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No Country For Children In ‘God’s Own Country’

Authorities should act suo motu, against children being abused physically and mentally for religious purposes, a senior police official in Kerala tells The Lede

A senior police official has drawn attention to a temple ritual involving children, calling it ‘child abuse’. Talking exclusively to The Lede, Kerala DGP (Prisons) R Sreelekha said that Kuthiyottam, a ritual practiced at the 10-day long festival at the Attukal temple in the capital city of Kerala, which involves piercing young boys with an iron hook, is inhumane.

The Attukal temple is referred to as the ‘Sabarimala for women’, to which more than 4 million women from all over the state and outside throng every year in March, to celebrate the Attukal Pongala Festival with the offering of a sweet dish called Pongala.

Following the Pongala offering, Kuthiyottam is performed.

For Kuthiyottam, boys below the age of 12 observe a seven-day penance by staying at the temple.

The vrutham or vow, starts on the third day of the festival.

This year, 983 boys are participating in the festival. During their week-long stay at the temple they will participate in special rituals and do 1008 namaskarams, by lying prostrate in salutation to the goddess, wearing only a single dhoti.

This year’s vrutham started with the boys taking a bath in the temple pond and offering prayers on Saturday morning.

On March 2, after the Pongala offering, the boys will participate in the Chooralkuthu (iron hook piercing) ceremony.

Later, they will walk in a ceremonial procession to the nearby Sastha temple at Manacaud. The procession’s return to the Attukal temple is followed by the untying of the chooral, marking the end of the ritual.

“It is a horrible ritual. It’s inhuman. It is the abuse of children, physically and mentally. It has to be stopped. The authorities concerned can take suo motu action against this practice,” Sreelekha said.

Even though the temple website describes the boys as ‘soldiers of the goddess’ and states that the ritual involves rigorous physical and mental discipline, Sreelekha said that it is ‘cruelty against boys’.

On Tuesday, Sreelekha openly criticised the ritual in her blog.

“Parents conspire with temple authorities to put their children through rigorous mental and physical abuse for five days, where boys from the age of 5 to 12 are made to wear just a loin cloth, submerge in cold water thrice daily, eat measly morsels squatting on the floor and sleep on the bare temple ground. Yes, recite mantras and obey blindly their leaders too. They are not allowed to see their parents during this time,” her blog read.

“Most of the boys will not be informed about any of these tortures when parents take them from home to the temple.  Causing physical and mental pain to children are offences under sections 89, 319, 320, 349, 350, 351 of Indian Penal Code. The Juvenile Justice Act and the Child Welfare Commission Act penalises it. Who will complain? Parents will not, those who see it will not since they have no locus standi. Will a child complain? How will he even know that a crime has been committed on him? And I found everyone with whom I talked knew about this torture on children, but did or are planning to do nothing!” she further wrote in her blog.

Sreelekha wrote that this year again, the crime is going to take place on the hapless children.

“I have been requesting people to stop it ever since I knew about this weird custom. Will it have any effect? I am not offering Pongala this year. Unless there is divine intervention in stopping this from happening. This time at least, I pray to Attukal Amma to save her boy soldiers from being physically hurt in Her name!” her blog read.

But governments are wary to wade into what is seen as a ‘religious’ issue, giving child rights the short shrift. Kadakampally Surendran, the current Minister for Co-Operation, Tourism and Devaswom in Kerala, told The Lede that Sreelekha’s comments can be seen only as personal views.

“If such things are happening as it is being alleged, we will have to look into it in detail. It is only after a proper study that I can say something or act on it,” the minister told The Lede.

When The Lede contacted the Attukal temple authorities, they declined to comment over the phone and instead, shared a press release issued against Sreelekha’s blog post.

The press release condemned what she had written on her blog.

“A police official who is responsible to give protection for the public, issuing such baseless statements to create panic among parents and believers is a condemnable act,” the release read.

Meanwhile, Rahul Eswar, a Right Wing activist, said that Sreelekha should not have written a blog by citing the Indian Penal Code acts.

“She should understand religious sentiments too,” he said.

However, a senior official of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) told The Lede that they are trying their best to ensure ‘childhood’ for children and that they are fighting against all such inhuman activities imposed on children in all religions.

Shoba Koshy, Chairperson of the KSCPCR, said that similar Kuthiyottams are held in the Chettikulangara Devi Temple in Mavelikkara. She said that they had issued recommendations to stop them.

“The court ruling in the Chettikulangara Devi Temple Kuthiyottam was favourable to us. But on the ground, nothing happened. Our recommendations are being defied. But we will not be deterred. We want every child to enjoy childhood. We don’t want to childhood to be ruined by any means, by anybody. We will continue our efforts towards that,” Shoba told The Lede.

According to Shoba, two years ago, they had received information that some people were ‘purchasing’ children for Kuthiyottam in Chettikulangara.

“If a wealthy individual seeks the blessings of the goddess, he will pay money to a poor family so that they allow him to use their child in the rituals that are held,” Koshy added.

Dr P Muralidharan, a doctor who petitioned the Human Rights Commission against the ritual in 2014, told The Lede that he decided to act after several children were brought to him with infections following the ‘chooralkuthu’ ritual.

“I have been working as a medical practitioner in this area for the past 50 years. Every time after the ritual, around five to seven children with issues ranging from infection to fever come to me. I approached the temple authorities. They did not respond. So, I approached the Human Rights Commission. They gave me a favourable recommendation. I approached the Congress-led government with the same. But they were reluctant to intervene saying that religious sentiments will be hurt,” the 77-year-old doctor said.

The doctor said that when practices like Sati have been stopped, this too can be brought to an end.

P Mohandass, the current acting chairman of the State Human Rights Commission, told The Lede that he is not aware of the 2014 recommendation. He said that he would check for details and also ask the government as to what action they have taken on the 2014 recommendation.

The Aam Admi Party State Convener, CR Neelakandan, told The Lede that he is in sync with Sreelekha’s stance. “In the name of rituals, children cannot be abused. A child is a child. With or without permission, is not the matter in question. Whosoever is under 14 years of age is a child according to the law. So, it is the elders who have to act sensibly.”

The Attukal Pongala Festival has become so famous that even Christian women take part in the rituals, as do a good number of foreign women tourists.

The temple is dedicated to Attukal Bhagavathi, a goddess believed to be an incarnation of Kannagi, the central character of the Tamil epic ‘Silappathikaaram’.

According to legend, Kannagi destroyed Madurai in Tamil Nadu after the king wrongfully imposed death penalty on her husband. After that, she travelled to Kerala, where she rested for a while at Attukal, where women were supposed to have cooked Pongala for her.

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