By Kai Schultz
New Delhi, Oct. 24, 2018: Before Hindus can climb the 18 golden steps leading to the Sabarimala Temple, a centuries-old hillside shrine in southern India, there are customs to observe.
Devotees fast for 41 days, avoiding alcohol, tobacco and sex. They prepare bundles of goods to be tied to their heads, filling pouches with jaggery, flattened rice and turmeric powder.
And they observe a ban on women of childbearing age from visiting, because the shrine’s deity, Lord Ayyappa, is celibate.
In September, after India’s Supreme Court struck down that ban, furious protests burst the calm surroundings at the Sabarimala Temple, located in a forested patch of the state of Kerala.
When the temple reopened for six days on October 17, for the first time since the court’s decision, the pilgrimage path became a kind of conflict zone, pitting traditionalists against police officers who vowed to enforce the law and protect any woman who wished to visit.
At least 12 women attempted the journey. Each was met with a mob that variously shouted in her face, pummeled the police, set vehicles on fire, hurled rocks and blocked the steep, three-mile trail leading to the temple by lying on its slippery stones. All of the women were forced to turn back. One was so overwhelmed that she fainted.
Now, with the temple closed again for about two weeks before its peak season starts, officials are scrambling to figure out what to do. On October 23, India’s Supreme Court announced that it would hear petitions next month challenging its ruling.
The court did not elaborate; some lawyers said it was too early to say whether the justices had been swayed by the protests, but that a reversal of the ruling seemed unlikely.
For now, Krishna Kumar, a commanding officer posted near the temple, said the focus was on law and order. He gave a dry laugh when asked if the police were ready for November’s reopening.
The annual event is often compared to the rush at Mecca, and a crush of millions of pilgrims can clog the trail for hours.
“This is a huge problem,” Kumar said, “a very huge challenge for the police.”
It is not unusual for Indian court rulings to go unenforced, particularly in remote rural areas.
The Supreme Court put that to the test with its September ruling, which overturned a 1991 decision by the High Court of the state of Kerala that banned menstruating women — defined as girls or women between the ages of 10 and 50 — from visiting the temple.
Advocates of the ban argued that it should be respected because it had been in effect for so long, and that the temple’s celibate deity had constitutional rights.
But in a 4 to 1 decision, the court disagreed. “Religion cannot become a cover to exclude and to deny the right of every woman to find fulfillment in worship,” Judge Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud wrote in his opinion.
Almost immediately, thousands of protesters who disagreed marched in Kerala, threatening violent repercussions for women who tried to visit the temple.
Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, a lawyer who was involved in challenging the ban, said she was baffled by the backlash, saying the dismantling of exclusionary rules in other places of worship, like the Haji Ali, a mosque and tomb in Mumbai, or temples in west central India, were not met with the same level of vitriol.
In any case, she said, there was evidence that women had peacefully visited the Sabarimala Temple decades ago for rice-feeding ceremonies, which mark a baby’s first intake of solid foods. Other temples dedicated to Lord Ayyappa also allow women to enter, she said.
“They are giving superstition the cover of religion,” Sethi said of the protesters. “What they are doing is not religion. The Hindu religion is not teaching you violence.”
Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, attributed much of the chaos to members of fringe Hindu groups disguising themselves as pilgrims and then “spreading terror.”
Kerala is run by a coalition of communist parties; opposition politicians in the state have warned the police not to use force against protesters and argued that India’s central government, which is led by a party with Hindu nationalist roots, should take over security at the temple.
Initially, the police encouraged women to visit. When a female journalist for The New York Times tried to climb up the path on October 18, several officers went before her, insisting that it was safe to continue even as the mob began throwing stones. She was struck on the shoulder but was not injured.
As the security situation grew more intense, the government seemed to waver on enforcing the court’s ruling. On October 19, two women, Rehana Fathima, a social activist, and Kavitha Jakkal, a journalist, began climbing the trail in helmets and shoulder pads, escorted by about 100 police officers in riot gear.
As they crested the hill, becoming the only women yet to make it that far, a police officer said there was news: The Kerala government had called to say it was not particularly pleased with the situation.
Kadakampally Surendran, an official with the state Devaswom, a religious trust that helps manage temples, told reporters in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, that the authorities could not allow the shrine to become a place where “activists can come and showcase their power.”
Fathima said she was not there for activism, but Sunil Arumanoor, a public relations officer with the temple, called her “publicity hungry.” He said those who visited the temple specifically to make a point would be turned away. “This temple belongs to true devotees,” he said in an interview.
After Fathima and Jakkal reached the temple’s entrance, a crowd of protesters blocked their way. The temple’s priest warned that he would lock the doors if the women proceeded. They turned back.
Since then, several more women have tried their luck, but the obstacles seemed to pile up. On October 20, when an advocate for the rights of Dalit people told the police she wanted to go, they discouraged her from doing so because of the heavy rains, and they subjected her to a background check. Others were so badly harassed by protesters that they did not even make it to the trail.
By October 22 evening, when the temple complex shut, the message, at least for the moment, seemed clear: The Supreme Court’s ruling had no bearing there.
“History not made,” read a headline on NDTV, an Indian news channel.
Source: The New York Times