Sabarimala temple row: As Kerala govt and devotees lock horns, police dread task to secure women pilgrims

The Supreme Court’s refusal to stay its 28 September verdict lifting the centuries-old ban on the entry of menstruating women at the Sabarimala temple even while accepting a batch of 50 review petitions for hearing in an open court after the end of the Mandalakala-Makaravilakku pilgrim season on 22 January has put the Kerala government in a fix.

 Sabarimala temple row: As Kerala govt and devotees lock horns, police dread task to secure women pilgrims

File image of Sabarimala temple. PTI

Even though Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the order means status-quo on the entry of women in the age group of 10 and 50 in the temple, he has budged for a consensus by calling an all-party meeting and discussions with the stakeholders on 15 November, a day before the commencement of the two-month-long season.

Even while welcoming the government decision, the vigilante groups, including the Sangh Parivar which created a ruckus at Sabarimala during two occasions when the temple was opened for pooja, have made it clear that they will continue to resist attempts by young women to enter the temple.

The Ayyappa Dharma Sena which had stationed ‘devotees’ at Sannidhanam to get the temple closed even by desecrating it in the event of the entry of women from the restricted the age said they will maintain vigil around the hill shrine throughout the season.

“We will not physically prevent women between the age of 10 and 50 from coming to the temple but we will not allow anybody to break the temple custom and rituals. We hope the government will realise the sentiments of the devotees and seek a stay on the execution of the verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the temple,” said Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which took to streets against the implementation of the apex court verdict has also aired a similar demand. Party state president PS Sreedharan Pillai has urged the chief minister to shed his stubborn stance on the issue and seek a relaxation from the apex court in implementing the verdict.

“The SC decision to hear the review petitions is a big setback to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, which was trying to reap whirlwind by sowing the wind. The chief minister should apologise to the devotees for turning Sabarimala into a conflict zone and refrain from implementing the verdict now,” he said.

However, legal experts see no scope in the latest constitution bench decision to defer implementation of the 28 September verdict since the former has specifically stated that there will be no stay on the previous verdict. Mohammed Shah, a senior high court lawyer, said moving the Supreme Court for a stay would tantamount to an admission that the government is incapable of maintaining law and order.  He said that no sensible government would do this.

“The only option before the government is to appeal to the women of the restricted age group not to enter the temple as well as the protestors not to prevent anybody who comes to the temple till the review petitions are considered by the court. I hope the government will do this considering its failure in ensuring the entry of young women during the monthly pooja in October and the special pooja on 6 November,” the lawyer said.

However, the government will have to put in place enough force to provide protection to those who come to Sabarimala for darshan. Several women between the “prohibited age” of 10 and 50 have already announced their decision to enter the temple during the pilgrim season.

A total of 560 women in this age group have reserved their darshan time in advance through the Police Department’s Digital Crowd Control System (DCMS) so far. In addition to this, more women, including high-profile social activists, are expected to arrive unannounced.

Trupti Desai, who heads the Bhumata Brigade, who had planned to enter the temple even before the 28 September verdict, has made it clear that she will lead a seven-member group of young women to the temple between 16 and 20 November. The 33-year-old woman, who had had spearheaded a successful campaign for women’s right to worship in various temples, said she will be writing to the chief minister and state police chief Loknath Behera seeking police protection when they reach Kerala.

“We are demanding police protection from the time we enter Kerala to the time we leave. Already, we have been receiving threats, with some people warning us of dire consequences if we enter Kerala. Others threatened to commit suicide if we went to the temple,” Trupti was quoted by Times of India as saying. She said she would send a copy of the letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

The legal experts said if women within the restricted age group turns up at Sabarimala the police will have no choice but to provide them safe passage to the sanctum and back. This is going to be a herculean task for the police since the number of devotees coming to Sabarimala during the season will be beyond its management capacity.

The state police had failed to take any of the nearly 20 young women who arrived at Sabarimala for darshan to the sanctum sanctorum despite doubling the force and even restricting the gathering of people around the temple through prohibitory orders under Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

While the police made a futile attempt to take a few women to the hill top with heavy security during the monthly pooja from 17 to 22 October, they abandoned the effort and persuaded women not to make any attempt to go to the temple during the special pooja on 6 November as the protestors disguised as devotees took positions in the hill top and made entry of women even above the age of 50 difficult.

The police had to seek the help of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader to allow a 52-yeasr-old woman from Thrissur to perform the ‘choroonu’ (first rice feeding) ceremony of her grandson in front of Lord Ayyappan.

Senior police officers, who were consulted by the DGP for the security plan during the pilgrim season, have made it clear that it will be impossible to ensure the entry of young women to the temple without applying force. They have warned that this will be dangerous since about 1 lakh devotees are expected to arrive at Sabarimala every day during the season.

Sabarimala Special Commissioner has warned that use of force to disperse protestors could lead to a stampede causing death and injury to the devotees. In a report submitted before the high court, the special commissioner has also warned of the possibility of terrorists and extremists entering the hill shrine disguised as devotees and fomenting trouble.

The commissioner has sought a directive from the high court to all political parties and all registered organisations of Ayyappa devotees to exercise restraint, so that untoward incidents can be prevented during the pilgrim season.

Considering the threat perceptions, the police have made a tentative plan to deploy about 16,000 personnel in different batches for the two-month-long season from 16 November to 20 January. At a time, there will be 4,000 police personnel on duty. IG-rank officers will be in charge of security at Sannidhanam and Pampa.

A senior police officer said even this deployment would be sufficient to ensure law and order in the hill shrine. He said that the situation could be managed only through negotiation and compromise. The strategy should be to reduce the chances of confrontation with the protestors. Police had earlier planned to regulate the devotees to a more manageable level.  However, the plan was dropped following criticism from devotee and Hindu organisations.

If the government and the devotees refuse to relent from their hard stand, the pilgrim season starting with the opening of the temple on 16 November is going to be tumultuous.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 15:34:56 IST