Conservative Hindu groups forced India's southern state of Kerala to a standstill yesterday as they protested against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter a Hindu temple.
About 400 protesters, including some women, took to the streets of Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in the early morning, backed by officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.
Many stores and other small businesses were shut after the Hindu groups called for a state-wide stoppage. Most bus services were halted and taxis were refusing to take passengers as some drivers said they feared they would be attacked.
The state's Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, told reporters that women were the target of some attacks by protesters, including women journalists covering the events. Vijayan told reporters yesterday that 39 police officers were injured while trying to control the protesters, who also damaged 79 state-run buses in the state. The Press Trust of India news agency reported that a 55-year-old passerby who was seriously injured in rock throwing by protesters in Pandalam a town died later Wednesday.
India's Supreme Court in September ordered the lifting of the ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala hill temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.
The temple has refused to abide by the ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit have been blocked by thousands of devotees. In the early hours of Wednesday, two women were escorted by police into the temple through a side gate without being spotted by devotees guarding the temple. The women offered prayers from the back of the crowd from the top of a staircase where they could see the deity below without drawing the attention of the priest or other devotees, a police official familiar with the operation said. He did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. "Surprise was the biggest element here," the official said.
Protests erupted soon afterwards. A woman police constable was attacked and molested by five protesters in one of the districts near Kochi on Wednesday, while a protester was pelted with stones and killed in a southern district of the state, police said.
On Thursday, protesters were seen marching towards the main city junction to stage a sit-in protest, shouting slogans and waving flags, with streets deserted. In several places protesters damaged state transport buses, V.P. Pramod Kumar, deputy director, public relations, state police headquarters, told Reuters.
The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and has sought to allow women into the temple - a position that has drawn criticism from both of India's main political parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress.