Struggle for equality

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Swarajya Mahila Sanghatana chief Vanita Gutte and other women offering worship at the Trimbakeshwar temple near Nashik on April 21. On April 15, the temple trust decided to allow women into the sanctum santorum for one hour every day. Photo: PTI

Trupti Desai of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade and other activists gather as they attempt to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Photo: AFP

A woman pilgrim trekking to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Photo: Leju Kamal

The women’s movement for the right of entry into religious spaces seeks to challenge gender- and caste-based hierarchies. The organisations leading it believe that the notion of equality should be extended to all spheres where women face discrimination.

THE DEMAND THAT WOMEN BE ALLOWED to enter and worship at religious spaces that they have been barred from signifies, to a large extent, women’s growing assertiveness in seeking equal rights in all spaces. This is viewed as an outcome of the increasing awareness and consciousness of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Although the resolution of the demand for democratisation of all spaces will involve a protracted legal process, which is under way, what is clear is that these movements do raise certain fundamental questions of discrimination and exclusion justified under the garb of traditional religious practices connected with a narrow biological determinism of purity and pollution as far as women are concerned. The demand and the movements initiated in various parts of the country by a cross section of religious denominations standing for reform from within should be taken seriously for they have a progressive component. Indian democracy must take cognisance of the movements, especially since these are led and represented by young people.

A larger and fundamental question is that it has the potential to shape the course of Indian democracy, challenging as it does hierarchies of gender and caste. Whether beliefs and customs can be changed by a judicial process that protects such practices on the basis of the general principle of pluralism or whether they should be allowed to undergo change by a painfully slow natural process of social evolution is the question Indian democracy will need to grapple with.

The Bhumata Ranragini Brigade’s “temple entry” movement in Shani Shingnapur in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, the demand to allow women to offer prayers at all stages of their lives at the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, and the demand to allow women entry into the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai are all recent instances of challenges to the status quo that prevails in a patriarchal society. The movements, while broadly supported by progressive and democratic sections of society, have been challenged legally on the basis of the protection to religious beliefs and customs guaranteed in the Constitution.

Conservative sections resisted the demands vigorously by beating up those involved in the movement. When Trupti Desai led the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade on January 27, she was stopped some 70 kilometres from Shani Shingnapur by the police on the grounds that her action would cause a law and order problem. Women and children representing the Swarajya Mahila Sanghatana, an organisation floated with the same objective of breaking the patriarchal bastion, were beaten up when they sought to enter the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik district on April 21.

A 400-year-old ban preventing women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple was lifted when the Bombay High Court ruled on March 31 that women should not be denied entry into any temple. The Shani Shingnapur Trust acceded to the demand, but women opposed to the breaking of the tradition were mobilised to beat up and intimidate the women activists seeking to enter the sanctum sanctorum.

What was more shocking was the reaction of a section of the ruling political class and religious heads. Pankaja Munde, Women and Child Development Minister of Maharashtra, who should, by virtue of being the elected representative, be obliged to uphold the principle of equality in the Constitution, justified the ban on grounds of tradition. Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth in Gujarat, predicted that incidents of assault on women and rape would increase because women entered the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur. He even blamed the temple entry activists for the firework accident at a temple in Kollam, Kerala. Women’s groups criticised his statements.

Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a former Rajya Sabha member, said she welcomed as positive any movement that challenged social conservatism and religion-based social orthodoxy. “The women’s temple entry movement certainly does it and should be supported. The reach and impact of women’s movements for equality and women’s rights have a much wider influence than is acknowledged. In my mind, it is a reflection of these movements that have led women believers to question their exclusion from temples on the basis of their sex. This cuts across communities. I hope the momentum goes forward into questioning basic undemocratic practices in the name of religion,” she told Frontline. She added that the communists were among the first to challenge the denial of the right to enter temples to the Scheduled Castes. Some of the early movements, she pointed out, were led by legendary communist leaders such as A.K. Gopalan. “The issue is equally relevant today as there are many temples that deny Dalits entry when they want to worship,” she said.

