India temple trailblazers braving threats and family anger

KERALA (AFP) – Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga are living on the run since infuriating Hindu traditionalists by entering one of India’s holiest temples that for generations banned nearly all women.

In black robes and under cover of darkness, the two women evaded a blockade to enter the remote hilltop Sabarimala temple early on Jan 2, setting off violent protests across southern Kerala state.

Physical threats have since forced the temple trailblazers into hiding, and they have moved to more than 10 different safe houses.

But they told AFP in an interview at a secret location that they hope to escape their clandestine existence in the coming days to take more action on Sabarimala, as well as face the ire of their families.

Both were unrepentant over their defiant gesture, which turned them into heroes for women’s groups, but hate figures for Hindu hardliners.

“I wanted to exercise my right as a devotee, that’s all,” said Kanakadurga, a 39-year-old government worker who like many people in southern India uses just one name.

“This was another step forward to reinforce gender equality.”

Getting access to the women meant going through a string of intermediaries, switching cars and turning off phones before being taken to a villa where the pair were waiting.

They said they would leave their latest bolthole for an 11th safe house the next morning.

SOCIAL FLASHPOINT

Sabarimala has become a new flashpoint for Indian women in their battle for social change.

The country saw massive protests after the brutal gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus in 2012 and last year female actors, journalists and academics detailed cases of sexual aggression.

Bindu and Kanakadurga said they believed only extremists wanted to harm them, adding that most worshippers did not harass them when they went to Sabarimala, where up to five million people trek each year.


Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga being escorted by police after they attempted to enter the Sabarimala temple, on Dec 24. PHOTO: REUTERS

“The real devotees caused us absolutely no problems. We stopped for refreshments on the way and all behaved as though we were just another pilgrim,” said Bindu, a 40-year-old law professor.

“It is only a select few who are politically motivated who always cause trouble for us.” After India’s Supreme Court ruled on September 28 that all women should be allowed into the temple, the pair linked up on social media. They were among scores of women who tried to reach Sabarimala soon after, but were blocked by thousands of opponents.

Kanakadurga said the authorities did not know in advance that they would enter the temple on Jan 2 and police there “did for us what they would have done for any other devotee”.

MOTHER’S ANGER

“Police made sure we got out safely from the temple. But after that we did not want them involved, so now we are on our own,” she said.

“But we both hope we can come out of hiding in the next week to resume our normal lives.” Their actions have also angered family members.

“I have my family’s complete support except for my mother, who genuinely believes I should not have broken tradition,” said Bindu.

“But I know that she is concerned for me, I respect her right to a different opinion.” Kanakadurga did not tell her family in advance that she was going to Sabarimala.

“Had I told them, they would surely have done everything to block me. So because I kept them in the dark, there is friction between us, but I think it will only be temporary.

“Most people are with me and that gives me courage.” Hours after the women walked into Sabarimala, violent protests erupted across Kerala and more than 1,000 people were arrested.

The temple priest ordered purification rites because women of menstruating age had entered the shrine.

Bindu is from the Dalit community, a downtrodden caste considered “untouchable” until this was declared illegal under the 1950 constitution.

She said she would go to the Supreme Court to seek action against the priest for breaching India’s caste laws.

“By holding purification rituals after my visit to the temple, what the priest did was practise untouchability,” said Bindu.

“It is an offence, so Kanaka and I have made up our minds to go to the Supreme Court against the priest.”

POLITICAL FUSE

Their entry into the temple has lit a political fuse as India prepares for general elections in the coming months.

The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sided with devotees who accuse the Supreme Court of rejecting their beliefs by letting women in.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi meanwhile said on Sunday there was “validity” in both sides of the argument.

Sabarimala is dedicated to the celibate deity Ayyappa, and followers believe letting in women goes against his wishes.

A longstanding ban on women was made legal in 1991 by the Kerala High Court, but the Supreme Court overruled this as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Some BJP leaders have called Bindu and Kanakadurga anarchists and anti-Hindu, but the women dismissed the claims.

“We were not the first ones to try to enter Sabarimala. Scores of women went in the past, but failed,” said Kanakadurga.

“I am a believer who always wanted to worship Ayyappa at the Sabarimala temple.”

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India slaps cases against critics of plan to grant citizenship to non-Muslims

GUWAHATI, India (REUTERS) – Indian police on Friday (Jan 11) said they are investigating an academic, a journalist and a peasant leader for possible sedition for publicly opposing a proposal to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries.

Critics have called the proposal blatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of a general election due by May.

The cases have been filed amid a wave of protests in the BJP-governed north-eastern state of Assam. A small regional party in India quit the ruling coalition on Monday in protest against the plan.

