Indian temple controversy turns political as protests grow

Policemen escort members of the Hindu groups to prevent them from clashing with women of menstrual age entering Sabarimala temple, in Kerala state, for the first time in centuries, on Oct 18, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

KOCHI/NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - A senior leader of India's ruling party warned on Friday (Oct 19) that protesters in the southern state of Kerala would take the law into their hands if officials attempted to let women enter a hill temple at the centre of a raging controversy.

A political tinge for the controversy could help Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party gain ground in Kerala, where it has never made much headway, and won just one of 98 seats it contested in the last elections to the state assembly in 2016.

Protests against women entering the Hindu temple grew on Friday, with hundreds of hardliners blocking three women from entering the Sabarimala temple for a third day.

The demonstrators were defying a Supreme Court verdict that overturned a decades-old ruling by a lower court denying entry to women of menstrual age, whom some Hindu communities consider to be ritually unclean.

"If the government is trying to implement its agenda in Sabarimala, we will prevent it, even by taking the law into our hands," said K. Surendran, the general secretary of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. "Sabarimala is not a place for anybody to tamper with."

Surendran accused the state's Communist Party government, which has tried to implement the verdict, of provoking devotees after police gave protection to some women who sought to reach the remote site.

He did not elaborate on what the party plans to do, however.

Three dozen priests staged a sit-in against the verdict overturning the ban that kept women aged between 10 and 50 out of the temple, where a celibate deity, Lord Ayyappan, is worshipped.

Television broadcast images of scores of police attempting to calm emotional protesters, who consider the verdict a challenge to tradition and interference in religious affairs. The Supreme Court called the tradition patriarchal.

Though Hindus form a majority of the state's population of more than 35 million, it is home to millions of Muslims and Christians.

The controversy has fired up Hindu religious sentiment, with some residents supporting the view that the temple devotees'feelings ought to be respected.

Members of Modi's BJP in the state have also strongly backed those seeking to block the entry of women.

Hindu hardliners, including members of the BJP's youth wing, have clashed with police and attacked women, including journalists, who have tried to get to the temple.

Two women who got close were forced to turn back in the face of protests and a threat by the head priest to shut the temple if they entered, senior Kerala police official S. Sreejith told reporters on Friday.

A third woman turned back at the request of police, citing the tension.

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