Congress President Rahul Gandhi Tuesday said women of all age groups should be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple, a remark that was at variance with the stand taken by his party's Kerala unit and which created ripples in the southern state.
Gandhi, however, acknowledged that his opinion is different from that of his party on the "emotional issue" after the Supreme Court last month lifted the ban on entry of women of menstrual age to the hilltop shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala.
"It is a very emotional issue and my personal thinking on the matter is different from my party's Kerala unit," Gandhi told a select group of journalists in Indore in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh.
"My personal viewpoint on the issue of Sabarimala temple is that men and women are equal. All women should get permission to enter into the temple. However, my party's Kerala unit's view is that it is a very emotional issue for both men and women, he said.
"Therefore, my personal opinion and my party's Kerala unit's thinking is different on the matter. My party represents the feeling of Kerala's natives on the issue," he added.
The remarks by Gandhi came on a day when hundreds of BJP workers staged a "hunger strike" in front of the state police chief's office in Thiruvananthapuram protesting the LDF government's decision to implement the Supreme Court order that allowed entry of girls and women of all age groups to the shrine and also the police crackdown on the protesters.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan welcomed Gandhi's statement and flayed the state unit saying it was 'unfortunate' that the Congress in the state was not in sync with its national leadership on the Sabarimala issue.
"It is unfortunate that the Congress in Kerala does not have the same opinion as that of the party's national leadership on the subject," he said in a Facebook post.
A section of Congress leaders was adopting a 'conservative' approach to the issue which would only help the BJP, the chief minister said.
Chennithala, the Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, asserted that the Congress and the party-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the state were with the believers of Lord Ayyappa who want the ban on entry of girls and women in the menstruating age group to be restored.
"AICC chief has given permission to take that stand," he told reporters in Kozhikode, adding Gandhi's views on Sabarimala were his personal opinion.
Chennithala also said there was no "confusion" in the party over the Sabarimala issue and that Gandhi had not disowned the state Congress's stand on the matter.
(With inputs from agencies.)