CLOUDS OVER A SHRINE
Back in the middle of August this year when Kerala was devastated by massive floods, one of the worst that the state had ever faced in written history, the famous Sabarimala temple there had to be closed down after the eponymous town that is home to it reportedly suffered damages worth around Rs 100 crore. The destruction wrought by the floodwaters had been so much that the Army had to build Bailey bridges near the temple to facilitate the return of pilgrims who had been en masse cancelling their trips to the temple town.
Since then, however, both Kerala and Sabarimala have been inundated by such a major controversial issue that the floods sound like a distant memory. It began towards the end of September when the Supreme Court ruled that women in the age group of 10-50 could also enter the temple, a decision that caused considerable dismay among many sections of the devout.
In a majority 4:1 judgment, the apex court said the ban on women in the menstruating age group, whose presence in the Lord Ayyappa temple, located in the Western Ghats and about 130 km from Thiruvananthapuram, was considered to be "impure", violated their fundamental rights and constitutional guarantee of equality.
While a section of women hailed the court ruling, it drew sharp reactions from the temple's 'tantri' [chief priest] K. Rajeevaru, who said the Travancore Devasom Board [TDB] will decide on an appeal challenging the decision.
Former TDB President G. Raman Nair called the day of the ruling a "black day" for Sabarimala.
"One can speak of equality and freedom but the verdict is breaking a tradition that was in existence much before the Constitution came into effect," he said.
The President of the Ayyappa Seva Sanghom and a veteran Congress leader, Thennala Balakrishna Pillai, said while the rule of law has to be adhered to, the traditions, culture and ritualistic practices were equally important.
"I am yet to see one woman who said she will be going to the temple while several have said they will not," he said.
A spokesperson for the Pandalam Royal Family, which has an integral role in the affairs of the Sabarimala temple, Sasikumar Varma, said the palace was disappointed with the verdict. "The long-standing tradition of Sabarimala have been changed and that is very said," he said. "Every religious place has its own traditions and culture which have their own reasons."
However, P. Geetha, a teacher and a popular face in TV debates, welcomed the ruling.
"The verdict is welcome and all those women who wish to visit the temple can do so now," she said.
As the time for the traditional two-month-long Sabarimala pilgrimage season drew closer last month, the tension surrounding the controversy was building up at a considerable clip.
A glaring glimpse of that tension was evident on November 5 when the temple was opened just for five hours for a one-day special pilgrimage amid tight security.
But many devotees complained and shouted slogans as the police stopped them for checking in the morning. The police opened the barricade and started allowing devotees to walk to Pamba – the base town of the temple. Hundreds of pilgrims at Nilackal and Erumely were seen arguing as they faced repeated obstacles from the police for advancing.
Vishnu Das, 70, was angry at the way the police were managing the pilgrims' progress. He said it was the first time in his 56 years of visit to the shrine that he has been put to such difficulties. "The police are out to create trouble and the scene here is as if it's a battleground. The police is very intimidating. Till last year, there were no issues at all. The visit to Sabarimala is supposed to bring solace, but this time everything has changed," said Das.
Sreekumar Varma of the Pandalam Royal family, the custodian of the jewellery of the Sabarimala temple, said he was hurt by the way things unfolded. "All along it has been a peaceful pilgrimage to Sabarimala. But today the temple has been turned into a 'police station'. It pains us all," said Varma.
Senior BJP leaders M.T. Ramesh and K. Surendran were spotted at the temple top and both of them said they are there as pilgrims. "Our only request to the temple authorities is that the pilgrims should be given facilities, and we seek nothing else," said Surendran.
The temple town witnessed one of its most stringent security arrangements. There were more than 2,300 police officials posted at various points up the pilgrimage path after the state took over the shrine's security.
Several metal detectors were kept at various points and crowd combating arrangements are also in place.
One thing was clear: After the Kerala government announced it would implement the apex court's ruling, the result was it being pitted against the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and numerous Hindu groups which have been up in arms against the verdict.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Police installed mobile jammers near the Sabarimala temple to prevent the tantri and other shrine officials from interacting with the media and to dissuade live visuals.
The next day saw raging Sabarimala protesters intimidating and sending back at least one woman from the hitherto banned age group as they refused to allow them to break the tradition. The day also saw the Police registering cases against 200 protesters.
