20 OCTOBER 2018
Keep the peace
The immediate task is to dial down the tensions over Sabarimala
The riotous scenes in the pathways leading to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala in the last few days ought to persuade everyone, irrespective of where they stand on the Supreme Court’s recent verdict, of the importance of one thing: to keep the peace. There is little to be gained in this surcharged atmosphere in stoking further trouble or using religious sentiment for political purposes. Whether one agrees with it or not, there is no dispute that the Supreme Court judgment allowing into the shrine the entry of all women, irrespective of their age, is the law of the land. Also, that it will remain so unless overturned by an even larger bench. The popular protests that have consumed Kerala following the Supreme Court judgment have suggested there is a sizeable section of devotees of both sexes that believes women in the age group of 10 to 50 should not be permitted into the shrine. But even so, this is no basis for devotees to prevent the implementation of the Supreme Court order, by threats and the unseemly use of force. Not one woman has managed to enter the temple, with two of them being turned away just 500 metres from the shrine. Faced with a threat by the head priest that the shrine itself would be closed if any of the women entered it, the police advised a woman journalist and an activist to turn back.
These developments do not augur well. Located in forest terrain, the shrine is accessible only from a few points, rendering it easy for protesters to stop vehicles and check for women in the 10 to 50 age group. It transpires that two of the women who tried to enter the temple were activists. The State government has now declared that its protection is available only to genuine devotees and not those trying to make a statement. After the drama and tension of the last few days, it is time for calmer reflection, not provocation. Activists and non-devotees are legally entitled to visit the shrine, but in such a volatile atmosphere, little is gained and a lot is lost by merely attempting to score a point. Everyone would do well to await the outcome of the review petitions before the apex court, even if the same issues resurfaced were the court to reiterate its verdict. The State government, the Travancore Devaswom Board and the devotees should discuss ways of implementing the Supreme Court order instead of frittering away their energies on managing protests and conflicts on a daily basis. If no solution is found soon, there is a risk that incidents may recur on any day when the shrine is open. Next month, the temple will open again for a longer season, placing a question mark on the possibility of peaceful and incident-free worship for devotees. Meanwhile, it is important that everyone works together to ensure that such fears are unfounded.
With the Kandahar attack, the militants strike a blow to Afghan election and peace processes
The attack on a high-level meeting inside the Governor’s compound in southern Kandahar on Thursday, killing top security officials, is yet another reminder of the sharply deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. In recent years, theTaliban had shown its capability to infiltrate official meetings and attack any government building, notwithstanding claims by the authorities of heightened security. A year ago, the Kandahar Governor’s office had come under attack by militants, resulting in the death of a Deputy Governor, the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates and members of Parliament. Thursday’s assault happened at a meeting that was attended by General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. U.S. troops later said he was unhurt, while Gen. Abdul Raziq, the Kandahar police chief, and Abdul Momin, the Kandahar intelligence chief, were killed. Kandahar Governor Zalmai Wesa was also targeted in the attack, but there were conflicting reports about the status of his health. Raziq was arguably the most powerful police commander in southern Afghanistan. A close ally of the U.S., he had previously survived several attempts on his life and was instrumental in coordinating the local police networks in the fight against the Taliban. His death will leave a security vacuum in the south, especially at a time when the Taliban has launched an all-out offensive.
Significantly, the Kandahar attack happened two days ahead of the much-delayed parliamentary election. From the day the election dates were announced, the Taliban had warned those participating in the process. The security situation is so dire in the country that one-third of the polling stations will not open on Saturday, election day. Over the past couple of months, the Taliban has repeatedly targeted election offices and gatherings, killing at least 10 candidates and dozens of their supporters. The already overstretched Afghan security forces will now have to deal with the fallout of the Kandahar strike. The attack is a setback for the U.S. plan for direct talks with the Taliban as a way out of the 17-year-long conflict. Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy to Afghanistan, recently met Taliban representatives in Qatar.The push for talks comes from a realisation that the war has drifted into a stalemate and an outright military solution could be impossible. And as it finally comes around to the idea of direct talks, the U.S. is trying to turn up pressure on the militant group through Pakistan. But this strategy will work only if the Afghan forces and their allies make some advances on the ground, and bring the Taliban under military pressure. What is actually happening, as incidents such as the Kandahar attack suggest, is the opposite. Both the U.S. and Afghan forces appear to be clueless about how to stop the Taliban’s advances.