No law permits temples to allow men and prevent women from entering and offering worship within the garbha griha. But no such law is needed. Because when on Saturday, April 2, hundreds of women led by Trupti Desai, president of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, tried to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district, they were stopped and the law enforcement agencies of the state did nothing to protect them. Even though the women were waving orders of a division bench of the Bombay High Court declaring that, under the 1956 Maharashtra place of worship act, the 400-year-old males-only entitlement to the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple stands cancelled. No law permitted the locals and the women’s wing of the Shiv Sena, the Sanatan Sanstha, the Hindu Janajagruti Manch and its Ran Ragini Shakha to jointly form human chains and forcibly prevent the court orders from being implemented. None was necessary, since neither the lawmakers nor the implementation machinery of the state provided any shield to Trupti and her friends from being physically blocked and attacked by status quoists.
Obviously, in the town that houses the Shani temple, it is not the laws of the state but custom and religious laws that still rule. And armed with those, the local society, in turn, can support an entitlement that was outlawed six decades ago. No wonder that when the judiciary extends legal cover to women beyond social and/ or state-sanctioned limits, it is seen not as an instance of the majesty of the law asserting itself, but simply as judicial activism. Is proof still needed about how illiberal, illegal and grossly gender discriminatory customs will continue to be legitimised by social sanction and protected by the law enforcers in India? No wonder, when matters such as personal laws and right to worship are adjudicated on and liberal laws are bandied about as proof of women having some sort of equality under our jurisprudence, the status quo supporters rush to publicise it as a threat to community and then justify their stonewalling young women’s agitation for asserting their legal rights on grounds of their debatable sexual purity, given their predilection for regular and impurity-invoking menstruation.
“When does a state begin to die?” asks the Yaksha of Dharmraj Yudhishthir in the Mahabharata. “When it loses its hold over justice,” says Yudhishthir. After this confrontation, what is justice from women’s point of view? Today, while the judiciary has upheld the law of the land, the state has revealed itself on the side of a value system that remains pro-male in its operative norm. And so, coupled with the silence of the honourable chief minister, what is essentially male objectivity seems to be what the state’s perception of itself is. Question is, how does such a state legitimate itself in the eyes of women as a fair and objective upholder of the law? Obviously by reflecting its view of society and how it may mould it into a fair and balanced one, the law enforcers also accept a version of the state that discriminates in favour of men by privileging their power with a nod and a wink. This results in a separation in law of form and substance, and adjudication from legislative activity.
It is unclear whether special protective measures, if they come now, after the media has gone to town about this awful confrontation, will help or hurt women. The legal ruling did something for uplifting their morale, but the enforcers’ reluctance to implement the law in letter and spirit has demeaned all women ideologically, whether or not they wish to visit this particular shrine. Lesson learnt: However autonomous of class and caste the liberal state may appear today, it is not autonomous of gender biases. Male power (and also its manifestation in women from rightwing fringe groups) has once again revealed itself to be systemic, legitimised at least in the eyes of the police and local administration, and also epistemic.