The Kerala unit of BJP approached the National Human Rights Commission [NHRC] against the way the pilgrims had to go without water and other basic facilities.
Two women were apprehended on their way through Pamba and threatened after devotees found they were without the holy kit [Irumudi Kettu].
Shouting Ayyappa slogans, the protesters stopped them from advancing any further. This was despite the fact that they were above 50 years, the police said.
It was not until their leaders announced on megaphone that the protests ended. Later, the women were helped to complete their darshan and perform puja at the hilltop temple.
Speaking to the media, senior RSS activist Valsan Thillenkeri from Kannur who was seen speaking on the megaphone standing near the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, said he came there as a pilgrim.
The first protests were witnessed when a 30-year-old woman along with her husband and children was stopped. Following the violent outbursts, the woman retreated.
She was sent back home along with her family early under police security.
Although the Kerala Police took over Sabarimala, posting a dozen women officials over 50 years of age near the shrine, there was no woman devotee inside the sanctum sanctorum from the hitherto banned age group despite the Pinarayi Vijayan government promising to implement the September 28 Supreme Court verdict.
State BJP president told reporters at Pathanamtitta -- the district where the temple is located -- that they had already filed a petition at the NHRC, stating that the devotees over the past 24 hours had been suffering.
"The basic facilities have been denied to the pilgrims and purposely haunting the pilgrims and they are being denied even the basic things like water, toilet facilities and even food. This is not acceptable and hence have approached the NHRC," said Pillai.
Seven-time Independent legislator P.C. George, whose Poonjar constituency includes part of the temple town, said he failed to understand what happened to the Chief Minister.
"I have been supporting him all through, but he has goofed up on the Sabarimala issue very badly and has hurt the devotees very badly just because of his adamant stance," said George.
Vijayan, however, stated that things were under control in and around the temple town.
"Some vested interests are trying to scuttle peace and tranquillity in the temple town, but the police have been doing their job and everything is fine," Vijayan told the media.
Meanwhile, the number of petitions at the Supreme Court seeking a recall of its Sabarimala ruling had been edging close to 50. The petitioners have argued that besides "patent legal errors" in the verdict, the assumption that the temple practice was based on notions of menstrual impurity was factually erroneous.
Pointing to the massive protests against the verdict by women worshippers, the petitioners contended that these "clearly demonstrate that overwhelmingly large section of women worshippers are supporting the custom of prohibiting entry of women".
On November 13, the apex court decided to go for open court hearings of those petitions next month – but the bench made it amply clear that there would be no stay on its September 28 order.
Soon after that, Vijayan called an all-party meeting to discuss the upcoming pilgrimage season in Sabarimala. While the meeting did take place, it failed to achieve anything, with the Congress-led UDF and the BJP walking out. The United Democratic Front [UDF] and BJP leaders announced they had to walk out as Vijayan insisted that his government had to abide by the apex court ruling.
Both in his opening and closing remarks, Vijayan insisted that the law of the land was above issues of faith.
"The state government is not at all prejudiced. The Supreme Court on two occasions has made its point very clear. Hence the state government has to abide by the verdict," said Vijayan.
Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala told the media: "This was a golden opportunity for the Kerala government to see things in perspective as the temple opens. But Vijayan was adamant that the temple tradition will have to be breached.
"We just cannot agree to anything that affects the emotion of the Sabarimala devotees. So we felt there was no point in continuing with the meeting," he said.
State BJP President P.S. Sreedharan Pillai said the meeting was a waste of time.
"The meeting was just dramatics. Its script was done at the CPI-M headquarters. The attitude of the government is now clear. It is to thrash the devotees who come for the pilgrimage. We will continue with our protests," said Pillai.
Speaking to the media, Pandalam royal family member K.P.S. Varma said there was no change in their stand on the entry of women into the temple.
"The meeting was very cordial and the CM presented his views. We said we will have to talk about it in detail," said Varma.
Sabarimala Tantri Kanteraru Rajeeveru said his plea to women was: "Please do not come to the temple."
As feared, the Sabarimala season began on November 16 amid gravely acrimonious circumstances.
The following day, a Hindu group called for a shutdown in Kerala following the "detention" of few religious leaders the previous night from the Sabarimala temple premises.
