Kerala Police have detained more than 1,400 people from different parts of the state in connection with protests staged against entry of women of menstruating age to the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple. Devotees and activists affiliated to Hindutva outfits staged protests at the base camp of Nilakkal, Pampa, the sannidhanam – the deity’s abode – and other parts of the state between October 17 and 22 when the temple opened for monthly pujas. Police have registered 258 cases in connection with the protests. Reports said 1,407 people were held since Wednesday. Police sources confirmed the crackdown but said the numbers were still being consolidated.
On October 17, clashes erupted between protesters and police at Nilakkal, also setting off violent attacks on media-persons including woman journalists. Prohibitory orders were imposed in Nilakkal, Pampa and the sannidhanam during the five days of pujas but protesters who assembled on trekking paths and the sannidhanam thwarted attempts by women in the 10-50 years age group to enter the temple. The Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench, in a September 28 judgment, had allowed entry for women of all ages to the temple.
Pathanamthitta district police had earlier issued a notice for 210 suspects, with photographs sourced from video grabs. The agitators attacked state-run buses, media and police vehicles and before prohibitory orders were imposed, conducted their own checks in vehicles to block entry of women in the 10-50 age group. The temple closed after pujas on Monday.
Rahul Easwar – president of Ayyappa Dharma Sena who also led protests against implementation of the judgment – said on Wednesday that some of the agitators had planned to inflict injuries on themselves and spill blood at the sannidhanam, to force a three-day closure of the temple. “We were also ready with a Plan B. Had the police escorted young women to the temple, the 10 to 20 devotees stationed there would have spilled blood and the temple would have been closed for three days (for rituals to purify the shrine),” he said.
The ruling CPM, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has hit out at pro-Sangh Parivar outfits over attempts to trigger communal tension. On Thursday, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the statement by Easwar – who was released on bail following detention during the protests – exposed a conspiracy to make the hill shrine a conflict zone. “This is not about faith; these attempts are anti-national and against the devotees,” he said.
With the mandalam pilgrimage season set to commence on November 17, police are intensifying security measures and imposing restrictions, including on time pilgrims spend at the sannidhanam. The BJP state unit has criticised the proposed restrictions.
Members of the tantri (head priest) family and the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam – former custodians of the temple – backed the protests. A reported statement by tantri Kantararu Rajeevaru, that he would lock the temple if young women entered the sannidhanam drew sharp criticism from the Chief Minister. The state government maintains that the temple belongs to the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and the priests do not have administrative control on it. Members of the Pandalam family countered the argument and said TDB was only a “custodian” and the temple belonged to the devotees.