KOCHI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Two women defied a centuries-old ban on entering a Hindu temple in India in the early hours yesterday, leading to calls for protests from India’s two main political parties and raising fears of a backlash from conservative Hindu groups.
India’s Supreme Court in September ordered the authorities to lift the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, in the southern state of Kerala, which draws millions of worshippers a year.
However, the temple refused to abide by the court ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit the temple had been blocked by thousands of devotees supporting the ban.
The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and it has sought to allow women into the temple – a position that has drawn the criticism of both of the main political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The uproar has put religion squarely on the political agenda months before a general election, which is due by May.
The Kerala state president of Modi’s BJP described the visit to the temple by the two women as “a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples”.
The women who entered the temple premises were in their 40s, according to Reuters partner ANI. The ban has been imposed on all women and girls between the ages of 10 and 50 on grounds that women of menstruating age would defile the temple’s inner shrine.
The state government defended its decision to protect the women as they went into the temple, saying it was a matter of civil rights.
“I had earlier made it clear that the government will provide protection if any women come forward to enter the temple,” said Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
On Tuesday, the state government backed a protest by thousands of women, who formed a 620 km human chain, termed the “women’s wall”, in support of “gender equality” and access to the temple.
Mr Modi, in an interview with ANI on Tuesday, indicated he felt that the temple issue was more about a religious tradition than gender equality.
Mr Modi said there were temples where men were barred from entering.