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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Temple protests reveal the tensions of today's India

The clash between tradition and freedom has formed a combustible mix in Kerala

Indian police disperse activists trying to burn an effigy of Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayai Vijayan, at a protest after two women entered the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple. AFP 
Indian police disperse activists trying to burn an effigy of Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayai Vijayan, at a protest after two women entered the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple. AFP 

In September, India’s Supreme Court lifted a ban on women praying in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, sparking violent protests. But a mob has for months held the upper hand, blocking paths up to the shrine and clashing with police. On Wednesday, that changed, as Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga entered the temple at dawn, becoming the first women to do so.

Predictably, their visit sparked fresh protests, particularly belligerent this time, during which one person died and hundreds were arrested. Today, the state is paralysed, with schools closed and public transport suspended. The sad episode demonstrates a clash between faith and the law that often rears its head in modern India.

For a century, women of childbearing age have been prohibited from entering the shrine, supposedly to prevent them from distracting the celibate deity, Lord Ayyappa.

These issues, as social as they are religious, are complex. For traditionalists, the women have launched an assault on the dogma to which they have devoted their lives. For others, they have bravely risked their personal safety for the rights of millions of women to worship freely, a day after roughly three million Indian women stood hand-in-hand in a 620km human chain demanding gender equality.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision that the ban violated constitutional rights to equality and worship is paramount.

Modern India is vast and extremely diverse, and while its cities grow and change, many of its rural communities have failed to keep up. The temple dispute echoes a wider view across parts of the country that menstruating women are impure and unclean, often resulting in cruel and degrading treatment.

Ultimately, it is an issue for Indian domestic politics to resolve. But Supreme Court decisions cannot be reversed by a baying mob or by grandstanding politicians. Because, as the British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie once remarked, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

Updated: January 3, 2019 07:30 PM

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