Winds of change

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Women activists of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade worship at the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra on Gudi Padwa, April 8. Photo: Kiran Darandale

The Trimbakeshwar temple, a famous Siva temple in Nashik. Photo: Ajaj Shaikh

The current wave of activism in support of gender equality in places of worship started in Maharashtra, thanks to committed women fighters and court intervention.

AT THE SHANI SHINGNAPUR TEMPLE IN Maharashtra, a ban that was purportedly four centuries old fell apart with surprising swiftness in November after a young woman climbed up the forbidden nine steps of the open-air platform and paid her respects to the five-foot-tall stone idol of the deity. Her action seems like a simple, personal one, just a believer wanting to get as close to her faith as possible. But what for her was a straightforward act of faith was blasphemy for the temple authorities, who organised a purification by milk ceremony. Outrage followed, and in retrospect, the ceremony was possibly a decisive factor in the course of action that followed.

The ritual provoked a variety of people. Praniti Shinde, the Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly from Solapur and daughter of former Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, issued a statement saying that the young woman should be felicitated for her act. Ranjanan Gavande, the Ahmednagar district president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), a rationalist organisation, said his organisation welcomed the “daring shown by the woman in offering prayers” and termed her a “revolutionary”.

But this did nothing to change the attitude of the temple authorities, who remained steadfast in their refusal to let women openly worship at the platform (interestingly, even men who want a direct darshan have to pay a fee of Rs.11,111). The temple’s obdurate stance found support from others too. Rural Development Minister Pankaja Munde said: “Not allowing women to enter the shrine to perform puja has been an age-old tradition. What’s wrong with that? There are several Hanuman temples where women are not allowed to enter. Each temple has its own rules. It is not something that has been recently enforced.” She also said that traditional beliefs should not be “linked with insult of the female fraternity”.

After hearing of the purification ceremony, 31-year-old Trupti Desai of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade was enraged and determined to breach the sanctum. Her organisation refers to the earth goddess and women’s power. It was started after Trupti Desai, a self-proclaimed social crusader, exposed a fraud in a cooperative bank in 2009 and helped investors get back their money. Enthused by her success, she started the brigade. On December 20, she and three other women decided to pray at the Shani temple and nearly succeeded before security personnel stopped them. Trying another tack, they asked for a woman to be appointed to the temple trust’s board. The trust obliged, but the woman appointee maintained the status quo.

Trupti Desai then set her sights on January 26 and said that if she and others were not allowed entry by normal means they would airdrop into the sacred area. She said she had already hired a helicopter, although the District Collector had denied permission. Trupti Desai and 350 other women then set off to invade this banned space but were stopped about 70 kilometres before the village. The protesters lay down on the highway and blocked traffic and called for Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to intervene in the issue. The police detained the women and then let them go, but they had scored a small victory, with Fadnavis agreeing to meet two of their representatives. He also urged the temple authorities to meet the women. The meeting did not take place, but Fadnavis did say that gender discrimination in religion was not part of Hindu culture and he urged the temple authorities to resolve the issue through dialogue.

On February 12, Trupti Desai said she received an anonymous letter threatening her with the same consequences that Narendra Dabholkar of the MANS had to face if she did not give up on the Shani temple issue. In essence this letter was a death threat because Dabholkar was murdered in Pune on August 20, 2013, for campaigning against superstition. Trupti Desai informed the police about the letter and continued her campaign. On February 22, she made another attempt to go to Shani Shingnapur but was stopped by the police.

The issue gained support from another quarter whenthe writer and women’s equality campaigner Vidya Bal and the lawyer Neelima Vartak filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Bombay High Court in February against the “discriminatory treatment” against women in temples in Maharashtra, citing the Shani Shingnapur temple as one such instance.

Neelima Vartak strongly believes that the whole issue revolves around women’s rights versus the power the religious elite have closely guarded to subjugate women. She is also scornful of the claim by the Shani Shingnapur temple that the ban is 400 years old. “What proof is there of this?” she asked rhetorically, adding: “It is just a form of intimidation.” She also said there is another Shani temple in the same district, just 40 km away from the controversial temple, where there is no ban on women. “It’s the same god. Why are there different rules?” she asked.

