Kerala temple clashes spark political standoff

Hindu devotees queue inside Sabarimala temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala. (Reuters)
Updated 19 November 2018

Kerala temple clashes spark political standoff

  • India’s Supreme Court on Sept. 28 ended a centuries-old ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering the temple
  • Ruling BJP supports right-wing protesters who reject the court ruling

NEW DELHI: Growing political tension threatens to disrupt an annual pilgrimage to the hilltop Hindu temple of Sabarimala in Kerala following the arrest of more than 70 people, including a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on Sunday night.
The arrests were made on the temple premises when protests broke out during the first leg of the pilgrimage.
“The police are using their discretionary power on whether to make arrests. Their task is to ensure a peaceful atmosphere in Sabarimala and they are doing their job well,” Loknath Behera, director-general of Kerala police, said on Monday.
Police would take “all necessary steps” if women between the age of 10 and 50 tried to enter the temple, he said.
K. Surendran, the BJP leader, was arrested when he tried to join the pilgrimage despite a warning from police.
The three-month long pilgrimage to the ancient Hindu temple began on Friday and tension has been brewing since.
Women of reproductive age have been barred from entering the temple because, according to Hindu belief, the temple’s main deity, Lord Ayyappa, took an oath of celibacy.
However, on Sept. 28, the Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, ended the ban, opening the way for women of all age groups to join the pilgrimage. The decision angered right-wing Hindu protesters who want to maintain the centuries-old tradition.
Last month, when the temple opened for several days, two women tried walking to the hilltop complex, but were forced to abandon their journey after protesters blocked their path.
The latest clash erupted when the annual pilgrimage began on Friday. According to reports, about 539 women devotees have registered for the pilgrimage.
Last week, after the Supreme Court refused to hear any review petitions on the Sabarimala verdict before January next year, the issue took on political overtones.
K. J. Alphons, the central minister in the BJP government, criticized the local Left Democratic Front government in Kerala for arresting “devotees.”
“A situation worse than an emergency is happening here. Devotees are not terrorists, why do they need 15,000 policemen here?” said Alphons after visiting the temple complex on Monday afternoon.
The government in Kerala blames the BJP for “fomenting trouble and creating problems for real devotees.”
“The BJP is standing in the way of implementing the Supreme Court verdict and the party is fanning trouble,” Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, told Arab News.
However, the BJP claims that “the state government failed to put forward its case in the Supreme Court effectively which is why the court gave this kind of verdict.”
M. T. Ramesh, a local party leader, said: “The people arrested are genuine devotees and not the cadres of the BJP as is being suggested.
“It’s the question of the sanctity of the religious place and we are more concerned about that than the Supreme Court’s ruling. The BJP is the only party that is concerned about the interests of the devotees.”
However, political analysts claimed that right-wing Hindu parties using Sabarimala as a potent political issue to expand their presence in Kerala, where the BJP struggles to widen its support.
“This is more of a political agitation,” said N. J. Nair, a senior journalist based in Trivandrum. “BJP workers are entering the temple complex as devotees and creating chaos there.”
He said that the main opposition Congress Party was “behaving like a B team of the BJP.”
Kerala-based political analyst K. P. Sethunath, of the English-language daily newspaper Deccan Chronicle, shared the same opinion.
“The BJP used the Ayodhya temple issue in the 1990s to expand its base in the north. Now it sees an opportunity in the Sabarimala issue to polarize people in Kerala and make its entry into the politics of the state, where it has been struggling hard to find foothold,” he said.
“But people in Kerala are more educated and highly secular, and it would be difficult for the BJP to claim political ground here.”
New Delhi-based lawyer Sunieta Ojha warned that “if the Supreme Court ruling is not heeded then we are staring at a constitutional crisis and sheer contempt of the court.”


Sanders blasts Russia for reportedly trying to boost his presidential campaign

Updated 22 February 2020

Sanders blasts Russia for reportedly trying to boost his presidential campaign

  • “They are trying to cause chaos. They’re trying to cause hatred in America,” the Democratic presidential wannabe said
  • US intelligence officials have said the Russian effort also continues to support Republican President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday warned Russia to stay out of US elections after American officials had told him Moscow was trying to aid his campaign.
“The intelligence community is telling us they are interfering in this campaign, right now, in 2020. And what I say to Mr. Putin, if elected president, trust me you are not going to be interfering in American elections,” Sanders told reporters in Bakersfield, California.
Sanders, 78, a democratic socialist from Vermont, is considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and is favored to win the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
The Washington Post on Friday, citing people familiar with the matter, said US officials had told Sanders about the Russian effort and had also informed Republican President Donald Trump and US lawmakers.
It was not clear what form the Russian assistance took, the paper said.
A congressional source confirmed intelligence officials have told lawmakers Russia appears to be engaging in disinformation and propaganda campaigns to boost the 2020 campaigns of both Sanders and Trump.
The source, however, cautioned that the findings are very tentative.
Sanders, a US senator, said he was briefed about a month ago.
“We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are going to get involved in this campaign,” he told reporters. “Look, here is the message: To Russia, stay out of American elections.”
“What they are doing, by the way, the ugly thing that they are doing — and I’ve seen some of their tweets and stuff — is they try to divide us up,” he said. “They are trying to cause chaos. They’re trying to cause hatred in America.”

Moscow denies
The Kremlin on Friday denied Russia was interfering in the US presidential campaign to boost Trump’s re-election chances, following reports that American intelligence officials warned Congress about the election threat last week.
US intelligence officials told members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing that Russia was again interfering in American politics ahead of November’s election, as it did in 2016, a person familiar with the discussion told Reuters on Thursday.
Since that briefing, Trump has ousted the acting intelligence chief, replacing him with a political loyalist in an abrupt move as Democrats and former US officials raised the alarm over national security concerns.
A senior administration official, however, said the nation was better positioned than in 2016 to defend against foreign attempts to influence elections.
“President Trump has made clear that any efforts or attempts by Russia, or any other nation, to influence or interfere with our elections, or undermine US democracy will not be tolerated,” the official said.
On Twitter, the president accused Democrats in Congress of launching a misinformation campaign that says Russia prefers him to any of what he called the “Do Nothing Democrat candidates.” Trump called it a “hoax.”

Russian accounts
Facebook said it has not seen any evidence of Russian assistance to Sanders’ campaign. In October, the company took down Russian-backed accounts that pretended to be from political battleground states.
Some of those accounts used Instagram to praise Sanders. Another used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and faulted Joe Biden on race issues.
Jessica Brandt of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization that monitors foreign interference in US politics, said Russian state media and official social media accounts have been working to help Sanders by amplifying conspiracy theories that his Democratic rivals, the Democratic National Committee and the “corporate media” have been “rigging the system” against him.
“We can say with certainty that this is what the Russian government is pushing,” she told Reuters. “We’ve seen for some time Russian official channels promoting division within the Democratic Party.”

Warning signs
US officials have long warned that Russia and other countries would seek to interfere in the Nov. 3 presidential election, following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign that ended with Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
US intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin used disinformation operations, cyberattacks and other methods in its 2016 operation in an effort to boost Trump, an allegation that Russia denies. Trump, sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has also questioned that finding and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.
On Friday, the Kremlin said the latest allegations were false.
“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the (US) election,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”
Russia’s alleged interference sparked a two-year-long US investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to obstruct his investigation, as Democrats alleged, but left any finding of obstruction to Congress.