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Hindu hardliners step up campaign to block Indian temple to women

KERALA: Hindu hardliners blocked intersections, threatened drivers, threw stones at buses and ordered a 12-hour strike on Thursday as they stepped up their campaign to bar women from one of India’s holiest temples.

The Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala was meant to allow women from Wednesday following an order by India’s highest court last month.

But hundreds of traditionalists, throwing stones at baton-wielding police, defied the order — surrounding and shouting at any woman attempting to make it to the hilltop site.

Angry young men also surrounded and smashed the car windows of female television reporters and threatened others, including an AFP reporter.

Overnight local Hindu groups declared a 12-hour shutdown of local businesses, telling drivers that their vehicles would be attacked if they took anyone towards the temple.

“Some men came to the parking lot early Thursday and warned taxi drivers against defying the shutdown call,” taxi driver Praveen, in the town of Pathanamthitta, told AFP.

“No one will get to the temple today because all the drivers are scared for the safety of their cars,” one hotel receptionist told AFP. Shops, businesses and schools in the area were shut.

State authorities have insisted that they will ensure access, imposing restrictions on public gatherings of more than five people that came into force from midnight, and laying on buses for devotees.

Kerala police, who have drafted in hundreds of extra officers, many with helmets and body armour over their khaki uniforms, provided escorts to some buses.

Police also patrolled through the night and reinforced their presence at Nilackal, the base camp below the temple. Press reports said around 40 people were arrested.

But groups of between 50 and 100 young men gathered at intersections on Thursday, checking vehicles.

The situation at the actual temple was calm, meanwhile, with the first pilgrims arriving. But none of them were women older than 10 or younger than 50, an AFP photographer said.

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

The entry of women at Sabarimala was long taboo, with a ban formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

But last month India’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

The Supreme Court ruling enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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.”

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