Kerala protests: Violent unrest sweeps southern India as first women to enter temple forced into hiding

One person has been killed and 15 injured in clashes 

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 03 January 2019 14:40 GMT
Crowds vandalise shops and vehicles in protest against the entry of two women in one of India's largest Hindu pilgrimage sites

Violent protests have swept the southern Indian state of Kerala after two women entered one of the holiest temples in India.

One person has been killed and 15 injured after clashes and schools across the state have been closed and public transport suspended.

Women “of menstruating age” – defined as between 10 and 50 – had been legally barred from praying at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala since 1972, and an informal ban existed before that, until India’s Supreme Court caused outrage by lifting the ban in September 2018.

The police were forced to intervene in clashes between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules India, and Communist Party workers.

The BJP opposes the entry of women into one of the country’s largest Hindu pilgrimage sites, while the Communist government of Kerala is in favour of women’s right to pray there.

The two women – who were escorted by police and dressed in black – entered the gold-plated temple, which is on a hilltop in a tiger reserve, to pray early on Wednesday.

Bindu Ammini, 40, and Kanaka Durga, 39, who are now in hiding and have been given police protection, entered the shrine around dawn – making history by becoming the first women to do so.

They were escorted by police because it is “the government’s constitutional responsibility to give protection to women”, Pinarayi Vijayan, the state’s top elected official, said.

He accused the BJP of sparking violence when police fired tear gas at several places to disperse stone-throwing mobs protesting against the women entering the temple.

Mr Vijayan told reporters that 39 police officers were injured while trying to control the protesters, who also damaged 79 state-run buses.

Priests “purified” the temple after discovering the woman had visited and will keep it closed on Thursday in protest.

Supporters of the BJP staged protest marches in the state as part of a strike call by Sabarimala Karma Samithi – an umbrella organisation of Hindu groups.

Kerala police said the man who died on Wednesday was part of a demonstration organised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP – not part of Kerala’s state government – in the town of Pandalam, and was hit by stones thrown at protesters.

Right-wing groups, supported by the BJP, have called for a state-wide shutdown. They were in favour of schools, colleges and businesses remaining closed as a sign of protest.

Some devotees have filed a petition saying the court decision lifting the ban was an affront to the celibate deity Ayyappa.

On New Year’s Day, tens of thousands of women, in a local government-backed initiative, formed a huge human chain called the “Women’s Wall” across Kerala to support the demand for access to the temple.

The tension between Hindu traditionalists and supporters of the Supreme Court ruling has remained high in Kerala in recent months.

Thousands of Hindu devotees, many of whom were female, succeeded in stopping women from accessing the site in the weeks after the ruling. Some hurled stones at police and assaulted female journalists.

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Thursday has seen a second day of protests across the state – with additional riot police deployed.

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