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Indian women enter Hindu temple, defying centuries-old ban

AFP | Indian police stand guard in front of the Sabarimala temple, after two women braved a ban, to enter on 2 January 2018

Two women braved a centuries-old ban on entering a Hindu temple in the Indian state of Kerala on Wednesday, sparking protests by conservative Hindu groups outraged by their visit.

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The two women were identified as Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44. A video from a police official posted online showed them in the temple with their heads covered.

Ammini later told a local television channel about their stealthy trek to the temple in the middle of the night.

“We reached Pampa, the main entry point to the temple at 1.30am and sought police protection [...]. We walked two hours, entered the temple around 3.30am and did the darshan," the woman said, referring to a ritual of standing in front of the temple's Hindu image.

The two women had tried and failed to enter the temple on December 24, and later approached police for help, an officer said.

"There was an elaborate arrangement for them to come just after the temple was opened early morning," said the officer, who declined to be identified fearing reprisals from protesters.

"The darkness gave them, and us, cover," the officer added.

Police were guarding the homes of the women after they left the temple and were prepared to let more women enter the temple, he said.

Legal battle

India's Supreme Court in September ordered the lifting of the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.

But the temple refused to abide by the ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit it had been blocked by thousands of devotees.

The Kerala state government, run by left-wing parties, has sought to allow women into the temple – a position that has drawn the criticism of India's two largest political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

'Temple authorities caught unawares'

The uproar has put the issue of religion, which can be highly contentious in India, squarely on the political agenda months before a general election, which is due by May.

Conservative Hindu groups say they believe women of menstruating age would defile the temple's inner shrine. The ban was imposed on all females between the ages of 10 and 50.

News channels reported the chief priest briefly shut the temple for "purification" rituals after the women visited.

Women's wall

News of the visit triggered protests in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, where police fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse a large crowd of demonstrators. Protests were reported in several other cities.

The possibility of more confrontations was raised by a call from an umbrella group of right-wing Hindu groups in Kerala, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, which is supported by the BJP, for a state-wide protest strike on Thursday.

The BJP’s leader in Kerala described the women's visit as "a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples", vowing to "support the struggles against the destruction of faith by the Communists".

Officials from the main opposition Congress party, in a rare alignment with the BJP, also called for protests.

But the state government defended its decision to protect the women as they went into the temple, saying it was a matter of civil rights.

On Tuesday it backed a protest by thousands of women, who formed a 620 km (385 mile) human chain, termed the "women's wall", in support of "gender equality" and access to the temple.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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