Faith Makes All Things Possible

It began as an offshoot of a rationalist movement and has led to a historic victory for women’s rights in Maharashtra. The Shani Shingnapur temple entry campaign is a remarkable alliance of women, across the divide of religious belief.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | New Delhi | Published:April 17, 2016 12:00 am
Women in the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur shrine. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre) Women in the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur shrine. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

It is just another day at the ancient Shani Shingnapur temple — except for a line of women slowly making their way up a steel stairway to the platform that holds the Shani shrine. It has taken them 400 years to get this far.

He might be feared for his mercurial temper, but Shani is the god Shashikala N, 36, reveres over all others. For a decade now, she has been visiting the temple from Hyderabad, where she works as the staff of a municipal school. Not surprisingly, she followed the movement to allow women’s entry to the temple’s inner sanctum closely, from the siege at the temple by women to the battle in the Bombay High Court. As soon as she heard that the temple authorities had ceded to the HC order, they set off. “Kuch nahin hota hai, aap bhi chaliye,” she says, her brows furrowed in perplexity when asked if she didn’t fear breaking a hoary tradition.

An unremarkable village in Maharashtra and its 400-year-old temple, built around a black stone formation, has yielded a momentous victory to the Indian women’s rights movement. Leading this crusade was the 32-year-old Trupti Desai and her Bhaumata Ranragini Brigade, an organisation of largely middle-class women from Pune and neighbouring cities, that works for social issues “such as women’s rights and water shortage in the state”.

But the story begins in 2000, with a campaign by the slain rationalist-activist Narendra Dabholkar.

There are no doors in Shani Shingnapur, only gaping doorways — a quirk of architecture that stems from a belief that Shani’s wrath deters any theft in the village. Dabholkar’s organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), which campaigns against superstition, went about trying to demolish the myth, and, in the process, realised that the temple, visited by thousands of devotees every day, did not allow women into the inner sanctum.

Dabholkar, along with prominent activists, such as Pushpa Bhave and Dr Sriram Lagoo, and other supporters, organised a morcha to Shani Shingnapur in order to protest the discrimination. “While they were stopped en route and arrested, rendering the morcha incomplete, it became the first fight for women’s entry into the temple,” says Vidya Bal. The 80-year-old Pune-based activist filed a PIL, leading the High Court to uphold the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship Act of 1956, which criminalises barring entry to anyone in a Hindu place of worship.

In the living room of her residence on Prabhat Road, Pune, Bal looks back on her personal and political engagement with gender rights for four decades now. On the softboard that dominates the living room, pictures of Dr BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi are stuck alongside those of Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou and her parents. “It’s my altar,” says Bal, an atheist who has significantly contributed towards raising awareness about women’s rights in the state.

But the Shani Shingnapur campaign also illustrates a new gathbandhan, an alliance of unlikely allies. It sees Bal joining hands with Desai. The latter lives in Dhankawadi where her house doubles as her office. It has little seating space as a variety of idols take up most part of it. Ganapati, Shani and Durga sit alongside pictures of Desai with prominent Indian political leaders.

The two women — the faces of the historic Shani Shingnapur agitation — represent an interesting turn in Maharashtra’s feminist movement. When it first gained momentum in the 1980s, the movement was firmly rooted in the Indian Left. “Most of us were atheists. So any protest against a practice deemed religious brought us criticism from believers en masse. But that isn’t the case today. The current agitation was led by women who are both religious and ritualistic, yet demand equal rights for women,” says Pushpa Bhave. She also cites the example of the 2011 agitation and forced entry into the inner sanctum of Kolhapur’s Mahalaxmi temple by members of the BJP’s women’s wing from the district. “The MANS lauded the event when the BJP was among those who opposed our 2000 march, who had threatened us,” says Bhave.

Bal also believes that the earlier feminist movement splintered because it didn’t make itself relevant to a large section of women. “We were largely focussed on issues such as dowry deaths, female foeticide and domestic violence. Since we were atheists, we never looked at similar problems within religion,” she says.

Vidya Bal. (Express photo by Sandeep Daundkar) Vidya Bal. (Express photo by Sandeep Daundkar)

Neeta Kelkar, who led the 2011 protest at Mahalaxmi temple, however, acknowledges the role played by older campaigners in seeding the idea of equality, even if they do not share their religious beliefs. Kelkar, who is the BJP state unit president from Satara, admits that much has changed within her party. “There are more women in the party now and they are working for women’s rights. It takes time for people’s attitude towards tradition to change,” says Kelkar, who believes now it is the turn of the Trimbakeshwar and Sabarimala temples to shed their suspicion of women and their bodies. “This issue is rooted in the perceived impurity of women due to their menstrual cycle. But we are firm believers that a woman’s bodily functions are also given by god and we should accept and embrace it as a gift,” she says.