The most prominent among the detained were Hindu Iykavedi [HI] President and senior BJP leader K.P. Sasikala. She was detained while proceeding towards the Lord Ayyappa shrine.
Protesting their President's detention, the Hindu Iykavedi leaders called for the shutdown backed by the BJP 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. Schools and educational institutions were closed for the day.
State BJP President P.S. Sreedharan Pillai told the media in Kozhikode that no one knew the reason why Sasikala was detained. "Things were now becoming very clear that the Pinarayi Vijayan government here 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 their mission and this will be strongly resisted.
"We are talking with leaders of other states and there will be a huge protest against this, not just here, but everywhere else," said Pillai.
The next day, the Kerala unit of the BJP also observed a protest by blocking highways across the state following the arrest and the subsequent remand of senior party leader K. Surendran.
Surendran was taken into custody the previous night after he got into a scuffle with the police while attempting to go to the Sabarimala temple despite police cordon in the area.
After spending the night at Chittar police station,Surendran was produced before a magistrate who remanded him to a 14-day judicial custody.
Surendran who spoke to the media before being remanded said: "The police have charged me under non-bailable sections. I am no criminal, nor do I have any cases against me. They did not let me sleep, nor was I allowed water or to take my medicines.
"The police even roughed up my 'Irumudi kettu' [a mandatory holy kit to be taken to the temple].”
ON THE OFFENSIVE
In reaction to the development, state BJP President P.S. Sreedharan Pillai told the media that Kerala was under "jungle raj".
"Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is arrogant and was behaving in an irrational manner. The present impasse in the state over the Sabarimala issue is his creation. We will strongly resist."
BJP leaders and activists started to block traffic across the state on the highways since 10 a.m.
According to new police rules that came into effect from November 16, no pilgrim was allowed to proceed to the temple after 7 p.m. as the temple closed for the day at 10 p.m.
By the time the sun set on November 19, some 70 pilgrims were arrested from Sabarimala temple for defying prohibitory orders.
All arrestees, who were kept at the Maniar Police Camp in the district, were produced in the court that remanded them to 14-day judicial custody.
Consequent to that arrest, angry Hindu activists took to streets, raised slogans and held prayer sessions in front of police stations across the state. Union Minister K.J. Alphons also criticised the state government for the action.
As news about arrests spread in Thiruvanathapuram, protesters assembled near Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's residence and shouted slogans.
The situation grew tense when over 200 pilgrims did not vacate the temple premise even after 10 p.m, as ordered by the state administration, and stayed put singing Lord Ayyappa hymns and chants. As they continued despite repeated requests from the police, action was initiated to forcefully evict the premises. This led to their arrests in a post-midnight action.
Alphons reacted sharply to the arrests, and told the media in Nilackal, before heading to the shrine: "I fail to understand why the Kerala Police has clamped prohibitory orders. This is not the way things should be handled. Sabarimala pilgrims are not extremists. You can't use force in this place."
Kerala Minister for Devaswoms [temples] Kadakampally Surendran, reacting sharply to the allegations said it was not pilgrims but Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS] goons who had taken over the Lord Ayyappa shrine, and backed the police action.
"He [Alphons] should not have said things without knowing facts," Surendran said.
Alphons who was headed to the hill temple said he would inspect how the state has utilised the Rs 100-crore relief fund from the Centre. "I will go around the temple town to make sure how the funds have been used."
Surendran said: "It's true that the Centre has sanctioned Rs 100 crore for various projects in Sabarimala and the deadline for implementing it ends in July 2019.
"But the unprecedented floods saw close to Rs 19 crore of work in progress in projects getting washed away in September.
"What happened in the temple premises last night was a takeover by the RSS goons. The police pleaded with them to return as it's against the law to remain there. It was only after they refused to move that the police acted."
After going around the place, Alphons said the state government has failed miserably in setting up the basic infrastructure.
"Toilets are placed five feet above the ground and it appears one needs a lift to reach the toilet," said Alphons.
State BJP president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai told the media that a judicial probe must be conducted into what happened that night at Sabarimala, as this is the first time in the history of the temple that there has been police action against pilgrims.
Leader of the Opposition in Kerala Assembly Ramesh Chennithala told the media that it is most unfortunate that pilgrims are held in police custody, and demanded that the state government release them at the earliest.
