BFF-49 India temple turned into fortress for new gender battle

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India temple turned into fortress for new gender battle

PAMBA, India, Nov 16, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Indian police mounted a major
security operation Friday to prevent hardliners blocking women from entering
one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines despite a court order.

In September India’s top court ruled that women of all ages could pray at
the Sabarimala temple in the southern state of Kerala, the latest in a series
of defeats for traditionalists.

But when Sabarimala, perched on top of a hill, re-opened for a few days
twice in mid-October, hardliners prevented women from getting anywhere near,
clashing with police and assaulting female journalists.

Police in riot gear had escorted two out of a handful of women wanting
access to within 500 metres (yards) of the temple but were forced to turn
around. Some 2,000 people were later arrested.

The temple, reached via a long trek through a tiger reserve up a long mud
path that devotees are meant to walk barefoot, opened again late Friday a day
ahead of a two-month Hindu festive period.

Among the several hundred thousand devotees who have registered online to
visit between now and mid-January are 700 women.

This time Kerala’s communist government is determined to ensure there is
no repeat of October’s ugly scenes.

More than 3,400 police, many in riot gear, lined routes to the temple on
Friday.

“We will deploy over 15,200 police around the temple for the entire season
up to January 15,” Kerala police spokesman Pramod Kumar told AFP.

Press reports said the police were even considering using helicopters to
take women to the site.

Activists say that the ban at Sabarimala reflects an old view that
connects menstruation with impurity.

The traditionalists argue that women are allowed in most Hindu temples and
the practice at Sabarimala is part of their tradition, and not anti-women.

– Airport agitators –

On Friday wet weather was making it hard to reach the site, and among those
that did few were in favour of women being allowed.

One exception was N.S Prakash Rao, from Vishakhapattanam in Andhra
Pradesh.

“I am coming here for seventh or eighth time and I am OK with women being
allowed. Times have changed and so should we,” he told AFP.

“But I don’t think activists — who only come here to create noise —
should be allowed.”

One such activist is Trupti Desai. She flew into Kochi airport, four hours
from Sabarimala, on Friday morning but was prevented from leaving by a 500-
strong crowd of protestors clapping and chanting.

“We tried to hire taxis several times but the agitators are not allowing
them to take us. They have threatened violence if they do,” Desai told Indian
television.

“A while back they tried to take us out from a back door but the protesters
spotted us and attacked the cars,” she said.

The state government had called a meeting of all political parties in a bid
to reach an agreement on letting women into the temple on certain days.

But the talks ended late Thursday in an acrimonious failure.

“We are at a standstill and now the situation is becoming even worse,” said
Sasikumar Varma, a top representative of the Pandalam royal family that has
been traditionally involved in the temple’s management.

“The government stuck to its stance of allowing women’s entry and we are
opposed to it.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not spoken about the standoff, but
members of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party oppose the Supreme
Court decision.

“The communists (in Kerala’s government) are atheists and want to destroy
the Sabarimala temple culture,” the head of the BJP in the state, P.S
Sreedharan Pillai, told AFP.

BSS/AFP/RY/20:05 hrs