The government’s stand is very clear. One, it has no intention to make Sabarimala a site of confrontation. But the government has an obligation to obey its constitutional responsibilities. The government has the responsibility to obey the Supreme Court’s order. At the same time, the government has no intention to transform Sabarimala into a platform for activist intervention either.” (The Minister and the CPI(M) State secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, later said that there was no ban on “activists”, but only on “those who went there with the intention of fomenting trouble”.)

That was probably the cue for the police who were struggling to control the situation, and Inspector General Sreejith, who was in charge, announced that the two women had agreed to go back following the tantri’s declaration that the temple would be closed if they proceeded further. The announcement was met with loud chanting by the protesters and the women were soon escorted down the 4.6-kilometre path to Pamba under heavy police guard by a team led by the I.G. himself.

But in an indication of the practical difficulties of implementing the Supreme Court order at the ground level, hardly had this group reached half the way on its trek downhill, when another woman devotee, Mary Sweetie, from Thiruvananthapuram, was waiting at the entrance of the road to the temple, to climb up. She eventually decided to go back after she was gently dissuaded by devotees and policemen.

On the fourth day after the opening of the temple, there was trouble when first, a 52-year old woman from Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu was challenged by angry “devotees” on her way to the temple, incidentally her second visit to the temple. Just as we went to the press, by late evening on October 20, the police had barely convinced a determined Dalit Mahila Federation president, Manju, a woman in her 40s, against undertaking the trek uphill that day itself because of heavy rain and the delay in finding details about her antecedents.

October is the pilgrimage off-season at Sabarimala, and the main Mandalam-Makaravilakku seasons, when lakhs of devotees visit the shrine, are about to start in just over a month. If the events of the first three days are an indication, one can only imagine how volatile and difficult the task will be for the police in this period when more young women are likely to arrive.

On the first two days, too, a handful of young women devotees had arrived to pray at the hill shrine, but they, as well as several women journalists from prominent news organisations who were there to report the events, had a more difficult and intimidating experience than the two young women on October 19. They were heckled, mobbed and verbally abused and even kicked and assaulted with stones by vigilante Hindutva groups whose members could not be distinguished from genuine devotees holding protests at various locations or trekking to the shrine themselves.

Bala Madhavi, 45, and her two children, who were among a group of pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh, for instance, managed to cross the Pamba river and barely enter the trekking path with a police escort when she was confronted by protesters within the first 300 metres and forced to abandon her quest. Another woman, C.S. Liby, who reportedly announced through her social media page that she would be visiting the temple, was blocked by “devotees” at the Pattanamthitta bus station about 60 km away. Another woman, who arrived with her husband from Tamil Nadu, was forced out of a bus and made to abandon her journey.

Many young women journalists were asked to step out of their vehicles, stopped from entering the trekking path, heckled, booed and attacked. They included journalists from CNN-News 18, Republic TV, NDTV, India Today, The News Minute and The New York Times . The protesters pounded the vehicles and broke their windscreens, and showered abuses on the journalists. Some of the journalists suffered injuries. Male journalists were also attacked and their work was interrupted by angry, shouting and seemingly leaderless mobs of protesters who came from many parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

“As a woman and a man climbed a steep trail on Thursday [October 18] leading to one of Hinduism’s holiest temples, a mob multiplied with frightening speed,” wrote Suhasini Raj and her male colleague Kai Shultz, correspondents of The New York Times , in their report later, of the ordeal they faced while attempting to trek to the shrine and report the events. “Several hundred men screamed at the woman, insisting that she immediately turn back from visiting the temple. When the pair of visitors, both journalists for The New York Times , decided to descend, the crowd rushed at them, hurled rocks and pummeled two dozen police officers.”

Suhasini Raj became the first woman in the 10 to 50 age band to climb the path from Pamba at least half way with police escort and in full glare of the media. But angry crowds followed them, “screaming, raising fists in the air, jumping on the trail’s side railings”, ignoring the police cordon and at times breaking through it.

