The Sabarimala temple opens on Friday amid unprecedented security for the two-month long annual pilgrim season amid the continuing stand-off over entry of menstrual age women as consensus eluded a crucial all-party meeting called to resolve the issue.
At the meeting on Thursday, the Kerala government took a firm stand it would implement the September 28 Supreme Court order, allowing women of all ages to offer prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple, prompting the opposition to walk out in protest.
The temple opens Friday evening, for the third time since the apex court lifted the age-old ban on entry of women in 10-50 age group, though no girl or woman pilgrim in the age group could offer prayers so far following stiff resistence by devotees and activists, opposing any change in the temple traditions.
Officials said prohibitory orders under section 144 CrPC banning assembly of four or more people would be in force in Sabarimala from midnight Thursday for a week.
State Director General of Police Loknath Behara told reporters at Nilackal, a base camp, security has been doubled at Sabarimala and nearby areas for the season, compared to the previous two occasions when the temple opened last month and early this month.
Over 15,000 personnel, including women police personnel and 860 women civil police officers, would be deployed during the season, when lakhs of devotees from different parts of the country are expected to throng the shrine, police said.
Earlier, at the end of the nearly three-hour long all party meet, dubbed as a 'farce' by opposition, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said his government was duty bound to enforce the court's September 28 verdict as it had not been stayed.
Vijayan convened the meet in the backdrop of state-wide protests by devotees after the Supreme Court ended the ban on entry of women in the 10-50 age group.
"The government has no other option as Supreme Court has made it clear that the September 28 verdict has not been stayed, which means women in the 10-50 age group have the right to visit the Sabarimala temple," Vijayan told reporters.
Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party staged a walkout at the meeting.
Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly Ramesh Chennithala accused the government of being adamant, while BJP state President P S Sreedharan Pillai said the meeting was a 'waste of time'.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile Pandalam Royal family, associated with the temple, told Vijayan that there was no change in its stand with regard to rituals and traditions of the shrine and it was against entry of young women.
The views were conveyed during talks held separately by the chief minister with the family member Sasikumar Varma and Tantri (head priest) Kandararu Rajeevaru on the issue.
"We are against the entry of young women. There is no change in the stand", Varma told reporters adding Vijayan informed them about the limitations faced by the government vis-a-vis the court order.
Kandararu Rajeevaru said "we can only appeal to young women not to come to Sabarimala".
At the all-party meet, Vijayan rejected the demand that the government seek time from the court to implement its order since a bunch of review petitions are expected to come up for hearing before the apex court on January 22.
The government cannot say that belief was above the Constitution, he said.
It put forward certain suggestions, including setting apart certain days for young women to offer prayers, Vijayan said adding these had to be discussed with all stakeholders.
He said the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Democratic Front government was not adamant but was duty-bound to implement the court verdict.
Chennithala said the government was "adamant" in its stand and it refused to accept opposition's suggestions.
"We decided to walk out of the meeting after chief minister's reply. The meeting was a farce, government was not ready for any compromise", he told reporters.
The United Democratic Front was with the believes and wanted peace and harmony in Sabarimala, while the government's aim was to "destroy" the pilgrimage, where lakhs of people from all over the world visit annually, he alleged.
"This is a declaration of war" on the believers by the government. The chief minister and the government would be responsible for any violence in Sabarimala, he added.
BJP leader Pillai alleged attempts were on to convert Kerala into "Stalin's Russia".
"We will oppose the government's decision in a democratic manner", he said.
The "new found love" of the LDF government towards the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala showed its "malicious intention to impose atheism in society", he alleged.
Varma said the talks were held in a 'cordial' atmosphere and Vijayan put forward certain suggestions. These have to be discussed with other members of their respective families, Varma and the head priest said.
"We will examine it, hold discussions and take a decision", Varma said.
The state had witnessed a string of protests by Congress, the BJP, RSS and right wing outfits against the LDF government's decision to implement the apex court verdict.
Frenzied devotees had prevented at least a dozen women in 10-50 age group from entering the temple when it opened for five days last month and two days this month for monthly and special puja amid high drama.
Social activist Trupti Desai has said she along with six other young women would offer prayers at the shrine on Nov 17 and sought protection from the state government.
"I have not asked for any VIP protection and wanted only security from the Kochi airport to Sabarimala temple as I am facing death threats", she said Thursday.
The outfits opposing the court order have said they would resist through "Gandhian means" any attempt by young women to enter the temple.
The sanctum sanctorum will open at 5 pm Friday. Though devotees will be allowed into the shrine from 5 pm to 10 pm, pujas will be held only from the next day, the first day of Malayalam month of 'Vrischikom', an official release said.