NEW DELHI/KOCHI, INDIA - One person was killed and at least 15 injured in violence that broke out in southern India’s Kerala state after two women defied traditionalists to enter one of Hinduism’s holiest temples, police said Thursday.
Clashes were reported across the state after the two activists, escorted by police, entered the Sabarimala temple in a surprise pre-dawn operation on Wednesday.
The Supreme Court in September overturned a decades-old ban on women of menstruating age — deemed as those between 10 and 50 — setting foot inside the gold-plated Sabarimala temple.
Several female activists, including the two women, have made unsuccessful attempts in the past to reach the temple since the order but have faced stiff resistance from thousands of devotees — both men and women — who see it as an attack on tradition.
“The person who died was part of a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) demonstration yesterday and got injured when some stones were hurled,” Kerala police spokesman Pramod Kumar said. “His injuries were serious, and he died late Wednesday night. At least 15 others were injured in incidents across the state.”
Local media reports said the demonstrators from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP were hit by stones from a local office of the state’s ruling Communist Party.
Kerala remained tense Thursday, and the police said additional forces had been deployed to prevent further violence from breaking out.
The police Wednesday used tear gas, stun grenades and a water cannon to control clashes between the rival groups, largely conservatives and cadres of the state’s ruling left-wing parties.
Journalists were also assaulted during the disturbances in the state’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, and nearby Kollam city.
The uproar has put the issue of religion, which can be highly contentious in India, squarely on the political agenda months before a general election, which is due by May.
The possibility of more confrontations was raised by a call from an umbrella group of right-wing Hindu groups in Kerala, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, which is supported by the BJP, for a state-wide protest strike on Thursday.
The BJP called for protesters to be peaceful.
Earlier, the Kerala state president of the BJP described the women’s visit 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.
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 it had reopened.
The two women, identified by police as Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44, had tried to go in on Dec. 24 and later approached police for help, an officer said.
“There was an elaborate arrangement for them to come just after the temple was opened early morning,” said the officer, who declined to be identified, fearing reprisals from protesters. “The darkness gave them, and us, cover.”
Police were guarding the homes of the women after they left the temple and were prepared to let more women enter the temple, he said.
A video from a police official posted online by ANI showed two women in the temple with their heads covered.
Ammini 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. … 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 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’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan.
Vijayan told a news conference the women faced no obstruction on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear how they 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.
September’s verdict by the Supreme Court was the latest progressive ruling from the court, with judges also overturning bans on gay sex and adultery last year.
In rare comments regarding the Sabarimala temple on Tuesday, Modi — running for a second term in elections later this year — appeared to support the ban, saying the matter was related to tradition.
“There are some temples which have their own traditions, where men can’t go — and men don’t go,” Modi told Indian media.
The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its ruling to allow women into the temple from Jan. 22.
Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and was formalized by the Kerala High Court in 1991.