Sabarimala row: Hindu Aikya Vedi chief arrested, granted bail; pilgrims stranded after right-wing calls shutdown
Sasikala told police she is above the age of 50 and wanted to visit the temple as a devotee.
Right-wing Hindu organisations have been staging protests across Kerala— purportedly to protect the customs of the temple and rights of devotees—ever since the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the entry of menstruating women at the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala. However, on Saturday these groups held many of the same devotees ‘hostage’ by organising a state-wide dawn to dusk shutdown.
The hartal was called by Hindu Aikya Vedi and Sabarimala Karma Samithi at 4 am following the arrest of Aikya Vedi president KP Sasikala for violating the prohibitory orders in force at Sabarimala. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the hartal, which brought life to a standstill.
Whenever any political party or organisation call such strikes during the pilgrimage season, Pathanamthitta district, in which the hill shrine is located, and devotees are usually exempted, but not this time. As a result, hundreds of devotees—mainly from other states—who didn't know about the strike were stranded. Devotees could not get food or water as hotels and restaurants downed shutters in many places. Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said BJP workers also forcefully closed units supplying food and water to the Ayyappa pilgrims and termed their action "a war on the devotees".
“Their action shows that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar outfits have no commitment towards Lord Ayyappa or devotees. Their interest is only political. The innocent devotees have fallen prey to the BJP’s political game. The devotees have started realising this,” Surendran added.
The Aikya Vedi leader was arrested after she insisted on going to the temple an hour before the closure of the sanctorum after the opening of the temple for the two-month-long Mandalakala Makaravilakku festival on Friday. Devotees were not allowed to stay back at Sannidhanam after 10 pm as per the new security plans introduced by the police in the light of the trouble created by protesters during the puja in October and November.
While all the devotees who came to the hill shrine for the opening ceremony heeded the police's direction, Sasikala, accompanied by five activists, said she would return only after completing the early morning darshan on Saturday. She was detained by the police at Marakoottam, about two kilometres from the temple. As Sasikala refused to return even after six hours, the police arrested her. Achara Samrakshana Samithi state convenor Prithvipal and BJP leader P Sudhir, who also tried to defy the prohibitory orders, were taken into custody. Sudhir came to Pampa disguised as a television channel employee. The two were let off on bail.
However, Sasikala was taken to the Ranni Police Station and kept there overnight. A large number of Hindu activists surrounded the police station to demand her release. The Aikya Vedi leader was produced before the Tiruvalla sub-divisional magistrate in the afternoon. The magistrate granted her bail on two personal bonds. Sasikala told police she is above the age of 50 and wanted to visit the temple as a devotee. Surendran said her intention was to create trouble and pointed out that she visited Sannidhanama four times during the monthly puja in October and the Chithira Attha Visesham pooja on 5 and 6 November and led the protests against the entry of young women into the temple.
“If Sasikala was a genuine devotee, she should have visited the temple during the permitted time and returned after darshan. Her intention was to camp at Sannidhanam and lead protests. We cannot allow this as activists like her created trouble during previous occasions,” he added. Surendran further said Sasikala is known for whipping up communal passion. “She been going around the state and spouting communal poison. There are several cases pending in the state against her for hate speech,” he added.
Sasikala was booked by the Paravur Police, Ernakulam district, in September 2017 under the charge of wantonly giving provocation with an intent to create a riot. The case was registered on the basis of a public speech in which she asked secular writers to conduct “Mrityunjaya Homam” at Lord Shiva temples to save them from meeting a fate similar to that of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh.
The Kasargod Police registered a case against Sasikala in 2016 for terming Muslim women ‘cross breed’ while commenting on early marriage within the community. She said Muslims marry because it was "cheaper than going to a brothel". Sasikala also triggered controversy by appealing to Hindu devotees to not offer money to the temples under the Travancore Devaswom Board as "successive Kerala governments Kerala used the revenue for minorities."
Sasikala also made provocative speeches against Mother Teresa, alleging that "she came to India to convert Hindus". Almost all her speeches sparked controversy. She has been referred to as ‘Kerala Thogadia’ on social media platforms. BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai termed Sasikala's arrest as an attack on her freedom. "Sasikala teacher was going to Sabarimala Sannidhanam with Irumudikettu and was arrested by police without any provocation. The arrest is nothing but police raj under the tyrannical rule of Pinarayi Vijayan,” Pillai added.
BJP spokesman MS Kumar termed her arrest "part of the police atrocities in Sabarimala". He said the action showed, once again, that the Communist-led government was against Hindu belief. “The government is denying Hindus their rights to go to temple. Not allowing even genuine believers to have darshan is autocracy at its zenith,” he added.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala termed the hartal protesting Sasikala's arrest unwarranted. “If the Sangh Parivar wanted to protest against the arrest, they could have done it without causing hardships to the people. The hartal has not only affected the innocent people, but also devotees,” he added. The senior Congress leader demanded an apology to the people by those who have called and supported the shutdown.
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