At Mumbai’s iconic protest ground Azad Maidan, a rally by NCP workers is on, alongside Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. Yet, the members of Ranragini Shakha, the women’s wing of Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, are able to counter their decibel levels with their own sloganeering. The women launched a campaign this January to protect the religious traditions of Hindus, as a part of which they intend to legally counter the recent development at Shani Shingnapur. One of the key volunteers, Sunita Patil, 56, says, “Our protest is both spiritual and scientific. Shani, or Saturn, is a planet that emits strong waves. Women are made differently from men, and weaker during the menstrual cycle. Coming close to the Shani shrine can harm their reproductive system in the long run,” she says. Would they allow menopausal women or those who wouldn’t mind risking their health? Patil snaps back to the age-old argument: “We have maintained the purity of the shrine for 400 years by not allowing women. We don’t want to undo that.”

At the protest, the crowd is a mix. While Asha Ghore was a teacher of Marathi who retired early in order to serve the Sanathan Sanstha, Ashwini Yadav graduated in commerce two years ago. She has been working as a volunteer with Ranragini for five years and believes that women should not go to a temple or come close to a deity when she has her period.

While Bhave or Bal would fight Yadav’s beliefs with reason, Desai, like Kelkar, presents an argument from within the realm of religion. Pointing out that an office, a space for commerce, in the Hindu tradition is also considered as one where goddess Lakshmi resides, she asks, “Then why send women to work during their menstrual cycle? Won’t the money earned from working on such days also be equally impure? These are excuses used by patriarchy to keep women from empowering themselves. But when it suits them, they are willing to twist the same traditions.”

Kelkar, too, admits that until two decades ago, she wasn’t any different from the women whom she is opposing today. “We are all a product of our upbringing. I used to follow what my mother did until my husband’s aunt, a doctor, encouraged me to shun it and sit for a Satyanarayan puja in the family. A few days later, I was invited for a puja as a corporator but stood at a distance since I was having my menstrual cycle. When the priest asked me to join in, I took it as a sign from god that it is his will,” she says. However, Kelkar admits that while many women in her support group do not follow such practices outside, at home, they have to keep up the pretence in order to maintain peace. “We have to choose our battles. But the change will be visible in the next generation when these women teach their children not to discriminate,” she says.

The problem, says Bal, is deep-seated, much like the caste issue. “They are both rooted in Manusmriti, according to which one is born a woman because of sins committed over many births,” she says.

She cites her own experience to argue that middle-class women find it difficult to oppose gender discrimination. From a traditional family, she followed all religious practices until she began to work as a journalist with a progressive women’s magazine titled Stree. “I began to change only at the ripe age of 34,” she laughs, recounting that it was a challenge to work as a feminist when her husband, a teacher, didn’t approve. A mother of three, she “renounced family life” at the age of 50 to live by her beliefs.

Although there have been saints in Maharashtra who propagated and spoke for women’s rights, such as Chakradhar Swami, Indian feminism has gained much from the Dalit movement, be it Mahatma Phule’s reforms or the Ambedkarite belief that women’s empowerment is key to the anti-caste movement. Bal sees the current debate — although it may be at odds with the Dalit movement — as a positive sign. “For us, a believer isn’t problematic, but those who exploit religion for political or commercial gain, are. If women are beginning to realise that these practices stem from patriarchy, it is a welcome change,” she says.

But the path to revolution is strewn with compromise. Neither Desai nor Kelkar are radical temple-troopers. Desai, for instance, supports having women priests in temples dedicated to goddesses “so that a woman dresses up the devi, not a man”. While Kelkar dared to breach the inner sanctum of the Mahalaxmi temple five years ago, she currently believes that the access denied to women and men by these temples is due to logistical reasons. “The breach has established that women are equal, but we have no right to add to the logistical issues that the temple management faces every day,” she says.

In the heart of Pune’s old city, in the bustling Tulsibagh area, stands a small shrine, famous as Shani Paar mandir. The queue of devotees, rushing to offer their prayers even on a weekday, is in contrast with its size. The clanging of bells is as incessant as the honking from the rush hour traffic outside. It is believed that this 8×8 sq ft shrine is as old as the Shani Shingnapur temple 180 km away.

What sets it apart, however, is the fact that the temple not only allows women into the inner sanctum but also has seen instances where women priests have offered prayers. “Who says Shani will harm women? If that were the case, would women come back here to pray?” retorts Dhaneshwar Lave, the 46-year-old caretaker of the temple whose forefathers have also served here.

Calming down, Lave, who also sets up a stall nearby to sell pooja samagri on Saturdays, and has two teenage daughters, says, “For generations, women have run households and done the job well. I want women to take over the country now.”

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