Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

In this file photo taken on October 18, 2018 Indian Hindu devotees are pictured at the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala. (AFP)
Updated 13 November 2018

Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

  • Hindu women demand their right of religious freedom as 41-day festival approaches
  • Kerala polarized over female entry into the hilltop temple

NEW DELHI: Tension in the air as Sabarimala Hilltop temple in the South Indian state of Kerala is being prepared to open on Nov. 17 for a 41-day Hindu festival.
The tension pertains to the entry of females between the ages of 10 to 50 into the ancient temple of Ayyappa, a deity who devotees believe is celibate and abhors the entry into the temple of women of marriageable age.
The Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in the last week of September, laid down a rule that bars the entry of young women into the temple. This led to a severe protest across the state, with women being stopped forcefully from entering the temple.
Last month, when the temple opened for six days, at least 12 women tried to enter the hillside temple but a violent crowd blocked their passage, with police looking helpless. At least 560 women in the barred age group have enrolled for the annual pilgrimage that starts in less than a week.
“We are taking all kinds of steps to see that devotees can pay their obeisance to the deity in a peaceful manner,” S. Sreejith, the Kerala inspector general of police, told Arab News.

Political mileage
Before coming to the temple, devotees observe celibacy for 41 days and avoid all kinds of meat and alcohol. They also don black robes for the period.
“The soul of any temple is the deity inside. The deity Aayyappa is a bachelor and that’s why the entry of young women is regulated in the temple,” says Rahul Easwar, a Hindu right-wing activist with close links to the Sabarimala temple.
Talking to Arab News, Easwar said: “We will never say anything against the Supreme Court. We are fighting for our rights to believe and our rights to have our own faith.”
However, women rights activist Kavita Krishnan claimed that “the entire controversy is clearly politically manufactured by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
The BJP is looking for political mileage in Kerala — the state where it is a small marginal player,” added Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association.
She pointed out that “the entire debate is concocted. It is well known that women’s entry was allowed until the 1990s, and it was stopped upon a court order. The Supreme Court order has only undone that order.”
The local government of Kerala, a coalition of communist parties, supports women’s entry into the temple.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in a news conference on Saturday, said: “Opposition to changes in customs is quite natural. But there is no going back. Toilets, bathing facilities and accommodation facilities at Nilakkal will be set up for women devotees. The current crisis is temporary.”
K. Surendran of the BJP, however, said: “This is a matter of belief and the court should not interfere. Why does the court not interfere in the affairs of other minority religions?”
The BJP spokesperson in Kerala told Arab News: “The women who want to enter the temple are not devotees but activists. They are not believers.
“The local government is trying to polarize the issue by supporting women’s entry because it wants to gain the support of other religious minorities,” added Surendran.
Sandhya Acharya, a woman devotee who has registered to go to the Sabarimala temple, told Arab News that there is an “attempt to deny entry to women by calling them activists.
“Why should there be discrimination in the house of God in the name of gender?” she asked.
Rajesh Krishnan, a Kerala-based activist and intellectual, said: “The whole issue has polarized the society in Kerala. The issue has become all the more vicious after the BJP entered the debate and saw it as an opportunity to win over the people and make an entry into the southern Indian state.”
Around 42 review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and Tuesday the Apex court will decide whether it should revisit its judgment or not.


Trump linked Ukraine aid to demand for probe: US diplomat

President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP)
Updated 40 min 58 sec ago

Trump linked Ukraine aid to demand for probe: US diplomat

  • Taylor’s appearance was among the most anticipated before House investigators because of a series of text messages with the other diplomats in which he called Trump’s attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine “crazy”

