- Activist Trupti Desai landed at 4:30 am at Kochi airport
- The protesters say they won't allow her to enter temple
- Cab drivers have refused to take Ms Desai to her destination
Activist Trupti Desai, who wants to enter Kerala's Sabarimala temple in defiance of a decades-old custom on women of menstrual age, says she has been asked by the police to return from the Kochi airport due to hundreds of protesters blocking it since she landed 13 hours ago early this morning. The hilltop shrine opened at 5 pm today for a two-month-long puja in which lakhs of devotees and tourists are expected.
The protesters, who staunchly support the restrictions on women despite the Supreme Court ending the ban in a landmark order in September, say they won't allow Trupti Desai and her six colleagues to step out of the airport. Taxi drivers say they will not take the visitors anywhere.
"Police is saying the protesters can enter the airport anytime and attack us. They have requested us to return since protests may break out across the state... Entering the temple is our right but we have not come here to disrupt law and order. Around 6:30 pm my team and I will decide what to do next," the Pune-based activist told NDTV over the phone from the airport.
Reports say groups of protesters have been visiting hotels in Pathanamthitta and asking them not to accommodate Trupti Desai or any women visitors in the "banned" age group.
Trupti Desai had written to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the state police chief seeking protection to visit the shrine, where no woman has been allowed even after the Supreme Court ruling.
The protesters, who claim to be devotees of Sabarimala's deity Lord Ayyappa, including BJP workers and right-wing organisations, assembled early today outside the airport and stated shouting slogans and the "Ayyappa mantra" Swami Sharanam.
The police reached there in large numbers to control the situation. Ms Desai and her group also sat at the airport; they say they won't go anywhere without visiting the temple.
Meanwhile, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the Ayyappa temple, has decided to approach the Supreme Court seeking more time to implement its verdict on the entry of women.
This is the third time the temple has opened since the Supreme Court on September 28 allowed women of all ages to enter the shrine.
Amid unrelenting protests by devotees and political workers against any change in the archaic tradition, the state's Left-led government has made massive security arrangements. Over 15,000 policemen are posted in and around Sabarimala and teams of commandos and disaster response personnel are on standby.
For the first time ever, pilgrims heading to the shrine in their private vehicles will need passes from the police, who are to take every detail of the visitors, their age and head-count.
Private vehicles are not being allowed beyond Nilakkal base camp, which is 20 km from Pamba, the place where people start taking the uphill climb to the temple. Devotees have to either take state-run buses from Nilakkal or walk down to Pamba. At Nilakkal, large gatherings are banned.
In 2016, Ms Desai had led a group of women activists to the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra, when it ended a 60-year-old ban on women. Her movement inspired similar campaigns involving temples that have been off-limits to women.
After the Supreme Court's September order, a number of women attempted to enter the Sabarimala shrine but couldn't because of violent protests by devotees who said they would not allow any insult to Lord Ayyappa, a celibate god.
The Supreme Court will on January 22 consider as many as 49 petitions challenging its order. Rejecting an urgent hearing on Wednesday, the judges refused to put on hold the order but said the petitions would be taken up in an open court.
The Kerala government called an all-party meeting on Thursday to discuss Sabarimala, but the Congress and the BJP -- which have been trying to outdo each other in showing support for the devotees -- walked out.
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