The last few days, I have faced an unprecedented troll attack by supposed devotees, calling me an assortment of names and attributing motives to me being at Nilakkal to do my job -- report on women’s entry in Sabarimala.
While I have mostly tried to ignore all of them and continue with my work, distortions need to be called out, the record needs to be set straight.
On October 17, like so many of my other colleagues, I too set out to cover what we all thought could be history in making -- women of menstruating age, armed with the Supreme Court verdict, entering the Sabarimala shrine.
Much before I could reach Nilakkal, at a junction, my car was stopped. A ‘squad’ of devotees, men and women, told us we cannot proceed further. I reasoned with them that I am a reporter and I am going to Nilakkal. After much bargaining and checking my identity card, they warned me to not venture beyond Nilakkal and asked me to proceed.
The police patrol cars which we were told will dot the route to Nilakkal and Pamba were absent and a few minutes later, came a convoy of cars, along with Shobha Surendran who introduced herself as a national executive member of the BJP. When I was told that the women who had stopped me were ‘with her’, I asked her for an interview and she obliged. But my repeated questions about the authority of the ‘squads’ to stop and check cars passing by were promptly dodged and a political tirade followed.
I reached Nilakkal around 9 am and reported from there for the next couple of hours. There were close to 80-90 police personnel deployed there and most of them, thus far, were mere observers, even as several groups of devotees passing by had been trying to intimidate the media personnel present there. The crowds started swelling around 11 am and having finished my ground report at Nilakkal, I decided to proceed to Pamba base camp where several other journalists, including women, were stationed.
As I asked my driver to get the car so we could make our way through the protesting crowd, small groups of 5-6 male devotees started surrounding me and telling me I can't go ahead. A little befuddled I explained to them I was only planning to travel to Pamba, where even traditionally women have been allowed. But I was repeatedly told to go home.
While this pattern repeated itself at least 5-6 times, there were several policeman who were witnessing this mutely. Then I started approaching them, seeking their assistance in helping my crew and me gain passage only so I can reach Pamba. To my dismay, most of the policeman literally refused to listen to me and even looked away. I continued approaching several of them and finally, a senior police officer asked me to go ahead and that he would inform his team near the exit to help us. As I neared the exit, I was met with a similar situation, the crowd stopping me and the police not even acknowledging the situation. I then forced the police there to address the issue, at which point an officer asked for my identity card and asked me to get the car.
My video journalist Bhagath stayed back near the junction shooting while my driver and I walked up to the car parked 200 metres away. Less than 30 seconds from when we started driving, a group of 8-10 men surrounded us and started asking us to go back. I was just starting a dialogue with them, saying I was only going near the junction, and will not proceed further, they started getting enraged.
Sensing that the situation could deteriorate if engage, I told them we will turn the car back. But by then, we were besieged from all sides and there was no scope for us to even reverse. As my driver was asking them to make way to turn back, they started hurling abuses at us and started hitting the window panes with their fists. Before we realised what was happening they started slapping my driver and fists were replaced with stones as they started breaking our windshield. The crowd expanded very quickly and men were gesticulating at me threateningly, all this while continuing to abuse me.
We tried to shield ourselves with our hands, from the broken glass shards and blows and the mob continued getting more pugnacious. Some from the crowd started pulling things from the car, including the Republic TV mike I held in my hand. As I snatched back my mike, they started asking me to come out of the car, a proposition that daunted me, for reasons obvious.
Then the single point agenda of the mob converged to getting me out of the car. While their demands for the same grew louder, I was reluctant, not just held back by my trepidation but also a lack of space to even open my car door. Now along with the fists and stones, feet were being used to attack the car.
By now, less than half a dozen police, finally noticing the commotion, came near the crowd. It baffles me till date as to what took them so long when they were positioned just around 100 metres from the location of the attack. But as the police were vastly outnumbered and steeply overpowered in aggression, their lathis too were snatched and used as weapons against us.
With no choice, I exited my car and stood at the opening of the door asking them to let me through. The yelling, screaming and threatening continued and now women from nearby too joined the enraged men.
The police made another attempt to disperse the crowd but failing yet again, they tried to reach me and take me away from there. After sustaining a few blows themselves, they managed to get close to me but not before I received a couple of strikes from their snatched-away lathis on my leg. The police formed a cordon around me with their hands and hauled me away from there. And that's when the loot began. The car had sustained considerable damage by the and the boot, as well as the doors, were thrown open. Our camera equipment and personal belongings were taken out and flung about.
As I was requesting the hysterical crowd to not take away our things, the police insisted that I be taken away to safety and on my way out a few managed to kick me in my shin and some women protesters too managed to slap me and attempted to strangle as well.
All this while, I was incognizant about the whereabouts of my Video journalist and kept shouting to the police to allow me to see him. One person from the crowd tried to ‘assure’ me that he has been taken away to a hospital, only to further agonise me into an almost frenzy.
Thankfully, in the next 10 minutes he made his way to where I was and narrated how, after the first few minutes of him shooting the ruckus that broke out, three of those goons physically lifted him and on a motorbike, took him away. After riding almost two kms from there, they pushed him off the bike and threw away his camera in an empty field. The camera did not sustain any serious damage and the visuals of the abhorrent incident could be broadcast.
Even as we were being escorted away in a police jeep, we heard a commotion and another woman journalist, Saritha Balan of The News Minute was being attacked by an acrimonious crowd. We jumped out of the jeep and reached Saritha but by then she had been dragged out of her bus, heckled and even kicked on her spine.
We all then managed to get board the jeep but not before a few more stones were pelted on its windshield too. We drove away to a police camp close by, hoping to be safe for the next few hours at least.
Once the adrenaline abated, what happened over the last few minutes started sinking in. I went through a plethora of emotions, anger, indignance and just sheer disgust. I was careful to not dishonour anyone's sentiments, religious or otherwise. I had not affronted anyone. I was merely doing my job as a reporter and doing so professionally.
What struck me as aberrant was the loathsome measure some of the protestors would go to, all this while pretending to be protecting their faith. I was alone and susceptible, a sitting duck for the turbulent crowd to launch an onslaught to send a message across. And the fact that in front of them the police repeatedly refused to come to my aid only emboldened them further to intensify their offensive.
As I had to plead with an unruly, unreasonable and insolent crowd, I felt deprived of my dignity and vulnerable. I cannot imagine any God who would be pleased with this behaviour in his name and I certainly believe Lord Ayyappa had nothing to do with any of this.
This was just a bunch of thugs, encouraged by the inaction of the security forces, using an excuse to assail a defenseless person. Faith had nothing to do with this.
The picture above appeared in the New Indian Express and was credited to Shaji Vettipuram. Pooja Prasanna is Republic TV's South Bureau Chief.