Minutes away from Sabarimala temple, 2 women sent back after top priest’s threat
Amid high drama, two women – a journalist and an activist – were forced to return from within 500 metres of the Sabarimala temple Friday after its chief priest threatened to shut it down if they entered the shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. (Follow live updates here)
Prayer services in the temple were disrupted for the first time with priests boycotting rituals in protest.
“It is a most painful day. I told everyone if women enter the holy steps. I will close temple and I will go back to my house. I am with devotees. I can’t be a part to violation of temple rituals,” Tantri (chief priest) Rajeevaru Kandarau told HT. There are 18 steps that lead to the temple’s sanctum sanctorum.
After the threat of temple closure, police said the two women would be escorted back.
“We have told the female devotees about the situation, they will now be going back. So we are pulling pack. They have decided to return,” inspector general of police S Sreejith
“I have been forced to go back,” said Rehana Fathima, one of the two women.
This is the second successive day that women were denied entry into the temple despite Supreme Court order after two other women including New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj were stopped on Thursday.
As the situation turned grave with devotees and police locked in a tense standoff outside the temple at Sabarimala, protests also erupted in Kochi and Calicut.
The two women – Kavitha Jakkal of Hyderabad based Mojo TV and Rehana Fatima – were stopped a short distance away from the Sabarimala temple. The government had earlier insisted that it would do all that is needed to ensure that women are allowed to offer prayers in line with a Supreme Court order.
The government tried to allay fears of a crackdown against devotees opposing the entry of women saying it would not use force.
Temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran also said devotees won’t be forcibly evicted and told the police to avert a showdown.
“Police will not create any issue in Sabarimala and we don’t want a confrontation with you devotees. We are only following the law. I will be discussing with the higher authorities and brief them on the situation,” ANI quoted IGP Sreejith telling devotees.
Police had landed in a quandary after activist Rehana Fathima refused to budge. She insisted that she undertook a 41-day fast and wanted to enter Sabarimala after the Supreme Court verdict of September 28 allowing women of all ages to enter the temple.
Surendran pulled up the police for allowing Fathima to head for the temple which he said was a lapse.
“People of all ages will be allowed to go there. But at the same time we won’t allow it to be a place where activists can come and showcase their power. It can’t be a place where they prove certain points of theirs,’’ Surendran said according to ANI.
Tension soared in the morning with the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, who are the custodians of the Sabarimala temple, asking the Tantri to close the doors of the shrine as two women headed for the temple under police protection. Protesters squatted on the path leading to the hilltop temple.
The opposition Congress said the government was playing with fire. “The government is giving enough fuel to the Sangh Parivar,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. “It is committed to protect interest of devotees.”
The state unit of the BJP which is backing the devotees also waded into the imbroglio, seeking action against police officials who “enacted a drama hurting religious feelings of devotees which led to disruption of temple rituals”.
By noon, the day’s event took a communal turn over Fathima’s faith. K Surendran, general secretary of the BJP’s Kerala unit asked the Muslim community to desist from such moves.
“It is a move against Hindus,” said Surendran.
He also demanded action against the IGP after one of the two women was seen in police riot gear.
“How was a woman was given police uniform? It is a violation of the Police Act. The government should take action IGP Sreejith for enacting a dirty drama,” Surendran said.
Earlier, Kavitha and Fathima started their journey at 6.50 am amid heavy rain under police protection from Pambha, the base of the hilltop temple, police said.
“The highest court has given the green signal. My trip is to uphold women’s rights” she said.
But for Kaviitha and Fathima, Sabarimala remained a temple too far.