Women at center of India temple storm speak out

A 4-to-1 majority of Supreme Court judges said the rule was unconstitutional, setting off what has become an increasingly fractious national debate about gender, religion and the limits of the law.

Several other women have attempted to enter the temple since the ruling. But they’ve been blocked by angry mobs.

Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga’s entry was like a bolt of electricity: It invigorated those who say that issue boils down to gender equality in an open, democratic society. And it angered those who say that the courts have no business intervening in what they see as a matter of faith.

As news of their visit spread, deadly protests broke out across Kerala, with at least one man dying in the violence. Hundreds were arrested. Facing threats from orthodox protestors, Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga went into hiding.

“I never expected this situation. Street violence, one person killed. I never expected this,” Kanakadurga tells CNN in an interview at one of the many the safe houses they’ve stayed in since visiting the temple.

A group of volunteers — men and women who back the court order — help them move from place to place. Keeping them on the move, one of the volunteers said, keeps them safe. (CNN is not identifying the volunteers for safety reasons).

Is the Kerala temple battle about gender, law or religion? Unfortunately, all three

CNN had arranged to meet the women at a secret rendezvous point. Immediately after arriving, however, the vehicle they are traveling in disappears down the road — the women, we’re told, are moving to a new hideout. Only hours later, after being picked up by a volunteer, driving to a second location, and then to a third, do we meet them for our interview.

They’ve been away from home, away from their families, their kids, their places of work, for days, and it’s unclear when they can return to normal life. But they say that, given the chance, they would return to the temple in a heartbeat.

“I am not worried about my safety, but (the) safety of society,” Bindu Ammini, who says she made the pilgrimage not because she’s a believer but because she backs the Supreme Court order, tells CNN. “Many (people are fighting) in the streets, and I’m very worried about that.”

A former political activist, she says she draws strength from her family, her husband and her 12-year-old daughter, who encouraged her to visit the temple. Even her students, she says, are with her. “They are all with me.”

Kanakadurga’s family is against her, for now. Like her, they’re devotees of Lord Ayyappa, the Hindu deity enshrined at Sabarimala, considered eternally celibate.

“My family members discouraged my plan,” she says. But she felt she had to go, confident that, in the end, they’ll come around to her view that it’s possible to be a devotee of Lord Ayappa and a believer in gender equality. “I am not worried,” she says smilingly. “My family members will accept me. I hope.”

Bindu Ammini (right) and Kanakadurga (left) follow news of the protests sparked by their visit to the Sabarimala temple in southern Kerala state.

‘These are ladies, these are ladies!’

The pair met via an online forum set up by supporters of the September court order. “Just after the verdict of the Supreme Court, I decided to go to Sabarimala,” Bindu Ammini says.

They made their first attempt on December 24, and were less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) away from the temple, located on a steep hill in a remote tiger reserve, when they encountered what Bindu Ammini remembers as a wall of protestors. “I think more than (a thousand) people were there,” she says. Worried about the women’s safety, the police led them away.

“The police called my husband and asked that, please come… and pick me and he says that… I have all the right to decide to go to Sabrimala and other places,” Bindu Ammini says.

The two women refused to return to their homes until the police took them to the shrine. Otherwise, Bindu Ammini told the police, she would go on a hunger strike. Frantic phone calls followed, and then a promise that, yes, the authorities would help the pair to make another attempt.

It almost ended in failure. Flanked by plainclothes police officers and supporters from the online forum, Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga returned to a base camp near the temple site early in the morning on January 2. A two-hour trek followed, during which, the women say, most of the other devotees making their way to the shrine didn’t seem at all bothered by their presence.

Hindu devotees pray at the Sabarimala temple.

Most, but not all. Along the way, a man returning from the shrine noticed the two women and tried to raise an alarm. It was approximately 2 a.m., according to Bindu Ammini. “He raised his voice ‘These are ladies, these are ladies!'” she recalls.

He even phoned somebody. Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga thought he might be alerting other protestors opposed to the entry of women. But he gave way when one of the plainclothes policemen took him aside and showed him his official ID, effectively telling him to back off, according to Bindu Ammini.

Avoiding the main approach, they used a route that’s not open to the public to reach the chamber where Lord Ayyappa is enshrined shortly before daybreak. It’s the only thing that Bindu Ammini regrets — that they couldn’t climb up the final 18 steps that lead to the inner chamber like other ordinary devotees. “I am not fully satisfied that (we had to avoid the 18 steps),” she says.

Facing threats from orthodox protestors, Bindu Ammini (left) and Kanakadurga (right) have entered into hiding.

‘Give equality to females’

With India just months away from general elections, Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga’s visit has landed them at the center of a high-stakes political battle. The court battle also continues: later this month, on January 22, the Supreme Court will hear petitions calling on it to review its September judgment.

The local communist politicians who govern Kerala back the Supreme Court order and have come out in support of the two women.

But push to open the temple to women and girls of all ages has been opposed by national leaders from across the political spectrum — both from the Congress, the principal opposition to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and by Modi himself.

In an interview with the Indian news agency ANI published just a day before Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga entered the Sabarimala shrine, Modi referred to the one dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court bench back in September — the opinion, as it happens of the lone female judge in the case. “India is of one opinion that everyone should get justice. There are some temples, which have their own traditions, where men can’t go,” Modi said, siding with those who oppose the court order.

Kanakadurga, who hasn’t been able to speak to her twin 12-year-old boys since January 2, says the politicians should stop opining. Their job, she says, is to end discrimination. “Politicians should obey the Supreme Court judgment and give equality to females in the society.”

Bindu Ammini is more direct: “My message to the women of India, is please break the system, and please break the evil customs. That is the message.”

CNN’s Sugam Pokharel contributed to this report.

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