Indian police mounted a huge security operation on Friday (16) to ensure women can safely access a flashpoint Hindu temple, after battles erupted the first time they attempted to enter following a historic court ruling.
More than 3,400 police, many in riot gear, lined routes to Sabarimala temple, a hilltop shrine in Kerala state, which traditionalists are trying to prevent women from reaching.
The supreme court ruled in September that a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering the temple was illegal. Sabarimala has since become a showdown issue for gender activists and Hindu hardliners.
About 700 women have registered to visit the shrine, which opens on Friday ahead of the start of a Hindu festival beginning on Saturday (17).
Hundreds of thousands of devotees were expected to make the four-hour trek up a hill to Sabarimala during the festival which lasts until mid-January.
On Friday morning, hundreds of demonstrators at Kerala’s Kochi airport tried to stop leading activist Trupti Desai from leaving for Sabarimala.
“We tried to hire taxis several times but the agitators are not allowing them to take us. They have threatened violence if they do,” Desai told Indian television.
“Even police said they cannot help us go out of the airport right now because the number of protesters is swelling and they are resorting to violence,” she said.
“A while back they tried to take us out from a back door but the protesters spotted us and attacked the cars.”
On the roads around the temple, 150 kilometres (80 miles) south of Kochi, police meanwhile set up barricades to check cars.
“We will deploy over 15,200 police around the temple for the entire season up to January 15,” Kerala police spokesman Pramod Kumar told AFP.
– ‘Atheist communists’ –
In mid-October, when the temple opened for the first time since the court ruling, hardliners clashed with police and prevented women from accessing the site.
They threw stones at the police and assaulted female journalists and attacked their cars. Some 2,000 people were later arrested.
Police in riot gear had escorted two women to within 500 metres (yards) of the temple but were forced to turn around.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said its followers were unfairly targeted in the arrests.
“The BJP supports the devotees,” the BJP president in Kerala, PS Sreedharan Pillai, told AFP.
The state is run by a communist government and Pillai added: “The communists are atheists and want to destroy the Sabarimala temple culture,” Pillai said.
Activists say that the ban at Sabarimala reflects an old view that connects menstruation with impurity.
The traditionalists argue that women are allowed in most Hindu temples and the practice at Sabarimala is part of their tradition, and not anti-women.
– Standstill –
This time the state government is determined to ensure that women get the upper hand.
Press reports said the police were even considering using helicopters to take women to the site.
Late Thursday (15), the state government called a meeting of all political parties in a bid to reach an agreement on letting women into the temple on certain days.
But the talks ended late Thursday in an acrimonious failure.
“We are at a standstill and now the situation is becoming even worse,” said Sasikumar Varma, a top representative of the Pandalam royal family that has been traditionally involved in the temple’s management.
“The government stuck to its stance of allowing women’s entry and we are opposed to it.”