KOCHI/NEW DELHI: Conservative Hindu groups forced India’s southern state of Kerala to a standstill on Thursday as they protested against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter a Hindu temple the day before.
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.
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 it had been blocked by thousands of devotees.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning two women were escorted by police into the temple through a side gate, catching the devotees off guard.
Protests against the women entering the temple erupted quickly. A woman police constable was attacked and molested by five protesters in one of the districts near Kochi on Wednesday, said police, while a protester died during a stone pelting incident in a southern district of the state.
On Thursday, protesters were seen marching toward the main city junction to stage a sit-in protest, shouting slogans and waving flags, with streets deserted.
The protests remained largely peaceful on Thursday, Vijay Sakhare Inspector General of Police Kochi Range told Reuters.
“We arrested more than 600 people on Wednesday from Kochi and four other adjoining districts and took nearly 300 into preventive custody,” Sakhare said, and police were ready to offer protection to those who wanted to conduct routine business on Thursday.
“Some protesters may turn violent such as stone-throwing or blocking roads and we are armed with riot gear and have teargas and water cannons,” he said.
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 criticism from both of India’s main political parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress.