Clashes as Hindu hardliners block women from Indian temple

Clashes erupted on Wednesday as Hindu hardliners prevented women visiting one of India's most sacred temples, with baton-waving police charging stone-throwing protesters.

Ugly scenes erupted as mobs surrounded and attacked the cars of female journalists. Other reporters including a female AFP journalist were intimidated.

The situation remained tense after nightfall, with police reinforcing the 500 officers already present ahead of likely another dramatic day on Thursday on the road to the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala.

Last month India's Supreme Court overturned a ban on females of menstruating age -- judged between 10 and 50 years -- entering and praying at the hilltop temple in the southern state of Kerala.

This enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with thousands protesting in the days before the scheduled opening on Wednesday afternoon.

Kerala's state government insisted it would enforce the court ruling and ensure free access to the remote complex, reached by an uphill trek that takes several hours.

At Nilackal, a base camp below the temple, police cleared protesters early Wednesday morning and arrested seven people who were stopping vehicles.

"Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala," Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on Tuesday.

- Turned back -

But later police struggled to control the situation, fighting running battles that left five devotees and 15 policemen injured, according to EP Jayarajan, a minister in the Kerala government.

News channels CNN News 18 and Republic TV both showed footage of their reporters' cars being vandalised. Online publication The News Minute said its reporter was kicked in the spine.

One 45-year old woman identified as Madhavi who wanted to enter the temple abandoned her attempt after activists prevented her climbing the hill, the Press Trust of India reported.

Even though police gave the woman and her family protection and allowed them to move further, they gave up as irate activists surrounded them, PTI reported.

Biju S. Pillai, a local man in his 30s, was one of those opposed to the court ruling, telling AFP that he returned from working in Dubai to "protect the sanctity of the temple".

"No one should be able to change the way this temple has functioned for centuries," he said. "If any change is made they will have to kill us and go over our bodies."

"I am here to protest the Supreme Court decision," said engineer Anisha S., 23, one of a group chanting religious slogans. "We want to save our traditions. Ayyappa needs to be respected."

Jayarajan blamed the violence on "goons" from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu group seen as close to Modi's BJP, which is an opposition party in Kerala.

P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, head of the Kerala BJP, pointed the finger at the state government and a bungled police operation.

"The overwhelming majority of women oppose the Supreme Court ruling," he told AFP.

- 'Impure' -

Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but female devotees are still barred from entry by some.

Two years ago, activists successfully campaigned to end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra state.

Women were also permitted to enter Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum, a Muslim place of worship, after the Supreme Court scrapped a ban in 2016.

The entry of women at Sabarimala was long taboo but was formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991, a ruling overturned by India's Supreme Court last month.

The restriction reflected an old but still prevalent belief among many that menstruating women are impure, and the fact that the deity Ayyappa was reputed to have been celibate.

The Sabarimala chief priest, Kandararu Maheshwararu Tantri, 25, warned this week that "anger could easily escalate into violence if a few egotistical women try to enter" the temple.