What is the latest in the Shani Shingnapur temple controversy?
The Bhumata Brigade, which was spearheading the agitation for the entry of women into the core shrine area of the Shani Shingnapur temple, has split — three key members who were part of the team for the past 10 years have walked out to protest the alleged “autocratic” style of its president, Trupti Desai, whom they have also accused of being a publicity-seeker and not serious about the agitation. The three members have formed the Bhumata Swabhimani Sanghatna and claimed, like the Bhumata Brigade, that they would meet Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis before he takes a final call over their demand. This has put the state government in a fix: it is not sure which organisation it should talk to.
What is the government’s official line?
On January 26, after police foiled the Desai-led Bhumata Brigade’s plan to storm the temple, Fadnavis tweeted: “In Indian culture and Hindu religion, women have always had the liberty to pray. Change in traditions as per changing times has been our strength. It is wrong to discriminate between the devotees. I appeal to temple authorities to take initiative to solve these problems. I’ve also given instructions to the Collector and Police Commissioner of Ahmednagar to establish communication between the activists and the villagers.”
The Chief Minister has, however, remained evasive on the activists’ demand that he himself perform puja along with his wife from the ‘prohibited platform’. A meeting of villagers, temple trustees and the Bhumata Brigade called by the Ahmednagar Collector on the CM’s instructions last Saturday remained inconclusive.
What is the background of the controversy?
In 2000, rationalist Narendra Dabholkar began an agitation to allow women on to the ‘prohibited platform’ of the temple. The saffron parties initially opposed him, but subsequently chose to keep mum. In 2011, the trustees decided to stop even men from climbing the ‘prohibited platform’ — they reasoned that crowding the barely 4-foot-by-4 platform could lead to a mishap. In December 2015, an unidentified woman climbed the ‘prohibited platform’, either knowingly or unknowingly. The villagers and Trustees allegedly followed up the “defiling” with a “purification” process, even though it was claimed subsequently that “milk purification” was a regular activity at the temple.
What is the so-called Sri Sri plan?
On Sunday, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar met with the Bhumata Brigade, and the villagers and Trustees, and proposed that neither men nor women be allowed on the platform, which gets slippery from the oil devotees pour on it — and that the Kashi Vishwanath or Tirupati Balaji models should be followed at Shani Shingnapur as well, with no one being allowed inside the core area. Trupti Desai, however, asked for women priests, to which the villagers said no.
What happens now?
All eyes are on Fadnavis; each side, while adamant on its stance, is hopeful the CM will decide in its favour. Sarpanch Balasaheb Bankar believes he will weigh in on the side of “tradition”; Desai, on the other hand, thinks that the government will take the same line that it has taken in the case of Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah, and back the right of women to pray. Many feel the controversy is much ado about nothing: Shani Shingnapur is not, for example, Kerala’s Sabarimala, where women of menstruating age are not allowed to enter the temple premises at all. In any case, the small ‘prohibited platform’, covered by oil, flowers and garlands, has very little space for either men or women.