India arrests 750 in flashpoint temple clashes

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been the centre of a prolonged showdown, with violent protests sparked by two women entering one of Hinduism's holiest temples.
The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been the centre of a prolonged showdown, with violent protests sparked by two women entering one of Hinduism's holiest temples. PHOTO: REUTERS

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, INDIA (AFP) - Two days of violent protests in south India sparked by two women entering one of Hinduism's holiest temples have seen more than 750 people arrested, police said, as they braced for more trouble on Friday (Jan 4).

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been at the centre of a prolonged showdown between Hindu devotees and women activists over access to the shrine.

Besides those arrested during the clashes, more than 600 have been taken into preventive detention, police spokesman V. P. Pramod Kumar told AFP.

"The police are extra vigilant. There are tensions but it's peaceful," he said, adding that police had imposed bans on the movement of people in the towns of Palakkad and Kasargod, two hotspots of violence on Thursday.

Anger erupted on Wednesday after two women in their 40s wrong-footed devotees to sneak into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala state via a side entrance before dawn to worship.

This was the first time that woman of menstruating age - deemed as those aged 10 to 50 - had set foot in the gold-plated hilltop temple since the Supreme Court overturned a ban in September.

Thousands of Hindu devotees, many of them female, had previously succeeded in preventing women from accessing the site in the weeks following the landmark ruling, with some hardliners throwing stones at police and assaulting female journalists.

 
 
 

The court's verdict sparked anger among Hindu traditionalists, including within Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Clashes on Wednesday and Thursday between devotees, activists of Kerala's ruling leftist alliance and riot police firing tear gas and water cannon, left one man dead and at least 15 people injured, including four BJP supporters who were stabbed.

Much of the sporadic violence took place as Hindu hardliners sought to force shopkeepers to comply with a dawn-till-dusk "hartal" shutdown called by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy, media reports said.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its temple ruling - the latest in a series of verdicts to upset traditionalists and reflect a more liberal outlook in Indian society - from Jan 22.

Women are barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women of menstruating age to Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

The entry of the two women into the temple came a day after tens of thousands of women, in an initiative backed by the state government, formed a huge human chain called the "Women's Wall" across Kerala to back the access.