Trupti Desai substantiated this by saying: “Women were kept out of this temple because the radiations from the stone might affect their child-bearing capacity or they were told they would slip on the oil used in the ceremonies.… What is this rot, will men not slip? …and how come none of this happens at other Shani temples? When we bring out such issues, we are accused of being anti-Hindu and anti-religion. We are neither… we are just pro-women.”

The PIL petition was heard by a division bench of Chief Justice D.H. Waghela and Justice M.S. Sonak, who passed an order on March 30. The court observed: “There is no law that prevents entry of women to any place. If you allow men, then you should allow women also. If a male can go and pray before the deity, why not women? It is the State government’s duty to protect the rights of women.”

They invoked the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, which says that if a temple or person prohibits any person from entering a temple, then he or she will be subject to six months’ imprisonment as punishment. The court also said that the discriminatory practice of not allowing women to enter temples violated Articles 14 (Equality before Law), 25 and 26 (Freedom of Religion) of the Constitution. The order more or less decided the one filed by Dabholkar on the same issue. Although the two PIL petitions were not read together, the judge mentioned Dabholkar’s PIL.

Armed with this order in spirit, another group called the Bhumata Mahila Brigade, a splinter group of Trupti Desai’s Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, set off to peacefully enter the Shani temple’s sanctum yet again. Preferring dialogue to Trupti Desai’s more energetic tactics, this group tried persuasion with the temple authorities and local people who were opposed to its entry but it too failed to get in.

It was finally on April 8, the Maharashtrian new year of Gudi Padwa, that women entered and prayed in the sanctum of the Shani temple. Trupti Desai said: “Ever since Gudi Padwa, women have been thronging the platform and happily praying in the presence of the deity.”

Trupti Desai said there were hundreds of small temples all over the State that did not allow women in to the most sacred area, but after the changes at Shani Shingnapur, she had noticed a willingness to listen if not a willingness to implement change.

Other big temples that have gender discriminatory practices are the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik and the Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur. After the High Court’s order, the Trimbakeshwar authorities pleaded their case saying that even men were only allowed between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. every day but then announced that women would also be allowed during the same hours but only if they wore wet cotton or silk clothes. On April 19, Trupti Desai told Frontline that despite the court’s order women still were not allowed in the Trimbakeshwar temple. She pointed this out to the Nashik District Collector and said that if no action was taken to implement the order she and her “ saathis will go straight in to the garba griha”. She also said that one of the trustees of the Trimbakeshwar temple was a judge and asked how he could not enforce the court order.

But before Trupti Desai and her brigade could do so, another group of women, from the Pune-based Swarajya Mahila Sanghatana, which has also been part of the protests, led by its president, Vanita Gutte, wore the mandated garments, took a dip in the river and proceeded to the sanctum. Despite following the temple’s orders, these women were manhandled by local people opposed to women entering the sanctum. They did, however, manage to get in and pray with the police protection they had requested. Trupti Desai took a combative stance on the dress code and informed the temple authorities that it was not acceptable to women devotees. “Which woman wants to go about with wet clothes clinging to her… no one likes it,” she said.

The Mahalaxmi temple has also bowed to the High Court’s order. Trupti Desai herself went into the sanctum sanctorum after a scuffle with the priests who pushed her around and apparently roughed her up. The reason was not her gender but her insistence on wearing a salwar kameez (the dress code for women is the sari).

Neelima Vartak sees this whole battle as part of a long-standing attempt to retain power over women. “The temple authorities do not want to give up their power and so they continue to impose such restrictions on women. The High Court has clearly stated that it is a discriminatory practice.

Now it is up to the government to take the necessary steps because they have given an undertaking to the court to implement the order and they have to see that it is consistently complied with. Also, none of these practices are religious. They are customs and customs cannot override constitutional rights.” Politicians have largely watched this show from the sidelines, waiting to see which way the wind blows. The personal beliefs of one anonymous woman and a group of activists committed to change gender discriminatory practices have resulted in the winds of change turning in favour of their fight.

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