‘To keep alive Maharashtra’s liberal, secular tradition’

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Hamid Dabholkar. Photo: PTI

Narendra Dabholkar. Photo: AP

Govind Pansare. Photo: PTI

Interview with Dr Hamid Dabholkar.

THE fight against gender discrimination at the Shani Shingnapur temple has its roots in the larger movement for women’s access to all public temples. This was started in 2000 by Narendra Dabholkar and his Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS), an organisation against superstitious practices. He was shot dead in Pune in 2013 allegedly by right-wing Hindus who saw his rationalist thinking as a threat to their beliefs. His killers are yet to be caught. There were similar murders of the campaigning rationalists Govind Pansare in Kolhapur in 2015 and a few months later, of M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad, for the same reasons. Dabholkar’s son, Dr Hamid Dabholkar, a psychiatrist by profession, continues to hold aloft the banner raised by his father. He spoke to Frontline about the long fight to secure women’s entry in public temples as well as the diminishing tradition of liberal and tolerant thinking.

Your father initiated the movement in 2000 demanding women’s entry into all public temples. Tell us a bit about the early days of this fight.

Shani Shingnapur is a place in central Maharashtra which became a famous pilgrimage point after Gulshan Kumar produced a movie in 1998 about this place called Surya Putra Shanidev. The temple is believed by many to be a jagrut devasthan, literally, an “alive” temple, meaning that the god resides in the idol installed in the temple. Apparently, the god doesn’t want women in his sanctum sanctorum, which is why women are “traditionally” barred from entering it. Interestingly, there are no walls to this temple and the sanctum sanctorum is just a cordoned-off platform with a black stone representing the deity. The belief is that the resident god punishes anyone attempting theft and that there are no robberies in the village, a “fact” demonstrated by the lack of locks on any doors in it. However, the multiplicity of FIRs [first information reports] in the police station of Shingnapur tells a different story. The MANS, under the leadership of Narendra Dabholkar, had fought a long-standing battle against both these beliefs for the last 15 years.

The process actually started in 1998 when Satyshodhak Sabha, an organisation founded to take forward Mahatma Phule’s thoughts of equality and justice, held an important State-level meeting at Ahmednagar and questions were raised about the temple’s discriminatory practices. Satyashodhak Sabha did not go ahead with the issue, but the MANS decided to raise it.

After a lot of groundwork and intense discussions and debates in society and the media in November 2000, the MANS declared that it would march to Shani Shingnapur. Many social stalwarts of Maharashtra, like Dr N.D. Patil, Baba Adhav, Shriram Lagoo, Pushpa Bhave and Vidya Bal decided to strengthen the MANS’ initiative by participating in the march. Around 1,200 MANS volunteers participated in this march along with their wives. Dabholkar was very keen that the agitation should be carried out following all the principles of satyagarha and nobody should take the law into their hands and force an entry on to the sacred platform.

Was there not stiff opposition at the time, with politics and religion mixing and the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party opposing this along with some Hindu religious organisations?

The declaration by the MANS evoked opposition from the BJP, the Shiv Sena and fundamentalist groups who were using Hinduism to spread hatred. Their opposition was expected but unfortunately even the Congress opposed the agitation, though indirectly. The irony was that the then Social Justice Minister of Maharashtra, Dilip Sopal, had openly threatened Dabholkar that his hands and feet would be chopped off if he tried to go to Shani Shingnapur.

Dabholkar and the MANS activists were challenged to bring their mothers and wives along on the march and experience the ire of Lord Shani. That’s the reason all the male activists were accompanied by either their mothers or wives. As it turned out, Dabholkar and the MANS workers were arrested even before they entered Ahmednagar district, but the upsurge the movement generated could not be arrested. We feel the lady who offered prayers on the sacred platform two months back and the organisations currently demanding the right of entry at the sacred platform are taking the movement forward in their own way.

How was the movement taken forward?

