How Nilackal became a war zone the day Sabarimala was opened to women

A piecing together of the sequence of events that transpired on October 17.

ByAnand Kochukudy
How Nilackal became a war zone the day Sabarimala was opened to women
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It’s been five days since the events that unfolded on Wednesday, October 17, at Nilackal, the base camp of Sabarimala. Details are still a bit sketchy despite tons of reporting and first-person accounts of journalists. Here is an attempt to piece together the events of the day when the hill shrine opened for the first time since the historic Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to visit the temple.

The Prelude

Before violence erupted in Nilackal around noon on Wednesday, there was an incident early that morning involving a scuffle between the Hanuman Sena and the Mathrubhumi news team which wasn’t played up in the media. Apparently, some members owing allegiance to the Hanuman Sena were incensed at Mathrubhumi for its publication of an excerpt from the novel Meesha in their weekly, which was later withdrawn. Meesha, written by Sahitya Akademi Award winner S Hareesh, stirred controversy for its alleged defamation of Hindu women and Brahmin women.

Although it had nothing to do with Sabarimala, that’s how tension began in the wee hours of Wednesday, at about 3.30 am. An Asianet reporter who intervened was also roughed up. There were very few police officials on duty when this happened.

By about 6 am, police reinforcements had reached and they chased out the dozen-odd Hanuman Sena members. Later, the police destroyed the pandal erected by the Sabarimala Samrakshana Samiti.

How it all began

Things were quite peaceful until about 11 am but men and women were pouring in to participate in the “fast” and protest activities organised by the Sabarimala Samrakshana Samiti at Nilackal. A huge group of women led by renowned hate-monger KP Sasikala Teacher was also in attendance. Before the protestors swelled in numbers, women journalists had no trouble reaching Pampa (the starting point from where the five-kilometre trek to the hill shrine commences) as some women journalists indeed reached Pampa in the morning.

Protesters assembled in large numbers next to the petrol bunk below the Siva temple in Nilackal, as the police stood by. They began stopping vehicles to check for women occupants and the police were mere spectators. Remember, this was the case even after Chief Minister Pinarayi VIjayan had promised the previous day that nobody would be allowed to take the law into their hands—to stop cars or check people. South Zone ADGP Anil Kanth was barely 300 metres from where these self-attested devotees were waylaying vehicles proceeding to Pampa.

Until Republic TV’s car was stopped at about noon, things didn’t get violent. Furious at the sight of the woman journalist, the mob smashed the car and the reporter had a narrow escape. Even as things were looking to get out of control, the senior police officials on duty were unmoved.

Then came News 18, when the protestors spotted a woman journalist in the car. Soon, the mob of protestors began to stop Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses ferrying passengers to Pampa. The News Minute’s Sarita Balan and India Today’s Mausmi Singh were also forced out of different buses. Both reporters were pushed around and peppered with abuses interspersed with Ayyappa chants.

By about 1.30-2 pm, the women sitting on fast were leaving the protest venue in advance—well before the scheduled 4 pm—almost suggesting they had anticipated the violence.  Or, was there was some conspiracy to ensure that the 1,500-odd women who had assembled were moved out before the showdown?

The agitation was intensifying by this point. At 2.05 pm, a car of Reporter TV  (the channel logo was plastered prominently on the windshield) was coming from the opposite direction—from Pampa to Nilackal—and halted at the spot where a KSRTC bus was being attacked. Eyewitnesses say someone from the mob yelled, “Look, here comes the Reporter TV vehicle. They shouldn’t be spared.” Despite the fact that the car had an all-male crew, the protestors stopped the car and mercilessly attacked cameraman Shameer, correspondent Prajeesh and the car driver. They also snatched their cameras and smashed them along with the tripod and a laptop they got hold of, even as someone from the crowd tried to pull out the driver through the broken glass. The handful of policemen who tried to intervene could not do anything as they were massively outnumbered. The “devotees” beat up the trio and they were rescued only after they were assaulted by the mob.

Reporter TV’s all-male crew were attacked mercilessly by protestors

But why did the protestors get violent with the all-male crew of Reporter TV? Abhilash Mohanan, anchor of the primetime show Editor’s Hour on Reporter TV told Newslaundry that the police had shared prior intelligence on the possibility of an attack against their crew. According to Mohanan, it was on account of their no-nonsense approach on the Sabarimala issue and their tough stand against Hindutva groups.

Channel correspondent Prajeesh’s shoulder was dislocated in the attack. He was admitted to Pathanamthitta government hospital and has been rendered immobile following the incident.

The confrontation

By 2.30 pm, two more companies of police personnel reached the venue.  Shortly after, the mob laid siege to the road to Pampa. As the police tried to chase away the protestors to clear the road, they began to retaliate by pelting stones. Eyewitnesses say they observed protestors collecting rocks anticipating the showdown.

At exactly 3.30 pm, the police began wielding lathis and rained blows on the mob, which ran helter-skelter in all directions. When some of the protestors threw large rocks at the police, the cops retaliated by picking them up and throwing them right back at the Hindutva protestors. Some of the reporters and cameramen were also caught in the melee as Nilackal became a war-zone.

A protestor collects rocks to throw at the police

Shortly, the scattered protestors began to regroup. A journalist at the scene told Newslaundry, “I could hear protestors in saffron outfits wearing headbands of ‘Ayyappa Dharma Sena’ telling each other that they were higher in number compared to the cops and they should launch another assault and the police would flee.” As the protestors launched a second attack, the police were seen even attacking some of the bystanders and the vehicles of the protestors. The face-off lasted close to an hour and normalcy returned only around 4.30 pm when the police wrested control of Nilackal.

The women protestors, numbering close to 1,500, left well before the tension escalated in this manner, indicating either anticipation of the face-off or a conspiracy.

To get a sense of the protestors, Newslaundry reached out to some of the right-wing fringe groups. A representative of the Atar Rashtriya Hindu Parishad said, “We heard Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran would be back around the time the Iron Gates of the Sannidhanam (sanctum sanctorum) opened at 5 pm. We wanted to waylay him and teach him a lesson.” However, the minister made his way back at only about 9 pm.

Newslaundry got in touch with Pathanamthitta District Collector PB Nooh to understand the police inaction from noon on Wednesday. He said, “An explicit direction was given to not use excessive force and to avoid provocations.” As for the police standing by despite the mayhem caused by the protestors, he passed the buck to the police. ADGP Anil Kanth refused to speak on the record.

Many reporters on the ground told Newslaundry how the saffron-clad protestors initially heckled them and tried intimidation tactics, demanding that the issue be covered “from the angle of the devotees”. The mob also later prevented cameramen and photographers from recording the attacks and only let them shoot from their mobile phones. The videos aired on TV were taken from a distance as the attacks progressed.

Unlike Nilackal, Pampa was more peaceful through the day. Rahul Easwar—leader of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and allegedly the brain behind the protests —was arrested when he obstructed women police officers from performing their duty at Pampa.  The Pathanamthitta Collector had announced by 5.30 pm the imposition of Section 144 effective from midnight and it was later extended till the monthly pujas ended on Monday.

Nilackal was relatively peaceful in the days ahead but Pampa, the trekking route, the awnings around the temple and even the area below the sanctum sanctorum saw violence and fracas with the arrival of young women in the following days.

Looking back, the government certainly failed in anticipating the violence. Unless it was it a cynical strategy to allow it—letting it ferment for a while to swoop down later. The Bharatiya Janata Party (and the Sangh Parivar) might have been hoping for the police to fire at the protestors to gain political advantage from it. The Kerala government can heave a sigh of relief that things did not slide to that extent.


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