Social activist Vidya Bal’s calm demeanour contrasts with the dramatic events that made a 400-year-old tradition fall apart at Shani Shingnapur. In February, Bal (80) had fired a legal salvo to break the shackles. She along with advocate Neelima Vartak had filed a PIL in the High Court demanding the right of women to enter any place of worship in Maharashtra.
For her, the fight was not about religion, but individual freedom. “I do not believe in God. I am an atheist, but that does not stop me from taking up cudgels on behalf of women who want to perform puja at temples. No one has the right to deny them that right,” said Bal. An economics graduate, Bal is the granddaughter of NC Kelkar, an associate of Lokmanya Tilak and one of the editors of Kesari, the newspaper started by Tilak. In 1982, she founded Nari Samta Manch and started actively taking up dowry harassment cases. Bal said she was encouraged by High Court lawyer Anil Anturkar and Kalyani Turnaker, who fought the case, to file the PIL.
“But I cannot take too much credit for this. The victory was a combination of our behind-the-scenes work and the very admirable fight on the ground by Trupti Desai and the Bhumata Brigade. It is now up to us to ensure the change continues and the judgment is also applied in the other major temples of the state,” she said.
The activist, however, said that she was disappointed by CM Devendra Fadnavis’s “absolute indifference” to her attempts to seek his intervention.
In her 30-year legal career, advocate Neelima Vartak has taken up several cases of human rights violations. The 60-year-old sees her fight as an extension of her profession, both as a lawyer and a teacher. “The struggle is still on. We need to ensure every other place of worship in Maharashtra respects this order,” said Vartak.