Although the police assured them of a safe trek to the shrine, they eventually had to return, like many others, when people chased them and some even threw stones at them. The police escorted them back first to the Pamba base camp and then, under tight security, to Kochi. The police also registered a case on the basis of their complaint.

Talks fail

Earlier, though attempts made by the State government to hold talks with the stakeholders— representatives of the Pandalam Palace and the tantris, the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Sanghom, the Yogaskema Sabha, the Akhila Bharata Ayyappa Seva Sangham and the Akhila Kerala Tantri Samajam—failed, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) managed to bring the stakeholder groups together on October 16, the day before the temple opened for the monthly pujas.

They had eight demands, but the talks were deadlocked on the first and most important demand: the Devaswom Board should immediately file a review petition before the Supreme Court against the verdict, explaining how Sabarimala was different from other temples; and how devotees believed that a break in the custom would mark the end of Sabarimala’s ritualistic traditions and customs and the religious sanctity of the temple.

Among the other major demands were that the TDB should take steps to maintain the status quo at the temple until the Supreme Court gave a verdict on the review petition and that the TDB should put pressure on the State government to issue an ordinance in case the apex court disallowed the review petition.

But with the TDB insisting that a decision on a review petition could be taken only at a meeting of the TDB scheduled on October 19, the talks failed. Soon groups of devotees mobilised by a variety of Hindutva organisations began converging at the entry points to the hill shrine such as Nilakkal, Erumeli and Pamba.

The same day, in Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, addressing a massive rally organised by the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), categorically ruled out the possibility of the government filing a review petition or issuing an ordinance after the Supreme Court had declared the custom of barring women in the prescribed age band at the temple “illegal and unconstitutional”.

“Once the Supreme Court has said the ban is illegal and unconstitutional, the government cannot overcome such a verdict through an ordinance or legislation. The government can proceed only according to the law,” he said.

He also pointed out that the LDF had all along held the view that its government was not against the entry of all women into Sabarimala. But, even though there were several instances of young women visiting the temple, LDF governments had only gone by what the Kerala High Court had said in its earlier order, banning women in the 10 to 50 age group in the shrine. Moreover, the government had in its latest affidavit told the Supreme Court that since it was a matter of belief, it would be proper to seek an opinion on the issue from a commission of religious scholars and social reformers.

“The government took such a position because it was a matter of belief. The government had also said clearly that it was not ready to go in for legislation, but would implement whatever was the Supreme Court’s decision in the matter,” the Chief Minister said.

Following this, and with the temple about to be opened, protests started on a more or less uneventful note, with groups of devotees putting up tents, chanting slogans and inspecting vehicles while looking out for women in the 10 to 50 age group. But things turned sour when the police began to act, later in the night on October 16, hindering such inspections, smashing the tents erected by the protesting groups, and arresting those who were leading the protests, including the aged women members of the tantri family of the Sabarimala temple.

Soon, as police began to try and escort one or two women devotees, a handful of women officials and later some women journalists, to the temple, menacing mobs of violent men literally hijacked the “peaceful protests”, jeering and heckling, and throwing stones at vehicles and at the police.

The forested roads to the temple, where once only the chants and religious slogans of devotees and the soothing sounds of pristine nature used to be heard, became a noisy, chaotic battleground.

The police issued prohibitory orders at several key locations and declared Pamba and the Sannidhanam (immediate precincts of the temple) as special security zones, and the protesting organisations called for a State-wide hartal supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Running battles erupted between the police and the protesters. There were many instances of police lathi charge and stone-throwing by protesters and policemen alike. The BJP-backed hartal was total in most parts of the State and there was violence, stone-throwing and attacks on buses.

After the much-awaited meeting of the TDB on October 19, its president, A. Padmakumar, said the TDB had decided to file a status report statement before the Supreme Court explaining the situation at Sabarimala instead of filing a review petition as demanded by several organisations. He said 25 review petitions filed by various organisations or individuals were already before the Supreme Court and it was certain that the court would ask the TDB’s opinion while hearing them.

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