Sannidhanam: The Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala witnessed unprecedented protests on Sunday night after devotees were reportedly refused permission to halt at Malikappuram.
Devotees held Namajapa protests at Sannidhanam around 10.30 pm and initially said they would disperse after the temple shuts for the day. After peacefully joining in the hymn Harivarasam, they began to disperse.
However, the police then moved to arrest couple of people who led the protests. The move triggered more protests, with agitated devotees demanding the police arrest all of them.
The devotees had initially said they were ready to court arrest but later retracted. They then said after the Neyyabhishekam ritual which starts early in the morning they were ready to court arrest.
The police then forcefully moved the protesters and led them to Pamba. Sources said around 65 were taken into custody.
SP Pratheesh Kumar said that police tried to reason with the protesting devotees and did not do anything against the law. He cited the reason for the arrest as violation of prohibitory orders clamped there.
Protests outside CM's house
Soon after the devotees were arrested, a large number of BJP and RSS workers protested outside the official residence of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. They gathered in front of Cliff House, the CM's official residence at Nanthancode in Thiruvananthapuram.
Simultaneous protests were also held at various places across the state in Aranmula, Kochi, Kollam, Alapuzha, Ranni, Thodupuzha, Kaladi, Malappuram and Idukki among others.
BJP leader K Surendran, who was taken into preventive custody as he tried to proceed to the Lord Ayappa temple, was Sunday produced before a magistrate and remanded to 14-day judicial custody after he was charged with non-bailable offences.
Condemning the manner in which Surendran was arrested, Union Minister Alphons Kannamthanam said it was 'despicable' and described the police action as 'condemnable'.
"There is need to take a path of consensus on matters relating to Sabarimala,” he said in a Facebook post.
“Implementing things which were against people's interest had no place in democracy,” he said, adding the people's verdict was for five years and not life long.
BJP workers blocked traffic on the National Highways across the state protesting the arrest and remand of Surendran. In Vatakara, a KSRTC bus was stoned.
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan alleged the BJP's 'agenda' was to create violence.
The Congress, which deputed a three-member delegation to Sabarimala, accused the CPM-led state government of creating a 'terror-like atmosphere' in the name of security of the hill shrine.
The delegation comprising former state ministers Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Adoor Prakash and V S Sivakumar took stock of the situation in the temple complex.
Prakash slammed the state government and the board for not making required facilities for devotees at Sabarimala.
Spearheading a campaign against the Kerala government over the Sabarimala issue, BJP state unit chief P S Sreedharan Pillai alleged the state government was making the Ayyappa shrine 'a centre of dispute to destroy its uniqueness'.
Condemning the police action, he said BJP will extend all possible assistance to the protesters to protect the hill shrine from the 'hidden agenda of atheists'.
Facilities at temple town
Facing flak over inadequate facilities and severe restrictions for devotees at the temple complex, Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) chief A Padmakumar also said no unnecessary curbs would be there and the 'small issues' being faced now should be seen as "starting troubles".
Briefing reporters at Thiruvananthapuram after a meeting with DGP Loknath Behara and M V Jayarajan, the private secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, he said the devotees would be allowed to perform the Neyyabhishekam ritual from 03.15 am to 12.30 pm daily.
"The police, board or government will not take any step causing hardships to the pilgrims, but police would take action against those coming to Sabarimala with an intention to protest,” he said.
More parking facilities and bio-toilets will be provided at Nilakkal and Pamba, he said.
Meanwhile, the State Human Rights Commission observed there was gross violation of human rights of the devotees and directed authorities to ensure all necessary basic facilities for them and sought a report within two weeks.
More pilgrims from outside Kerala
The temple had opened Friday evening for the 64-day annual pilgrimage season as the stand-off continued over entry of menstrual age women into the shrine. So far, more pilgrims have arrived from other states than from within Kerala. On the second day of the Malayalam month 'Vrischikom', the pilgrims offered prayers at the shrine early Sunday. Though the devotees were relieved to get more time for Darshan due to less crowd, many were unhappy at not being allowed to spend some more time at Sannidhanam.
Devotees complained about long wait to get bus and the security screening. "We reached Nilakkal around 4 am. But we had to wait till 6 am to catch a bus to Pamba. Otherwise everything was fine for us. We had a good darshan," said Coimbatore resident Palaniswami, who was heading a group of 21 people. However, when PTI contacted the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) office at Pamba, they dismissed devotees' claims about delay in service and said several buses were running with vacant seats.
"Most people have apprehensions about the restrictions imposed by police. To top that, there was a hartal Saturday and today some parties are observing as a protest. All these reasons have resulted in less crowd at the Sannidhanam," a top Devaswom official said. The temple complex and nearby areas had witnessed protests by devotees when it was opened for monthly pujas for eight days in October and early this month against the LDF government's decision to implement the apex court verdict allowing women in the previously banned 10-50 age group to pray at the shrine.
So far, no women in the 10-50 age group has sought police protection to trek the holy hills, though over 800-odd young women have made online bookings for darshan.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, will file a petition in the Supreme Court Monday seeking more time to implement the court's September 28 verdict allowing women of all age groups to offer worship at the shrine.
(With inputs from agencies)