By Priyamvada Rana
Nilackkal: As a journalism student studying in Kerala, there have been many opportunities for on ground reporting this year, with the state coming front and centre of the national news cycle first due to devastating floods and now thanks to the Supreme Court’s historic verdict on the Sabarimala temple allowing women of all age to enter the temple premises. My classmates and I could not resist being in the middle of the action.
On October 16, six of us decided to head to the Sabarimala temple, day ahead of the opening for the monthly prayers. We knew there would be thousands of devotees and perhaps even more protesters. Many protesters had warned that they would immolate themselves if women in the 10-50 year age group—previously banned, and to whom the apex court had allowed entry in its late September ruling—attempted to go to the temple. Despite the possibility of violence, and fear, we found ourselves heading to the temple.
While on the bus to Pampa, which lies at the foothills of Sabarimala Temple, we learnt that protesters were stopping all vehicles at the base protest camp in Nilackkal to ensure no women of ‘menstruating age’ tried to go to the temple. Even
journalists were being stopped from going to Pampa.
As soon as our bus reached Nilackkal, it was also stopped for inspection. A group of women protesters from the Sabarimala Acharya Samrakshan Samiti got on the bus and attacked two of my female batchmates who were wearing black, a colour worn in the temple premises. Both girls had worn black coincidentally. The situation soon escalated in a scuffle between us and the protesters, and was even captured by the news cameras. The two girls were being attacked, while the boys accompanying us tried to shield them. The protesters did not attack me as I was not wearing black, and I was able to film and photograph what was happening.
We tried to reason with the protesters that we were journalism students simply out to report and had no plans to enter the temple. But we were ignored and continued to be attacked by the group who had clearly been overcome with religious fervour.
Although there were many police personnel stationed near where our bus was stopped—supposedly to ensure peace was maintained during the “peaceful protest”—they were mere spectators while the protesters ran wild.
It was India Today journalist Shalini Lobo who came to our rescue, explaining to the protesters in Malayalam that we were students who posed no threat to their religious sentiment. Thankfully the situation soon calmed down, but my friends were left traumatised, and one even changed her clothes to avoid being mistaken again.
Kajal Iyer, Times Now‘s deputy bureau chief in Mumbai, told me of how she too had to change her clothes on reaching the protest site as she was wearing black. “I had come here yesterday when only five-six protesters were there and so was able to head to Pampa for coverage. It is only today that when we got back here our van was stopped despite of us showing our press IDs.”
I soon followed one of the women protesters who had attacked us and she readily spoke to me, but withheld her name saying, “If you have to do coverage of the event then do it from Nilackkal. We won’t allow you to go to Pampa. Your IDs are in English which we don’t get understand, so we can’t trust you”. Nevertheless, after repeated assurances from us of our intent to simply report, she pacified the other protesters too and let us cover the protest.
News channels followed our group, but were deliberately avoided them as our motive was to cover the news and not become the news.
We soon began to stroll around the base camp in search of stories. I came across a young woman protester, who appeared surprisingly calm unlike her agitated and violent compatriots. I asked why they were protesting, to which she replied: “There are many Lord Ayappa temples in Kerala but entry is restricted only in Sabarimala, which is the main shrine. Women can go elsewhere to worship. This matter is related to a longstanding custom and has nothing to do with equality in rights.” She was hesitant in naming menstruation as the reason women were restricted from entering the temple.
Protesters had come from near and far, and all appeared determined to stand against the Supreme Court’s verdict.
“This protest will turn more violent if the demands go unheard. The state and judiciary should not have entered into our religious matters as the issue is related to sentiments. Sabarimala is the home of Lord Ayappa who’s chosen an acetic life to practice celibacy and so interference of women in shrine shall be seen as transgressive” said Neelesh Sagar, who came to the base camp with his family to protest.
His words were a sign of things to come, as was what we witnessed when we left Nilackkal. As we made our way back to Kottayam, our bus was surrounded by about 60 bikes, with the riders turning to hooliganism and chanting ‘Swamy Saranam Ayyappa’. This was only the harbinger of the violence that was to unfold as the gates of the Sabarimala temple were opened. Women trying to get to the temple, some of them journalists attempting to cover the historic moment, were heckled and attacked, with the mob succeeding in keep them away from the temple.
It has been a week since Sabarimala opened its doors, but women in the 10-50 years age group remain on the outside.
Priyamvada Rana is a student at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Kottayam.
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