Protests intensified and turned violent Wednesday as the Sabarimala temple opened its doors to devotees for the first time since the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to enter the shrine. And after clashes with devotees and attacks on women journalists along the road to the Lord Ayappa shrine and calls by fringe groups for a strike Thursday, prohibitory orders were issued at Pamba and Nilakkal. Despite assurances by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan Tuesday that nobody will be blocked from entering the Lord Ayappa shrine and heavy police security, protesters at Nillakal and Pamba — the two base camps before the temple — turned back two women pilgrims and heckled, threatened and attacked at least five women journalists and targeted their vehicles.
Madhavi, a 45-year-old woman from Andhra Pradesh, could have become the first woman to trek the Sabarimala hills and enter the shrine after the apex court verdict but was forced to retreat with her son and daughter by angry activists of the Ayappa Dharma Sena. Another woman travelling to Sabarimala was stopped at a bus stand and asked to return and a Tamil Nadu couple, aged 45 and 40 years, on their way to Pamba, were forced to get off a state transport bus allegedly by activists of the Sabarimala Achara Samrakshana Samiti.
Trouble began hours before the iron gates of the Sabarimala temple opened for monthly rituals when Nillakal descended into violence and chaos after clashes between the police and thousands of protesters, who opposed the entry of women of all ages and blamed the LDF government for not filing a review petition.
Police had to resort to several baton charges through the day to disperse agitators blocking roads leading to Sabarimala. While three policemen and five agitators were injured, scores of vehicles, including government buses ferrying devotees, were damaged. Ayyappa Dharma Sena President and thantri family member, Rahul Easwar, was arrested for allegedly preventing women from going to the temple.
In the melee, mobs — wearing yellow and saffron scarves and headbands — were also openly wagging fingers at journalists and threatening them to pack up their cameras and go home. The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) has asked the government and the police to provide adequate support and safety to journalists who have been covering the protests. Several journalists also took out a march to the secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram against the attacks.
Pooja Prasanna of Republic TV, Mousami Singh of India Today, Rajeesh of Reporter TV, Radhika Ramaswamy of CNN-News18 and Saritha S Balan of The News Minute were among the journalists who were attacked and had to be rescued by the police. Police said that a group of media students travelling to Pamba were forced out of a bus and ordered to return to Erumeli.
A video posted on Twitter by Radhika Ramaswamy shows a large group of young men with saffron scarves and headbands surrounding her car, kicking the door and slamming the window while demanding that she leave Nilakkal immediately. NDTV reporter, Sneha Mary Koshy was also seen battling a number of young men as they crowded around her, manhandling the cameraperson and attempting to disrupt her work. Every time they successfully disrupted a reporter’s on-air piece-to-camera, they would smile and cry out, ‘swamiye sharanam Ayappa’.
Incidentally, while the protests on Tuesday were spearheaded mostly by women at Nilakkal, on Wednesday, men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, took charge of the agitation. Protesting women were largely confined to chanting hymns of Lord Ayyappa in a tent.
Through the day, Nillakal and Pamba also saw protests led by different parties including the Congress and the BJP. Senior leaders of the state BJP such as Sobha Surendran, K Surendran and MT Ramesh took part in prayer meetings and cautioned the state government in hurting the beliefs of devotees.
Surendran, BJP general secretary, told the Indian Express, “This is an orchestrated agenda by the Left-front government. If the devotees together take up this cause (of defending the temple’s traditions), no police or party can stop them. The BJP cannot remain a mute spectator when it is a grave matter of religious belief.”
Congress working president K Sudhakaran, along with a slew of party leaders, also sat for peaceful protests at Nillakal. Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the government would not tolerate violence at Sabarimala. “RSS criminals who masqueraded as devotees, have unleashed the violence,” he said.
DGP Loknath Behera said 700 police personnel, including 100 women personnel, were deployed at Nilakkal and Pamba. “Police have been deployed in all sensitive areas to maintain law and order situation. Another 300 police personnel, including commandos, will be rushed to the shrine and base stations,’’ he said. The shrine will close again on October 22 after the five-day long monthly ritual.