Sabarimala temple gates open to clashes and chaos

Police escort Madhavi and her family members after she was heckled by protesters while seeking entry to the Ayyappa Temple on Wednesday. PTI

Hostility and an aggressive statement of faith marked an unfamiliar setting in Sabarimala as the Ayyappa Temple opened for monthly pujas on Wednesday.

Activists affiliated to Hindu outfits clashed with police and attacked mediapersons at the base camp of Nilakkal as protests set off violence against implementation of the Supreme Court judgement which allowed women of all ages entry to the temple. Prohibitory orders were clamped on Thursday at Elavunkal, Nilakkal, Pampa and the sannidhanam.

Earlier in the day, a 41-year-old woman from Andhra Pradesh, identified as Madhavi, and members of her family were stopped by protesters after they crossed the entry point at Pampa and commenced their trek to the shrine.

Another woman pilgrim was stopped by protesters at Pathanamthitta. At Pampa, police detained members of the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, including women, who were on a sit-in protest against the implementation of the apex court’s judgement.

LIVE: Sabarimala temple opens, women entry stalled

Protesters checked vehicles including KSRTC buses plying to Pampa to ensure that young women’s entry to the temple is blocked. The checks continued through the day, reducing about 700 police personnel — including women — deployed at the base camp to mere spectators. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had on Tuesday assured all protection to woman devotees who visit the temple.

With some of the devotees doubling up as guards, policemen posted at the base camp are set for a tough ask through the five days of monthly pujas. An action council formed to protect traditions of the temple has called for a shutdown to protest against the Supreme Court judgement, on Thursday.

In the early hours of Wednesday, police initiated action against protesting devotees who were engaged in vehicle checks, but by afternoon, the area around the Shiva Temple in Nilakkal was again taken over by activists, chanting in protest against attempts to “tamper with” the ritualistic traditions of the temple. Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran urged the RSS national leadership to stop functionaries from unleashing violence in Sabarimala.

Around 3.30 pm, protesters clashed with the police — after a baton charge, the protesters regrouped, targeting mediapersons. KSRTC buses were damaged in stone-pelting incidents at Nilakkal. About 30 minutes ahead of the temple opening, clashes erupted in Pampa on the foothills. State police chief Loknath Behera said senior police officials were being posted in Nilakkal and Pampa to bolster security arrangements.

Pathanamthitta District Collector P B Nooh said police were forced to initiate action after the protests turned violent. Speaking with DH near Nilakkal, Congress MP from Pathanamthitta Anto Antony said the government could have taken up implementation of the judgement with greater caution.

A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had, on September 28, lifted restrictions on entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years to the temple. Members of the Pandalam family and tantri (head priest) family have backed the devotees’ contention that the judgement undermined traditions of the temple where the deity is a naishtika brahmachari (celibate).

BJP general secretary K Surendran denied Sangh Parivar outfits’ role in the violence. He slammed the “unprovoked” police action and said the government was turning the hill shrine into a conflict zone.

Security at the sannidhanam was tightened ahead of the temple’s opening, at 5 pm. The pujas will commence on Thursday, the first day of the Malayalam month of Thulam. The collector said the prohibitory orders would not hamper pilgrims’ movement.

Women journalists were heckled, their vehicles smashed and young female Ayyappa devotees turned back as hordes of protesters  besieged the road leading to Sabarimala.

Some of the media vehicles were destroyed in violence that broke out in the evening at the base camp of Nilakkal. Woman reporters of national TV channels were heckled by men who had set base in Nilakkal since Tuesday. A car the DH correspondent was travelling in was intercepted at Nilakkal by protesters who said they were “letting the vehicle go” only because there were no women in it.

“You people don’t report the truth; you don’t care about how we feel about this judgement. Leave, before we change our mind,” one of the protesters said. The BJP state leadership condemned the attack on media but said its activists were not involved in it. The targeting of media had started on Tuesday, when protesters entered a KSRTC bus and forced woman journalists to drop plans to visit Pampa.

A lone woman travelling to Sabarimala by bus was stopped at the bus stand near the gateway by a group of protesters.

The woman, identified as Libi by local language channel Asianet News, came from the neighbouring district of Alappuzha.“When democracy and the Supreme Court order are being defied by protesters, I have come with the firm intent of visiting Sabarimala,” Libi, who uses only one name, told the channel.“I am not scared. The police are providing full security. I have come alone,” she said, adding she was ready to face trouble.

A family of four from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, including at least one woman, were shielded by police carrying sticks after protesters shouting slogans prevented them from reaching the temple.

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