Sabarimala temple protests: New York Times journalist Suhasini Raj's attempt at being first woman to enter Ayyappa shrine foiled

The police and even Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) could not help a woman from the 'banned' age group from entering the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala on Thursday.

The woman, who made a bold attempt to go to the temple in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict lifting the centuries old ban on menstruating women from entering the temple, was Suhashini Raj, a member of the New Delhi bureau of The New York Times.

The journalist, who has been covering the protests at Pampa, began her trek to the hilltop at 7 am unnoticed by the devotees at Pampa and the temple employees, who were posted at Pampa to check the age of women going to the temple. Nobody had an inkling that she would go to the temple. As she proceeded further, the police joined her. Some 50 members of police personnel, including commandos, escorted her as she made a steady journey to the hilltop. However, the devotees returning from the temple noticed her and alerted the protestors when she reached Marakoottam, which is a kilometre from the temple.

Activists of Hindu organisations and political parties, who were hiding in the forests, sprung up and blocked her. Most of them had covered their face with black cloths, protesting the Supreme Court verdict. The protesters mobbed her, hurling abuse and shouting slogans telling her to 'go back'. The police, who escorted her remained helpless as the protesters created a huge human wall. Some even tried to manhandle her and the media persons accompanying her.

 Sabarimala temple protests: New York Times journalist Suhasini Rajs attempt at being first woman to enter Ayyappa shrine foiled

Activists of Hindu organisations and political parties, who were hiding in the forests, sprung up and blocked the NYT journalist. Image/TK Devasia/Firstpost

As the protests mounted, Suhasini and her colleague decided to return saying she did not want to create trouble. She told a television channel that she did not want to hurt the sentiments of the devotees and was, therefore, abandoning her plan.

The police escorted her to the base camp at Pampa and later took her to police station and recorded her statement. Central Range Inspector-General Manoj Abraham met her at the station.

The protesters also turned on the police and the media persons following her. They did not allow the photographers to take their pictures. Shivaram, a photographer of Reuters, said the protesters tried to grab his camera when he tried to take pictures. Abraham said that the police will post policemen en route the temple to prevent such incidents. Currently, forces are posted only at the entry points and not on the route. The police officer said that the police will create an atmosphere for women to go to the temple and will provide protection if any woman comes forward to enter the temple.

Apart from Suhasini, two other women had come forward to go to the temple. However, one of them — a 45-year-old woman from Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh — was forced to return from the base camp, while the other — a young woman from Cherthala in Alappuzha district — was stopped at Pathanamthitta bus stop.

Although the police offered them support, they decided to return in view of the massive resistance they faced. The district administration had promulgated Section 144 prohibiting the grouping of people in a 30-kilometre radius of the temple to ensure the smooth conduct of the monthly puja, which began on Wednesday. Pathanamthitta district superintendent of police T Narayanan said that the police will introduce patrolling in all sensitive areas to prevent grouping of people. He said that they had divided the areas around the temple into five sectors and put them under the control of superintendents of police.

Police believe that the protesters, who were dispersed from Nilakkal, may be hiding in the forests to prevent young women from going to the temple. Narayanan said they will be flushing out such people from their hideouts. Leaders of the Ayyappa devotee organisations, protesting the Supreme Court verdict, feel that the people who have created trouble are not genuine devotees. Mohanan Nair, secretary of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham, said that the people who caused trouble at Nilakkal on Wednesday were outsiders.

He alleged that most of them had come from different parts of the state. Many of them were from Kannur, where the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the RSS are engaged in a bloody battle for political supremacy. Nair feels that the protesters from Kannur could be both RSS and CPM workers who came to Sabarimala with their political agendas. He said the protests by the Ayyappa organisations were going on peaceful until these people entered the scene.

Meanwhile, the 24-hour hartal — called by right wing outfit, Antharashtriya Hindu Parishad led by Pravin Togadia and the Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithi, an outfit of devotees, and supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party — has affected the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The devotees, who went to the temple on Wednesday, are stranded at Pampa as transport buses and taxis have kept off the roads. The devotees, who came from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are also stranded in different places.

The state-run Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) has suspended services as several buses were damaged by protesters on Wednesday. Although KSRTC has agreed to operate services from Pathanamthitta to Pampa, the police is finding it difficult to escort the buses as a large number of personnel have been deployed in and around Sabarimala.

The police is also not allowing private vehicles, including media persons, to go to Nilakkal and Pampa, even though both places are calm now. The protesters, who were dispersed from Nilakkal, have returned home. The sheds erected for the protests appeared deserted.

However, the police has adopted a cautious approach as it feels that the protesters may be hiding in the forests. The situation is not likely to be normal until they are flushed out.


Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 16:40:11 IST