She might not have been able to make it to the Sabarimala temple but Trupti Desai is not coming back from Kochi empty-handed. The day-long drama at the Kochi airport was just another day in office for the 33-year-old Pune resident who has made a career out of such agitations.
“She has already achieved her motive. She has got all the attention and publicity she wanted. This is her style,” said Priyanka Jagtap, a former colleague of Desai, in a not-so-flattering tone. Jagtap was associated with Desai’s Bhumata Ranragini Brigade for about a decade before splitting up to go her own way.
Jagtap was only echoing an assessment of Desai that is shared by several, including some current and former supporters: that Desai’s campaigns for seeking entry into religious shrines where women are not allowed are nothing more than publicity stunts and an attempt to build her profile. But there are many others, including a few prominent political figures from the city, who do consider or take Desai and her activism quite seriously. Even her detractors acknowledge that she is a “brave” and “gutsy” woman.
Originally hailing from Nippani in Kolhapur district, Desai’s family moved to Pune some 20 years ago. She dropped out of SNDT College in Pune due to her family’s poor financial condition but later completed her BA as an external student from Pune University. Her close associates say her father is a spiritual leader who runs a “mutt”.
It was in 2008 that Desai first made headlines in Pune when she organised a gherao of NCP strongman Ajit Pawar over an issue related to an NCP-controlled co-operative bank. Impressed by her daring act, Congress leader Patangrao Kadam, who stayed close to her residence in Dhankawadi area, got her a Congress ticket for the Pune Municipal Corporation election from Balajinagar ward in 2012. Desai lost her deposit and that has been her solitary political misadventure till now.
She concentrated on social activism, thereafter, lending her support to all sorts of causes in the city. People came to her with their problems. Jagtap alleges that this help ultimately turned out to be a costly proposition for the complainant. “She does not help anyone unless she is promised a certain sum of money. Her commission is often hefty. Besides, the ruckus that she creates sometimes leads to police complaints against her,” he alleges.
Desai has repeatedly dismissed such allegations as false and an attempt to divert her attention from her missions. “Let people say what they want to… I will carry on with what I think is right. And I will do it the way I want to do it,” she had earlier told The Indian Express.
Desai has maintained that her “mission” was to “free” women from the narrow-minded psyche that prevents them from exercising their constitutional right to pray. “Which God says women should not be allowed entry into temples? What has menstruation got to do with entry into temples? Which God says women are impure? This is all a creation of vested interests and our fight for gender equality is something which is guaranteed by the Constitution,” she says.
Desai’s stature grew in 2016 when she attracted nationwide attention while trying to breach the security cordon and seek entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the 400-year-old Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district. For centuries, women have been prevented from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani temple. Desai and her women’s brigade won a significant victory here. After some initial resistance from villagers, the temple has now opened its gates to women. Desai got rave reviews and it built her up for similar campaigns that she subsequently undertook for entry into temples in Kolhapur and Nashik, besides the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. These campaigns, however, brought her only limited success.
Always seen dressed in trademark sleeveless jackets, Desai does not operate with a large army of women. On most campaigns, she is accompanied by not more than eight to ten of her associates. But her agitations have been extremely effective.
Pushpak Kewadkar, a former associate who fell out with her, claims that Desai does not like her colleagues to get the spotlight. “She (Desai) has a dictatorial attitude. She does not want her close associates to come into the limelight. Whatever she does, she does it for publicity and money. She is a business-minded woman,” alleges Kewadkar.
Durga Shirke, who has been heading the Yog Mahila Foundation for 16 years now and claims to have worked with Desai for two years, has similar views to share. Shirke says Desai wanted to work on her own. “She didn’t believe in carrying everyone together,” she says, adding that she had to move out on her own because she did not agree with Desai on many issues.
“I didn’t believe in accepting money from people to help them out from their difficult situations,” she says.
Kewadkar claimed that Desai was neither a devout Hindu as she often claimed to be nor did she fully understand many of the underlying issues. “But she is very keen to latch on to a burning topic to get attention. She will go to any length to get media coverage, especially on TV channels,” she says.
Prominent women politicians from the city, however, hold Desai in high regard. “Trupti is a rising star and a firebrand leader. She should expand her canvas and not stay limited to campaigns for women’s entry into temples. There are several issues associated with women, like sexual assaults and domestic violence, where women have been at the receiving end of our patriarchal society. She needs to focus on other issues affecting women,” says Neelam Gorhe, a Shiv Sena leader who heads the Stree Aadhar Kendra.
Gorhe says Desai is also good at articulating her views. “We often call her for our meetings relating to women’s problems and she does a pretty good job.”
NCP leader Vandana Chavan disagrees with the view that Desai is a publicity-hungry activist. “She has been successful in some of the women’s causes she has taken up, like Shani Shingnapur or Haji Ali. She takes initiatives and pursues them. She always leads from the front. It is wrong to say she is a publicity-seeker,” Chavan said.
Even Jagtap and Kewadkar acknowledge the courage shown by Desai in taking up causes like these. But they say she often gets carried away and tend to overdo things. “Small wonder then that she has so many police cases against her,” Jagtap says.
In May this year, Desai was booked in an SC/ST atrocity case but the Supreme Court stayed her arrest. “There are several cases against her. Some of them are related to her helping people by getting even with apparent troublemakers,” Kewadkar says.