In southern India, protests erupted after two women entered one of Hinduism’s holiest temples defying Hindu devotees that have blocked women from entering the shrine since the Supreme Court overturned a centuries-old ban.
Their entry was termed “historic”, but angry protesters denounced it as a “conspiracy”, reigniting a controversy that has raged since the top court said women between the age of 10 and 50 must also be allowed to pray at the temple.
The women, in their 40s, entered the Sabarimala hilltop temple in Kerala before dawn Wednesday under police escort away from the glare of other devotees or television cameras. Women of menstruating age were not allowed in the shrine because the deity is believed to be a celibate.
As news of their entry spread, Hindu groups angered by what they called “violation of temple customs” led street protests across the state. In the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, police used water canons and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Meanwhile, priests shut down the temple briefly to conduct “purification” rituals after their entry.
A dozen women who had attempted to enter the temple after the top court’s ruling in September could not do so as they were heckled by hundreds of belligerent devotees who had camped on the approach roads to the temple.
The women’s entry was facilitated by the state’s left-wing government, which has said it will implement the court ruling.
Chief minister of Kerala state, Pinarayi Vijayan, told reporters, “I had earlier made it clear that the government will provide protection if any women come forward to enter the temple.”
In a show of solidarity against gender discrimination Tuesday, millions of women formed a human chain more than 600 kilometers (375 miles) long, from Kasargod in the northern part of the state to Thiruvananthapuram, the southernmost city and the state capital.
An activist leading the fight against the Supreme Court decision, Rahul Easwar, called the entry by the two women “a midnight drama carried out by the atheist [state] government.”
The Sabarimala temple has become a flashpoint since the ruling. While liberals see it as a progressive ruling that ensures gender justice, traditionalists have vowed not to let women enter, saying that courts cannot interfere with matters of faith.
In an interview aired on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi weighed in on the Sabarimala issue calling it a matter of “tradition” and not gender equality. He pointed to one dissenting judge on the five-judge bench who had said in her judgement that courts must not interfere with issues concerning "deep religious sentiments."
The Sabarimala controversy is acquiring political overtones as national elections approach and is likely to gain momentum as right-wing Hindu groups vow to intensify protests in the southern state.
Political analysts say parties like Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party see it is an issue around which to mobilize Hindu sentiment. The party’s state president, P.S Sreedharan Pillai, has told reporters the BJP would “support the struggles against the destruction of faith."
The issue has become deeply polarizing in Kerala, considered to be one of India’s most progressive states. In a rally backed by the state government, thousands of women formed a human chain across the state on Tuesday to demonstrate their support for gender equality.
The Supreme Court is due to hear a petition that has challenged its ruling on the temple later this month.