Sabarimala showdown: Bhumata Brigade, temple authorities in high-stakes game of who blinks first

Bhumata Brigade founder Trupti Desai has kicked the hornet's nest by insisting she will go forward with her plans of taking a group of menstruating women to the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala next month.

Sabarimala is one of the most visited holy sites in the world, with an estimated 50-60 million devotees from all over the country undertaking the pilgrimage between 16 November and 14 January. Even this year, despite the hardships caused by the government's demonetisation drive, there hasn't been a dip in the arrival of pilgrims and offerings.

However, the shrine, run by government-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), restricts entry of women in the reproductive age (10 to 50 years) from entering the temple, claiming that Swami Ayyappa, the main deity of the temple, is a celibate. It's this clause that the Pune-based gender rights activist Trupti Desai wants to correct. She has called for a protest march demanding women of all ages be allowed entry into the temple, which is located on a hilltop surrounded by mountains and dense forests in Pathanamthitta district.

 Sabarimala showdown: Bhumata Brigade, temple authorities in high-stakes game of who blinks first

Bhumata Brigade founder Trupti Desai. PTI file image

Though the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government backs Desai's demand, it has asked her to wait until the Supreme Court takes a final decision on the plea pending before it. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), however, has warned of bloodshed if the activists try to enter the temple during the season.

Trupti told Firstpost that the Bhumata Brigade will enter the temple before the season ends on 14 January. She said she was waiting for confirmation of women joining the mission to finalise their travel plans. The activist said she expects between 50 and 100 women to join in, and that they will go to Kerala by 10 January.

However, TDB president Prayar Gopalakrishnan said they will not allow the gender activists to get past Pathanamthjitta, the district headquarters, if they come to Kerala with the intention of entering the temple.

"I haven't been maintaining good relations with the government after LDF came to power. I have been silent in order to avoid controversy on issues concerning the temple. But this will not stop me from acting in case there is a threat to the temple or the devotees," Gopalakrishnan said.

He said he was still hopeful the government would stop the women. "Devotees will step in if the state government doesn't," he said, adding there could be serious law and order problems if this happens.

Gopalakrishnan said he was appointed by the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government to run the temple in accordance with all customs and traditions followed by it. He said that he considered it his duty to maintain the sanctity of the temple at all costs. "I will not spare any effort in fulfilling my duty. Nobody will be allowed to break the rules at Sabarimala as long as I am in this post. I don't even mind losing my position for the sake of the temple," the TDB chief said.

Various Ayyappa devotee organisations have also warned of action if the activists tried to enter the temple forcibly. The Akhila Bharatiya Ayyaappa Seva Sanghom, an all-India body of Sabarimala pilgrims, has asked Desai to desist from undertaking the visit to Sabarimala considering the sentiments of the devotees.

Rahul Eashwar, a member of the Sabarimala tantric family, said several organisations representing women devotees themselves had come forward to prevent women from going ahead with their plans. He said the members of these organisations will form a human chain to prevent Trupti and her supporters from crossing Pampa, the main halting point on the way to Sabarimala.

Eashwar said members of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and other groups campaigning against women's entry will position themselves against the Bhumata Brigade's attempts to defy the ban on menstruating women. Rahul, grandson of the chief priest of the temple, pointed out that the current campaign for entry for women into Sabarimala did not have any support from women in Kerala. He said a majority of the women in the state were against diluting the divinity of the temple.

A group claiming to represent women devotees from the state has even moved the Supreme Court against the petition seeking entry for women into Sabarimala. The organisation called 'People for Dharma' has sought to implead in the pending case, saying they were ready to wait till menopause to enter the shrine.

The Chennai-based organisation had earlier run an online campaign mustering support against the feminists. The campaign, titled 'Ready to Wait', was a counter to the 'Right to Bleed' and 'Right to Pray' movements, both seeking equal rights for women at Sabarimala.

Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran has also asserted that the government will not allow anybody to enter Sabarimala in defiance of the rules. He said that the Pune-based organisation had not approached the government with their plans so far. "We are against gender discrimination in places of worship. We have stated our position clearly before the Supreme Court. But this does not mean that we defy practices and customs in place," he added.

Public works minister G Sudhakaran, who had backed the feminists' demand in the apex court when he had held the Devaswom portfolio during the last term of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, also said attempts by the Bhumata Brigade to forcibly enter the temple will create a serious law and order problems.

He advised the organisation to avoid such a situation and wait for the Supreme Court order on the petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in 2006. The apex court had questioned the legality of the practice followed at the Sabarimala shrine many times during the hearing.

Desai, who led successful campaigns for entry of women in Maharashtra — the Shani Shignapur temple in Ahmednagar and Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai — rejected the suggestion, saying that their demand was in accordance with their Constitutional rights.

"We don't find any point in waiting for the final decision of the court to start our campaign. The court proceedings will go on. We are fighting for our Constitutional rights. Let both continue,” says Trupti.

She said that she and her supporters will go to Sabarimala by observing all rules that a devotee is supposed to follow. The custom at Sabarimala requires devotees to follow austerity for 41 days before the pilgrimage. Desai also said they will ensure the women will not be bleeding while trekking the hill.

"We understand the concerns of the temple authorities about menstrual bleeding. This normally lasts just four days. How anybody can keep away the women on grounds of impurity for the remaining 26 days of a month," Desai asked, questioning the tradition followed at Sabarimala.

She added that the LDF government in the state will support her campaign, since it has already backed the demand in the apex court. She said they were expecting protection and cooperation from chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his government.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 21:16:25 IST