Activists clashed with the police and political rivals as they took to the streets of Kerala during a dawn-to-dusk shutdown strike to protest against the entry of two women in their 40s into the ancient Sabarimala temple, causing mayhem in several parts of the state and forcing normal life to a halt.
At least 250 people, including 38 policemen, were injured in violence, the authorities said, during the strike organised by the Sabarimala Karma Samiti, an umbrella group of Hindu groups, which was supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) observed a “black day.”
On Wednesday, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanakadurga, 44, escorted by a group of policemen, became the first women to worship at Sabarimala, breaking a tradition barring the entry of female devotees between 10 and 50 years of age into the shrine, more than three months after the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to pray at the temple.
Kerala has been on edge since the Supreme Court verdict, which angered Hindu traditionalists, including women, who foiled previous attempts by women in the age group to enter the shrine. The violation of the taboo by the two women, which was backed by Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), had triggered unrest in the state on Wednesday. Entry of women of menstruating age had into the gold-plated Lord Ayyappa temple, nestled in a tiger reserve, had been banned on grounds that the presiding deity is a celibate.
On Thursday, the police in Pandalam, Kozhikode, Kasargode and Ottapalam districts batoncharged protesters as several political party offices and houses were attacked throughout the state. In Kozhikode, the police used teargas to disperse protesters who tried to enforce the 12-hour shutdown. Stone-throwing protestors on Thursday damaged 79 Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses.
A 55-year-old activist of the Sabarimala Karma Samithi died after he was injured by rock-throwing protestors in Pathanamthitta on Wednesday. In Thrissur, four workers of the BJP were stabbed on Thursday while enforcing the shutdown.
News agency AFP reported that journalists were assaulted in Palakkad during a march organised by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the party.
“More than 100 persons were injured in today’s violence. Many party offices and houses were attacked throughout the state. Among the injured are 38 cops,” chief minister Pinnarayi Vijayan said.
As many as 266 people were arrested in connection with the violent protests on Wednesday and Thursday, the police said. At least 334 people were taken into preventive custody, said the police, which launched a drive called Operation Broken Window to deal with troublemakers.
Mobile phones of suspected troublemakers would be confiscated and sent for digital examination and raids would be carried out at their homes to unearth weapons, a police statement said. Cases would also be registered against those involved in hate campaigns on social media.
The shutdown call forced the state to come to a standstill as shops and other small businesses closed in many places across Kerala. Most bus services came to a halt and taxi drivers, fearing they could come under attack, refused to accept passengers. Universities deferred examinations scheduled to take place on Thursday.
The temple has refused to abide by the Supreme Court ruling, which the LDF government of chief minister Vijayan had vowed to uphold, and the entry of Ammini and Kanakadurga was followed by a purification ritual performed by priests who cleaned the premises with cow dung and rose water and sought forgiveness of the presiding deity.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to grant an urgent hearing on a contempt of court petition moved by two women, Varsha and Geena Kumari, against the temple authorities for closing the shrine for the hour-long purification ritual.
Vijayan, who was critical of the temple’s decision, defended the help his government offered to the two women in gaining entry into Sabarimala and accused Hindutva groups of trying to incite trouble.At a press conference, the CM said it was his government’s constitutional obligation to help the two women and warned that troublemakers will be dealt with sternly.
“The Sangh Parivar is trying to sabotage the Supreme Court verdict. The real devotees are not against the verdict,” the chief minister said, saying the shutdown strike amounted to a protest against the court’s September order.
“Kanakadurga and Bindu were given protection after they sought security to visit the shrine. They were not airdropped. They visited shrine like normal devotees. None of the devotees protested,” he told reporters.
RSS leader PEB Menon urged the Centre to introduce an ordinance to protect believers in Sabarimala. “Devotees have lost faith in the state government. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s adamant posture has led to sorry state” he said.
“We will carry on with our agitation in a peaceful manner and abide by the law of the land,” said Kerala BJP president PS Sreedharan Pillai said about the protests.
Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan – an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party from Bihar –asked on Thursday “if women were going into space, why couldn’t they enter temple?”
“The SC has given its judgment and now two women have even entered the temple. Is the government stopping them from entering the temple?” said Paswan, who heads the Lok Janshakti Party.
The Congress-led UDF alleged that law and order had collapsed in Kerala because of the violence during the shutdown strike, saying the CM’s “immature” and “arrogant” approach had given rise to tension in the state,
“The law-and-order situation in the state would not have collapsed had the chief minister shown maturity in handling the Sabarimala issue,” UDF convenor Benny Behanan said at a press conference.
The Congress leader said Vijayan’s decision to allow women of menstruating age into the temple had “undermined the sentiments” of the Ayyappa devotees.
“Such actions are against the principles of renaissance. Even women, who participated in the wall of women protest organised by the government for bringing a renaissance in the state, are saddened by the state-sponsored action in Sabarimala,” he said.
The erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, considered to be the custodians of the temple, alleged that the state government was making efforts to disturb temple rituals.
“The Kerala government is taking measures everyday to send someone there [Sabarimala temple] to disturb its rituals. It’s festival time when per day 1-2 lakh people used to come to the temple but due to government’s action, it has reduced to 10-15,000,” said PGS Varma, a member of the Pandalam family.