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Sabarimala: A Trek Too Far

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How women who tried to go to Sabarimala after the Supreme Court judgment were forced to return by devotees who used children as shields

Liby CS, editor of an online Malayalam news portal, was the first woman who tried to trek to Sabarimala after the landmark Supreme Court judgment that did away with the prohibition on females between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the pilgrimage spot. This was on October 17th, the very first day the temple had opened for worship. Liby started off giving prior intimation to the police. As soon as she began the trip on a bus from her hometown in Cherthala, Alappuzha, devotees stalked her but she was determined to proceed.  At Changanassery in Kottayam district, a couple of passengers accosted her in the bus. They demanded to check her bag. She refused, got down and sought help from the police who took her in their vehicle to a bus stand a few kilometers away. There she boarded another vehicle which reached Pathanamthitta, the adjacent town, where again the ‘believers’, who had continued to follow her, blocked the road. They heckled her while the cops, instead of providing security, took her to the police station and tried to convince her to not go. Liby refused to change her mind.

Sabarimala is a worship place visited by millions of men, irrespective of religion. No one bothers to see if every man who is there is a believer of Lord Ayyappa, or not. But women who attempted to exercise their Constitutional right of worship upheld by the Supreme Court had to prove their devotion. This test was given by the cops and not by the believers. Liby recounted, “A police officer introduced himself as someone from the Special Branch. He asked me a few questions. First, whether I was a Hindu and believed in Hinduism. I said I am born into a Hindu family and believe in Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art), a Hindu spiritual idea. He got confused. He then asked what else I believed in. I told him that I believe in the philosophy of (the reformer) Sri Narayana Guru.”

Liby had earlier put up a Facebook post mentioning she would go to Sabarimala despite being an atheist. The policeman quizzed her on that. “Do they restrict a man who is an atheist? I told them that atheism is not against Hinduism. Hindu philosophy is inclusive and there is sufficient scope for atheism as well. Savarkar, the ideologue of RSS, was an atheist,” she says. In the face of the violence building up, Liby eventually had to give up her up plan. But her harassment continued. Devotees conducted a protest march to her house at Cherthala. She received death threats. Liby and her husband left home scared of being attacked. She spoke with Open from an undisclosed location.

The plight of every woman who tried to go to Sabarimala after the judgment was the same. Activist Rehana Fathima, also known as Soorya Gayathri, who trekked successfully till Nadappanthal, a point very near to the holy steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum, was also forced to go back. Later, she told the media that her decision was a result of seeing children being used as human shields by the protesters. Rehana’s visit was turned into a controversy. An employee of BSNL, she is also a model who has appeared in nude photographs and an active participant in the ‘Kiss of Love’ movement. Her residence in Ernakulam was also attacked.

Kavitha Jakkal, a television journalist from Hyderabad, had it worse. On October 19th, the third day of the opening of the temple, she came on duty as a reporter and was blocked at a distance of 500 meters from the holy steps. She had to face a violent mob of men despite being in the middle of a group of policemen. She could not go further and was forcibly taken back to the airport. In her statement to the media, Kavitha said, “I am a journalist and I went there to report on the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict. It is condemnable that I was prevented from discharging my duty.” Kavitha felt the government tried its best to support her but the protesters used children and the elderly as human shields making the police helpless.

On October 17th, Sabarimala witnessed violent clashes initiated by devotee groups against the police and media. Several, including women, were badly beaten up. A large crowd blocked all the vehicles at Nilakkal and checked the documents of every woman. Women journalists were specifically targeted. Saritha S Balan, reporter of The News Minute, was badly manhandled by a group of men. She was pushed out of a KSRTC bus after being identified as a journalist. Saritha sustained injuries and got admitted to a hospital later. Sneha Koshy, the correspondent of NDTV, was roughed up, her camera snatched and broken. Pooja Prasanna, reporter of Republic TV, was attacked and her iPad stolen. Male reporters fared no better. The protesters threatened the media to narrate live on air that the police attacked them, which was not factually correct. All television reporters collectively decided to go off-duty and trek down as there was impending danger of being attacked by midnight. Sanoj Surendran, reporter of News 18 said, “There were around 3,000 men camping at sannidhanam (the sanctum sanctorum). They were extremely hostile. They forced and threatened us to report what they wanted. They were intentionally disseminating wrong information that women in large groups were coming to the place. They wanted to sustain the emotionally charged atmosphere and flare up communal passion. On the last day, we came to know that there was secret planning being done to beat up journalists so as to provoke police action. We decided to retreat as we did not want a communal riot in Kerala as they wished.”

