Sabarimala takes a hit after women enter temple, riots continue in full force?

Amidst continuing tension at Sabarimala, a third woman of the controversial menstruating age entered the temple in Kerala on Friday, January 4, 2019. A 46-year-old Sri Lankan woman, Sasikala, offered prayers at the Sabarimala temple, a couple of days after two local women made history. Sasikala had reportedly informed the police that she had reached menopause and also presented a medical certificate, which is believed to have disqualified her from the contentious age group.

Meanwhile, PM Narendra Modi’s maiden trip to flag off election campaigns in South India this year were postponed, possibly due to the unprecedented violence and mayhem across the state, over women’s entry into the temple. Prohibitory orders have been re-implemented in several neighbouring districts.

What happened on Wednesday?

Earlier this week, Bindu and Kanaka entered the sanctum sanctorum that was off limits for women below 50, a centuries-old rule that was overturned by the Supreme Court in September. At 3:45 am on Wednesday, both women not yet in their forties, reported paying their obeisance to celibate deity Lord Ayappa from the VIP lounge of the temple, accompanied by police personnel. This was their second attempt after being forced to return by mobs last month.

On the eve of their entry to the temple, the ruling CPI government had organised a 620 km-long human chain across 14 districts, as an emblem of female empowerment, solidarity and gender equality.

Situation at Sabarimala since the verdict

Since then, the state has witnessed boisterous mobs protesting the verdict on grounds that it defiled religious traditions, preventing women from exercising their right to worship at the shrine every time the temple opened for pilgrimage season. The neighbouring districts of Sabarimala have turned into a battleground for right-wing Hindu activists who intimated, heckled and forced women devotees to return, and the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI government which deployed heavy security personnel to implement the verdict.

Despite being accompanied by police personnel, more than a dozen women who had attempted the trek earlier last year failed to proceed past the agitating mob who could not be deterred even by prohibitory orders like Section 144. A record number of cases have consequently been registered over the last three months against these protestors, as violence protests continue to disrupt the sanctity of the temple town.

What happened after the women made history?

By the end of Friday, the state police had made 1400 arrests and detained 717 miscreants in an operation called Broken Window, which followed the two women’s successful and historic entry into the Sabarimala temple.

They have also registered 801 cases in connection with the violence that erupted during a statewide hartal called upon by various groups, according to ANI. Besides, several narratives have been fostered over their arrival in the dead of the night on Wednesday. Some conservative groups and leaders have called out the clandestine nature of their entry.

Alleging “mysterious link between CPI(M) and radical outfits to destroy” the traditions of the Lord Ayyappa temple, right-wing umbrella organisation Sabarimala Karma Samiti sought an NIA probe into the entry of two women into Sabarimala temple with the support of a Maoist group. BJP lawmaker Meenakshi Lekhi on Friday alleged that women had been disguised as transgenders and transported via ambulance, saying people in the name of women rights were actually transgressing. 

As outrage mounted the following morning, the temple closed its doors for an hour, for purification rituals which immediately drew the ire of opposition and women alike. The Travancore Devasom Board has reportedly demanded an explanation from Kantararu Rajeeveru, the temple tantri, as to why the purification rites were conducted after a group of activists protested outside the Parliament House complex on Friday to express their strong objection.

In the protests that ensued, a protester belonging to Sabarimala Karma Samiti lost his life after being hit by a stone in Pandalam district. Two CPIM workers have been arrested under Sections 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for his death. Blocking roads with burning tires and granite boulders were a common sight on Thursday, as were setting party offices on fire.

Political tussle deepens

With no sign of abatement, this situation becomes more politically coloured by the day, and has begun to affect BJP’s campaigns ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first political rally in South India this year was called off. “The PM’s visit to Pathanmathitta on January 6 was postponed due to some other engagements. Though it has nothing to do with the current situation, we don’t want to aggravate the situation further,” a senior BJP functionary said on Friday.

The CPI Friday accused the BJP of trying to expand their base in Kerala by exploiting the issue of entry of women of menstrual age into Sabarimala temple and using other Sangh Parivar outfits to do their bidding. General Secretary S Sudhakar Reddy accused them of perpetrating violence in the name of tradition. Actor-politician Kamal Hassan also accused the right-wing for “inciting” violence in Kerala after fringe groups unleashed a riotous situation on Thursday. 

An RSS leader, on the other hand, said that the Supreme Court’s order on Sabarimala was only a suggestion, but the communist government was conspiring to desecrate the temple by its faulty implementation. “Kerala’s communist government conspired to desecrate the Sabarimala temple by assisting two atheist women communist activists to enter it under police escort,” said Nandakumar, convener of the RSS-affiliated Prajna Pravah.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Indian PoliticsKeralaReligionsabarimalaWomen's Rights