As the Sabarimala temple in Kerala opened its doors to women of all ages for the first time on Wednesday, protests marked the occasion in Nilakkal, an entry point to the shrine. The violence was reminiscent of an agitation against the construction of a church near a Shiva temple in the same area in 1982.

The 1982 agitation against the church was led by the Sangh Parivar, and spurred its growth in Kerala, especially in some southern pockets. The same Sangh Parivar – along with several other Hindu organisations – was behind Wednesday’s protests against the Supreme Court’s September 28 verdict overturning the temple’s entry ban on women of menstruating age. The hilltop shrine is dedicated to Ayyappa, who is believed to be a “naishtika brahmachari” or eternal celibate. This fact, and the belief among many that menstruating women are impure, had led to restrictions on the entry of women. The protestors were also angered by the decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Kerala government not to seek a review of the court verdict.

Despite the state government’s assurance that it would implement the court order in letter and spirit, no woman between the ages of 10 and 50 entered Sabarimala on Wednesday. Instead, mobs attacked journalists, including women reporters, damaging their cameras and vehicles. The police lathi-charged the protestors in an attempt to disperse them. The violence prompted the Pathanamthitta district administration to impose prohibitory orders on Thursday in Nilakkal and three others places – Pamba, Elavunkal and Sannidhanam. The Sangh Parivar, for its part, called for a state-wide 24-hour bandh against what it described as police brutality against protestors.

Nilakkal is 23 km from Sabarimala. Here, protestors under the banner of the Sabarimala Achara Samrakshana Samithi (Committee to Protect Tradition and Customs at Sabarimala) have gathered in a tent, reciting prayers to Ayyappa. On Tuesday, the day before the temple was to open for the five-day monthly puja, they had stopped vehicles transporting pilgrims to ensure that there were no women inside. On Wednesday, they moved their protest to the entrance of the Nilakkal Mahadeva Temple, a move seemingly calculated to evoke memories of the first major agitation organised by the Sangh Parivar in Kerala over three decades ago in an attempt to create a Hindu vote bank.

KP Sasikala of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, which is part of the Sangh Parivar, addresses protestors in Nilakkal on Wednesday. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)
KP Sasikala of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, which is part of the Sangh Parivar, addresses protestors in Nilakkal on Wednesday. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)

The 1982 agitation

The agitation in 1982 against the Congress-led government’s decision to permit a church to be built in Nilakkal was led by Kummanam Rajasekharan, the current governor of Mizoram, who was then Kerala general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The episode started with some members of the Catholic Church claiming to have unearthed a stone cross 200 metres from the Mahadeva Temple. Later, some Catholics built a hut at the site and started praying there. They claimed that a church built by Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, had stood there centuries ago.

To counter the Church’s claims, Hindu residents organised a mammoth meeting in Kochi under the aegis of the Sangh Parivar. It was called the Vishal Hindu Sammelan. The Church, meanwhile, set up the Nilakkal Action Council to put pressure on the government to allow it to build a church.

On May 19, 1982, the government sanctioned a hectare plot of land 4 km away from the temple for the Catholic community to build a church. To protest this, the Sangh Parivar defied prohibitory orders to organise marches in Thiruvananthapuram. More than 1,000 members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were arrested.

Rajashekaran, the leader of the agitation, described the church in Nilakkal as a symbol of “government-sponsored communalism”. “The government sacrificed Hindus’ interests to get Christian votes,” he was quoted as saying by ucanews.com, a website about Catholic matters.

Protestors gather at the Mahadeva temple in Nilakkal on Wednesday. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)
Protestors gather at the Mahadeva temple in Nilakkal on Wednesday. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)

‘BJP will reap dividends’

The current protests by Ayyappa devotees are similar to the 1982 agitation and will have the same impact, said Bharatiya Janata Party’s state general secretary MT Ramesh. “The 1982 agitations gave a big boost to the Sangh Parivar in Kerala,” he told Scroll.in. “It is an undisputed fact. The current protests are much more intense. We can see Hindu awakening in Kerala now. [The] BJP will definitely try to capitalise on this politically.”

However, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, may find it difficult to justify its position on the protests against the entry of women at Sabarimala.

When the Supreme Court announced its verdict, the Sangh had initially supported it. After all, the decision was in line with the Sangh’s position that women should be allowed into temples. The RSS state secretary P Gopalankutty had said the Sangh would honour the court’s decision and that all devotees must have equal rights to worship in a temple, irrespective of caste and gender. Kerala BJP president PS Sreedharan Pillai, too, had said his party would not support discrimination against women in temples.

However, as the protests against the Supreme Court order and the Left government’s decision to implement it started drawing huge crowds in Kerala, the Sangh changed its position. On October 3, Joshi said Sabarimala was a matter of tradition and faith for millions of devotees, including women, whose “sentiments cannot be ignored” – while also maintaining that the Supreme Court judgement must be respected.

The BJP’s Ramesh explained that this did not mean that there were differences within the Sangh Parivar. “We are fighting a united battle against the Left government,” he said.