Religiously fueled protests escalated in the Indian state of Kerala on Wednesday, with police charging Hindu worshipers with batons and using tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to disperse rioters in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.
Conservative Hindus gathered in front of the state parliament after two women entered the nearby temple of Sabarimala. The sanctuary is dedicated to the god of growth and celibacy, Ayyappa, and women of menstruating age are traditionally not allowed to enter the grounds.
The authorities legalized the traditional ban in 1972, but the move was revoked by India’s Supreme Court in September. The decision prompted outrage among the Hindu community. Hindu worshipers have staged repeated protests and pledged to keep females between ages of 10 and 50 out of the premises. A preacher who supported lifting the ban was targeted in an arson attack in October.
It was not immediately clear how the two women managed to evade the traditionalists early on Wednesday.
One of the female visitors, who said her name was Bindu, told a TV channel that she and her associate were given “police protection” for their pre-dawn visit.
“We walked two hours, entered the temple around 3.30 a.m. and did the darshan,” the woman said, referring to a Hindu religious ritual of looking at an image of a deity.
Local media reported that the temple had been briefly closed for “purification” ritual after the intrusion was discovered.
Kerala’s state government defended their decision to protect the women as a matter of civil rights.
The religious conflict has been fueling a political standoff between the far-left parties ruling Kerala and the right-wing nationalist BJP which holds power at the federal level.
The head of the BJP party in Kerala, P.S Sreedharan Pillai, slammed the women’s visit as a “conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples.”
He called on “all the devotees” to come forward and protest, saying that his party would “support the struggles against the destruction of faith by the Communists.”
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claimed the issue of the Sabarimala temple was more about religious tradition than gender equality. He pointed to other Hindu temples and ceremonies where men are not allowed to attend.On the same day, thousands of women took part in the state-wide protest by forming a 620 kilometer (385 mile) human chain, termed the “women’s wall,” calling for gender equality and access to the Ayyappa temple.