Sabarimala row: Devotee organisations say Kerala Police's new security measures may only compound chaos

The new security measures being introduced by Kerala Police to deal with law and order issues triggered by the 28 September Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of all ages to the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala may compound the chaos during the two-month Mandalakala puja from 16 November.

A protester checks the ID card of a woman devotee. Image courtesy: Arun Mohan

A protester checks the ID card of a woman devotee. Image courtesy: Arun Mohan

The protests by the Sangh Parivar and Hindu organisations against the Communist-led government’s bid to implement the verdict led to widespread violence at the holy place during the monthly puja last month and a special puja on 6 November. The police could not ensure smooth darshan to even women outside the banned age group, let alone taking women of menstruating age to the hill shrine despite doubling the deployment and installing high-tech equipment.

While the police made a futile attempt to take women between the ages of 10 and 50 to the temple during the monthly puja between 17 and 22 October, they tried to dissuade women from attempting the trek to the hill top during the special puja on 6 November. The new measures do not inspire confidence among women who would like to exercise the right granted to them by the apex court.

The new measures include an online booking system to control pilgrims and a pass system for vehicles. The advance booking system called Digital Crowd Management System (DCMS), modelled on the lines of the crowd management system at Tirupati Devasthanom, is an online portal for devotees to book a slot on the separate queue maintained by the Kerala Police.

The police claim that this will help devotees to reach Sannidhanam without waiting in the long queue usually formed at Pampa. The system generates a fixed number of coupons for every hour. Devotees can reach Pampa at the specified time and enter the queue without waiting. This dedicated queue will be manned by the police exclusively for those coming with the queue coupons. The coupons and ID card will be verified by the police before devotees are allowed to enter the queue.

The availability of slots can be searched by entering the number of devotees, and the preferred time slots for a month. The slots will be opened on a weekly basis. The search results will show a calendar view of the month with the dates in green colour box, if slots are available. By clicking on the date, available slots for that particular day will be displayed on right side, Devotee can choose a slot from the list.

To book, devotees will have to sign up and create their profile first by adding their name, address, district, pin code, photo ID card and photo. After the booking, the devotees will have to print the coupon and get a bar-coded entry pass to proceed to the hill shrine. The pass system for vehicles has been proposed to regulate private vehicles coming to the temple. A senior police official claimed that the pass system was part of parking management necessitated by the damage caused to the parking space by the recent flood. While the parking space at Pampa has been completely washed off by the flood, the space available at Nilackal cannot accommodate more than 10,000 vehicles.

Thousands of private vehicles come to Sabarimala during the peak pilgrim season. According to Motor Vehicles department, around 50 lakh vehicles: buses, tempo travellers, jeeps, car, autos and even bikes travelled to the base camp during the previous season.

The pass system proposed by the police requires the devotees to get the vehicle pass from the police station in the locality from where the vehicle comes. The pass should contain the number of people travelling, dates of pilgrimage, name and details of driver and vehicle owner. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which is in the forefront of the agitation, has viewed the new measures as part of a larger game plan to sabotage the Sabarimala pilgrimage by the state government "led by atheists". Party state general secretary K Surendran said that the intent of the police was to reduce number of devotees going to the temple.

Ayyappa devotee organisations feel the procedures proposed for online booking and obtaining the vehicle passes may affect the pilgrimage. Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sanghom general secretary N Velayudhan Nair said the procedures are cumbersome and majority of the pilgrims may not be able to follow them. “Only computer literate people can do the online booking. A large number of devotees, especially those coming from the neighbouring states, does not have even basic education. There will be total chaos if the police insist on entry pass to go to the temple,” he added.

Though there will be offline facility at Nilackal to do the booking, devotees think it may not be sufficient as the infrastructure facility there is inadequate. While the facilities for devotees to rest, eat and do the morning chores at Pampa have been washed away by the flood, there is an acute shortage of space to provide the facilities at Nilackal. “Any attempt to manage the crowd without providing adequate infrastructure would do more harm than good. Sabarimala cannot be compared with Tirupati, where there are sufficient facilities for pilgrims to do darshan. The time a devotee spend at Tirupati is very short. At Sabarimala, the rituals at times take more than a day and the pilgrims would stay longer,” he added.

The virtual queue system, which is similar to the digital system introduced by police since 2012, has not been effective in crowd management at Sabarimala. The number of devotees who availed the virtual queue system during the last season was only 7 lakh as against four to five crore pilgrims who undertook the pilgrimage. Curiously, the new measures do not include any provision to provide protection to the women. As many as 550 women have registered for darshan through the online booking system. Women activists feel more women will come forward if the police are ready to provide protection.

“The experiences of women who attempted to enter the temple during the monthly puja has left young women scared to go to Sabarimala. The police failed miserably despite all assurances by the government and the top brass. The risk will be high during the season since there will be large number of pilgrims around the temple,” says advocate and women's activist RK Asha. “A large number of women are keen to visit the temple. They will come forward only if there is a guarantee to their safety. The massive arrest of protesters who indulged in violence has not deterred them from continuing their resistance against women’s entry. Registering of over 550 women for darshan may increase tension around the temple,” the activist said.

The activists feel that if the government and the police machinery fail to facilitate the entry of young women to the temple during the pilgrimage season, the Supreme Court verdict will remain on paper. With the government losing the initial zeal, the police are waiting for the outcome of the review and writ petitions pending before the court to take the next step. If the apex court rejects the petitions, the pilgrim season is going to be a big challenge for the Kerala Police.


Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 16:05 PM

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