After this agitation, we decided to take legal course to further the movement. A PIL [public interest litigation petition] was filed in the Bombay High Court by Dabholkar and the senior MANS activist Shalini Oak seeking court directions in this matter. There were multiple hearings of the PIL, but owing to the extremely slow judicial process, the case remained pending in the court for 15 years.

The PIL again got attention when a similar issue was raised at Sabarimala, with a PIL filed in the Supreme Court and after the November 2015 incident when a woman offered prayers at the sacred platform of Shani. The MANS conducted a State-level protest against this ban in the same week, and we filed a petition in court to fast-track the proceedings in the PIL. Last week, a separate PIL was filed by Vidya Bal and Neelima Vartak, an advocate, on the same issue and the MANS PIL was tagged along with this PIL. The High Court’s judgment is in relation to these PILs.

The most notable thing is that now there is a similar PIL asking for court directives on the issue of restricted entry at the Haji Ali dargah, which was filed by two Muslim women. I think this particular PIL did not get the kind of attention it deserved. Muslim women coming forward to file a PIL against a dargah is historic, and they have publicly said that their inspiration came from the Shani Shingnapur PIL. Though Dabholkar was not there with us during this most recent part of the battle, the MANS tried its best to take this issue to its logical conclusion.

The legal fight took long, but it actually seemed to have educated some people along the way. For instance, the Shiv Sena and the BJP did a turnaround and carried out a successful campaign for women to enter Kolhapur’s Mahalaxmi temple in 2011.

It’s a kind of poetic justice that the people who opposed Dabholkar in 2000 took on the issue of the ban on women at the Mahalaxmi temple in 2011. Now even the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is openly supporting this stance.

Dabholkar used to say that if we keep on talking about the right things in the community, persistently adopting constitutional methods, then value systems in society start changing. And that is exactly what we are experiencing around this issue nowadays.

Apart from the extreme radical elements and the groups for which direct financial interests are involved—as in the case of the trust that runs the Shani temple operations, which is all about the local economy rather than religion—very few groups from mainstream society are opposing this movement because gender equality is being accepted as the norm.

Keeping women out of temples is biased and unconstitutional, yet it had support from some quarters. It is quite a comment on modern India and liberal Maharashtra, is it not? In fact, of late Maharashtra’s famed liberal thinking seems to be under assault. The murders of your father and Govind Pansare were both assaults on ideology, rationalism and constructive criticism of religion.

Maharashtra as a liberal State has almost become a mythical statement nowadays. At most, we can say Maharashtra was a liberal State. How can we call it liberal when people like Dabholkar and Comrade Govind Pansare are murdered in broad daylight and there is no trace of their murderers even after years? It’s sad but true that this land is not only the birthplace of Mahatma Phule, Chattrapati Shahu Maharaj and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar but also of Nathuram Godse and religious fundamentalist organisations that are most probably the murderers of Dabholkar, Comrade Pansare and Prof. Kalburgi. Organisations like the MANS, despite losing their leader, are fighting a hard battle to keep alive the liberal and secular tradition of Maharashtra.

You have in the past said that merely accusing and verbally bashing the RSS and the BJP and similar Right-oriented ideological outfits is just taking the easy way out and that they need to be made responsible for their actions. Please put this in the context of the recent court order, rationalism and constructive criticism of religion.

Yes, that’s true. It’s very easy to take a dismissive stance about any social movement. But in a political era when the common citizen of this country is getting crushed between the BJP, which is programmed to be communal, and the Congress, which is pragmatically communal, the one important way out is to keep on fighting this sort of democratic battle.

We are very much aware that the recent decision of the court is just the beginning. If we carefully look at the most recent developments after the court’s decision, we realise that we will have to keep fighting this battle to make sure that no discrimination happens in the name of gender at any place of worship. Not only that, we have to keep educating the masses about the exploitation that happens by organised religion and make them aware of the constructive ways of criticising religion.

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