THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala — For over three months in 2018, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led communist government in Kerala failed to enforce the Supreme Court’s historic verdict striking down the ban on women or girls of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala Temple, dedicated to the Hindu deity Ayyappa. As devotees defied the top court by protesting and pelting stones at women pilgrims trying to enter the 19-century temple, the police failed to provide them with the security they needed. Then, on 2 January 2019, Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, aged 40 and 39, made history by entering the sanctum sanctorum at 3:45 in the morning, escorted by 250 police personnel.
In the three years since then, the ban on women has been reimposed, and Ammini has been at the receiving end of physical assaults, a hit-and-run, a chilli powder attack, vile messages on social media, an obscene morphed video, and the threat of an acid attack. The 43-year-old, who lives with her husband and daughter in Koyilandy, says she has filed multiple police complaints, but they have not brought anyone to book.
Ammini, who, in addition to running a garment store, is also a guest lecturer in civil law at the Government Law College, Kozhikode, no longer feels safe in the state where she made history. She says the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government has failed to protect her against sustained attack by Hindu rightwing extremists online and off.
“Why are they attacking me constantly? They have not even spared my aged mother, husband, and daughter,” Ammini told us in a recent conversation. “The Kerala police is limiting its actions to registering FIRs (First Information Report). There are breaches in the security accorded to me by the Supreme Court. I have no option other than taking asylum and leaving this country forever.”
“In Left-ruled Kerala, the police carry out the agenda of the Hindu right,” she said. “Women are not seen as equal. There is no respect or justice for us.”
On 5 January 2022, Ammini was attacked on the beach in the coastal city of Kozhikode by a stranger, a man named Mohandas, who she believes was a Hindu zealot still upset over her having entered the temple. A video that captured the ferocity of the attack triggered public outrage and several reports in the media. Police inspector G Gopakumar told us that Mohandas is a fisherman from the town of Beypore, who was drunk when he attacked Ammini, and a sympathizer of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but he couldn’t say whether the attack was motivated by his ideological affiliation.
Ammini believes it was, just like the previous ten attacks that she counted down. On the day of this most recent attack, Ammini was on her way to meet a lawyer in connection with an incident a month earlier, on 19 December 2021, when she says that an auto-rickshaw tried to run her over as she was closing her garment store in Poyilkavu, leaving her gravely injured. A Sreenivas, a senior police official in Kozhikode, told us that the police registered an FIR under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), an attempt to murder, but they had no vehicle number and little else to go on. Ammini plans to take legal action against the police for failing to arrest anyone.
The disquiet set in immediately after Ammini and Kanakadurga’s historic entry. For two weeks after that, they were hiding at Kottayam, with police protection. The two women returned to a different set of circumstances at home. Ammini continued to be targeted by the right-wing ecosystem, but she found support with her family, and her life as an activist allowed her to speak out.
Kanakadurga returned home to a furious family and a mother-in-law who attacked her with a wooden rod, causing a head injury that landed her in a hospital. After her mother-in-law kicked her out of their house in Angadipuram in Malappuram District, it took orders from the Gram Nyayalaya in Perinthalmanna and then the Kerala High Court to go back. She returned to an empty house. Her husband had left with their two sons. They divorced in 2020, and she now gets to see her sons twice a month because of a Family Court order. The 42-year-old withdrew the police cases against her mother-in-law and husband for attacking her. All this and the fact that she had to studiously avoid any controversy to keep her job as a government employee in the civil supplies made her retreat from the public gaze.
When we asked her if her historic entry came at the cost of her family, Kanakadurga said she had learned to live without them but was happy as long as she got to meet her children. “We are coexisting. We don’t want to hurt any more people,” she said.
As the threats from right-wing groups persisted, the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to provide the two women with security. In the months following the order, the two women recalled four constables — two men and two women — were assigned to them. By the end of 2019, it was one woman constable. In July 2020, when her divorce came through, and she felt more at peace, Kanakadurga gave up her police protection. In November 2020, just before she left Kerala to join the farmers’ protest in New Delhi, Ammini fell out with the woman constable assigned to her. She accused the policewoman of restricting her movements. After that, the Kerala police posted no one else.
Senior advocate Indira Jaising, who represented Ammini in the Supreme Court, said, “The Kerala government is duty-bound to protect her from attacks and bring to book all those who have attacked her, so far.”
Recalling the harassment of women sitting with their male friends at Marine Drive in Kochi on 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day, PE Usha, said there was a pattern of the communist government protecting rightwing hooligans. “The police did nothing. The government promised stern action, but nothing happened,” she said.
