Five days after it opened, Kerala's Sabarimala temple is set to shut its doors today - zealously guarded by thousands of protesters determined not to let in any women aged between 10 to 50 years. So far, nine young women have been turned away from various points of the 19-km trek to the hill shrine, heckled, abused and attacked -- the police offering little by way of protection.
The inaction of the police, despite promises of maintaining women's safety by the state government, offers a clue to the deep faultlines between the Supreme Court's ruling and the sentiment in the state that is dictating its politics in an election year. All three key parties in the state - the Left, the Congress and the BJP have been repeatedly fine-tuning their stance.
Despite their failure to control the raucous protests, no police officer have been taken to task by the Left-led government which had promised to uphold the top court's ruling that ended centuries of bar on women of reproductive age at the temple.
The government has blamed the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for the protests. It has also argued that protection was meant to be given to devotees, not to activists trying to prove a point -- a reference to activist Fatima Rihana's attempt to enter at the temple.
The opposition BJP and the Congress have openly upheld the traditional view.
Sensing an opportunity to expand its base in Kerala, where it has just one legislator in the state assembly, the BJP said it would approach the Centre to pass an executive order that would circumvent the top court's ruling and retain the ban on young women.
Reports have claimed that many of the protesters belong to right-wing groups. Elsewhere, the BJP has held huge rallies, lending support to the ban on women's entry. On Saturday, a group of BJP workers was arrested in Nilakkal for violating prohibitory orders. They were staging protests and chanting the Ayyappa mantra.
The Congress has seconded the idea of an executive order, but lashed out at the BJP for "communalising a sensitive issue" and criticised what it called the "inept handling of the situation by the state government". The state Congress has always supported the temple traditions, with the government led by Oommen Chandy withdrawing a petition by the earlier Left government in the top court to open the temple to women.
A legal solution is also being explored, with 19 petitions asking the Supreme Court to review its decision. With the government refusing to file a petition, most of these have been filed by right-wing members, and the Travancore Dewasom Board (TDB) that manages the affairs of the temple is party to all these petitions.
"Board need not file a petition in the apex court since we are party to the 25 review petitions filed by different persons. We can state our stand in those hearings," the TDB president A Padmakumar said. The board will instead file a report to the apex court on the current "serious situation" at the hill shrine, he said. The top court will decide on a date of hearing tomorrow.
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