The Modi government is facing growing criticism for stifling criticism, including in the media. A television journalist in the region was jailed last month for criticising the government on social media.

“We have registered a case against a few people based on certain statements that they made at a public rally in Guwahati,” Deepak Kumar, a police official from Guwahati in Assam, told Reuters.

The three have not been charged.

Many people fear such a move could change the demographic profile of Assam, where residents have for years complained that immigrants from Bangladesh have put a big strain on resources.

Hiren Gohain, an 80-year-old academic, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta have been accused of criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage a war against the government, Kumar said.

The Bill, which seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been passed by the Lower House of the Parliament.

The Bill will be tabled for approval in the Upper House in the next session, where it is expected to face resistance from the opposition Congress party. The BJP does not have a majority in the upper house of the Parliament.

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Why India's flashpoint temple, Sabarimala, is off limits to women

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (AFP) – Two women in their 40s defied traditionalists on Wednesday (Jan 2) to enter the Sabarimala temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, sparking violent clashes in southern India.

It was the first time that women aged between 10 and 50 entered the site in the southern state of Kerala since India’s Supreme Court overturned a ban in September.

Here follows some background on the temple and the landmark verdict.

GOLD-PLATED

The gold-plated Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple complex sits atop a 915m hill in a forested tiger reserve.

It contains a shrine to Lord Ayyappa, believed to have been the Earth-born son of two of Hinduism’s three main gods, Vishnu (in his female avatar) and Shiva.

Legend has it that Ayyappa was found abandoned as a baby. A king of the Pandalam dynasty, which is still active in temple operations, found and raised him.

At 12, Ayyappa revealed his divinity when he emerged from the forest riding a tigress. The boy fired an arrow which landed at the site where the temple now stands.

NO SEX OR SHAVING

Those wishing to visit undergo a 41-day period of introspection and detachment known as vratha abstaining from sex, meat, intoxicants and even shaving.

After this period many devotees, wearing ritual bead necklaces, walk barefoot for dozens of kilometres including, and especially, the final steep climb.

Only those who have observed the vratha and carry the irrumude, a symbolic offering, can enter the main courtyard up 18 divine golden steps.

The sacred offerings, tied in a cloth usually carried on the head or shoulders, include coconuts, rose water, rice and pepper.

MARRIAGE PROPOSAL

Legend says that the goddess Malikapurathamma asked Ayyappa to marry her. He said he would only do so if first-time devotees decide not to visit him – which has never happened.

Worshippers celebrate a festival each year when a procession of the goddess is taken to a spot close to the temple three times – and she is forced to wait.

The reason for Ayyappa’s refusal is because of his celibacy – one of the arguments against allowing women of menstruating age to enter.

The ban lifted by the Supreme Court also rested on the belief – not exclusive to Hinduism – that menstruating women are impure.

Women can however access most other Hindu temples in India. Their entry at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

LEGAL WRANGLINGS

The Supreme Court order is opposed by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It was one of a string of recent decisions to have eaten away at some of India’s traditions, including outlawing bans on gay sex and adultery last year.

The BJP is not in power in Kerala. Instead the state is run by a coalition of left-wing parties which have said they will enforce the court ruling.

But efforts by women to enter the temple in recent months have been angrily rebuffed by Hindu devotees, with police having to step in to escort the women away to safety.

In October, devotees clashed with police who arrested more than 2,000 people.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple. Media reports said some were heckled by right-wing activists.

On Nov 13, the Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to its decision from Jan 22, but said that until then its September ruling stood.

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Orthodox Christmas: Masses held from Bethlehem to Moscow

Millions of faithful Orthodox Christians around the world have attended midnight mass, from Belarus to Ethiopia.

    Millions of faithful Orthodox Christians around the world have attended midnight mass, from Belarus to Ethiopia.

    Orthodox Christians follow the old Julian calendar and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on the seventh of January.

    Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid reports.

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    India police arrest two over officer's killing in mob violence

    Police arrest two and launch special probe after an inspector was killed during mob violence over alleged cow slaughter.

      At least two people have been arrested in connection with the killing of a police officer during a mob violence in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, officials have said.

      A Special Investigation Team (SIT) has been constituted to probe the cause of the violence in Bulandshahr district, senior police officer Prashant Kumar told local ANI news agency.

      Police have filed cases against at least 27 people, including a Hindu far-right leader, in connection with the violence that saw a police station torched by the angry crowd.

      Hundreds of paramilitary forces have been deployed in the area, said ADG Law and Order Anand Kumar.

      Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh and a 20-year-old man had died after a crowd of about 400 people, who were protesting against an alleged cow slaughter, turned violent in Bulandshahr, about 80km southeast of the national capital, New Delhi.

