The Harthal called for by the Ayyappa Karma Samithi and other Right-Wing groups deteriorated into rampage and violence, as rioters went on a destruction spree. The death of a 52-year-old Ayyappa Karma Samithi member in a stone-pelting incident has precipitated things further. A ground report as Kerala State spirals into confusion over the temple-entry issue.
Crude bombs and stones were hurled, houses and shops were vandalised, state-run buses and police vehicles were damaged, policemen and medics on duty were attacked, pilgrims were stabbed and even media men and women covering the rampage were beaten up during Thursday’s dawn to dusk Harthal (shut down) called for by the Ayyappa Karma Samithi, backed by the Bharatiya Janatha Party’s (BJP) Kerala faction and other Right-Wing groups.
The State turned into a warzone while Right-Wing groups fought with the police in some places and Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led groups in other places.
Even though State-run buses operated a few schedules early in the morning, by 10am, they had to return to the stands following attacks from rioters. According to the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation officials, over a 100 buses were damaged by rioters, resulting in a loss of Rs.3.5cr.
Fearing the attacks, private buses, as usual, avoided operations.
While educational institutions remained closed, examinations and job interviews were postponed due to the Harthal.
As rioting started to spread across the State, the police began a crackdown under the name Operation Broken Window and by Thursday evening, 559 cases were filed, 745 were arrested and 628 were taken into custody under preventive detention.
The Harthal was announced by the Ayyappa Karma Samithi to protest the entry of two women into Sabarimala on Wednesday morning.
According to the Samithi, women entering Sabarimala is a breach of custom, and an act which was facilitated by the Communist government to belittle the beliefs of the Hindu community.
The BJP which backed the Harthal said on Wednesday, that State-wide protests will be held on Thursday and Friday as well.
Women aged between 10 and 50 were denied entry in Sabarimala due to the deity’s celibacy. In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India, that has been hearing the Sabarimala women’s entry case for 12 years, issued the final verdict stating that women are not inferior to men, and that the patriarchy of religion cannot be permitted to triumph over faith.
The 75-page verdict issued on 28 September 2018, read that biological or physiological reasons cannot be accepted in freedom for faith.
“Religion is basically a way of life; however, certain practices create incongruities,” the verdict added.
The Supreme Court observed that the custom of barring women was in violation of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship.
The petition that led to this verdict was filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association.
Unfortunately, despite the Supreme Court verdict, women who tried to enter the Sabarimala shrine were pushed back by pro-Rightist Hindu pilgrims.
However, on Wednesday, Bindu Ammini, a resident of Koyilandy in Kozhikode district, and Kanakadurga, a native of Angadipuram in Malappuram district, both women in their mid-40s, entered the temple with police escort at around 3:45 am.
By entering the temple, they scripted history, irking the Right-Wing groups in the State.
Following the visit of the two women, the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple was closed from 10:30am to 11:30am to carry out ‘purification’ rituals.
The closure of the temple for an hour by the chief priest irked the state government.
Citing it as a contempt of court, the government approached the Supreme Court on Thursday itself.
However, the court didn’t hear the petition immediately.
The court said that they would hear the petition with other pleas on January 22, 2019.
There are around 48 petitions seeking review of the judgement and they were filed following the recent violent protests in favour and against the verdict.
And by Wednesday afternoon, road blocks by the Right-Wing groups had started in many places.
Later in the evening, the BJP and the CPM workers clashed for hours in front of the government secretariat building in Thiruvananthapuram, bring the capital to a standstill.
Press reporters who were covering the clashes were heckled and beaten up too.
Many television channels claimed that rioters damaged costly equipment.
According to the myth behind Sabarimala, the Royals, share a paternal relationship with the Sabarimala deity. They reside in Pandalam, a small town which is 100km far from Thiruvananthapuram.
Pandalam has been the epicentre of protests since the Supreme Court verdict on women’s entry, Chandran Unnithan, a 52-year-old Ayyappa Karma Samithi member, was injured in stone pelting.