The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, an organisation conceived by the CPI(M), has led several successful struggles for temple entry by Dalits in the State, perhaps taking forward the legacy of the historic entry into the Madurai Meenakshi temple in 1939, which was led by Vaidyanatha Iyer, a Gandhian and Congressman. That movement, which spawned other such temple entries, was supported by many communists. In fact, they continued such struggles even after Independence, although the Dravidian parties and the Congress abandoned them.

Taking on gender biases

Notwithstanding the judicial intervention in the matter, the political Left has never balked at taking head-on such conservative gender biases. Kerala’s Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) affidavit in the Sabarimala temple entry case is the most recent illustration. The LDF supported the right of women to enter the Sabarimala shrine when it was in power. Its government supported a writ petition filed by the Young Lawyers Association saying that it was “not fair to deny a section of women from entering Sabarimala temple”. The LDF affidavit questioned the efficacy of the rituals and made a plea for the appointment of a commission of scholars to submit their views on the issue of making the temple open to women of all ages. The United Democratic Front (UDF) government, on the other hand, submitted an additional affidavit justifying the ban. Quoting from the scriptures (including Manusmriti), it argued that it was “in keeping with the unique pratishtha sangalp, or idol concept of the temple”. “The same is an essential and integral part of the right of practice of religion of a devotee and comes under the protective guarantee of the Constitution under Article 25 and 26, which has been held to contain a guarantee for rituals, observances, ceremonies and modes of worship, which are an essential or integral part of religion. It is then immune to challenge from Article 14,” the UDF affidavit said. It listed out the various conditions that proscribed women’s entry, relying on customs and traditions, and emphasised that the general restriction on the entry of non-Hindus into temples that was in force in Kerala was not applicable in Sabarimala and that devotees of all religions worshipped at the hill shrine. Any restriction, therefore, was only for women of a particular age group. The UDF government withdrew the affidavit of the previous LDF government, filed in November 2007. Reacting to this, Brinda Karat said it was “shameful that the UDF government gave a revised petition to the Supreme Court against the petition of the earlier LDF government, which had supported women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. The UDF wants to compromise with orthodoxy with an eye on the forthcoming elections.”

Women’s organisations, which have launched campaigns for reforms in Indian law following the publication of the first report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India in 1975, have always supported and pushed for equality in all spheres and democratisation of all spaces for women. While they might not have raised the issue of rights for women in religious spaces in a specific form, there has been this recognition that the struggle for the realisation of constitutional rights was more important and that the right to such specific spaces was located in the larger domain of rights. Brinda Karat, preferring not to hold a view on behalf of all women’s organisations, said: “I can’t really speak about the views of other women’s organisations. I would think that they would support women’s temple entry. There may be an opinion that it is all a diversion and women should not be bothered about going into temples which are bastions of male orthodoxy. It may also be said that these are religious matters in which women’s organisations should not interfere. I don’t agree with either of these positions.”

Curiously, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took an ambivalent stand on the issue, although individual party leaders took seemingly progressive positions on it. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindutva fountainhead, said the matter should be resolved amicably without resorting to agitation. It supported the entry of women into temples. The announcement was made at the RSS’ annual conclave in Nagaur, Rajasthan. Additionally, it pointed out that women were learning the Vedas and following religious practices.

The BJP’s Maharashtra State unit chief went a step further by advocating that women should have the right to enter temples, mosques and churches as well. However, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis came under fire for prevaricating on the Shani Shingnapur matter and drew the ire of women’s organisations for using the police to prevent women from entering the temple.

Kiran Moghe, professor of economics and vice president of the Maharashtra State unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), said it was foremost an issue of constitutional equality and upholding of Article 14, even more so since the High Court had ruled in favour of women. “We soundly criticise the BJP State government for not standing by the women who demanded temple entry. It shows its sanatani mindset,” she said. She pointed out that Dr B.R. Ambedkar had led agitations by Dalits, such as the Kalaram Mandir satyagraha at Nashik, to demand temple entry, in which Dalit women played a big role.

