India's main parties call for protests after women visit Hindu temple

by Reuters
Wednesday, 2 January 2019 09:25 GMT

Protesters hold a portrait of Hindu deity "Ayappa" as they take part in a rally called by various Hindu organisations after two women entered the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

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* Two women defy centuries-old ban to enter Hindu temple in Kerala

* BJP official says visit a "deep wound on the chest of devotees"

* Main opposition party, Congress, calls it "treachery"

* Priest briefly shuts hill temple for "purification" rituals 

By Jose Devasia and Neha Dasgupta

KOCHI/NEW DELHI, Jan 2 (Reuters) - Two women defied a centuries-old ban on entering a Hindu temple in India in the early hours of Wednesday, leading to calls for protests from India's two main political parties and raising fears of a backlash from conservative Hindu groups.

India's Supreme Court in September ordered the authorities to lift the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, in the southern state of Kerala, which draws millions of worshippers a year.

However, the temple refused to abide by the court ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit the temple had been blocked by thousands of devotees supporting the ban.

The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and it has sought to allow women into the temple - a position that has drawn the criticism of both of the main political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The uproar has put religion squarely on the political agenda months before a general election, which is due by May.

The Kerala state president of Modi's BJP described the visit to the temple by the two women as "a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples".

The party's state president, P.S Sreedharan Pillai, told TV channels the BJP would "support the struggles against the destruction of faith by the Communists".

"Let all the devotees come forward and protest this," he said.

Officials from the main opposition Congress party in the state, in a rare alignment with their main rival for power at the national level, the BJP, also called for protests.

"This is treachery ... The government will have to pay the price for the violation of the custom," K. Sudhakaran, vice-president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, said in a statement.

The women who entered the temple premises were in their 40s, according to Reuters partner ANI. The ban has been imposed on all women and girls between the ages of 10 and 50.

Conservative Hindu groups say they believe women of menstruating age would defile the temple's inner shrine. News channels reported the chief priest briefly shut the temple for "purification" rituals after the women visited.

Later, media reported that the temple had re-opened.

'POLICE PROTECTION'

A video from a police official posted online by ANI showed two women in the temple with their heads covered.

One of the women, who gave her first name as Bindu, 42, told a television channel about their stealthy trek to the temple in the middle of the night.

"We reached Pampa, the main entry point to the temple at 1.30 a.m. and sought police protection to enter the temple. We walked two hours, entered the temple around 3.30 a.m. and did the darshan," the woman said, referring to a ritual of standing in front of the temple's Hindu image.

The woman said she and the other woman would to back to their homes in other parts of Kerala.

The state government defended its decision to protect the women as they went into the temple, saying it was a matter of civil rights.

"I had earlier made it clear that the government will provide protection if any women come forward to enter the temple," said Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Vijayan told a news conference the women, who had previously tried to enter the temple but were blocked by devotees, faced no obstruction on Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear how the women managed to avoid devotees guarding the temple.

On Tuesday, the state government backed a protest by thousands of women, who formed a 620 km (385 mile) human chain, termed the "women's wall", in support of "gender equality" and access to the temple.

Modi, in an interview with ANI on Tuesday, indicated he felt that the temple issue was more about a religious tradition than gender equality.

Modi said there were temples where men were barred from entering.

(Reporting by Jose Devasia Editing by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel)

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