BJP intensified its agitation over the Sabarimala issue by staging a day-long fast here Tuesday even as remarks of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi favouring entry of all women into the Lord Ayyappa temple contrary to Kerala unit's stand created ripples in the state. Hundreds of BJP workers staged the "hunger strike" in front of the state police chief's office protesting the LDF government's move to implement the Supreme Court order lifting the ban on entry of menstrual age women into the Sabarimala shrine and also the police crackdown on the protesters.
BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai led the agitation while party cadres also took out marches to offices of the Superintendents of Police in all district headquarters to condemn the government for arresting over 3,000 people in connection with the protests earlier this month. Speaking to journalists in Indore, Gandhi welcomed "at personal level" the Supreme Court order but conceded his views were different from those of his party's Kerala unit. Seizing the opportunity, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan welcomed Gandhi's statement and flayed the state unit saying it was 'unfortunate' that the Congress in Kerala was not in sync with its national leadership on the issue.
Senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said there was no "confusion" in the party over the issue and Gandhi had not disowned the state Congress's stand on Sabarimala. Addressing the BJP workers here, Pillai alleged the CPI(M)-led LDF government was trying to 'destroy' the hill shrine by using police force. The government was continuing its crackdown against Ayyappa devotees and as many as 3,742 people had been arrested till Tuesday, he said.
"The attempt of the atheists to destroy the Lord Ayyappa temple and defame it for the last 50 years is not going to succeed," he said. In an embarrassment to the CPI(M), veteran Marxist leader and former LDF convenor M M Lawrence's grandson took part in the BJP's agitation. BJP national president Amit Shah, who was in Kerala on October 27, had extended the party's full support to those protesting the entry of women of all ages into the shrine. The hill temple had witnessed high drama between October 17 and 22 when it was open for monthly puja as around a dozen women in the 'barred' 10-50 age group were prevented by the protesting devotees from reaching it.
The BJP has also announced it would take out a 'Rath Yatra' from Kasaragod to Pathanamthitta district, where the Sabarimala temple is located, from November 8 to 13 to "save the customs and traditions" of the hill shrine. At Indore, Gandhi said that in his view men and women were equal and women of all age groups should be allowed entry into the shrine. "My opinion is different from that of my party on this issue. My party there represents the feelings of the local people of Kerala," he said. Reacting to this, Vijayan said the statement had once again made it clear that Gandhi has the same opinion as that of the AICC that had hailed the apex court verdict as historic.
"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.
"AICC chief has given permission to take that stand," he told reporters in Kozhikode, adding Gandhi's views on Sabarimala were his personal opinion. Meanwhile, Police Tuesday opened an online booking service for devotees to have darshan at Sabarimala during the annual three-month-long pilgrim season beginning on November 17. The online booking is part of the police force's crowd control plans, official sources said. Devotees can select the date and time of darshan from the calendar displayed on the website.
Those who book online will also get the to-and-fro tickets of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses, which operate services from Nilackal, a base camp, to Pamba on the foothills of Sabarimala, police said. President of Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the shrine, A.Padmakumar said arrangements for the upcoming pilgrim season were progressing well. Police have planned to beef up security in and around Sabarimala temple and the base camps when the shrine opens for a day on November 5 for a special puja.
(With inputs from agencies.)