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Fresh clashes in India temple dispute

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India police carry away an activist who was part of a group of demonstrators trying to burn an effigy of Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayai Vijayan at a protest after two women entered the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple on Wednesday.

[THIRUVANANTHAPURAM] Clashes broke out in southern India for a second day Thursday as Hindu hardliners went on the rampage, seeking to enforce a general shutdown in protest at two women entering one of the country's holiest temples.

A day after violence among rival groups and with police left one man dead and 15 people injured, authorities said that 266 protestors had been arrested across the state of Kerala.

Anger erupted among Hindu traditionalists on Wednesday after news that the two women in their 40s, escorted by police and dressed in black, wrong-footed devotees to sneak into the Sabarimala temple via a side entrance before dawn to pray.

This was the first time that any woman of menstruating age - deemed as those aged between 10 and 50 - had set foot in the gold-plated temple, located on a hilltop in a tiger reserve, since India's Supreme Court overturned a ban in September.

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Thousands of Hindu devotees, many of them female, had previously succeeded in preventing women from accessing the site in the weeks following the landmark ruling, with some hardliners throwing stones at police and assaulting female journalists.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women, in a local government-backed initiative, had braved harassment to form a huge human chain called the "Women's Wall" across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple.

Kerala police told AFP that the man who died on Wednesday was part of a demonstration organised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Kerala's chief minister said later that the man, Chandran Unnithan, died from a heart attack after being taken injured to hospital, but a later post mortem report said he died from injuries sustained to the head.

Police on Wednesday had used tear gas and water cannon, including in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, as protestors set fire to tyres and blocked roads.

On Thursday, police clashed with protestors pressuring shop owners to comply with a call by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy for a dawn-til-dusk "hartal" shutdown.

Most shops remained shut in the state, while bus services came to a standstill.

Four people were stabbed, media reports said, with stone-throwing protestors smashing the windows of 99 buses and causing an estimated US$480,000 worth of damage. In the coastal city of Kozhikode police used tear gas to disperse protestors.

Twenty offices of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which governs Kerala in a left-wing alliance, were attacked, said Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, state party secretary.

Journalists were assaulted in the city of Palakkad during a march organised by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu group and ideological mentor of Mr Modi's party.

Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused the BJP and the RSS of trying to turn Sabarimala into a "battle zone", saying that more than 100 people including 38 police officers had been injured.

Mr Vijayan also slammed the head priest of the Sabarimala temple for carrying out a "purification ritual" after the two women entered the site, saying he should quit if he is not prepared to accept the Supreme Court verdict.

The restriction on women at the temple, atop a 915-metre hill that takes hours to climb, reflects a belief - not exclusive to Hinduism - that menstruating women are impure.

September's verdict was the latest progressive ruling from India's top court, with judges also overturning bans on gay sex and adultery last year.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its ruling to allow women into the temple from Jan 22.

Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

AFP