Later in the night, Unnithan succumbed to his injuries.
The death report issued by a private hospital where he passed away stated that Unnithan was brought in with severe bleeding, but suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
However, later on Thursday evening, the media quoting a preliminary post-mortem report, claimed that he died due to the injuries on his head, suffered in stone pelting.
Unnithan’s death fuelled further violence in the state.
On Thursday morning itself, the state was hit by violent protests. Businessmen who opened their shops were forced to pull down the shutters. In Kozhikode, the tussle between rioters and shop owners turned violent.
In Thrissur, three BJP workers were stabbed during a clash with workers of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of Popular Front of India, a militant Islamic outfit.
BJP workers were stabbed when they forced SDPI workers to shut down their shop.
Party offices of both the CPM and the BJP were destroyed across the state by rival groups.
Police had to fire teargas at several places to disperse the rioters. In Edappal, a town in Malappuram, Right-Wing groups who came on bike to impose Harthal were chased away by locals.
The video of locals chasing away the rioters became viral on social media.
And on Thursday afternoon, following the attacks on journalists, the media body boycotted the BJP state leaders’ press conference.
The Kerala Traders Association president T Nasarudheen said that rioters targeted shops specifically because they had declared in the end of 2018, that 2019 would be a Harthal-free year.
“We are suffering huge losses due to several reasons to do with the economy. In addition to that, political Harthals are worsening the situation. So, we decided to declare 2019 a Harthal-free year. But it seems, rioters wanted to teach us a lesson,” Nasarudheen.
In 2018, there were 98 local and state-wide Harthals in Kerala.
Out of the 98, the Bharatiya Janatha Party and affiliated outfits had observed 31, the Congress led-front, 23, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led front had observed 17. The rest, 26 were organised by people, trade unions, trade groups and other small groups.
And in 2017, there were 120 Harthals. Other than the 100 organised by political parties, 20 were organised by people, trade unions, trade groups and other small groups.
In 2017, the BJP and affiliated outfits had declared 47 Harthals, the Congress-led front 32 and the Left observed 21.
According to Cochin Chamber of Commerce officials, a state-wide Harthal would eat up Rs.900cr from the State GDP, which is around Rs,7 lakh crores.
During the last three months of 2018, BJP had observed six Harthals to protest against different issues on Sabarimala women’s entry.
In 1997, a full bench of the Kerala high court banned bandhs. The Supreme Court shot down the then Left government’s petition to get the order reversed.
Bandhs were promptly renamed ‘Harthals’ to get around the law.
In 2000, the Kerala high court ruled that the enforcement of a Harthal by “force, intimidation – physical or mental – and coercion” was unconstitutional. But this has not discouraged Kerala’s politicians.
Thursday’s Harthal was the first in 2019.
Meanwhile, a fresh confusion has erupted after news spread that a 46-year-old Sri Lankan woman entered the Sabarimala shrine and worshipped the deity on Thursday night.
Though reports quoting police sources saying that the woman did enter the shrine, she herself has denied this.
The woman identified as Sasikala, daughter of Asok Kumaran, born in 1972, reached Sabarimala on Thursday night with her family.
Both The Hindu and Times of India said that the woman, accompanied by plain-clothed police officers, prayed at the temple and went back to Pamba smoothly.
According to The Hindu, ‘Sasikala had walked up the “18 Holy Steps” without any hindrance and offered her prayers at the sanctum.’
However, Sasikala told TV channels stationed at Pamba that she did not worship and the police had sent her back.
“I am a devotee. I wanted to pray, I had completed the 48-day (penance). Who are they to send me back?” Sasikala can be heard asking the cameras.
On Thursday, BJP MP V Muraleedharan had submitted a plea to the Central Home Minister Rajnath Singh, to probe the CPI (ML) connections of Kanakadurga and Bindu, and other issues related to Sabarimala women’s entry.