Local Hindu groups declare 12-hour shutdown
NILACKAL, India: Hindu hardliners blocked intersections, threatened drivers, threw stones at buses and ordered a 12-hour strike yesterday as they stepped up their campaign to bar women from one of India’s holiest temples. The Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala was meant to allow women from Wednesday following an order by India’s highest court last month. But hundreds of traditionalists, throwing stones at baton-wielding police, defied the order-surrounding and shouting at any woman attempting to make it to the hilltop site.
Angry young men also surrounded and smashed the car windows of female television reporters and threatened others, including an AFP reporter. Another female correspondent was kicked. The activists blocked the path and shouted at another female journalist yesterday. Overnight local Hindu groups declared a 12-hour shutdown of local businesses, telling drivers that their vehicles would be attacked if they took anyone towards the temple. “Some men came to the parking lot early yesterday and warned taxi drivers against defying the shutdown call,” taxi driver Praveen, in the town of Pathanamthitta, said.
“They warned drivers at several nearby parking lots and hotels. Anyone who defies it will be risking damage to his vehicle,” he added in an account corroborated by other drivers. “No one will get to the temple today because all the drivers are scared for the safety of their cars,” one hotel receptionist said. Shops, businesses and schools in the area were shut. State authorities have insisted that they will ensure access, imposing restrictions on public gatherings of more than five people that came into force from midnight, and laying on buses for devotees.
Kerala police, who have drafted in hundreds of extra officers, many with helmets and body armor over their khaki uniforms, provided escorts to some buses. Police also patrolled through the night and reinforced their presence at Nilackal, the base camp below the temple. Press reports said around 40 people were arrested. But groups of between 50 and 100 young men gathered at intersections yesterday, checking vehicles.
“Traditions that have existed since before courts cannot be tampered with,” Krishna Kumar, a tall muscular man in his 20s at one crossroads in the town of Kozhencherry, said. In some areas, protesters threw stones at the buses. The situation at the actual temple was calm, meanwhile, with the first pilgrims arriving. But none of them were women older than 10 or younger than 50, an AFP photographer said.
Last month India’s Supreme Court overturned a ban on females of menstruating age-judged between 10 and 50 — entering and praying at the hilltop temple, reached by an tough uphill trek. Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but female devotees are still barred from some. The entry of women at Sabarimala was long taboo, with a ban formalized by the Kerala High Court in 1991. But last month India’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling.
The restriction reflected an old but still prevalent belief that menstruating women are impure, and the fact that the deity Ayyappa was reputed to have been celibate. The Supreme Court ruling enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Biju S. Pillai, a local man in his 30s, was one of those opposed to the court ruling, telling AFP that he returned from working in Dubai to “protect the sanctity of the temple”.
“No one should be able to change the way this temple has functioned for centuries,” he said. “If any change is made they will have to kill us and go over our bodies.” Pinarayi Vijayan, the Marxist chief minister of Kerala, said that the mobs were backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu group close to Modi’s BJP. “These attackers are motivated by casteist and feudal ideologies… All believers must condemn this attack on Sabarimala,” Vijayan tweeted.
The head of the BJP in Kerala, P S Sreedharan Pillai, said on Wednesday that their party advocated “peaceful protest against the court verdict.” “The overwhelming majority of women oppose the Supreme Court ruling,” he added. Trupti Desai, an activist, said she had decided to postpone her visit. “If I go there will be more violence. The government had enough time to prepare the ground for implementing the court’s verdict but they have failed to provide protection to the women devotees,” she said by phone.–AFP