Sabarimala row: Women activists make failed bid to enter shrine; Kerala govt, court-appointed panel pass buck

After right-wing Hindu outfits aborted the Kerala government's move to implement the 28 September Supreme Court verdict on women’s entry in the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple, the state government is all set to organise a women’s wall. The ultimate objective of the campaign is to make women's entry into the temple — a long-standing demand of a section of women — a reality.

However, the human wall erected by devotees and right-wing Hindu activists, including Sangh Parivar workers, at Sabarimala has once again foiled the government’s effort to facilitate the entry of women in the temple. This is the third attempt since the apex court struck down the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 years from entering the temple.

The first two attempts during the monthly puja in October were abandoned following strong protests. Since then, the government has been following a path of dissuading the women from going to the temple citing security reasons. However, the police on Sunday made an unsuccessful bid to escort an 11-member group of devotees from Tamil Nadu to the temple, the third such attempt, by arresting and removing protesters from Pampa, the main entry point to the hill shrine.

The cops beat a retreat after thousands of devotees returning from the temple after darshan and right-wing activists blocked the group, which was escorted by around 25 police officials, at the base of the hill. The police later sent them back to Nilakkal, the base camp.

 Sabarimala row: Women activists make failed bid to enter shrine; Kerala govt, court-appointed panel pass buck

Manithi members at Sabarimala. Image sourced by TK Devasia.

The team was part of a 40-member group from different states, including Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka and Kerala. The attempt to reach the temple was organised by Manithi, a Chennai-based women’s organisation, to exercise the right granted to the women by the apex court. The other members of the group are said to be on their way to Sabarimala. They are likely to return in view of the protests. Another four-member group from Wayanad led by Dalit activist Ammini has also returned without crossing Pampa.

Manithi member Selvi said they had undertaken the pilgrimage after the government and the police had agreed to facilitate their entry. However, the police made no serious effort initially to take them to the hill shrine. No senior police officer was present at Pampa when the group reached there at 5.30 am.

While an officer of the IG rank escorted two women to the hill top during the monthly puja in October, only an officer of the superintendent’s rank was present to deal with the situation this time. Karthikeyan Gokulachandran, who is the Pampa special officer, did not even make any effort to visit the site of the protest. The task of negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Manithi members was left to junior officers. Though he assured that the police will help the women visit the temple, no follow-up action was initiated to make it possible till the afternoon.

The police arrested and removed the protesters only after the women rejected the plea by the police to return and staged a sit-in demonstration for nearly six hours. However, the police did not take any steps to face the protests on the way ahead in spite of intelligence reports that more than 1,000 activists of the Sangh Parivar and devotee organisations had gathered at Sabarimala to prevent the women from going to the temple.

Manithi members staging a sit-in demonstration at Pampa near the Sabarimala temple. Image sourced by TK Devasia

Manithi members staging a sit-in demonstration at Pampa near the Sabarimala temple. Image sourced by TK Devasia

Karthikeyan said it was impossible for the police to take the women to the temple which was teeming with devotees in this peak pilgrim season. He said that the police could not remove the protesters without resorting to force. This would have led to a dangerous situation, causing harm to many.

The police were also in a fix as the government and the three-member monitoring committee appointed by the Kerala High Court to supervise the pilgrimage washed their hands of the issue. While Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the government can only act as per the directions of the high court panel comprising two judges and a senior police officer, the latter maintained that its brief was to ensure the smooth conduct of the pilgrimage.

“The high court had appointed the committee after realising the complex situation prevailing at the hill shrine in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict. We have been acting on the advice of the committee. We can do what the committee says,” the minister said.

The committee, on the other hand, maintained that its job was to supervise the facilities provided to the devotees for darshan. A member of the committee said that they could not intervene in the current issue, since it was a law and order problem that has to be dealt with by the Devaswom Board and the police. The member said that they had informed the Devaswom Board of their decision.

BJP leaders have accused the state government of "playing hide and seek". The party's general secretary K Surendran said that the women attempted to enter the temple were brought by the government with the help of the police to ensure the entry of women in the temple before the women wall to be held on 1 January. In an attempt to garner support following recent protests by Hindu groups across Kerala over entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala shrine post Supreme Court verdict, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said a "women wall" would be formed on the first day of 2019 from the northern district of Kasargode to the state capital pledging support to the state government stand.

“Vehicles of devotees are not allowed beyond Nilakkal. The police made an exception in the case of Manithi members. The van in which they came was allowed safe passage. This shows that the women were brought by the government,” said Surendran, who was arrested and lodged in jail for about 20 days for attempting to create trouble at Sabarimala.

Pandalam Palace Executive Committee president PG Sasikumar Verma suspects a conspiracy, and said that the pilgrimage had been going on smoothly after the initial lull. He told mediapersons at Pandalam that it was difficult to believe that the members of the women's group were devotees guided by their devotion to Lord Ayyappa.

“The intention behind the decision to visit the temple on 23 December is suspicious, since it is on this day that the Thanka Anki (sacred golden attire) to adorn the Ayyappa idol prior to the Mandalapuja on 27 December commences from Pandalam. It could be part of an attempt to disrupt the pilgrimage,” he added.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said that the developments at Sabarimala were a drama enacted by the LDF government to help the Sangh Parivar make Sabarimala a conflict zone and gain political mileage from it.

The success achieved by devotees in preventing the Manithi members from going to the temple has boosted the morale of the Sangh Parivar, which is organising an "Ayyappa Jyothi" —the simultaneous lighting of Ayyappa lamps from Manjeshwaram in the north to Parassala in the south—at dusk on 26 December to counter the women wall initiated by the government to drum up support for gender equality.

Updated Date: Dec 24, 2018 11:53:13 IST