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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Sabarimala remains on edge, shrine inaccessible to women devotees for 2nd day

Widespread violence took place in Pambha and Nilakkal on Wednesday as traditionalists prevented the entry of women, intimidated journalists and clashed with the police.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2018 23:32 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Pathanamthitta
Devotees wait in queues inside the premises of the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, India, October 18, 2018.
Devotees wait in queues inside the premises of the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, India, October 18, 2018. (REUTERS)
         

Normal life ground to a halt in Kerala on Thursday, with shops and businesses shutting and government vehicles staying off the roads in response to the call for a general strike sponsored by opponents of the Supreme Court judgment throwing open the Sabarimala temple to women of all ages.

The hilltop shrine, meanwhile, remained inaccessible to women devotees for the second day.

The day-long shutdown was called by the Sabarimala Protection Movement and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to protest a baton charge on Wednesday by the police at the base camps where pilgrims gather before starting their final trek to reach the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine to Lord Ayyapppa.

The situation was tense in Pambha and Nilakkal, the base camps, as the temple in Pathanamthitta district opened for the second day of a five-day pilgrimage.

Widespread violence took place in Pambha and Nilakkal on Wednesday as traditionalists prevented the entry of women, intimidated journalists and clashed with the police.

Tension has been brewing in Kerala since the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled that the temple should be opened to women of all ages, annulling a centuries-old tradition of the temple that denied the right of worship to female devotees aged between 10 and 50 years, or those of the menstruating age.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused Sangh Parivar groups – those affiliated to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – of making the peaceful temple a flashpoint to suit the right-wing political agenda. The BJP, of which the RSS is the ideological mentor, held the state government responsible for the unrest.

“All believers should condemn violence let loose by Sangh Parivar miscreants who are motivated by casteist and feudal ideologies. They are trying to destroy the unique character of the temple,” Vijayan wrote in a Facebook post.

BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai accused state temple affairs minister Kadakampally Suendran, who was camping at the hilltop temple, of instigating violence. The party sought a judicial probe into the violence. “Wednesday was one of the darkest days in the history of the state,” he said.

The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which runs the temple, said it was ready for talks with all stakeholders to end the impasse. Two earlier rounds of talks failed. “We are open to discussion,” said TDB president A Padmakumar.

As the shutdown strike took hold, shops and business establishments stayed closed and government vehicles were off the roads throughout the state. Stone-throwing was reported from many areas and Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses bore the maximum brunt. State transport minister A K Saseendran said at least 40 buses were damaged. Many pilgrims were stranded after the corporation suspended bus services.

Earlier in the day, Suhasini Raj, a Delhi-based The New York Times journalist, faced angry devotees who lay on her path at the halfway point in Marakootum as she tried to trek to the hilltop shrine along with a friend, saying she wanted to cover the event as part of her assignment. The devotees asked her to go over their bodies. Later, she was forced to retreat.

Raj said stones were hurled at her and she was verbally abused by the crowd. “I thought things will be smooth after the verdict. I was besieged by a violent mob. They heckled me badly and tried to manhandle me. I wanted to avoid bloodshed,” she told reporters before leaving for Kochi. At least three women journalists were attacked and their vehicles stoned by protestors on Wednesday.

Of the 30 protesters who were arrested on Wednesday, 20 were produced before the magistrate court in Ranni. They were remanded to two weeks judicial custody. The arrested protestors included Rahul Eashwar, the right-wing activist who is also the grandson of a former tantri, or head priest of the temple.

The present head priest of the shrine, Rajeevaru Kandararu, issued a plea for peace. “Nobody can indulge in violence in the name of Lord Ayyappa. It will be a big disservice to the deity,” he said. He also appealed to women belonging to the reproductive age not to come to the temple complex and create a problem.

He also said Sabarimala is a place where women are respected. The second major deity at the hillock shrine complex is ‘Malikappurathamma,’ a goddess, he pointed out. “We respect the verdict of the Supreme Court. But, considering the sentiments of devotees and the tradition and rituals of the shrine, I humbly request you (women in the reproductive age) not to come to Sabarimala,” Rajeevaru said.

The temple opened on Wednesday at 5pm for the first time after the September 28 Supreme Court ruling. As part of the convention, the temple opens for five days on the first of every Malayalam month.