Caught between its conservative right-wing support base and its attempts to present a progressive face in the state, the Devendra Fadnavis-led government is in a bind over the issue of entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani temple at Shingnapur in Ahmednagar, 250km from Mumbai.
After his administration detained some women activists of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, who planned to visit the temple and offer worship in the sanctum sanctorum on Republic Day, Fadnavis tweeted a carefully-worded comment. He said, “In Indian tradition and Hindu religion, women have always had the freedom to worship. Our culture says that there should be change in traditions and rituals according to changing times. It is not in our culture to discriminate over access to worship.”
After making this point, the chief minister, however, lobbed the ball back in the court of the temple administration and society at large, calling for a dialogue to resolve the issue and sidestepping the issue of the legality of such restrictions. Sources close to Fadnavis said he intervened as the protests were threatening to snowball into a nation-wide controversy. The other reason that forced the CM’s hand was that the organisation leading the protest was not an elitist group.
It is a grassroots organisation that has as members farmers, housewives, college students. Its leader Trupti Desai, who cut her teeth in political activism with Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption, is in no mood to give up.
Desai, who met Fadnavis on Wednesday in Pune to submit a memorandum, told HT, “This is not the end of the issue. We will continue with our agitation until women are given equal right to go up to the ‘chauthara’ at the Shani temple. Every day, four women will try to make this attempt. We have asked the CM to take over from the temple administration and make a decision to allow women to pray from its sanctum.”
The issue snowballed after a woman last month climbed the platform that holds the idol called the chauthara and offered worship. The temple authorities then performed rituals to purify it claiming a 400-year-old tradition had been violated.
The temple administration has now tried to resolve matters by making it clear that neither women nor men were allowed to climb on to the “chauthara” anymore.
To add to his troubles, Fadnavis’ colleagues haven’t been much help. Just last month, the state’s women and child development minister Pankaja Munde justifed the ban, saying it should not be linked to women’s rights. Many others in the cabinetalso regard the controversy as a ``non-issue’’ and believe that these things are best sorted out by the temple administrations and the gram sabhas concerned.
``This is an attempt by left wing groups to get dividends by politicising worship and devotion. This is an ongoing trend to deflect attention and malign the government. There are serious doubts whether these groups of women really are Shani devotees or worshippers,’’ said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
Amidst talk of a possible peaceful dialogue and resolution, the hardline Hindu right wing organisation, Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (one of its sister-outfits is Sanatan Sanstha) issued a statement congratulating the government for foiling the attempt by ``a few egoistical women hankering after cheap publicity’’.
And herein lies the problem for the BJP-led government. Its core support base consists of such hardline organisations. The chief minister will have his work cut out reconciling their views and those of other sections of civil society.