Hindu hardliners defy court order to stop women entering temple

NILAKKAL, India (Reuters) - Conservative Hindu groups prevented women from entering an Indian hill temple on Wednesday, in defiance of India’s top court which says a centuries-long ban at the holy site is illegal.

Kerala’s industry minister E.P. Jayarajan told reporters that 10 journalists, five devotees and 15 police officers were attacked by protesters and 10 buses were damaged. Police have registered cases against more than 50 people, local media reported.

For centuries, the Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has banned women or girls older than 10, but that was judged illegal by India’s Supreme Court which ruled last month that it infringed the right to worship.

Kerala’s Communist government pledged to uphold the ruling and deployed some 500 police, including 100 women officers, to the site.

“Nobody will be allowed to prevent anybody. We will do everything possible to implement the law of the land,” said Inspector General of Police Manoj Abraham. “None will be allowed to take law into their hands.”

But while thousands of bare-chested men entered the temple with offerings of tumeric and incense when it opened at 5 p.m. (1130 GMT) for the first time since the court decision, there were no signs of any women going in.

Footage from CNN NEWS 18 showed police chasing protesters through dense forest near Nilakkal, the main entry point to the temple, which is about 18 km (11 miles) further away. The protesters had been throwing stones, the channel reported.

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P.K. Sanjeev, Dharma Sena, one of the main groups organizing the protests, said they were happy women had been prevented from entering.

“We will not be deterred by the police high-handedness and will continue with the protests,” he told Reuters.

Hardline Hindu groups have threatened to commit mass suicide to prevent women from going to the temple, in what has become a focal point for the debate on women’s rights in India.

The groups, that include Shiv Sena, a former ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, say the prohibition on women “of menstrual age” is required to appease the temple’s chief deity, Ayyappan, depicted as a yoga-practising god considered eternally celibate by followers.

Kerala’s government said it would impose an emergency law for two days starting on Thursday, barring groups of more than four people assembling within a 30 km radius from the temple

Kerala’s tourism minister K. Surendran appealed to protesters not to “convert this holy land into a battlefield”.

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A family of four from Andhra Pradesh state, including at least one woman, were shielded by police after protesters shouting slogans prevented them from reaching the temple.

Protesters smashed the windows of a car carrying a female journalist from CNN NEWS 18, footage from the channel showed.

“It was shocking that officers were there doing nothing,” the reporter, Radhika Ramaswamy, said. “Protesters had free rein, attacking our vehicle.”

Saritha Balan, a journalist from The News Minute website, was kicked while accompanying devotees trying to access the site, she told Indian TV. Camera crews from several other channels had their vehicles vandalized.

Pilgrims have for centuries visited the Sabarimala temple, in a remote tiger reserve in the Western Ghats mountain range.

Many of those visiting the site take a vow of celibacy for 41 days before beginning a trek through the mountains to the temple, located around 3,000 feet (900 metres) above sea level, according to the temple’s website.

Reporting by Jose Devasia in NILAKKAL, additional reporting by Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Robin Pomeroy