Kozhikode: Two women in their 40s created history by entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple on Wednesday, breaching the shrine’s traditional ban on women of menstrual age and leaving the state shaken by protests. The move, while perfectly legal, added fuel to the heated debate across the nation on the right to pray and equality of women, at a time when women in several parts of the country are fighting to end gender discrimination.

A Supreme Court order overturning the Sabarimala women ban in September led to protests by Hindu groups, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The entry of the two women, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44, put the local units of the BJP and the Congress, which are backed by a large section of devotees, on the back foot. These two parties, who support the ban on women, are now organizing demonstrations in support of their stand across Kerala.

The Sabarimala temple, situated on a secluded hilltop in Pathanamthitta district, is Kerala’s biggest pilgrim centre. It receives millions of devotees annually but menstruating women between the ages of 10 and 50 are not allowed entry as they are considered impure.

Several women have tried to enter the temple since Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict but were forced to return by protesters.

The two who entered the shrine on Wednesday are both working-class women and pro-Left activists. They were escorted to the temple by the administration in total secrecy at around dawn. Worried about possible leaks, senior officials spread the word among the force that the two were special guests and aged above 50, a senior police official said, requesting not to be named.

The two women were assisted by the police in civilian dress and taken through a staff entrance instead of the usual route that involves climbing 18 steps leading to the temple. “We had full cooperation from the authorities.... We faced no protests from the devotees," Bindu Ammini, who has been moved to a safe location by the police, told Asianet News, a local news channel, over phone.

The incident triggered protests in Kerala where Hindus, making up almost half of the state’s 3.3 million, are split on breaking the ban. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan was both praised and criticized on social media.

As the news broke, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a platform to unite pro-ban supporters, and the local unit of the BJP hit the streets with full force, pelting police with stones and forcing shops to shut down. the head priest of the shrine, Kandararu Mohanaru, reportedly shut down the sanctum for “purification" rituals, triggering a backlash across the country. Pro-ban protesters have called for a shutdown across Kerala on Thursday, but are meeting with more resistance than support from shop-owners.

Soon after news broke of the visit, the head priest of the shrine, Kandararu Mohanaru, reportedly shut down the sanctum for “purification" rituals, triggering a backlash across the country. The CPM chief in Kerala, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, said the priests should be booked for contempt of court.

The development comes a day after the Left organised a huge demonstration in which more than a million women across Kerala formed a human wall. The Left’s move was supported by lower caste Ezhavas and Dalits and their leaders such as Vellappally Nateshan. Last week, right-wing organisations held a rally across the state in support of the ban and were supported by the Nair Service Society, of the upper caste Nair, who are dominant but in a minority among the Hindus.

“The BJP’s agitations were already fading as a result of the aggressive attacks of the Left. It has to be seen if it will become like a Ram Janmabhoomi issue, where the law of diminishing returns seems to have caught up." said political commentator B.R.P. Bhaskar.

“With the uncertainty over the ban broken, the BJP may now not be able to create a space for themselves in Kerala as they had initially hoped to. There will be demonstrations for a few days, but they were not able to prevent women from gaining entry. The protests may very well be the last flicker of the lamp," he said.

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