Sabarimala despatch: Standoff continues between women and protestors

Three months after the Supreme Court verdict allowed women’s entry into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, violent demonstrations continue in the temple town as women of childbearing age attempt to enter the temple in vain. Two of them were just a kilometre away from the hilltop shrine on Monday when they were forced to return to the base camp in Pamba after protestors mounted a momentous agitation against them.

How (com)pliant are the police?

Two local women were on their way to the hilltop shrine Monday afternoon when agitators began raising slogans and forcing them to retreat, despite being escorted by a team of 50-odd police personnel led by special officer Jayadev IPS.

As the crowd grew irate, the women grew more adamant about visiting the shrine and had to be reportedly taken back forcibly. Some 40 persons were reportedly booked for attempting to block the two women, both in their forties, from entering the shrine near Appachimedu.

Protestors even gathered in Perinthalmanna, Malappuram, outside the residence of Bindu, one of the female devotees who began the trek in the morning. “We are here to seek ‘darshan’ (offer prayers) of Lord Ayyappa. The Supreme Court order must be enforced and hope, police will provide us security,” she had told PTI while on the way to Sabarimala.

Throughout the course of the day, other women pilgrims of menstruating age also complained that fierce mobs, comprised of mostly right-wing “self-appointed” guardians of tradition, snatched the religious offerings they carried for prayers at the Lord Ayappa shrine. Another group waiting at Pamba base camp to attempt the 5-km hill trek told NDTV that they were evicted from there by Kerala police although the police later denied this allegation.

What happened on Sunday

The on Monday spills over from a continuing standoff ever since the temple opened its doors this month, for Mandalapuja on December 27. It follows on the heels of a remarkably unsuccessful bid by 11 women on Sunday, who were also forced to beat a hasty retreat being accompanied by a heavy security detail.

The members of Chennai-based women empowerment outfit ‘Manithi‘ were chased away by hundreds of devotees who rushed down the valley, while the women were making their way through the forest. Hundred of children were also reported to have participated in the massive protests, restricting entrance to women who waited over six hours to enter the forest.

This open defiance of prohibitory orders has resulted in over 200 detainments over the last two days. Protesters who gathered at Marakootam, Sannidhanam, Appachimedu were booked by the cops. According to police officials at the Sannidhanam station, a case has been registered against 150 persons under section 353 of the IPC (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty).

Here’s what happened so far

Since the top court lifted the ban on women’s entry into the temple in September, right-wing mobs have resorted to violence and intimidation to prevent women from taking the uphill trek on three occasions. Arguing that the Supreme Court verdict disregarded the temple’s rules and in turn violated age-old customs, the protestors flagged down cars carrying women and forced them to turn back. Law enforcement forces have failed the women who made it past the mob to undertake the trek from Nilakklal to the hilltop shrine over the last three months.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government had even threatened stringent police action against miscreants when the temple reopened for the second time in November. He imposed Section 144 and called for heavy deployment of police personnel around the shrine, for which he came under considerable fire from both state BJP and Congress and was later forced to retract the forces.

Over the next few days, around 40 more women are expected to reach the temple in an effort to offer prayers to the perennial celibate deity for Makarsankranti on December 30. The law and order breakdown in Sabarimala has never been more pronounced, with the resolution situated somewhere untenable, beyond the confines of legality.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

KeralaPinarayi VijayansabarimalaSupreme CourtWomen's Rights