Even women who were in the earlier permitted age of above 50 were not spared. Latha, 53, from Trichy was blocked 500 meters from the holy steps where a furious crowd surrounded and shouted at her. They demanded documents to prove her age. The old woman showed them her Aadhar card. All this while the cops did not intervene. Latha broke into tears, quickly completed the prayer and went back. Another woman from Telangana was also forced to show her documents. Along with her, was a 56-year-old woman who fell unconscious and had to be hospitalised following heckling by the crowd.  

Controlling a violent mob in a worship place is a challenge to the police. A lathi charge or any such action can boomerang on the government. Besides, it is impossible to distinguish an agitator from a true devotee. The former were also in the same pilgrimage apparel of black mundu, holy chain and a holy bag on head (irumudikkettu). Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had maintained the position that the government is committed to enforce the Supreme Court judgment but the police failed completely.

While women who sought police protection to enter Sabarimala were interrogated to verify their background, the protestors could saunter through with minimal checking. Women who wanted to enter the temple on the first two days were ‘disqualified’ as being either journalists or activists. On the third day, a Dalit woman, SP Manju, from Kollam came alone. She was a devotee and a state leader of Kerala Dalit Federation. All of Kerala watched it live as Manju trekked up the hill escorted by the police while a threatening mob chanted Saranam Ayyappa as a form of protest. The police tried to turn her away. Given her activist background, Manju was aware of her rights. She refused and the police continued with her up to Pamba, the base station and nearest road point to Sabarimala. The climate turned unfavorable. It began to rain heavily and, close to five in the evening, the devotees turned more belligerent in their sloganeering. Manju finally decided to give up and returned. She said, “The police tried their level best to change my mind but I was determined to go. Then there was heavy rain. So we decided to put it off to the next morning. But eventually I realised that it is difficult because a team of violent men were there with children. I understood that police cannot use force. I am a woman, and I don’t want a child to be hurt.”  Manju’s house in Kollam was also attacked. A group of men barged in and destroyed the electronic goods.

Bindu Thankam Kalyani, a higher secondary teacher and a Dalit woman, was the last to try. She reached Erumeli, the adjacent town of Sabarimala, and was taken to the police station at Mundakkayam. In no time, the protestors rushed there in large numbers and she was shifted to another town. The video footage of Bindu being chased by an angry crowd of men and the police running along to save her life went viral. Bindu’s rented house in Kozhikode was attacked and the school she works in was also besieged by them. School authorities asked her not to come for work. Bindu shifted to a friend’s flat but in no time the information leaked. A group of men came and demanded the flat owner to kick her out. Bindu is still running from one place to another. She posted a video in Facebook requesting the government to save her life.

The protests are not just about conservative men refusing women entry into the temple. The temple’s priests might also be apprehensive of losing control and thus fomenting the resistance to change. There have been claims after the judgment that the temple originally belonged to the region’s Malayaraya tribals in the 19th century before being taken over by the Brahmins. PK Sajeev, leader of Malayaraya Mahasabha, an association of the tribes, says, “The Malayaraya tribes were entitled to do the pooja. The priests before 1902 were all members from our community.” The Sabha is planning to approach the court to get the titles back to the community.

Four women have meanwhile approached the High Court seeking an order of protection to visit the holy shrine. The month of Vrichikam starting on November 16th, when the gates of the temple are thrown open again, is going to be a difficult time for the government.

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