Union minster KJ Alphons on Monday said the Kerala government had turned the Sabarimala temple complex into a “war zone”, as fresh protests erupted near the hill shrine, PTI reported. At least 68 people have been taken into preventive custody for allegedly defying prohibitory orders.

On arriving at the Nilakkal base camp, an entry point to the shrine, Alphons said on Monday, “The devotees are not militants, they are pilgrims. What was the need to declare Section 144 [prohibitory orders under the Criminal Procedure Code] at Sabarimala?”

Alphons said the situation at the hill shrine was worse than the Emergency, reported ANI. “Devotees are not terrorists, why do they need 15,000 policemen here?” he asked. He questioned if the police were deployed in a bid to instil fear and panic, according to The Indian Express. “This is not Soviet Russia under Stalin, this is a democratic country,” he said. “Law and order is the responsibility of the state government.”

The temple opened on Friday evening for the third time after the Supreme Court in September overturned a ban on the entry of women of menstruating age. However, so far, no woman between the ages of 10 and 50 has managed to enter the temple due to massive protests. According to the police’s new rules that came into effect from Friday, no pilgrim will be allowed to proceed to the temple after 7 pm as the temple closes for the day at 10 pm. The state observed a shutdown on Saturday and protests erupted again on Sunday.

Defending the arrests, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday said those held were not Ayyappa devotees, according to PTI. “RSS workers were camping at Sannidhanam with a motive to create trouble,” he said. “The government cannot let anyone create trouble at Sabarimala.” The chief minister was speaking at a conference organised by the Kerala Union of Working Journalists.

Vijayan said his government was not taking any steps to help women enter the temple. But it was his government’s “constitutional responsibility” to provide security to women who want to offer prayers at the hill shrine, he added.

Leader of Opposition and Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala criticised the government for the police action against devotees. He asked if the state was under the rule of Adolf Hitler. “It is police high-handedness,” he told reporters in Kochi, according to Hindustan Times. “Innocent devotees who sought shelter at valiya nadappandhal [covered pathway] were also arrested. They all are not Sangh Parivar activists who reached there to create trouble.”

Bharatiya Janata Party state president PS Sreedharan Pillai termed the arrests cruel and sought a judicial investigation into them, reported The Indian Express.

Meanwhile, Hindu Aikya Vedi President KP Sasikala and her family reached the hill shrine on Monday morning to perform a ritual for her grandsons. Superintendent of Police Yatish Chandra served her a notice, asking her not to remain at the sannidhanam or the main temple complex beyond six hours.

Sasikala was arrested on Saturday for defying prohibitory orders and attempting to trek to the temple. She was later released on bail. Police claimed that Sasikala wanted to incite protests at the site, but she said she wanted to make the pilgrimage as she was above the age of 50.

‘Police excess cannot be permitted in Sabarimala’: Kerala HC

The Kerala High Court observed that police excess cannot be permitted at Sabarimala in order to implement the Supreme Court order, Live Law reported on Monday. The court said police personnel cannot be present at the nadappandhal (covered pathway).

“How can the police do such high-handedness in the name of the Supreme Court verdict?” the court asked, according to the Hindustan Times. “Why do you need 15,000 police in Sabarimala?”

The bench also said the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation had failed to provide regular services to Pamba, a town on the way to Sabarimala. The court said it may issue directions to permit the use of private vehicles if the state carrier fails to ensure regular services.