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'Looking at Their Faces Gave me the Shivers': A Woman Journalist Recounts the Violent Sabarimala Protests

The battleground called Sabarimala reeked of desperate patriarchy, misogyny and a total breakdown of law and order,with gender rights and women’s equality thrown out of the window.

Radhika Ramaswamy | CNN-News18

Updated:October 29, 2018, 4:24 PM IST
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Barely two months ago, I wrote a heartfelt account of how the devastating floods of Kerala brought together people cutting across caste and religion. I wrote about compassion, heroism and unity witnessed among people in the wake of an unprecedented calamity.

Kerala rose above the floods and evidently, set an example for the rest of the world. Humanity, I thought, was still alive. Until it died. It died when blind faith took over rationale. It died when communal politics took over secular fabric. It died when evil took over the good.

The battleground called Sabarimala reeked of desperate patriarchy, misogyny and a total breakdown of law and order.
Gender rights and women’s equality were thrown out of the window. Mayhem and madness became the order of the day. The hills echoed of religious hysteria. All in the name of Ayyappa.

I had set out with my crew to my home state to witness and cover the historic day; to see women enter Sabarimala. My father, an ardent Ayyappa devotee who regularly visits Sabarimala, cautioned me of an emotionally charged atmosphere.

We reached Nilakkal, the base camp of Sabarimala, on the morning of October 17, hours before temple doors were to open for the first time after the Supreme Court verdict. Ayyappa devotees, fringe groups, religious activists, pro-Hindu organisations had laid siege at various pockets. The self-proclaimed protectors of religion were chanting raising slogans and gradually unleashing a violent mob fury.

There was a battalion of cops deployed at Nilakkal where I was reporting from. We were providing live coverage of the protests in Nilakkal, which were gaining momentum with each passing hour. The protesters, soon, outnumbered the cops.
As the day was progressing, several women — devotees or otherwise — were being stopped and questioned at various entry points near Pamba and Nilakkal, the two base points till where women have always been allowed.

Angry protesters were beginning to block roads and pull out women from vehicles at the base camps. New rules were being imposed by the so-called custodians of faith. I decided to make my way towards Pamba to continue our coverage. As we were trying to head out from Nilakkal to go to Pamba, a group of protestors who saw me seated in the car stopped us.

They said women reporters are not allowed to proceed towards Pamba and asked me to get down. I said, “pakshe kodathi paranjallo povaam ennu (but the court has allowed us)”. Even before I could finish that sentence, all hell broke loose. There was a chorus Ayyappa chant “Swamiye Sharanamayappa” and then wrath was unleashed upon myself and my crew. The angry mob charged at us from all four sides as we sat inside our car.

They tried to pull me out of the car, threatened me with dire consequences, banged and kicked on our vehicle, pelted stones, smashed front and back windshields, broke the mirror, abused and harassed us. All I could hear were loud thuds and glass shattering around us and choicest of abuses being hurled at me. A bottle of water was thrown at me with force; I rolled up the window. Stones and other sharp objects crashed the windshields. Glass pieces were strewn all around us. We recorded about 20% of it.

Our video journalist Saravanan stopped rolling the camera when he saw one of the men pacing towards him with a boulder. On my right, the driver, Vinod was beaten with the wiper of our car. Things just went berserk. A helpless cop stood by, watching the brutality. He couldn’t take on the hundred plus-mob.
I started to plead. I kept saying we are leaving and don’t attack us. Looking at the faces of the enraged mob gave me the shivers. My whole life flashed in front of my eyes.

In those petrified moments, I called out to two more cops who were standing at a distance. They tried to help. We slowly started reversing the car. The mob wouldn’t budge. We somehow managed to drive backwards amidst the fury; I still don’t know how we escaped. The thuds, bangs and stone pelting continued till we got off that stretch. Those few minutes felt like an eternity.

We drove off as far as we could. It took a while for us to compose ourselves. I texted my father that I was fine before calling my office. Incidentally, my father was performing pooja in an Ayyappa temple in Cochin — maybe that’s why we drove away unscathed.

I then spoke to the shift head from the assignment team with whom I had been coordinating since morning during the coverage. I broke down while narrating to him what happened.

My senior colleagues and bosses in Delhi were making sure I was safe and sound. We aired the visuals of the attack through the day and so did our sister channels. We sought answers for the ghastly attack. I managed to register an FIR after consulting my organisation. The police was cooperative at the station but were intimidated by the might of the mob themselves; they were not equipped to fight them. At the police station, a senior inspector also came under the attack of the mob while trying to stop them. He said, “I’m sorry about what happened. We are unable to give you safe passage, even towards Pamba. We are helpless. They cannot be controlled.”

We were bombarded with calls from family, friends and colleagues enquiring about our safety and well-being. Our driver had his wailing child calling him and pleading with him to come back home. Many regional channels had flashed the video of the attack and photographs of the vandalised car. A few more female journalists came under attack on the same day. The violence spread like wildfire by that evening. On a day when the headline should have been “Women create history, enter Sabarimala”, it became “Angry mob attacks journalists, stops women from entering temple.” It was shameful.

As we were on our way towards Thiruvananthapuram, a group of people once again charged at us, threatened and harassed us when they saw our damaged vehicle. They had a ferocious “how-dare-you” look. Therefore, we couldn’t do too many pit-stops till the time we reached Thiruvananthapuram. It was appalling to see self-proclaimed custodians of faith being given a free rein to cause chaos and destruction. Although we continued the coverage from the capital, the incident gave me a few sleepless nights.

While many condemned the attack on media, I was asked all kinds of questions, not just from strangers but also from my fellow Malayali friends — why did you instigate a violent mob by talking about the court order? Was it a deliberate move by the channel to send female reporters and provoke the mob? Are you an anti-Hindu? Are you trying to divide the country and will you dare enter a mosque? I also became a target of some vicious trolls for some time.

Nobody sent female reporters deliberately. In most channels, correspondents in south India are largely women and those who know the language and area happen to be female reporters. That said, there were male reporters also who were present in large numbers at the base who also got attacked. No organisation wishes to put their reporters’ lives at risk. Safety has always been of utmost priority to media organisations and such unfortunate attacks are a part and parcel of our job for which it’s unfair to hold the organisation or the reporter responsible, especially when goons claiming to be devotees decide to take law into their hands and wreak havoc.

For those who attacked us and those who supported the violence, faith is clearly beyond the realm of reason or rules. Crowning success in literacy, matriarchal system and societal progress index that the state takes pride in seemed like a farce. It’s hard for many in Kerala to accept the SC verdict; they are finding logic in faith — that the celibate god Ayyappa will be distracted by the presence of an adolescent woman. And the political class exploiting and milking this faith to do their vote-bank politics, instead of ensuring free and safe passage of women to the temple as per law.

When floods ravaged Kerala, I saw heroes without capes standing tall, reaching out in the hour of crisis and today, villains under the garb of devotees unleashed fury and hatred, in the name of religion. In Kerala, humanity, definitely has different shades and the tragedy of Sabarimala proved that ‘religion is indeed the opiate of the masses’.

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