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Protesters Evicted From 'Ground Zero', 16 Arrested as Sabarimala Opens Gates to Women Today

Although Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has assured that the government would not let anyone take law into their own hands, the state remains on tenterhooks amid threats of mass suicides and warnings of disruptions.

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Updated:October 17, 2018, 8:37 AM IST
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Protesters Evicted From 'Ground Zero', 16 Arrested as Sabarimala Opens Gates to Women Today
Women protesters check Sabarimala-bound vehicles at Nilackal on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
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Thiruvananthapuram: Police evicted protesters from Nilakkal, the main gateway to the Sabarimala hill shrine, on Wednesday as the base camp turned into a virtual ground zero ahead of the opening of temple gates for the first time since the Supreme Court allowed women of all age groups entry into the shrine.

Over 500 police personnel were deployed at the spot, which is around 23 km away from the shrine, early on Wednesday morning to remove protestors who had set up base at Nilakkal for the past 10 days, after they stopped cars with women inside from proceeding further. Over 500 cops each have also been posted at the Pamba and Sannidhanam.

Six people were also arrested during the crackdown on the protesters, leading to tension in the area as the police used force to disperse devotees opposing the entry of women into the hill shrine. Acting tough, the police also removed a makeshift shelter erected by a protesting group Sabarimala Achara Samrakshana Samiti.

Police said 10 people were arrested last night in connection with the attack on a woman from Tamil Nadu. The women and her husband, who were going to Sabarimala, were assaulted and prevented from proceeding further from Nilakkal.

The protesting group of devotees had been staging a sit-in chanting Ayyappa mantra in the shelter in protest against the Supreme Court order. The protesting people, who were less in numbers, ran from the spot when the police initiated action in the early hours Wednesday when they tried to block the buses from the key entry point to the temple.

Although Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has assured that the government would not let anyone take law into their own hands, the state remains on tenterhooks amid threats of mass suicides and warnings of disruptions.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, had on Tuesday made a last-ditch effort to defuse the tension but to no avail.

A meeting called by the board did not yield any result as the Pandalam royal family and other stakeholders walked out of the discussion over the TDB’s reluctance to file a review petition against the Supreme Court orders.

"It is very painful and we cannot agree. We wanted a decision on filing the review petition to be taken today itself, but the board said it can be discussed only at the next meeting of TDB on October 19," Shashikumar Varma, a member of the Pandalam royal family, said.

"We all wish that Sabarimala should not be made a war zone," Varma, the president of Pandalam Royal Palace Trust, told journalists after walking out of the meeting in a huff.

TDB president A Padmakumar, however, dismissed suggestions that the meeting was a "failure". "What they (stakeholders) wanted was to file the review petition now itself. But the Supreme Court is closed till October 22. They also wanted to maintain the status quo on the customs and traditions.

"As the Supreme Court has passed a verdict, what can the board do? But the board will continue to talk with them to resolve the issue," Padmakumar said. He said the October 19 meeting will take up the issue of the review petition.

As the highly emotive religious issue acquired political overtones, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan issued a stern warning to those who dared block devotees from entering the temple.

Police, too, said stringent action would be taken against anyone stopping pilgrims from going to Sabarimala. Issuing a set of guidelines, they said no vehicles would be allowed beyond Nilackal and devotees would have to take the KSRTC buses.

Declaring Pamba and Sannidhanam special security zones, police said no protest meetings or demonstrations would be allowed. Special patrolling will also be organised enroute in all adjoining districts to act against any illegal blocking on roads, they said.

A woman journalist named Ritu was one of those who was stopped by the protesting women devotees. Ritu claimed she was heading for the temple on assignment and had no intention of entering the shrine, something that could have offended the religious sensibilities of Ayyappa devotees.

“No woman belonging to the banned age group of 10-50 will be allowed to travel further from Nilackal and offer prayers at the shrine when it opens for the monthly pooja on Wednesday evening,” asserted a woman protester, even as a small police contingent looked the other way.

Television channels showed some college students, including young girls wearing black dresses, being ordered to get down a bus. “We will ensure security to all. Nobody will be allowed to take law into their hands. My government will not allow any violence in the name of Sabarimala,” Vijayan told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala,” he warned, and ruled out any rethink of his government's decision against seeking a review of the Supreme Court order. “We will go by what the Supreme Court says,” he asserted.

Kerala has witnessed a series of protests and prayer marches over the last few days over the government's decision to enforce the Supreme Court order.

The Shiv Sena recently warned of "mass suicides" if women of menstrual age were allowed into the temple. Some other organisations have said women and girls aged between 10 and 50 years will have to tread on them before entering the temple.

The TDB, meanwhile, covered a signboard at the base camp in Pamba, which said the entry of women of menstrual age into the temple was prohibited. Pamba is the base from where the trek to the shrine begins.
| Edited by: Aakarshuk Sarna
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