Tens of thousands protest in India over flashpoint temple

NILAKKAL (AFP): Tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across a southern Indian state on Tuesday, in support of a court order overturning a partial ban on women entering one of Hinduism’s holiest temples, witnesses said.

The ‘Women’s Wall’ rally was backed by the communist government in Kerala state where the court order on Sabarimala temple has triggered weeks of protests by opponents and supporters of the ban.

Media reports and supporters of the initiative claimed hundreds of thousands of women formed a human chain across the 620-kilometre (380-mile) length of the state.

Government employees took part in the demonstration, while schools were given a half day and university exams delayed so that students could join the protest, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

A government statement issued before the event predicted five million women would participate in the protest.

Kerala has become the venue of an angry showdown between Hindu traditionalists and supporters of September’s Supreme Court ruling which ended a longstanding ban on women aged between 10 and 50 years.

Several women have since tried to reach the hilltop shrine but been forced back by opposing activists. Police have clashed with devotees supporting the ban and have arrested more than 2,000 people.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindus — men, young girls and elderly women — trek to the temple for an annual festival that usually falls around the end of the year.

The Supreme Court is to hear challenges to its landmark ruling from January 22.

Many Hindu groups and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oppose the ruling. They argue that the court has ignored their beliefs that the deity Ayyappa was celibate.