Bengaluru: The controversy over allowing girls and women into Kerala’s Sabarimala may reach a flashpoint this week, with the hilltop shrine set to open its gates on Wednesday for the first time after the Supreme Court verdict last month.
Thousands of devotees of the deity Ayyappa, led by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reached Thiruvananthapuram on Monday, after a four-day trek from the foothills of the temple site, setting the stage for a showdown. The devotees allege interference by the judiciary in the age-old ban on girls and women of menstruating age from entering the shrine.
The BJP came out strongly against the ruling and, subsequently against the Marxist government in Kerala for not filing a review petition against the order, or bringing out an ordinance to nullify the verdict. Malayalam dailies quoted local BJP leaders as saying they will lie down at the entry points to try and block women’s entry. Earlier, Shiv Sena workers threatened to immolate themselves if women tried to enter the shrine.
“We are not protesting against the Constitution or the people, but to claim the rights of the people guaranteed in the Constitution. It is the people’s desire to file a review petition against the SC order. But the state government is not taking it seriously," said BJP general secretary Muralidhar Rao, according to local reports.
BJP Kerala unit president Sreedharan Pillai gave the government a 24-hour ultimatum to revoke its stance that favours women’s entry. Both the BJP and its mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had initially supported the entry of women, but later made a U-turn after seeing protests by Ayyappa devotees. The opposition Congress, after an initial flip-flop, also came out in support of the devotees.
The state, however, expects the protests to be uneventful, given that rising tempers may keep women away from seeking immediate entry.
Earlier, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had come out strongly in support of the SC verdict, and announced a series of steps to make the temple women-friendly. But as the protests intensified, the state-run temple board took a soft stand, announcing that they were not ready to facilitate the immediate entry of women.
The protests were also tarnished by several controversies. At one point, a protesting woman’s casteist slur on Vijayan went viral on social media and led to a police case. In a significant move, Dalit and Ezhava outfits chose not to support the movement.
Ezhava outfit SNDP’s leader and BJP ally Vellappally Nadeshan called the protests an upper-caste and upper-class phenomenon. Nadeshan, however, made a U-turn to support the BJP rally. On Friday, veteran actor and BJP supporter Kollam Thulasi called people to “rip apart women who enter Sabarimala", causing a furore. He apologized for his comments later.
Reshma Nishanth, a woman from Kannur, was reportedly threatened by devotees after a Facebook post about her plans to visit the temple. Police were deployed in the neighbourhood to maintain law and order.