WASHINGTON: A top US diplomat testified Tuesday that President Donald Trump was holding back military aid for Ukraine unless the country agreed to investigate Democrats and a company linked to Joe Biden’s family, providing lawmakers with a detailed new account of the quid pro quo central to the impeachment probe.
In a lengthy opening statement to House investigators obtained by The Associated Press, William Taylor described Trump’s demand that “everything” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wanted, including vital aid to counter Russia, hinged on making a public vow that Ukraine would investigate Democrats going back to the 2016 US election as well as a company linked to the family of Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic rival.
Taylor testified that what he discovered in Kyiv was the Trump administration’s “irregular” back channel to foreign policy led by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and “ultimately alarming circumstances” that threatened to erode the United States’ relationship with a budding Eastern European ally facing Russian aggression.
In a date-by-date account, detailed across several pages, the seasoned diplomat who came out of retirement to take over as charge d’affaires at the embassy in Ukraine details his mounting concern as he realized Trump was trying to put the newly elected president of the young democracy “in a public box.”
“I sensed something odd,” he testified, describing a trio of Trump officials planning a call with Zelenskiy, including one, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who wanted to make sure “no one was transcribing or monitoring” it.
Lawmakers who emerged after nearly 10 hours of the private deposition were stunned at Taylor’s account, which some Democrats said established a “direct line” to the quid pro quo at the center of the impeachment probe.
“It was shocking,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat. “It was very clear that it was required — if you want the assistance, you have to make a public statement.”
She characterized it as “it’s this for that.”
Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, said, “You can see how damning this is.”
Titus said, “This certainly makes it pretty clear what was going on. And it was a quid pro quo.”
The account reaches to the highest levels of the administration, drawing in Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and slices at the core of the Republican defense of the administration and the president’s insistence of no wrongdoing.
It also lays bare the struggle between Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton and those who a previous State Department witness described as the “three amigos” — Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy Kurt Volker— who were involved in the alternative Ukraine policy vis-a-vis Russia.
It’s illegal to seek or receive contributions of value from a foreign entity for a US election.
“President Trump has done nothing wrong,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “This is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo.”
Taylor’s appearance was among the most anticipated before House investigators because of a series of text messages with the other diplomats in which he called Trump’s attempt to hold back military aid to Ukraine “crazy.”
His testimony opens a new front in the impeachment inquiry, and it calls into question the account from Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who told Congress last week that he did not fully remember some details of the events and was initially unaware that the gas company Burisma was tied to the Bidens.
Taylor told lawmakers that Sondland, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, was aware of the demands and later admitted he made a mistake by telling the Ukrainians that military assistance was not contingent on agreeing to Trump’s requests.
“In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including the security assistance,” Taylor recalled.
“Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election,” Taylor said about a Sept. 1 phone call between them.
Taylor apparently kept detailed records of conversations and documents, including two personal notebooks, lawmakers said.
The retired diplomat, a former Army officer, had been serving as executive vice president at the US Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank founded by Congress, when he was appointed to run the embassy in Kyiv after Trump suddenly recalled Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch.
Taylor testified that he had concerns about taking over the post under those circumstances, but she urged him to go “for policy reasons and for the morale of the embassy.” He had served as US ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.
Lawmakers described the career civil servant’s delivery as credible and consistent, as he answered hours of questions from Democrats and Republicans, drawing silence in the room as lawmakers exchanged glances.
Taylor testified that he “sat in astonishment” on a July 18 call in which a White House budget official said that Trump had relayed a message through Mulvaney that the aid should be withheld.
A month later, his concerns had so deepened that he was preparing to resign. Sensing the US policy toward Ukraine has shifted, he described an Aug. 22 phone call with Tim Morrison, a Russia adviser at the White House, who told him, the “president doesn’t want to provide any assistance at all.”
“That was extremely troubling to me,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s description of Trump’s position is in sharp contrast to how the president has characterized it. Trump has said many times that there was no quid pro quo, though Mulvaney contradicted that last week. Mulvaney later tried to walk back his remarks.
“The testimony is very disturbing,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota, used the same word.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said Taylor “drew a straight line” with documents, timelines and individual conversations in his records.
“I do not know how you would listen to today’s testimony from Ambassador Taylor and come to any other (conclusion) except that the president abused his power and withheld foreign aid,” she said.
The impeachment probe was sparked by a whistleblower’s complaint of a July call. In that call, Trump told Zelenskiy he wanted “a favor,” which the White House later acknowledged in a rough transcript of the conversation was Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate the Democratic National Committee’s email hack in 2016 as well as the Ukrainian gas company Burisma tied to Biden’s family.