Two women forced to return from Sabarimala temple after protests

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Sabarimala (Kerala) : Frenzied protests and threats to close down the temple forced two women to return from Sabarimala on the third day of unrest on Friday as Kerala Police declined to escort a third woman to the hill shrine.

The two women, Kavitha and Rehna Fathima, made it almost 500 metres short of the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Ayyappa temple before being forced back by a wall of male devotees and priests who blocked their way.

But there was no violence and some 100 police personnel who were with them escorted them back to safety -- only to face criticism that the two women were activists, not devotees.

Kavitha is a Hyderabad-based journalist who was accompanied by a four-member crew and Fathima is a BSNL employee from Kochi.

It was around 6.45 a.m. when the two women and policemen led by Inspector General of Police S. Sreejith started the two-hour climb. Twenty policemen were in the front and 80 officers walked behind them. One of the two women wore anti-riot gear.

As they reached the temple precincts, around 30 employees and the temple Tantri halted their rituals and squatted in front of the hallowed 18 steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum singing Ayyappa hymns.

Hundreds of protesters lay on the road leading to the hilltop temple.

After Sreejith received a telephone call, he told the protesters that the government would not use force and asked them to relent.

"The two women also have their rights according to the Supreme Court directives. Please do not create any disturbances here," he said.

After an hour, Sreejith told the media that the Tantri had made it clear that he would be forced to close down the temple if there was any violation of tradition and faith -- with the women in the age group of 10-50 entering the shrine.

"We conveyed this to the two women and they decided to return, seeking protection till they reached home," the officer said.

Minister of Devasoms Kadakampally Surendran said the two women were actually activists. "It is our duty to protect the rights of devotees, not activists.

"Our request to women activists is not to do activism in hallowed places. The police should have been more cautious. They should have found out more about the women. The state government is duty bound to protect the rights of the devotees," he said.

In no time, Fathima's house in Kochi was damaged, apparently by some devotees.

BSNL denied it was in any way connected with her trip to Sabarimala.

Amid the turmoil, a third woman, who identified herself as Mary Sweety from Thiruvananthapuram district and now working in the Middle East, expressed a desire to proceed to the Sabarimala temple.

But soon a group of devotees surrounded her and started shouting Ayyappa slogans.

As Sweety insisted on making it to the temple, local police officials took her to a police station.

Kerala Governor P. Sathasivam summoned police chief Loknath Behra to his office and spoke to him about the overall situation.

Devasom Minister Surendran spoke to CPI-M Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.

BJP leader K. Surendran lashed out at the state government and Sreejith for allowing one of the woman to use police gear. "We warn the Kerala government not to forcibly impose the Supreme Court verdict."

The temple opened its doors on Wednesday for the first time since the September 28 Supreme Court verdict that allowed women from the 10-50 age group to enter the famed shrine.

On Thursday, there was a dawn-to-dusk shutdown across Kerala called by outfits owing loyalty to Hindu groups and the BJP.