Shihabudheen Poythumkadavu, a Malayalam short story writer and a native of Kozhikode, said that it was shocking that Ammini was attacked in broad daylight on a beach in Kozhikode. “This would have been unthinkable in Kozhikode which has always had a cosmopolitan culture and little tolerance to religious fanaticism,” he said.
Following the most recent attack on 5 January, rightwing portals said that Ammini removed the fisherman’s dhoti and attacked him.
Even though Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who heads the Home Department of Kerala, is yet to respond to the charge that his police are shielding Hindu fanatics, Education Minister R Bindu condemned the attack on social media and to the press. “Hindu fundamentalists are attacking Bindu Ammini continuously. This is to be resisted,” she said. “They think in a very constructive manner. Most of them are male chauvinists.”
The BJP has dismissed her concerns, accusing Ammini of blaming the RSS without cause and seeking media attention.
A Dalit woman who fought grinding poverty to get an education, Ammini said that her temple entry was part of a lifelong struggle for gender equality. Since then, she has joined people’s movements around the country, from the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, to the farmers’ protests against three contentious farm laws, never missing an opportunity to raise her voice against anti-women, casteist, and communal forces.
Born to parents who were not educated, and a father who used to beat her mom, Ammini had a difficult childhood. Her mother fled her husband and their village with her five children, taking up menial jobs in restaurants and as a farmhand to survive.
Ammini said she was the first in her family to attend college, the Government Law College in Kochi. It was during college that she became a leader of the Kerala Vidyarthi Sanghatana, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Ammini was 18 when she met Hariharan at a gathering of communist students and they were married within a year. The grocery store that she ran with her husband helped pay for college. They named their daughter Olga after the communist revolutionary Olga Benario Prestes who was gassed by the Nazis during the Holocaust in 1942.
Even her husband and daughter have been targeted in hateful social media posts, and fanatics have barged into her mother’s home in Pathanamthitta district, she said. In a Facebook post in January 2021, Govinda Warrier, father of the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson in Kerala, Sandeep Warrier, wrote that she was pregnant by a man who was not her husband. A month earlier, in December 2020, this reporter recalls seeing posts that said her husband was a pimp who sold his wife and daughter into prostitution, and that he received money from Islamists for sending her to Sabrimala.
K.V. Hariharan, Ammini’s husband and a lecturer of English at the SARBTM, Government College, Koyilandy, holds the state responsible for the recurring attacks against her.
“The police and the state are failing us. The attackers are feeling safe in the absence of any serious investigations despite the Supreme Court providing her police protection,” he said. “In Kerala, the police are a big failure in ensuring justice to Dalits and tribals.”
Three years on
Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga were connected for the first time on a Facebook page titled Navothana Keralam Sabarimalayilekku (Kerala’s Renaissance Enters Sabarimala), a collective of women and men who vowed to help women enter the Sabarimala. After discussing it amongst themselves and the police, these two women were chosen for the first attempt. Ammini said she knew it would be difficult but did not anticipate the gravity of the opposition. She recalled over 200 police personnel circling them as they entered the temple at 3:45 in the morning with their faces covered and spent hardly ten minutes inside. The world came to know after the police released the photos and the Additional Director General of Police (DGP), S Sreejith, who had escorted them inside, disclosed their names.
After Ammini and Kanakadurga entered on 2 January, 49 more women entered till the end of the pilgrimage season in January 2019.
In the case of the morphed video that surfaced in April 2019, Ammini says she registered a complaint with the Kerala police, and when nothing was done for five months, filed a second complaint with the cyber wing of Kerala Police in October 2019, accusing right-wing groups of circulating a nude video of her. The Kerala Police told us that no FIR had been lodged.
On 14 November 2019, a five-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, in response to review petitions opposing the Supreme Court’s verdict in September 2018, decided to keep the matter in abeyance until a seven-judge Bench decided whether a court could decide if a practice was essential to a religion or not. The top court, however, did not stay its previous verdict lifting the ban. The next day, on 15 November, the state government reimposed the ban on menstruating women entering the temple until the Supreme Court decided the matter. Women have not been allowed to enter the temple since 2020.
On 26 November 2019, Ammini was attacked with chilli powder by a group of right-wing men in front of the City Police Commissioner’s office in Kochi, while attempting a second visit to the temple with Pune-based social activist Trupti Desai. The police registered a case of an attempt to murder against one man. Two years on, there has been no conviction. Aishwarya Dongre, Deputy Police Commissioner, Kochi, told us that the investigation is still on.
On whether she regretted her decision, Ammini said she did not. “For me, Sabarimala was a chance to remind people of the power of social transformation.”
Kanakadurga said, “We were on the cover of Time Magazine and the front page of the Guardian. Every time women enter Sabarimala, they will remember us. There is no regret.”