As the Sabarimala temple opened Friday amid tight security for the first two-month-long annual pilgrim season since the Supreme Court allowed entry of women of all age to the hill shrine, tension gripped the Kochi International Airport 157 km away, where a stand-off ensued between protesters and Bhumata Brigade leader Trupti Desai. After the activist, who had vowed to enter the Lord Ayappa shrine, was prevented from leaving the airport in a siege that lasted almost 14 hours, Desai announced that she was returning to Pune, citing “law and order” problems.
Meanwhile, the state government asserted that it was duty bound to implement the apex court order even as the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which met Friday at Pamba, decided to move a petition in the SC seeking more time to implement its order. “We have got legal advice favouring such a petition. The board will move the petition on Monday,’’ said board president and CPM leader A Padmakumar.
He said the petition would highlight the situation at Pamba after the recent flood, restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court’s empowered committee for infrastructure development and the recent protests over allowing young women entry. “The petition will not mention any time frame for delaying the implementation of the SC order,’’ he said.
Friday marked the beginning of the first annual pilgrim season, where lakhs of devotees from neighbouring states are expected to visit Sabarimala over two months. The state government has announced tight police security and stringent conditions for visiting devotees even as Opposition parties and Hindu groups prepare to oppose the entry of women of all age into the hill shrine.
No young woman turned up at the base stations of Pamba and Nilakkal though around 700 women have registered their names with police. The temple board also symbolically erased a warning board at Pamba against the entry of women aged between 10 and 50.
Early on Friday, Desai and six others from Pune were involved in a showdown with police, airport officials and protesting devotees. Desai could not leave the domestic terminal at the airport due to the protests and before leaving for Pune said she would return unannounced later.
Desai had recently said she would visit Sabarimala on November 17 and had written to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seeking police protection to trek to the temple. On landing at the Kochi airport at 4.45 am Friday, Desai and other six women were greeted with around 50 people chanting Ayappa keerthanams.
After daybreak, the crowd at the airport terminal swelled with hundreds of women joining the peaceful protest. BJP state general secretary K Surendran, who addressed the gathering, demanded the government send back Desai. Police and CISF personnel, manning security at the airport, did not intervene to disperse the protesters.
Desai’s request for a vehicle to proceed to Sabarimala was turned down by taxi drivers at the airport and police remained disinclined to provide transport but assured that they would escort her, provided she found a place to stay.
As the protest continued at the airport, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said in Pamba that police have told Desai to go back citing the deteriorating law and order situation. “Desai has close links with BJP and Congress. If leaders of Congress and BJP request, she will go back,’’ he said.
After a 14-hour stand-off, Desai left at around 9.30 pm. “I am not going back due to the protest of the faithful but respecting the request of the police. I will come back again to Sabarimala during this season without any advance notice,’’ she said.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Desai said that the Kerala police repeatedly urged them to return. “The police kept scaring us that the crowd outside was swelling and the possibility of violence cannot be ruled out. They said we cannot stay at the hotel as protesters might sneak in and cause us harm,” she said.
“We want to exercise our right to pray peacefully. We don’t want any violence to take place which could have led to the loss of life and damage to property. We are aiming for gender parity, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
As the temple opened in the evening, hundreds of pilgrims queued up before metal detectors at Pamba braving heavy rains, before trekking to the hill shrine. And with the floods in August severely damaging the infrastructure at Pamba, this time, the base station for pilgrims has been shifted to Nilakkal, where make-shift camps have been built.
To thwart possible agitations by devotees trying to prevent young women from entering the shrine, police have deployed 3,400 personnel. In the past, if policemen were deployed to help devotees at the shrine, this time the police are focused on maintaining law and order. Several battalions of armed policemen have been deployed in the trekking route up to the sacred steps of the temple.
Sabarimala Executive officer D Sudheesh Kumar feared that the security restrictions would infringe upon the traditions at the temple and would impact revenue. “Police have demanded that eateries at the shrine close by 11 pm and none, except the board staff, should stay at the shrine. Police have suggested that pilgrims have to leave the shrine at night after the sanctum sanctorum is closed,” he said.
“Normally, they were allowed to stay back at the temple to take part in neeyyabhishekam (pouring scared ghee on the idol of Ayappa) starting at 3.30 am. This direction will hurt the devotees.”
As the issue became controversial, board president A Padmakumar said traditions at the temple would be maintained. Shops at the temple would not be closed at night as per the police directions, he said.