Sabarimala sees 50% dip in devotees since 2017; Hindu groups say CPM govt trying to 'take over' Ayyappa shrine

The opposition parties and the right-wing Hindu organisations in Kerala have been dubbing the attempt by the Communist-led government to hastily execute the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple as part of a larger game plan to implement the ruling party’s atheist agenda in the famed temple.

Though the state government has vowed that it will not interfere with the belief of the devotees, the steps it took to facilitate the entry of women in the age group of 10 and 50 in the temple in accordance with the apex court verdict and the widespread protests it has triggered seems to have ironically led to a steep fall in the arrival of devotees at the hill shrine.

The temple has witnessed a 50 percent dip in the number of pilgrims since the court verdict. According to sources in the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which administers the temple, only about 90,000 devotees have visited the shrine since it was opened on 16 November for the two-month Mandalakala Makaravillakku festival season. According to sources, over 2.10 lakh devotees visited Sabarimala during the first three days of the pilgrim season last year. This is less than half the number of devotees who trekked to the hill shrine during the corresponding period last year.

The hill shrine used to witness huge crowd of devotees on the first Sunday of the season. However, the temple presented a deserted look on the first Sunday of the current season. The Ayyappa devotees who visited the temple said it was the first time in the recent past that they didn’t have to stand in long queues to climb the 18 holy steps and offer darshan.

Leaders of Ayyappa devotee organisations see the steep fall in the number of pilgrims visiting the shrine following the Supreme Court verdict as a result of the government action as well as the protests against them. Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, said that the heavy deployment of police personnel at Sabarimala and the restrictions the police have imposed on the devotees and the rituals had created fear in the minds of the pilgrims.

The hill shrine used to witness huge crowd of devotees on the first Sunday of the season. However, the temple presented a deserted look on the first Sunday of the current season. Image sourced by TK Devasia

The hill shrine used to witness huge crowd of devotees on the first Sunday of the season. However, the temple presented a deserted look on the first Sunday of the current season. Image sourced by TK Devasia

Meanwhile, the simmering protest among the devotees over the restrictions on the time the devotees are allowed to spend at Sannidhanam snowballed into protests at Nadapanthal. About 200 devotees staged a prayer protest defying the prohibitory orders, saying that they were not able to offer Neyyabhishekham due to the restriction on the night stay.

The police have arrested 72 protesters and moved them to a police camp at Maniyar. The search for others, who are said to be camping in the forests around the shrine, is on. The arrests have triggered protests across Kerala with the right-wing Hindu organisations and BJP and Sangh Parivar picketing police stations in several districts.

Superintendent of police Pratheesh Kumar, the special officer at Sannidhanam, said that the arrests were made for violating the prohibitory orders. He said that the restrictions were imposed due to the troubles seen at Sannidhanam during October and November and they would continue.

Easwar claimed that it could be that the pilgrims from other states were doubtful whether they will be able to have proper darshan amid the restrictions. "A large number of them were also concerned about their safety. Many pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and Andhra have been calling us on phone and inquiring whether it was safe to visit the temple now,” Easwar said.

Easwar said that the hartal called on Saturday and the road block on Sunday in the wake of the arrests of Hindu Aikya Vedi president P K Sasikala and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary K Surendran had confounded the fear among the devotees. He said that it was a temporary phenomenon and the situation will change after TDB files a petition seeking time to implement the Supreme Court verdict.

"I am confident that Supreme Court will accept the TDB plea since it is a quasi-judicial body. Normalcy would return to Sabarimala if the court defers implementation of the order till the conclusion of the pilgrim season," said the Ayyappaa Dharma Sena leader, who was arrested for allegedly fomenting trouble at the hill shrine.

The opposition parties and the government have been blaming each other for the tense situation prevailing at Sabarimala. While the BJP blamed the adamant stand took by the state government to implement Supreme Court verdict for the troubles, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) held the saffron party’s attempt to reap political mileage out of the situation responsible for the crisis at Sabarimala. The Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) by it, on the other hand, have put both the BJP and the government in the dock.

State BJP president P S Sreedharan Pillai said that the government attempt was to provide free passage to the non-believers to Sabarimala and help the ruling party to take over the temple to implement their agenda. “The CPI (M) has been trying this since the days of A K Gopalan. It has found the Supreme Court verdict an opportunity to gain the missed chance,” he said.

Party general secretary A N Radhakrishnan pointed that the CPI(M) has been on a temple takeover spree. “After the CPI(M)-led the LDF Government came to power, it took over the Parthasarathy temple in Guruvayur and it is in the process of taking over places of worship in other districts also," he added.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has also been alleging an attempt to destroy the temple behind the LDF government’s move to implement the Supreme Court order without considering the ramifications. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) working president K Sudharakan believes that the government had supported the petition seeking entry for menstruating women in Sabarimala with this agenda in mine.

"The government has obtained the order by misleading the top court that there was gender inequality in the Sabarimala temple. This is not true. There was no ban on women. There is only a restriction on women belonging to a certain age group," he said.

CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said that the party and its government had no intention to trample with the faith of the people and the customs of various places of worship. He said that they were only trying to shield the faithful from the political games of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

“The state BJP chief had described the situation at Sabarimala as golden opportunity for the party to make political gains. They are trying to consolidate the Hindus by misleading them. We are trying only to expose their political agenda,” Kodiyeri said.

He said that the BJP was trying to create a liberation struggle like situation in Kerala and pull down the democratically elected government by spreading lies and misleading people. The politically enlightened people of Kerala will realize the design and reject the BJP’s attempt, he said.

Political observers believe that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been playing the atheist card against the LDF government due to the old perception among the people that the communists were a threat to their faith. However, the perception changed when the first democratically elected Communist government did not interfere with the religious belief of the people.

Jacob George, a political commentator based at Thiruvananthapuram, said that the CPI(M) was son the contrary trying to attract faithful to the party by allowing them religious freedom. “The supporters of the party are allowed to follow their faith and participate in the religious activities. They are only prevented from taking up positions in the party,” he added.

Jacob, therefore, feels that the BJP attempt to portray the Sabarimala dispute as a fight between believers and non-believers may not succeed.

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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2018 13:49:45 IST

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