“But at the end of the day he, too, came to the conclusion that the Hindu religion itself had to be challenged, and then adopted the Buddha’s ‘Dhamma’. At one of the conventions he addressed at the Kamgar maidan in Bombay [now Mumbai] on June 1, 1936, a poster in Marathi posed the question: ‘Why do you stay in the religion that does not allow you to enter temples?’ This was at a time when the Constitution was not framed, a time when the Hindu religion dictated what people should and should not do. As the Constitution of India has been adopted and is based on the principles of equality and social justice, no one should and can be denied entry. Since we believe that religion is a personal choice, if some women believe that they have the right to temple entry and are being denied because they are women, and indirectly because they are considered, as per Manusmriti, impure or polluting, then we would support such women on the question of non-discrimination and equal rights. For those who believe in the existence of a god, let it be said that god is not the private property of the trustees of some temple or dargah to be guarded by private security personnel,” she said.

On a positive note, Kiran Moghe felt that the temple entry movements in Ahmednagar and Sabarimala had brought into public discourse the notions of impurity, purity and pollution. “Nevertheless, I agree that temples and other religious places are symbols of a patriarchal and casteist system that has institutionalised and staunchly upheld discrimination against women and the so-called lower castes, and so apart from the issue of upholding constitutional equality, there is little merit in promoting temple entry.”

Kiran Moghe also pointed out the inherent contradictions. In Maharashtra, she said, the RSS had led a movement to enable women to become purohits (priests). This was touted as a measure of equality. “However, do these women refuse to do kanyadan [literally, gifting the maiden] in Hindu weddings and abjure other anti-woman rituals? I don’t think so. There is an inherent contradiction between religion and the principles of equality and non-discrimination. In fact, Shani Shingnapur, in particular, is a temple riddled with all kinds of superstitions, and has always been the target of the anti-superstition movement, including the one led by Dr Narendra Dabholkar. Pouring oil or water or milk [on the stone slab] or whatever and taking part in such rituals only panders to superstitious beliefs,” she said.

The question whether the symbolic entry into religious spaces automatically guarantees equal rights in all spheres is a legitimate one. Insofar as it poses issues of discrimination as ordained by the scriptures and the shastras, the basis of religious practices and beliefs, the symbolic entry has a value. To seek reform within an inherently biased structure may be limited, but the democratic demolition of shibboleths also has a merit. Trupti Desai does not call herself a feminist. She has maintained that her outrage is more against the unjustness of the system. All of 31, she perhaps represents the angst of a younger generation that is increasingly coming under pressures of all kinds, including the pressure to conform to tradition. The intolerance and violent reaction to youngsters marrying out of choice, exemplified in the phenomenon of “killings in the name of honour”, is an illustration of just one of the many challenges faced by the youth of today. Whether organisations such as the RSS and its ideological affiliates supporting the right of entry by women into all religious spaces are equally tolerant of inter-caste or inter-religious marriages remains to be seen. The silence of these organisations in the aftermath of the statement made by the Sankaracharya is an affirmation that their idea of reform is a selective one. On the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple at all times and at all stages of their life, the Hindutva organisations have remained silent.

While supporting the movement led by the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade and others, Kiran Moghe wondered why no struggles were initiated to end the caste-based discrimination of Dalit women and sex selection and rituals that promote son preference, and to demand equal wages for women workers and one-third reservation for women in Parliament. “We hope they will extend their notion of equality to all the spheres where women face discrimination,” she said.

In its election manifesto in 2014, the BJP promised that it would enact a legislation guaranteeing one-third reservation for women in Parliament. A symbolic emancipation settled through a protracted judicial process leaves no room for celebration. The entry into religious sanctorum by women does not automatically translate into entry into the constitutional and democratic temple that Parliament is. The success of movements such as the one spearheaded for entry into Shani Shingnapur lies in the challenge of institutional orthodoxies of a specific kind. The contradictions and the conflict between the customary and the constitutional are not new but what is settled is that in the eventuality of a conflict, it is the latter that will prevail. The limitations of democratising the religious domain, based as it is on a set of entrenched beliefs, is a challenge in itself, as the stakes involved in preserving the character of that domain are rather high.

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