Trust vultures feeding on identity-based vote-bank politics to find a communal angle even to issues of gender justice and equal spiritual rights. For a good example, look no further than the devious responses to the two petitions filed by Hindu and Muslim women respectively in the Bombay High Court.
In one of these PILs, senior advocate Neelima Vartak and activist Vidya Bal challenged the restrictions on women’s entry to the shrine area at Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district, In the other, Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founders of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) are contesting the restrictions imposed on women (since 2011) at the Haji Ali Dargah in Worli, Mumbai.
The substance of both petitions is simple: women of all religions have the right to equal access, on par with men, to what they consider sacred spaces. But certain outfits, both Hindu and Muslim, are looking for a communal dividend from a constitutional demand for ending gender discrimination.
On March 31, the Bombay High Court issued orders directing the Maharashtra government and police to ensure that women are not denied entry to any temple in the state. “It is your own law, you are obliged to uphold it,” the court ruled. The Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (entry Authorisation) Act, 1956 stipulates: “no Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall in any manner be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place of public worship or from worshipping or offering prayers, or performing a religious service.”.
Meanwhile the hearing in the other PIL filed by the BMMA is over and the court’s judgment is eagerly awaited. Also awaited is the order of the Supreme Court in the Sabarimala temple (Kerala) case.
Those committed to gender parity are hoping for early verdicts from the Bombay HC and the SC, hoping that both judgments will resonate with the March 31 directive of the former. Meanwhile, communal forces on both sides of the divide seem eager to give the issue an ugly turn.
In the Shani Shingnapur case, while the matter was still pending in the court, the Bhoomata Brigade led by Trupti Desai had taken busloads of women from Pune to Shingnapur village to assert their right to full access to the Shani temple. Since the judgment, Desai has claimed that the action on the ground accelerated the judicial process.
No sooner had the Bombay HC issued its order that a triumphant Desai went on her temple-darshan spree: Shani temple (Ahmednagar), Mahalaxmi temple (Kolhapur), Trimbakeshwar Shiva temple (Nasik). That’s when some elements from the sangh parivar set a communal trap for Desai and the dare-devil jumped into it, head-on.
Next halt, Haji Ali Dargah, she announced about a week ago. To which there was a prompt response: Come, we’ll garland you with slippers, Haji Arafat Shaikh of the Shiv Sena threatened. On April 28, Shaikh left no one in any doubt that for him it was shariah before the Sena.
Meanwhile, concerned with the ploy to convert a quest for gender parity into a communal controversy, representatives from over a dozen progressive, secular-democratic mass organisations and prominent Mumbaikars (Muslims and non-Muslims) came together to launch a forum, ‘Haji Ali Sab ke liye’ (Haji Ali for Everybody).
The forum affirmed that: women of all religions have the right to equal access, on par with men, to sacred space; the Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali dargah issues were not about religion but parampara rooted in patriarchy; the Constitution of India has supremacy over custom and tradition.
The forum announced a peaceful, hour-long dharna near the Haji Ali dargah on April 28. That morning, Desai who had earlier declared she would be among the participants in the dharna, told the media that after the dharna was over, along with some other members of Bhoomata Brigade, she would enter the dargah to pray to Haji Ali Baba.
On the other side, otherwise mutually hostile competitors for Muslim votes — SP, MIM and the Awami Vikas Party — stood with Haji Shaikh of the Shiv Sena, blocking access to the dargah. As it turned out, Desai did not make it to the dharna in time.
With elections to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation just a year away, the issue of gender justice stands face-to-face against patriarchy in shariah garb and politicians in search of communal votes.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Against Patriarchy’)