Protests continue in Kerala over temple controversy

The two women who caused the furore - Ms Bindu Ammini, 42, and Ms Kanaka Durga, 44 - being escorted by police after they tried to enter the Sabarimala temple in December last year.
The two women who caused the furore - Ms Bindu Ammini, 42, and Ms Kanaka Durga, 44 - being escorted by police after they tried to enter the Sabarimala temple in December last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

Issue of women entering Sabarimala temple sparks violence, with thousands arrested

The southern Indian state of Kerala, known for its calm backwaters and lush greenery, has continued to see violent protests over the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple, and 15,000 policemen have been put on duty.

Police said attackers yesterday hurled a home-made bomb at the home of a politician from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and set ablaze an office of its Hindu nationalist parent group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

A bomb was also thrown at the home of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator, according to Indian media reports.

The protests first erupted after two women in their 40s created history by becoming the first women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple, which is dedicated to the deity Ayyappa, on Jan 2.

The temple's traditional entry ban on women of menstruating age was overturned by the Supreme Court last September, but Hindu groups and other devotees managed to keep women from entering it for nearly three months.

Protests were further fuelled by reports of a third woman entering the temple. Sri Lankan national Sasikala, according to the police, entered Sabarimala and offered prayers. But police said the woman, who was scared of the repercussions, later denied being able to offer prayers at the temple.

Director-general of police Loknath Behera, the highest-ranking police official in Kerala, told The Sunday Times that police had arrested 3,178 people for offences ranging from disturbing the peace to stone-throwing and damaging public property, and that reports had been registered against 37,000 people over the last three days.

 
 
 

"There are various kinds of people who are protesting, from those with political links to non-political persons, hooligans, miscreants and criminals," said Mr Behera. "We have put around 15,000 policemen in various places."

Kerala is the only state in the country with 100 per cent literacy. It has about 2.5 million people, many of them working in the Arabian Gulf countries.

Politics in the southern state has been dominated by the United Democratic Front, a coalition of parties led by the Congress, and its rival Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The LDF is currently in power.

The Sabarimala issue also has political overtones, said analysts, particularly with India heading into general elections and Mr Modi's BJP trying to increase its presence in southern India, including Kerala.

The BJP's national leadership had hailed the Supreme Court's ruling. But in Kerala, the BJP has come out against the entry of women to the temple, and has been in support of those seeking to continue the tradition of keeping women out. Mr Modi is expected to attend meetings in Kerala later this month.

Similarly, the Congress in Kerala has also opposed the entry of women to the temple, backing traditional beliefs.

While political parties have been blaming each other for the ongoing violence, political analysts said the BJP would find it tough to gain a foothold in Kerala.

"Given the nature of Kerala politics, try as it might, I am not sure the BJP will get mileage. They seem to have limited space in politics of the state, given that it is largely Congress versus Left. The BJP would love to jump into the fray," said political analyst Sandeep Shastri, who is pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 06, 2019, with the headline 'Protests continue in Kerala over temple controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe