Kerala, known for its strong secular credentials, has rarely witnessed a religious and political movement such as the one to ban women from entering the Sabarimala temple.

Yet, its Marxist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who analysts say in a way amplified the protests with his aggressive posturing against the ban, is missing at the time of crisis.

Vijayan left for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 17 October, exactly when protests erupted in Sabarimala. That day, the temple opened for the first time after a 28 September Supreme Court verdict. The court order had lifted a ban on menstrual age women from entering the temple. It has resulted in clashes between women seeking entry and protestors who want to preserve religious traditions.

A person close to the chief minister’s office said, requesting anonymity, that the trip was planned long in advance and could not be postponed due to its high-profile nature. Vijayan is meeting senior dignitaries in the UAE, and is expected to raise aid for victims of the state’s worst floods in August and to rebuild infrastructure.

Vijayan’s absence has, however, created a political vacuum as the government bumbles from one crisis to another.

According to a person who is privy to the talks within the government, this was most visible on Friday, when police escorted two women to the temple, only to abandon the attempt mid-way following protests. Out of the two women, one was an activist and another a journalist.

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