By Jose Devasia and Malini Menon
KOCHI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters blocked all the exits at a southern Indian airport on Friday to stop a women’s rights activist from heading to a Hindu temple to defy a centuries-old ban on the entry of women of menstruating age.
Widespread protests broke out in the tourist resort state of Kerala after the Supreme Court in September ordered authorities to lift a ban on women or girls aged between 10 and 50 from entering the temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.
The activist, Trupti Desai, who arrived with a group of women at Kerala’s biggest and busiest airport in the city of Kochi, at 4.30 a.m. (2230 GMT), has been held up for hours by the demonstrators.
Desai said police had advised her group not to leave the airport because of safety concerns, but vowed not to abandon plans to enter Sabarimala, the hill temple about 155 km (96 miles) away that is at the centre of the conflict, on Saturday.
“Protests are being held outside the airport and the police have said that we can’t go outside now,” she told Reuters. “We booked taxis three or four times, but drivers said they were threatened their vehicles would be vandalised if they offer us a ride.”
Desai, who led the “Right to Pray” movement in the western state of Maharashtra, had successfully fought to earn women the right to enter the inner sanctums of three temples there.
“We won’t return until we have darshan,” Desai said, referring to the opportunity to view the image of a deity.
“This kind of bullying and hooliganism are unacceptable.”
At one stage, police tried to take the women through a cargo gate, but protesters foiled the attempt.
“We will not let activists go inside Sabarimala. We are willing to die protesting, but will not move an inch from here,” one of the women protesters told television channel CNN NEWS18.
Thousands of demonstrators have protested against the court’s decision, and conservative Hindu groups prevented about a dozen young women from entering the temple last month.
The groups say they believe allowing women who could be menstruating into the temple defiles the sacred shrine and they have asked the court to reconsider its decision.
The court has set Jan. 22 to hear nearly 50 petitions seeking reimposition of the ban. Until then, its earlier ruling allowing women entry stays in force, it said.
As a result, the state government, run by the Communist Party of India, and legally bound to follow the court, finds itself at loggerheads with devotees and opposition parties who want the ban to continue until the court review.
Separate meetings between Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, opposition political parties and the temple administration on Thursday failed to resolve the impasse.
Vijayan made clear that while his government respected the feelings of worshippers, it had to obey the court.
The hillside temple, nestled in a forest in the Western Ghats mountain range, will reopen at 5 p.m. (1130 GMT) on Friday for more than two months, with a three-day break in December.
(Writing by Malini Menon; Editing by Martin Howell and Clarence Fernandez)