Female activists in India were violently attacked by protesters and stopped by police as they attempted to make a pilgrimage to a Hindu temple which was controversially ordered to open its doors to women.
A group of seven women, led by the gender equality activist Trupti Desai, arrived at Cochin airport in the early hours of Tuesday to exercise their right to visit the holy Sabarimala temple, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
After encountering Hindu nationalist protesters, one of whom sprayed an activist in the face with chilli spray, resulting in her being taken to hospital, the seven women were warned by police that they were putting their lives at risk by continuing their journey. The women have insisted they will continue in their attempt to visit the temple.
Activist Trupti Desai with team of 6 other women in #Kochi , to enter #Sabarimala . Bindu ,who entered Sabarimala last time,alleges pepper /chilli spray sprayed at her face by one of the protesters. Right outside commissioner officer.Other women inside Commissioner office.@ndtv
— Sneha Koshy (@SnehaMKoshy) November 26, 2019
“This is about gender equality,” said Desai, speaking over the phone from the office of the deputy police commissioner in Kochi, where the women were temporarily given refuge for their own protection. “The constitution has given us the right to gender equality and a right to pray, and last year the supreme court ruled that women could enter, so they have no right to stop us going to Sabarimala temple.”
She added: “Even if I know I might die in this struggle, I will still not go back. I’m not afraid of losing my life, this is a fight that someone has to take on.”
Sabarimala temple has become one of the most polarising holy sites in India since the supreme court ruled in September that women of all ages should be allowed to enter. Previously the temple had banned women of childbearing age, between 10 and 50, said to be out of respect for Ayyappan, the celibate Hindu deity to which the temple is dedicated.
The ruling by the supreme court, which stated that “where a man can enter, a woman can also go. What applies to a man, applies to a woman”, was heralded as a rare landmark victory for women in India but has remained highly controversial with religious and nationalist groups openly opposed to women being allowed into the Hindu temple.
The ruling is now under appeal. The appeal case was recently moved to a bigger, seven-person supreme court bench, after the four-judge bench could not reach a decision. While last September’s supreme court verdict still stands, women have repeatedly been denied entry to the temple since it re-opened this month, and those who have tried to visit have endured harassment and violence. The government has also refused to offer police protection for women wishing to enter the shrine, describing it as “not a place for activism”.
Desai said news of their arrival had been leaked to the press and protesters, who were waiting when they arrived at Cochin airport at 4.30am on Tuesday. A group of protesters from the ruling BJP party, as well as from the rightwing Hindu nationalist group RSS and others from conservative religious groups, accosted their taxi as they drove into the city, ripping off the licence plates. The journey to the temple, which is on a mountaintop in the jungle, involves a long drive followed by a four-hour walk through a forest reserve.
One of the women, Bindu Ammini, was sprayed in the face with chilli spray by a protester after the group had gone to the police station to ask for protection. “The police didn’t do anything, they just looked on and watched,” said Desai.
She said they had explicitly been told by the deputy chief of police they should not continue to Sabarimala. “They said our lives are in danger if any of us try to visit the temple,” said Desai. “But we have told them that we will enter the temple as is our right, even if they don’t give us police protection. We will not go back.”
Desai, who is the founder of the Bhumata Brigade, an organisation dedicated to fighting injustice to women, has previously led similar protests calling for women to be allowed to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple, in Ahmednagar district.
“We are living in the 21st century, where women are working and are in power with men, but still we are following a custom which is 500 years old,” said Desai. “It is the duty of women like us who should take it in hand and change that mindset.”
The attempt by Desai and her fellow protesters to reach Sabarimala was denounced by Hindu activists. Pratheesh Viswanath, a volunteer at Sabarimala who has vowed to protect the temple from women and was among the protesters who accosted the group, tweeted: “The Hindu society is here standing like a mountain … no need to worry, our volunteers are there. We won’t allow any urban naxal to break Sabarimala’s sacred traditions.”
SJR Kumar, the state president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant rightwing Hindu organisation, told the Guardian that because the supreme court ruling was under appeal, it meant women had no right to enter Sabarimala. “They will not be coming in, so there is no problem,” he said.