The Sabarimala temple in Kerala closed its doors on Monday without any woman between the ages of 10 and 50 breaching its walls. On September 28, the Supreme Court had struck down a ban on the entry of women of menstrual age, declaring it unconstitutional. But the last week has seen protests and disgraceful scenes of mobs heckling women, both worshippers trying to pray at the temple and journalists covering what could have been a historic occasion. The tussle over the entry of women into Sabarimala has been posited as a clash between tradition and modernity. While some have criticised a modernity imposed top down from the courts, it is not clear why tradition should take to the streets in an attempt to bully women away.

The ban on women in Sabarimala stems from the belief that they must be kept away from the temple’s celibate god, Ayyappa. It is a custom of dubious origin, and many have suggested that it was only enforced militantly from the latter half of the 20th century. Even if it dated back to ancient times, the Supreme Court’s majority verdict stemmed from unimpeachable concerns about equal rights to worship. But critics argue that such decisions lead to dangerous judicial encroachment in the religious domain, that the court erred by not recognising the worshippers of Ayyappa as a separate denomination. They point to the dissenting judgement, written by Justice Indu Malhotra, who asserted that it would “open the floodgates” to petitions questioning religious practices, even when the petitioner was not of that faith or denomination. The danger is particularly acute, this judgement says, when it comes to questioning the practices of minorities. Reform should come from within social and religious institutions, and not from the court, the critics argue.

Point taken. The court order has indeed ignited protests from a wide swathe of the public in Kerala, a response that the state government was unable or unwilling to anticipate. But at the vanguard of the protests are the Pandalam royal family and Sabarimala priests, used to having their say in how rituals at the temple are to be conducted, backed by Hindutva organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Indeed, many have seen the Sabarimala fracas as a crucial opening for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala, with the Sangh laying the ground. Taking up the matter with alacrity on October 18, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh president Mohan Bhagwat termed the Supreme Court judgement as one of the “repeated and brazen onslaughts on symbols” of the Hindu faith, feeding into the saffron rhetoric of a majority under threat. The Congress, not to be left behind, joined the protests after the Nair Service Society, a caste-based organisation with great political clout, threw its weight behind them. Such organisations reportedly mobilised a large number of women to agitate for their cause.

The composition of the protests raises questions about their motivations. It also raises the question of who exactly is empowered to speak for a community. Kerala’s devaswom (temple trusts) minister, Kadakampally Surendran, has argued that thousands of women do want to enter the temple. Nevertheless, if the leaders of the protests are so agitated about the verdict, they could join the clutch of review petitions being filed in the Supreme Court. They could make their arguments through more legitimate channels than tactics that smell like misogynist, majoritarian bullying.