Déjà vu: How Sabarimala descended into chaos once again

Déjà vu: How Sabarimala descended into chaos once again

The Supreme Court hasn't stayed the September verdict on Sabarimala, so will the upcoming puja session see a repeat of last week's violence?

On November 5 and 6, the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala was open for “Chithira Atta Vishesham”, a two-day ritual. In light of the violence and the unruly scenes witnessed at the Nilackal base camp and temple precincts last month, the state administration was expected to take adequate measures to prevent any untoward incidents. But what eventually unfolded was utter chaos, with the police ceding ground to the protestors and letting them take control of the temple precincts. That all of this happened despite the imposition of Section 144, which prevents the assembly of more than four persons in an area, makes it even more extraordinary.

In the build-up to the opening of the gates of the temple on November 5, the police had imposed unprecedented restrictions en route Sabarimala, with even the media being denied entry beyond the base camp. It gave hope that there would be no repetition of the mayhem that prevailed during the monthly pujas in October. But with protesters turning up in huge numbers, albeit in the guise of devotees—complete with black attire and the irumudikkettu (the sacred prayer kit)—the cops were left with no choice but to let everyone proceed to the hill shrine to avoid a confrontation. If the usual number of devotees turning up at the two-day event in previous years were a few hundred, this year saw that number swelling to 7,300, with the police estimating only about 200 of them to be genuine devotees.

On the evening of November 5, a 24-year-old woman accompanied by her husband and children reached Pampa and sought police protection to trek to the shrine. This news, in turn, led to protest sloganeering at the temple premises. The police tried their best to dissuade the woman but her husband seemed adamant and unwilling to relent. The cops finally prevailed on them, with the help of the woman’s relatives, and sent them back.

The police seemed to be under instructions from their political bosses to avoid confrontations and to not let women between the ages of 10 and 50 trek to the shrine. They went so far as to ensure that the lady cops deployed in the temple precincts were over the age of 50.

Early the next morning, on November 6, a woman devotee came under attack by protesters in the guise of Ayyappa devotees. Lalitha, 52, a native of Thrissur, later spoke to the media about her ordeal—from how she proceeded to the temple after her husband took “permission” from Hindu Aikya Vedi leader PK Sasikala (by producing her Aadhaar card to prove her age) at Pampa, to how she barely made it alive. Frenzied protesters chanting Ayyappa incantations charged at her as soon as she reached the temple compound, suspecting her to be under the age of 50. Lalitha was pushed around. She finally collapsed and fell down when her blood pressure shot up and the police rescued her with great difficulty. Her nephew was also not spared by the mob.

The protesters soon turned their attention to the media personnel capturing these visuals. One cameraman ran towards a building and climbed on to the ledge to take shelter. The mob flung a chair at him to try and bring him down—all of this caught on camera. The crew of Asianet News, Mathrubhumi News, News 18 Malayalam and Amritha TV came under attack. One journalist was hit on the forehead with a coconut. The nearly 2,000 police personnel deployed for duty in Sabarimala were mere spectators even as the protestors wrested control of the temple precincts.

What followed was even more disgraceful. The police—hugely outnumbered and with absolutely no control over the protestors—sought help from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader to calm things down. Valsan Thillankeri, an RSS strongman from Kannur, spoke using the police’s megaphone and was seen trying to calm the crowd. In his speech, Thillankeri not only challenged the Supreme Court verdict, but he also went so far as to say that the police were on their side and would aid them in preserving the “customs” by ensuring that women between the ages of 10 and 50 did not enter.

Violating customs while fighting to preserve them

It was ironic that the people protesting ended up violating the very customs they sought to protect. Thillankeri was seen standing on the “sacred steps” with his back to the sactum, without the sacred prayer kit, in gross violation of the customs of the temple. At one point, protestors occupied the 18 “sacred steps” leading to the sanctum sanctorum, shouting Ayyappa chants like a war cry. The Tantri (head priest—who had earlier threatened to shut down the sanctum sanctorum if customs were violated (after soliciting the opinion of Kerala’s BJP President, it turned out)—didn’t seem to take offence at these violations.

Following the controversy, Thillankeri claimed he consulted the Tantri and performed the specified rituals to remedy the violation of customs. As for the violation of the customs by fellow protestors who occupied the “sacred steps”, Thillankeri said he bore no responsibility.

However, to see the protesters heeding Thillankeri’s call left no doubt that the protesters dressed as devotees were indeed Sangh Parivar activists.

The politics of letting things drift

It is unclear why the state government did not anticipate this when they supposedly had intelligence reports to the effect. Marunadan Malayali, an online media platform, had reported on the Sangh Parivar’s strategy to deploy its Kannur strongman to keep their cadre in check. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, hailing from Kannur himself, would surely be aware of the antecedents of Thillankeri and it begs the question as to why he let the RSS man run the show.

Although Vijayan has been on a fact dissemination spree across the state to clarify the state government’s stand, the feeble implementation of the law in Sabarimala contradicts his own assertions on the resolve of his government. The gross violation of Section 144 and police inaction despite protestors running amok at the Sannidhanam has terribly diminished Kerala’s reputation as a state that follows the rule of law.

All of this bodes trouble as the hill shrine opens on the evening of November 16 for the 41-day mandala puja season.  Today, the Supreme Court heard a review petition on their September 28 verdict and decided to take it up in open court on January 22. But the verdict of the Constitution Bench hasn’t been stayed, something which is explicitly stated in the short order. And hence, it will put the Pinarayi Vijayan government in a fix on its implementation.

Pinarayi Vijayan has reiterated time and again that his government would implement the orders of the Supreme Court as it is legally obligated to. But there will be a lot of pressure on the government from opposition parties and socio-cultural organisations to adopt a tactical position and prevent young women from visiting the shrine.

Will this annual pilgrimage season see a worse stand off? With the review petitions postponed to hearing on January 22, how will the state government ensure law and order at the hilltop shrine?

Although there have been plans to emulate the Tirupati model of online bookings to control the crowds and prevent no more than a certain number of devotees from proceeding beyond the Nilackal base camp at a time, it is unclear if that can be practically implemented at short notice as the 41-day mandala puja season sees devotees coming from all South Indian states. Moreover, such measures would need a massive infrastructure overhaul.

With the Supreme Court deciding not to stay the verdict of the five-bench Constitution Bench, the ball is effectively in the state government’s court. Will Pinarayi Vijayan live up to his promise of a no-nonsense administrator to ensure rule of law and let young women into the shrine (assuming young women turn up) during the 41-day puja season? Or, will he buckle under pressure from reactionary forces—including the Congress and a riot-mongering BJP—and let them snatch the narrative?

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