      The officer died from gunshot wounds, district magistrate Anuj Kumar Jha told Reuters news agency on Monday.

      “We sent police teams to control the crowd after we heard protesters pelted stones and some even opened fire,” Jha told DPA news agency by phone. 

      “It is not clear this was firing from the crowd or the police,” he said, adding the protests subsided by early evening.

      According to local media reports, the deceased officer had investigated the infamous 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri town of the state before he was transferred.

      Hindu vigilantes often roam the roads in northern India to protect cows, frequently resulting in assaults against India’s Muslim population – some 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

      At least 39 people have been killed in cow-related violence in India since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, according to data portal IndiaSpend.

      Modi has condemned the attacks and promised tough action against the perpetrators, but opposition leaders accuse the BJP governments – federal and in various states – of indirectly supporting the cow vigilantes.

      “It’s a shocking state of affairs… Who gives these people the authority to take law in their hands?” Kapil Sibal from the opposition Congress party told ANI.

      In July, India’s Supreme Court requested that the government enact new legislation to control the increasing mob violence and lynchings over alleged cattle theft, eating beef, child kidnapping and other crimes, often aided by fake news, in the country this year.

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      As election nears, religious tensions surge in an Indian village

      NAYABANS, India (Reuters) – Nayabans isn’t remarkable as northern Indian villages go. Sugar cane grows in surrounding fields, women carry animal feed in bullock carts through narrow lanes, people chatter outside a store, and cows loiter.

      But this week, the village in Uttar Pradesh state became a symbol of the deepening communal divide in India as some Hindu men from the area complained they had seen a group of Muslims slaughtering cows in a mango orchard a couple of miles away.

      That infuriated Hindus, who regard the cow as a sacred animal. Anger against Muslims turned into outrage that police had not stopped an illegal practice, and a Hindu mob blocked a highway, threw stones, burned vehicles and eventually two people were shot and killed – including a police officer.

      The events throw a spotlight on the religious strains in places like Nayabans since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the national level in 2014 and in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Tensions are ratcheting up ahead of the next general election, due to be held by May.

      The BJP said it was “bizarre” to assume the party would benefit from any religious disharmony, dismissing suggestions that its supporters were largely responsible for the tensions.

      “In a large country like India nobody can ensure that nothing will go wrong, but it’s our responsibility to maintain law and order and we understand that,” party spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said. “But people are trying to politicize these issues.”

      Nayabans, just about three hour’s drive from Delhi, has about 400 Muslims out of a population of 4,000, the rest are Hindu. Relations between the communities began deteriorating around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last year when Hindus in the village demanded that loudspeakers used to call for prayer at a makeshift mosque be removed, local Muslims said.

      “For 40 years mikes were used in the mosque, calls for prayer were made five times a day, but no one objected,” said Waseem Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim community leader in Nayabans.

      “We resisted initially but then we thought it’s better to live in peace then create a dispute over a mike,” he said. “We don’t want to give them a chance to fan communal tensions.”

      Reuters spoke with more than a dozen Muslims from the village but except for Khan, no one else wanted to be named for fear of angering the Hindu population.

      Several among a group of Muslim women and girls standing outside the mosque said they have been living in fear since the BJP came to power in the state in 2017.

      They said that Hindu groups now hold provocative processions through the village during every Hindu festival, loudspeakers blaring, something that used to happen rarely before. They said they felt “terrorized” by Hindu activists.

      “While passing through our areas during their religious rallies, they chant ‘Pakistan murdabad’ (down with Pakistan) as if we have some connection to Pakistan just because we are Muslims,” Khan said.

      HINDU PRIEST CHIEF MINISTER

      The subcontinent was divided into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India at the time of independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

      During the violence on Monday, many Muslims in Nayabans locked themselves in their homes fearing attacks. Some who had attended a three-day Muslim religious congregation some miles away stayed outside the area that night to avoid making themselves targets for the mob.

      Muslim villagers say they are particularly fearful of the top elected official in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is a Hindu priest and senior BJP figure. Hindu hardliners started asserting themselves more in the village after he was elected, they say.

      Uttar Pradesh sends 80 lawmakers to the lower house of parliament, the largest of any state in the country.

      Considered the county’s political crucible, it has also been the scene for spiraling Hindu-Muslim tensions.

      Adityanath said the lead up to the rioting in Nayabans was a “big conspiracy”, but did not elaborate.

      In the only statement from his office on the incident, Adityanath ordered police to arrest those directly or indirectly involved in the slaughter of cows and made no mention of the death of the police inspector. He announced 1 million rupees ($14,110) as compensation for the family of the other dead man, a local who is among those accused by police for the violence.

