Clashes erupted yesterday as traditionalists tried to stop women visiting the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, with police waving batons charging stone-throwing protestors.
Devotees opposed to allowing women into the temple earlier surrounded and intimidated journalists. Two female journalists were injured.
One of them was a journalist from CNN NEWS 18. Protesters smashed the windows of the car she was travelling in in view of the police, footage from the channel showed.
“It was shocking that officers were there doing nothing,” the reporter, Radhika Ramaswamy, said in a broadcast by the station.
“Protesters had free rein, attacking our vehicle.”
Footage from CNN NEWS 18 showed police chasing protesters through dense forest near Nilakkal. The protesters had been throwing stones, the channel reported.
Saritha Balan, a journalist from online publication The News Minute, was kicked by protesters while accompanying devotees trying to access the site, she told Indian TV, while camera crews from several other channels had their vehicles vandalised.
Last month the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females between the ages of 10 and 50 entering and praying at the hilltop temple.
This enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with thousands protesting in the days ahead of its opening yesterday evening.
The Kerala state government said it would enforce the court ruling and deployed 500 extra police to ensure free access to the remote complex, which is reached by an uphill trek that takes several hours.
At Nilakkal, a base camp below the temple, police cleared protestors early yesterday morning and arrested seven people who were stopping vehicles.
“Anyone who wants to go to the temple will be able to do so without hindrance,” said police chief Manoj Abraham.
“Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on Tuesday.
One 45-year old woman identified as Madhavi who wanted to enter the temple for the first time abandoned her attempt after activists prevented her climbing the hill. Even though police gave the woman and her family protection and allowed them to move further, they gave up as agitated activists surrounded them.
Earlier, 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 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.
Biju S Pillai, a local man in his 30s, was one of those opposed to the court ruling. He said that he returned from working in Dubai to “protect the sanctity of the temple” with his mother and young son. “No one should be able to change the way this temple has functioned for centuries,” he said.
“If any change is made they will have to kill us and go over our bodies.”
“I am here to protest the Supreme Court decision,” said engineer Anisha S, 23, one of a group chanting religious slogans.
“We want to save our traditions.”
Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but female devotees are still barred from entry by some.
Two years ago, activists successfully campaigned to end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra. Women were also permitted to enter Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum after the Supreme Court scrapped a ban in 2016.
The entry of women at Sabarimala was long taboo but was formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991, a ruling overturned by the Supreme Court last month.
The Sabarimala chief priest, Kandararu Tantri, 25, warned this week that “anger could easily escalate into violence if a few egotistical women try to enter”.
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