Sabarimala row: BJP gears up for showdown with Kerala government as Lord Ayyappa temple set to reopen briefly

Another showdown looks imminent at Sabarimala when the Lord Ayyappa temple opens for a brief ritual on 5 November with various Hindu groups and the Communist-led government battling over the entry of young women into the temple and hardening their positions on the Supreme Court verdict.  The standoff spurred by the 28 September apex court verdict lifting a centuries-old ban on women aged between 10 and 50 from entering the shrine led to the first showdown during the monthly puja from 17 to 22 October with protesters physically blocking women and attacking police and media.

 Sabarimala row: BJP gears up for showdown with Kerala government as Lord Ayyappa temple set to reopen briefly

Protests against the Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple. PTI

While a section of the devotees and many activists disguised as devotees blocked women from the formerly banned age group from entering the temple during the monthly puja last month, protesters are planning to deploy women above the age of 50 to undertake the ‘holy’ task during the ‘Chithira Atta Visesham’ ritual on 6 November. The Sabarimala Action Committee, a group of various Hindu outfits spearheading the agitation, claimed hundreds of women have come forward to defend their faith and customs at the temple and will do so on 5 November.

A leader of the committee said these women will take up positions at various points along the 5-kilometre trek from Pampa to the temple on 5 and 6 November and ensure that no woman belonging to the menstruating age cross the point and reach the temple. The decision to field women has been taken in the light of the lathi charge on the protesters at Nilackal, the main gateway to the hill shrine, and the subsequent arrest of more than 3,000 persons, mostly men, who took part in the agitation during the monthly puja. The committee has also adopted this strategy as the Kerala Police does not have enough women personnel to take on the female protesters.

The state government sought support from neighbouring southern states, but most of them have shown a reluctance to lend their forces. The Kerala government called a meeting of Devaswom ministers from Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka early this week with the objective of thrashing out a consensus on implementing the SC verdict, but none of them turned up, citing protests among the Ayyappa devotees in their states for their reluctance to join hands.

They fear the BJP may use it for political gain. The state unit of the saffron party, which is in the forefront of the agitation, has planned to extend it to neighbouring states, from where large number of devotees come to Sabarimala during the annual pilgrim season. The state BJP is gearing up for a bigger fight this time by enlarging the scope of their struggle as "a battle between believers and non-believers." The party has vowed to continue it beyond 6 November, when the temple will be closed after the  ‘Chithira Atta Visesham’.

The party has already chalked out a plan to undertake a six-day rath yatra from the state’s northern tip of Kasargod to Sabarimala from 8 November. The yatra, to be led by the state chief, would culminate on 13 November: the day the Supreme Court is set to hear the writ petitions against the entry of young women into the temple. The party will decide the future course of action depending on the outcome of the petitions to be heard by the court. The party has given a wider dimension to the struggle due to the ‘over enthusiasm' shown by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government in implementing the SC verdict. The party believes the government showed eagerness in implementing the verdict as part of their agenda to implement their atheistic ideology.

BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai said the CPM was trying to achieve their goal by taking control of the temples. He said the government curtailed the term of the previous board of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) headed by a Congress leader and reconstituted it with the ruling party nominees to bring the body that administers more than 1,200 temples in the southern districts of the state under their control. “The TDB, which is duty-bound to protect the interest of the devotees, was ready to file a review petition against the SC verdict. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan prevented the board from pursuing legal recourse. If the board was allowed to have its way, Sabarimala would not have become a conflict zone,” he added.

By expanding the scope of the struggle, the BJP is also trying to woo minorities, who sense an equal threat to their own faiths from the apex court verdict. Pillai claimed that several Christian and Muslim organisations offered to support his party’s fight against non-believers. He said he will visit 52 Christian institutions, including bishops’ houses, and 12 Islamic centres to seek their blessings during the rath yatra. Undeterred by the aggressive posturing by the BJP and other Hindu outfits, the state government is going ahead with its plan to facilitate the entry of women to the temple during the ‘Chithira Atta Vishesham’ ritual. The government, which failed to assist any of the 15 women who came forward to enter the temple, is trying to keep protesters at bay by doubling the forces and taking stricter precautions.

Pathanamthitta district superintendent of police T Narayanan said they will be deploying a 5,000-strong contingent in and around the hill shrine on 5 and 6 November. The government has also declared prohibitory orders under the Code of Criminal Procedure 144 from 3 November midnight to 6 November midnight in order to prevent the protesters from assembling in and around the hill shrine. The district police chief said devotees will be subjected to strict security checks before being allowed to go to Pampa. No one other than devotees and media will be allowed to travel to Pamba from Nilackal, he added. Nobody will be allowed to stay for long at Sannidhanam and stray along the trekking path, he further said.

“We will provide protection if any woman comes to trek the holy shrine. The police are duty-bound to provide protection to the devotees. We will do our duty and would not allow anybody to prevent anybody from proceeding to the hill top.” Narayan said. The administration has, so far, not received any request from women seeking police support to go to the temple despite an extensive campaign by the CPM and its partners to create awareness about the gender equality upheld by the SC judgment.

Many of the young women taken to the temple by the police during the monthly puja were either activists or media. The government feels that genuine devotees kept away due to the tense situation created by the protesters and is hoping they will come forward if they are assured of security. The government is leaving no stone unturned this time in guaranteeing protection to women who come to Sabarimala. Even if a single woman between age of 10 and 50 enters the temple, it will be considered as a big victory for the government.

Updated Date: Nov 03, 2018 16:45:46 IST