On Day One, Women Barred From Entering Sabarimala; Six Journalists Attacked

Despite the state government's assurance to provide safe passage to women, several violent attacks were reported, including on women journalists. The Congress and BJP also participated in the protests.

New Delhi: Despite the Supreme Court’s verdict striking down the restriction on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple, no woman was allowed to enter the hill shrine on the first day of the pilgrimage on Wednesday. Angry and violent protestors heckled, threatened and turned back women devotees and journalists who attempted to trek up the hill.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s had said that there would no hurdles for women who want to make the pilgrimage. However, reports said protestors threatened and attacked at least six journalists at Nilakal and Pamba, the two base camps near the temple. Two women pilgrims were also turned back. Heavy police presence was not enough to control the protestors.

Police baton charged the protestors several times in a bid to disperse the crowd, according to the Indian Express. According to reports, three policemen and five agitators were injured. A journalist working for The News Minute was physically assaulted by protestors. The agitators also damaged numerous buses that were ferrying women to the temple.

Also Read: Denying Women Entry to the Sabarimala Temple Amounts to Untouchability

Since Tuesday, women devotees seeking entry to Sabarimala faced angry protestors wishing to deny them entry, leading to some tense moments in Kerala, especially in Nilakkal and Pamba.

Madhavi, a woman from Andhra Pradesh in her 40s, would have been the first women of menstruating age to make the pilgrimage since the apex court’s order. As she tried to climb the Sabarimala hills to reach the Lord Ayyappa temple, she was forced to return to Pamba, menaced by agitated male devotees. She had to be escorted back by police.

Another woman was also stopped at a bus stand and asked to return, while a couple from Tamil Nadu was also forcefully dragged out of a bus.

The journalists who were attacked were Saritha S. Balan of The News Minute, Mousami Singh of India Today, Pooja Prasanna of Republic TV, Rajeesh of Reporter TV, Libi C.S. of Newsgil and Radhika Ramaswamy of CNN-News18. They had to be rescued by the police.

The protests, which were led by women on Tuesday, was largely a male affair on Wednesday. Protestors wore saffron and yellow scarves and headbands. Protesting women were largely confined to chanting hymns of Lord Ayyappa in a tent, according to the Indian Express.

The shrine will shut on October 22 and would reopen during the third week of November.

Political parties also protest

On Wednesday, the Congress and the BJP participated in protests opposing the entry of women. K. Surendran, BJP’s general secretary, stated “no police or party can stop” the devotees from defending the temple’s traditions. “The BJP cannot remain a mute spectator when it is a grave matter of religious belief,” he told the Indian Express.

Congress working president K. Sudhakaran and other party leaders participated in protests at Nilakal.

A female devotee makes the trek to Sabarimala. Credit: PTI

The Kerala government said it would not tolerate violence at Sabarimala. “RSS criminals who masqueraded as devotees, have unleashed the violence,” said Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran.

Surendran, who reviewed the situation and preparations for the three-month-long Mandalam-Makaravilakku-festival beginning November 17 at Sannidhanam (Sabarimala temple complex), said the government would tackle the agitation politically.

“The BJP-RSS are trying to create tension and destroy the peaceful atmosphere in Kerala for political gain. We know the agenda of the RSS and BJP very well,” he said, and insisted the government did not want any confrontation with believers.

Head priest’s family member arrested

The political slugfest over the Kerala government’s decision not to file a review petition against the apex court order also escalated as tempers frayed in areas surrounding the hill shrine that were on edge.

Activist Rahul Easwar, a front-ranking leader of the protesters and votary of continuance of the tradition barring girls and women between 10 and 50 years from entering the temple, was arrested at Pamba at the foothill from where the trek to the shrine begins. Easwar hails from the tantri‘s (head priest) family.

Hundreds of policemen could be seen in Pamba, Nilakkal and Erumeli – the important landmarks on way to Sabarimala.

When Libi C.S., a young journalist who is the editor of a news website Newsgil reached the Pathanamthitta Bus Stand, she was met with protestors (locals, both men and women), The News Minute reported. The police had to encircle her in order to protect her from the angry crowd. They were successful in guarding her even though the the crowd tried to breach the protective circle of police personnel.

Also read: Sabarimala Pilgrimage: Women Stopped From Travelling to the Temple, Protests Continue

In another incident of violence against women, a reporter from The News Minute, Saritha S. Balan, was attacked by a mob of 20 men while was she travelling in a KSRTC bus. “Saritha was intimidated by the mob and violently physically attacked and verbally abused,” The News Minute said. The mob reportedly called her names and kicked Balan in the spine even as the police was trying to protect her.

The media crew of Republic TV, which was travelling in a private car, was also attacked. The car was reportedly smashed by a mob of 100. The mob also attacked Republic sV’s South India bureau chief, Pooja Prasanna.

A group of BJP leaders held ‘namajapa‘ (prayer) meeting at Pamba soon after police removed the members of tantri (head priest) family and Pandalam royals, the custodians of the shrine, who were protesting against the government’s decision to enforce the top court’s order.

BJP state general secretaries, K. Surendran, M.T. Ramesh and Shobha Surendran were among those present. They alleged the police removed the members of the tantri and royal families without any provocation.

Just before his arrest, Easwar, the president of Ayyappa Dharma Sena, said the protests would be “non-violent, non-communal and non-political”. Easwar, who was kept at the Pamba police station, said Ayyappa devotees only wanted their right under Article 25 of the constitution that provided for freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion to be protected.

(With PTI inputs)