Superintendent of Police Prathish Kumar told reporters that the arrests were made after the protesters despite being asked to disperse once the temple closes at 10 p.m did not move out.
Right-wing activists held protests across the state.
Security was heightened for Vijayan, who was shown black flags by angry youth activists of the BJP in Kozhikode where he was in connection with some official engagements.
The next day, Kerala Chief Minister slammed the Sangh Parivar-led forces and the Congress in Kerala for turning Sabarimala into a battle field. "Sabarimala is being used for political gains by the Sangh, and the Congress has also fallen for it," Vijayan told the media.
"These people are trying to use faith for political gains. Ideology should be dealt ideologically. Just look at the people who have been arrested from Sabarimala," he said, adding that it included known Sangh Parivar activists.
"We will not allow these forces to take over Sabarimala," Vijayan told the media, naming individually each one of the 69 detained on Monday and sent to jail after they violated the prohibitory orders imposed in and around the temple town.
These people have criminal cases registered against them in Kerala police stations and it was they who have arrived as Sabarimala pilgrims, he added.
"The police showed maximum restraint and only when the known trouble-makers took law into their hands, did the police act and take such a step," he added.
While Vijayan's presser was under way in the state capital, the entire top brass of the Congress-led UDF landed in Nilackal -- the first entry point to the temple town -- for an on the spot assessment.
Before the delegation was put on a bus to Pamba, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy along with others were found squatting on the ground as they demanded lifting of the prohibitions in Sabarimala.
"We are not here to disrupt peace. Vijayan should not generalise all pilgrims to Sabarimala as 'trouble makers'," Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala said.
"The police are free to take action, but the genuine devotees should not be troubled," he added.
The Congress leader slammed Vijayan's government for turning out to be "an abject failure and turning what has always been a divine pilgrimage into a nightmare".
All of this turmoil in Sabarimala resulted in a fall in the number of pilgrims. In the past, the average daily number of pilgrims that visited the shrine during the season was around a lakh, but this time it had fallen dramatically.
So far in the current season, over seven lakh devotees had registered online for darshan of the deity on various days. However, half of those who registered themselves in the past four days did not turn up. The main reason for this, according to many political observers, was the tightening of the rules for pilgrimage by the police. Recently, they started handing out notices to pilgrims at the Nilackal base camp that they should return in six hours after praying at the temple.
The notice also stated that the pilgrims are not supposed to speak to the media and if there was any violation, they were liable to be prosecuted. "The police after inspecting our vehicle told us that if any of the rules are broken, strict action would be taken," a pilgrim told the media at Nilackal.
Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, who arrived at the temple town, expressed anguish at the manner in which Chief Minister Vijayan was handling the Sabarimala temple issue. "We fail to understand what has gone wrong with Vijayan. Who does he think he is? Nowhere else in the country would there be prohibitory orders at a religious centre," said Chennithala.
Senior BJP leader and member of Parliament V. Muraleedharan, who was at the temple town, said that it's strange that the police say the pilgrims cannot chant Lord Ayyappa hymns.
However, the Travancore Devaswom Board announced in a statement issued on the same day that while the number of pilgrims in the first few days was less, it had started to pick up of late.
On November 21, the protestors who were arrested the previous week got bail but were ordered not to enter the Ranni taluk, which meant none of them would be able to return to Sabarimala.
The next day, Chief Minister Vijayan met Kerala Governor P. Sathasivam and pledged to improve amenities for the pilgrims visiting the Sabarimala temple.
"They discussed the measures taken to address complaints regarding lack of basic amenities like drinking water, toilets and restrooms at Nilackal, Pampa and on way to Sanidhanam," according to a statement released by the Governor's office. The two dignitaries also discussed complaints about police action and the possibility of lifting the restrictions imposed through Section 144.
"The Chief Minister has assured the Governor that all these issues will be looked into and acted upon as soon as possible," added the statement. The Governor had earlier received written petitions from Leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala, Sabarimala Karma Samithy and a delegation of the Kerala Congress earlier.
As India First went to press, things were quiet in the temple town but the sense of disquiet there was palpable. In the worst-case scenario, the final outcome of this highly controversial and divisive issue could be a proverbial storm that may lead to damages worth far more than what the August floods had caused to Kerala and the nation. In the best-case scenario, enough bridges will be built between the ideologically opposed forces to prevent that from happening.