Since September, the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, where a large number of devotees undertake a rigorous pilgrimage, became a hotbed of politics and protests.
As the Supreme Court allowed women devotees of all ages to pray at the shrine citing the tenets of gender justice, devotees of lord Ayyappa, priests of the shrine, the temple management, religious groups, and politicians scrambled in protest. Saturday added a few more headlines to the gamut of reports citing political turmoil, violence, and a showdown between authorities and devotees. While normal life was hit in parts of Kerala with the BJP backing religious groups’ bandh call, thousands of pilgrims offered prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple on the first day of Malayalam month of Vrischikom.
Following is a timeline on how the discourse around the remote hill shrine steered away from spirituality and religion, while inching towards politics.
28 September 2018: The Supreme Court gave its verdict on the decade-long struggle of women devotees seeking the right to enter the shrine, where lord Ayyappa is worshipped in the Naishtik Brahmachari (celibate) state. Earlier, women between the age group of 10 and 50 were not allowed in the shrine. Chief Justice Dipak Misra, reading out the judgment, also on behalf of Justice AM Khanwilkar, said that the subversion of women’s rights under the garb of the physiological phenomenon cannot be allowed. “All devotees are equal and there cannot be any discrimination on the basis of gender.” However, the lone dissenting woman judge in the five-judge bench, Justice Indu Malhotra said, “The court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to practice one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs.”
30 September 2018: The court’s ruling opened a can of worms with devotees and religious groups decrying the verdict. The first political reaction also began setting in with Shiv Sena’s Kerala unit’s call for a statewide strike against the Supreme Court’s verdict. Subsequently, other political parties, including the BJP and the Congress came out on the streets.
08 October 2018: Kerala government convened an all-stakeholders’ meeting to come to a consensus on the issue before the temple doors are opened. However, the meeting failed in its objective completely as the representatives of Sabarimala temple’s ‘tantri’ (chief priest) refused to attend the meet. They demanded that the government first secure a stay on the court’s order and then file a review petition, a demand that the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government refused. The Left government claimed it will implement the apex court’s order in letter and spirit.
12 October: Statewide protests took place against the Supreme Court’s ruling, with most political parties backing the traditionalist Ayyappa devotees. The BJP and various Hindu outfits launched a scathing attack against the Left Front government for refusing to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order.
13 October: Thousands of Lord Ayyappa devotees took to the streets in Kochi against the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all age groups into Sabarimala temple. Activist Trupti Desai too announced her plans to visit the hill shrine soon.
17 October: The temple opened for the first time since the Supreme Court’s ruling, but the day was marred by violent protests. Kerala Police took recourse to lathi-charge after protesters opposed the entry of women and started checking each vehicle for the presence of women from the banned age group. This was despite police assurances that no one will be prevented from taking part in the pilgrimage. Two women reporters were also injured in the scuffle.
18 October: Massive protests continued as the police resorted to lathicharge. The police also booked several protesters on charges of vandalism and disrupting public order.
20 October: The temple premise witnessed high drama when two women reached the hilltop with a heavy police escort. However, they had to return before they could reach the sanctum sanctorum following massive protests by Ayyappa devotees. The protesters, led by Rahul Easwar lay down in the way of the women and demanded they step over them if they wished to proceed. Easwar said that agitated devotees were ready to spill their blood, which would have forced the temple doors to shut till the time a shudhi puja is conducted. Priests of the temple too descended and said if the women tried to force their way, they will lock down the sanctum sanctorum and stop conducting poojas.
21 October: Four more women trying to reach the shrine were turned back by protesters.
22 October: The shrine shuts down as per schedule, with its record intact of no woman below 50 being allowed inside despite the Supreme Court order.
25-27 October: The Kerala police arrested more than 2,000 protesters in the course of two days. A total of 452 FIRs were registered against 2,300 people for defying the Supreme Court’s order.
27 October: Amit Shah visited Kerala and extended full support to Sabarimala devotees. He slammed the Kerala government for trying to “suppress” the agitation by force. Shah also condemned the arrest of over 2,000 devotees, including RSS and Sangh Parivar activists.
29 October: Kerala government tells Supreme Court it will provide protection to genuine devotees trying to reach the shrine.
13 November: Supreme Court agreed to hear on 22 January the pleas seeking review of its verdict, which allowed entry of women of all age groups into Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, but refused to stay the judgment.
14 November: Social activist Trupti Desai said she would visit the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala along with six other women in the previously banned 10-50 age group on 17 November. But the announcement was stoutly opposed by a right-wing activist, sparking fears of a fresh confrontation.
15 November: Consensus eluded a crucial all-party meeting called Thursday to resolve the stand-off over permitting women of menstrual age into the Sabarimala shrine with the Kerala government firm on implementing the Supreme Court order and the Opposition walking out in protest. After the nearly three-hour long meeting, dubbed as a ‘farce’ by the Opposition, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said his government was duty bound to enforce the court’s verdict.
16 November: High drama was witnessed at Cochin city airport as activist Trupti Desai remained confined there for close to 12 hours following protests by devotees and others. Groups of protesters surrounded the airport before dawn ahead of Desai’s arrival and stayed put there until she announced she would return to her home state, Maharashtra. She alleged that the protesters threatened the management of hotels and taxi drivers whom she had contacted seeking help to move out of the airport. Meanwhile, the temple opened its gate for the two-month long pilgrim season.
16 November: In a climbdown from its earlier rigid stand, the Kerala government decided to move the Supreme Court seeking time to implement its order allowing women in menstrual age to offer prayers at the famous shrine. The decision by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the hill shrine, to move the court was announced by its president A Padmakumar in Pamba, minutes after the temple doors were opened this evening. Pilgrims, including children, queued up in large numbers since the temple opened at 5 pm.
17 November: Right-wing Hindu outfits called for a dawn to dusk hartal in Kerala in protest against arrest of some Hindu leaders who were on the pilgrimage to Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple. The most prominent among the detained on Friday night were Hindu Iykavedi (HI) President and senior BJP leader KP Sasikala. She was detained while proceeding towards the Lord Ayyappa shrine. Carrying the customary holy kit ‘Irumudi Kettu‘ on her head, Sasikala was stopped by the police near the temple. She was asked not to proceed any further as the temple had closed at 10 pm, but Sasikala refused to do so.
She was taken into preventive custody and lodged at the Ranni police station. Protesting their president’s detention, the Hindu Iykavedi leaders called for a shutdown, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party state unit. Shops and other businesses were forced to down their shutters by HI, BJP and Sangh Parivar activists. Barring private vehicles, all other public transport vehicles stayed off the roads.
State BJP President PS Sreedharan Pillai told the media in Kozhikode on Saturday that no one knew the reason why Sasikala was detained. “Things were now becoming very clear that the Pinarayi Vijayan government wants to destroy Sabarimala by coming out with rules that will affect the traditions of the temple. Vijayan is using the arrogance associated with power to achieve the government’s mission and this will be strongly resisted,” he said.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Nov 17, 2018 17:31 PM