Tripti Desai, the gender rights activist who was forced to turn back from the Kochi airport last year by protestors, has once again landed in Kerala with a request to be escorted to Sabarimala temple by the police.
However, BJP activists got wind of Desai’s plans and confronted her in the city.
Some of the protestors allegedly used pepper spray on Bindu Ammini, who was with Desai. Ammini is a local activist who was taken inside the temple last year by the police and is credited with breaking a tradition at the 1,000-plus-year-old temple. Activists see the entry of Bindu Ammini into the temple as a victory for women’s rights movements.
The incident had caused widespread uproar among Hindus in Kerala as women don’t typically visit this hill-top temple until they are 50 years old.
It also resulted in a massive defeat for the ruling Left Front in elections to the Indian Parliament, with the party losing all but one seat in May this year.
The electoral setback led to a rethink of strategy on the part of the government, which has since clarified that it is no longer going to facilitate any activist’s attempts to “prove themselves” at Sabarimala.
The government has also reinstated age-checks for women pilgrims at the shrine.
A minister in the government even went to the extent of saying that the 2018 order of the Supreme Court bench, headed by then chief justice Dipak Misra, has been put on a ‘virtual stay’ by an order by the same court earlier this month, which referred the matter to a larger bench for review and re-examination.
Pro-tradition voices too have taken a similar stand, with TP Senkumar, former director general of police asking: “If the sentence to execute someone is sent for review, it automatically means there is a stay on the execution order. You can hardly execute the person and then conduct a review in retrospect.”
Desai, however, counters this and says that there is no explicit stay on the operation of the 2018 order.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the activist, who heads an outfit called Bhoomata Brigade, has again given BJP a chance to corner the government.
“The government has assured pilgrims that the pilgrimage will happen peacefully this year. We expect the police to do everything to maintain peace. If it fails to do so, the repercussions will be very harsh,” Kummanam Rajasekaran, former state president of BJP, said.
Desai, however, claimed that she cannot be stopped. “Neither the police, nor the government can stop us,” said Desai after arriving at Kochi.
The temple is under the management of Travancore Devaswom Board, a semi-autonomous body created to take over and manage all the temples that were being run by the Maharaja of Travancore when his state merged with India seventy years ago.
The controversies of last year had led to a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims at the shrine, which is estimated to see around 50 lakh visitors per year. However, the numbers have bounced back to normal levels this year.
N Vasu, president of the Board, said he wished that the Mandala pilgrimage at the forest shrine would be allowed to be continued peacefully.
Last year’s Mandala pilgrimage was disrupted majorly by women’s rights activists trying to enter the temple and devotees and their organizations trying to prevent them from doing so.
“It’s been progressing peacefully for the last 10 days. There have been more pilgrims this year than in previous years. We will not support any course of action that disrupts the peaceful atmosphere at the temple,” he said, adding that law and order was something that the Kerala Police was supposed to ensure.
Historians believe that the prohibition on the entry of young women into the shrine originates from the temple’s roots as a monastery.
The temple is dedicated to ‘Dharma Sastha’ or the teacher of moral laws — supposed to be another name for the Buddha.
Ayyappa is supposed to be a local warrior who lived in the area 300-400 years ago. It is believed that he renounced the world and joined the monastery as an ascetic and achieved spiritual greatness.