Bengaluru: Kerala was on the edge on Wednesday as thousands of angry Hindu devotees blocked women from entering the Sabarimala temple after its gates were opened to all girls and women following Supreme Court ruling.

The strong protest by conservative Hindu devotees could hand the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) its biggest opportunity yet to expand its base in Kerala, where it has minimal presence in the assembly.

The state, known for its socially progressive policies, has never sent a BJP member to the Lok Sabha, and the party is desperate to change the state of affairs in 2019 Lok Sabha.

The party has been able to draw satisfaction from the fact that the protesters are upset with the ruling Marxist government and its chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan— the BJP’s principal enemy in Kerala—for refusing to file a review petition against the Supreme Court verdict allowing women into the hilltop shrine.

Most of the protesters come from lower caste ranks, local reports said, which too would help the BJP as it tries to enlist their support. The majority of the 18 million Hindus in Kerala are from the lower castes. Many of them often name their children after the temple’s main deity, Ayyappa.

The protesters attacked at least three women who tried to enter the temple, and seven women journalists-

On Wednesday morning, thousands of protestors, including many women, besieged the only route to the temple, between Nilakkal and Pampa. They called their mission ‘Nama Japa Yatra’ after police denied permission to hold protests.

Joined by right-wing Hindu activists, the agitation gathered pace and erupted in violence in parts. The protestors insisted on checking all vehicles for any female passengers. They forced any woman whom they suspected of planning to visit the temple to return—exactly what the government had assured not to allow.

The protestors physically attacked at least three women who tried to enter the temple, and seven women journalists who were reporting on the event.

The journalists were forced to leave the premises, causing a furore. The protesters later attacked media vehicles and stopped local television news channels from broadcasting live coverage of the event. This, as per local reports, with the police looking on.

In the evening, the police made a cane charge, as the protestors resorted to stone pelting.

The Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithi (Sabarimala protection body), fronted by the Sangh Parivar, has called a statewide strike.

The temple will remain open until Monday for monthly rituals, and the government expects the situation to remain tense. In the evening, the government imposed prohibitory orders in Sabarimala until Thursday.

“The Sangh Parivar is deliberately creating violence to create political polarization. We will not allow any sort of violence," said Kerala’s temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran.

BJP leader K. Surendran refuted the charges of violence. “We have no role in any violence, ours was a very peaceful protest," he said.

In the backdrop of Wednesday’s violence, some Left leaders think the protests may distance the BJP further from liberal Hindus, who are as vocal and dominant as conservatives and have traditionally supported the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or opposition Congress.

An important lower caste Ezhava leader and BJP ally, Vellappally Nateshan, deplored the protests.

Chief minister Vijayan, who is in the UAE to raise funds for Kerala’s reconstruction post the floods, has said the state “will not allow anyone to take law and order into their hands".

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