Police stopped five women from trekking up to the Sabarimala temple on the first day of the pilgrimage on Saturday, sparking criticism from activists and experts who said the move violated the Supreme Court’s orders allowing the entry of female devotees of menstruating age in the Kerala hilltop shrine.
The five women, part of a group of 18 travellers from Andhra Pradesh, were asked to go back from the base camp of Pambha in south Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.
“We checked their identity cards and found that they were in the barred age group and informed them about the current situation in Sabarimala. They did not proceed further,” a senior police official said on condition of anonymity.
The development came barely two days after the Supreme Court referred to a larger bench petitions challenging its 2018 judgment overturning a decades-old ban at Sabarimala on female devotees between 10 and 50 years of age. The new seven-judge bench will also look into seven other matters linked to faith.
In its 3:2 ruling delivered on Thursday, the apex court did not suspend its landmark order, with justice Rohinton Nariman, who authored the minority dissenting judgment, explicitly asking the Kerala government to ensure strict compliance with the 2018 verdict. But the state administration has since refused to provide security to women devotees of childbearing age, saying it will consult with experts before deciding on the issue.
A posse of at least 10,000 security personnel have been deployed to maintain order at the base camp. Women police officers asked all female devotees to show documents to prove their age. “We are simply following the orders of our superiors,” a woman inspector said on condition of anonymity.
One of the women sent back, 42-year-old Padmavati Naidu, said she was told that the top court had lifted all restrictions on the entry of women. “I did not expect this fate. When I told police officers about this, they had no replies either,” she said, fighting back tears.
The Travancore Devasom Board, which runs the temple, underplayed the incident. “There was no checking. We apprised them about our difficulties and they went back,” said the newly appointed TDB president N Vasu.
The government’s stand and the police action angered reformists and women activists.
“It is sad that the police are back to the same old tactics. The Supreme Court has made it clear that there is no stay on its 2018 verdict. How can they prevent women like this? It seems the government is bowing before trouble-makers and some zealots,” said Bindhu Ammini, one of two women who were the first to enter the temple in January this year. She said she will move court against the police action.
Activist and Bhumata Brigade leader Trupti Desai, who has announced her plan to visit the temple, also criticised the state government. “The state is bound to go by the 2018 verdict of the Supreme Court. It is the state’s responsibility to give protection to women,” she said.
Legal experts blamed the state government and police. “Preventing women from offering prayers at the temple constitutes contempt of the Supreme Court. It is sad that the Kerala government is not doing anything to aid the entry of women in the temple,” said Supreme Court advocate Viplav Sharma.
“The court has categorically held that women have a right to pray at the temple. Even though the court has referred the matter to a seven-judge bench, there is no stay on the earlier judgment,” he added.
Senior lawyer Asha Unnithan agreed. “The Supreme Court did not stay the verdict. So it is binding on the government to go by it,” she said.
At Pambha, tens of thousands of male devotees, many of them barefoot and dressed in the traditional black clothes, readied in neat files for the 5-km trek through thick forests and streams for a glimpse of the deity Ayappa. Traditionalists in Kerala contend that the entry of female worshippers of childbearing age into the sanctum sanctorum in Sabarimala is a sacrilege because Ayyappa is celibate.
The orderly pilgrimage was a sharp contrast from scenes a year ago when violent clashes broke out almost daily between the police and enraged devotees, who slept in nearby shops and the steps and managed to stop women devotees for roughly three months after the SC verdict. Women pilgrims were regularly pelted with stones and at least one male devotee set himself on fire to protest against the entry of women of menstruating age.
On Saturday, many of those devotees appeared satisfied, and said peace was back at their favourite temple. “God is supreme. The highest court heard our cries for peace at the temple,” said Suramanyan Swami, a devotee from neighbouring Tamil Nadu’s Erode. A second devotee said he skipped last year’s pilgrimage fearing violence but that he was back this year with more “vigour and devotion”.
The chief priest or tantri of Sabarimala, Mahesh Kandarau, opened the temple doors at 5pm for the two-month Mandala-Makaravilakku pilgrimage season. “In the first one hour, more than 10,000 pilgrims passed the police check post,” said a senior police officer.
After the 2018 SC judgment, the Left Front-ruled Kerala government had thrown its weight behind the women devotees and provided them security. But this time, the administration has appeared more evasive, with temple minister Kadakampally Surendran making it clear that the government won’t provide police cover to women devotees of menstruating age.
“Sabarimala was not a place for activists to display activism and the government will not encourage women who want to visit the shrine for publicity,” he said on Friday.
Hindu groups have already declared they will block any woman of childbearing age if they try to enter the temple. “We respect the government’s assurance. But, if they cheat us like last year, they will have to face repercussions,” said RV Babu, leader of the Sabarimala Karma Samiti, an apex body of Hindu outfits that has said hundreds of its volunteers are closely watching the pilgrimage route.