      Both men were Hindus and died of bullet wounds, although police said it was not yet clear who shot whom.

      Police say they have arrested up to five people for the cow slaughter but have not given their religion. Locals say all the arrested people are Muslims. Four Hindu men have been arrested for the violence leading to the deaths.

      “All invidious elements who may have conspired to vitiate the situation will be exposed through a fair and transparent investigation,” Anand Kumar, the second highest police official in Uttar Pradesh, told Reuters.

      Asked if there was any bias against Muslims, Uttar Pradesh government spokesman Sidharth Nath Singh – who is also the state’s health minister – told Reuters: “We believe in equality and our motto is sabka saath, sabka vikas”, using a Hindi phrase often used by Modi that means “collective effort, inclusive growth”.

      RELATIVE HARMONY

      The two communities in Nayabans have lived in relative harmony for years, residents from both groups said.

      But now Hindus in the village, who mostly say they support Yogi, accuse the Muslims of trying to turn themselves into the victims when they weren’t.

      “Can’t believe they are raising our processions with journalists!” said Daulat, a Hindu daily wage laborer who goes by one name. “They are making it a Hindu-Muslim issue, we are not. Their people have been accused of killing cows, so they are playing the victim.”

      At a middle school, meters from the police outpost near where the two men got killed, two women teachers, sitting on a veranda soaking in the winter sun, said its 66 students stopped coming for classes in the first few days after the violence.

      “We worship cows and their slaughter can’t be accepted,” said one of the teachers, Uma Rani. “Two Hindus died here but nothing happened to the cow killers.”

      Both teachers were Hindus.

      Political analysts say relations between the two communities are likely to stay tense ahead of the national vote, particularly in polarized states such as Uttar Pradesh.

      The BJP made a near-clean sweep in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, helping Modi win the country’s biggest parliamentary mandate in three decades, but pollsters predict a tighter contest next year because of a lack of jobs and low farm prices.

      “Facing economic headwinds and lackluster job growth, Modi will rally his conservative base by selectively resorting to Hindu nationalism,” global security consultancy Stratfor said last month.

      Muslims say they increasingly feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

      “The BJP will definitely benefit from such incidents,” said Tahir Saifi, a Muslim community leader a few miles from the area of violence who supports a regional opposition party in Uttar Pradesh. “They want all Hindus to unite, and when religion comes into the picture, other issues like development take a back seat.”

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      Tight security for India mosque destruction anniversary

      AYODHYA, INDIA (AFP) – Some 2,000 baton-wielding Indian police were on duty in the flashpoint city of Ayodhya on Thursday (Dec 6) to prevent any clashes around the anniversary of the destruction of a mosque.

      Hindu zealots reduced the Babri mosque to rubble in 1992, kicking off riots across India that left thousands dead, most of them Muslims, and the future of the site has become a major touchstone issue in Indian politics.

      Standing behind yellow steel barricades, police on Thursday were seen checking vehicles and stopping some passers-by for questioning as they sought to prevent any flare-up in violence.

      Watchtower guards and security cameras were trained on the ruins of the Babri mosque and its surroundings. The disputed site is protected by a high steel fence.

      Many Hindus believe Ayodhya marks the birthplace of the deity Ram, and that the mosque that stood there for 460 years was only built after the destruction of an earlier temple.

      Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 pledging to construct a temple on the site, but the issue remains tied up in the courts.

      Mr Modi, running for a second term in 2019, has faced some disquiet from his core supporters who feel that he has not done enough for the cause, despite his parliamentary majority.

      Uttar Pradesh’s state premier Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand monk who has long campaigned for the temple, has also unveiled plans to build the world’s largest statue in Ayodhya – a 221-metre bronze Ram.

      On an average day, a few thousand Hindu devotees visit the makeshift temple that was established after 1992. But on Thursday, fewer devotees could be seen.

      Muslim groups, meanwhile, held small commemorations of those who lost their lives in 1992.

      “All we want is peace and harmony. Muslims and Hindus of Ayodhya have always lived in harmony, but it is the politicians who stoke hatred for their electoral gains,” said Mr Mohammed Shahzad, who runs a meat shop in the city.

      “The mosque in my neighbourhood was attacked during the riots in 1992. Our home was set on fire, we somehow managed to save our lives. We don’t want a repeat of the violence at any cost.”

      Mr Kalyani Ubhe, a tourist, said: “A temple must be built here. It is a matter of Hindu faith and devotion. We have a right to pray at the birthplace of Lord Ram.”

      A statue will be a “bonus”, said Mr Shyam Madho, a 70-year old Ayodhya resident.

      “The statue will serve the purpose of tourism. It’s the temple which is the main thing. First a temple must be built, then the statue.”

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