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.”


UK Commons speaker deals new blow to Johnson’s Brexit plan

Updated 21 October 2019

UK Commons speaker deals new blow to Johnson’s Brexit plan

  • John Bercow plunged the tortuous Brexit process back into grimly familiar territory: grinding parliamentary warfare
  • Johnson’s government was seeking a “straight up-and-down vote” on the agreement he struck with EU nations

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to lead Britain out of the European Union at the end of this month hit another roadblock Monday when the speaker of the House of Commons rejected his attempt to hold a new vote of lawmakers on his Brexit divorce deal.
The ruling by Speaker John Bercow plunged the tortuous Brexit process back into grimly familiar territory: grinding parliamentary warfare.
With just 10 days to go until the UK is due to leave the bloc on Oct. 31, Johnson’s government was seeking a “straight up-and-down vote” on the agreement he struck last week with the 27 other EU nations.
The request came just two days after lawmakers voted to delay approving the Brexit deal. Bercow refused to allow it because parliamentary rules generally bar the same measure from being considered a second time during the same session of Parliament unless something has changed.
Bercow — whose rulings in favor of backbench lawmakers have stymied government plans more than once before — said the motion proposed by the government was “in substance the same” as the one Parliament dealt with on Saturday. He said it would be “repetitive and disorderly” to allow a new vote Monday.
On Saturday — Parliament’s first weekend sitting since the 1982 Falklands War — lawmakers voted to make support for the Brexit deal conditional on passing the legislation to implement it.
Johnson’s Conservative government will now go to its Plan B: get Parliament’s backing for his Brexit blueprint by passing the legislation, known as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The government plans to publish the bill later Monday and hopes to have it become law by Oct. 31.
But it’s unclear whether Johnson has either the time or the numbers to make that happen.
Passing a bill usually takes weeks, but the government wants to get this one done in 10 days. Johnson needs a majority in Parliament to pass it, but his Conservatives hold just 288 of the 650 House of Common seats.
The process also gives lawmakers another chance to scrutinize — and possibly change— the legislation.
Opposition lawmakers plan to seek amendments that could substantially alter the bill, for example by adding a requirement that the Brexit deal be put to voters in a new referendum. The government says such an amendment would wreck its legislation and it will withdraw the bill if it succeeds.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay urged lawmakers to back the bill and — more than three years after British voters narrowly voted to leave the EU — “enable us to move onto the people’s priorities like health, education and crime.”
“This is the chance to leave the EU with a deal on Oct. 31,” he said. “If Parliament wants to respect the referendum, it must back the bill.”
With the Brexit deadline looming and British politicians still squabbling over the country’s departure terms, Johnson has been forced to ask the EU for a three-month delay to Britain’s departure date.
He did that, grudgingly, to comply with a law passed by Parliament ordering the government to postpone Brexit rather than risk the economic damage that could come from a no-deal exit. But Johnson accompanied the unsigned letter to the EU late Saturday with a second note saying that he personally opposed delaying the UK’s Oct. 31 exit.
Pro-EU activists, who took the government to court in Scotland to ensure that it complied with the law, said the second letter might amount to an attempt to frustrate the legislation. Scotland’s highest court said Monday it would keep the case open, retaining the power to censure Johnson’s government until its obligations under the law have been complied with “in full.”
The claimants’ lawyer, Elaine Motion, said the ruling meant “the sword of Damocles remains hanging” over the government.
The bloc said the fact Johnson had not signed the letter was irrelevant.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said Monday that European Council President Donald Tusk had acknowledged receiving the Brexit extension request and was now talking with the EU’s other 27 leaders about it.
Those 27 EU leaders are weary of the long-running Brexit saga but also want to avoid a no-deal British exit, which would damage economies on both sides of the Channel.
Germany’s economy minister suggested it could be a few days before the EU decided to respond to the Brexit delay request.
“We will have somewhat more clarity in the coming days, and we will then exercise our responsibility and quickly make a decision,” Germany’s Peter Altmaier said.
He told Deutschlandfunk radio that he wouldn’t have a problem with an extension by “a few days or a few weeks” if that rules out a no-deal Brexit.
But French President Emmanuel Macron, who had a phone call with Johnson over the weekend, called for a quick clarification of the UK’s position. In a statement, he said a delay “would not be in any party’s interest.”
France’s junior minister for European affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told French news broadcaster BFM TV there would have to be some reason for the delay, such as a parliamentary election in Britain or a new British referendum on Brexit.