Claiming that it does not approve of any discrimination against women, the Maharashtra government on Friday assured the Bombay high court that it will take necessary steps to protect the fundamental religious rights of women.
“The government is against any gender discrimination,” acting advocate general Rohit Deo told the division bench of Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice MS Sonak. “If one section is permitted to offer prayers, the other section must also be permitted,” he said while clarifying the stand of the state government on the issue of prohibition imposed on women for offering prayers at the famous shrine of Lord Shani at Shingnapur in Ahmednagar district.
Deo assured the court that the government is committed to scrupulously follow provisions of the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Worship (Entry of Authorisation) Act, 1956, which prohibits discrimination between two persons when it comes to entry to temples, and provide for penal consequences. The acting advocate general further informed the bench that the state government will apprise all the superintendents of police and district collectors about the provisions of the Act by issuing necessary instructing circular to each of them.
“Ultimately, it (offering prayers from places from where men are allowed to do so) is the fundamental right of women, and it is your (state’s) fundamental duty to protect these rights under Articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution of India,” the judges said. “It is the duty of the State to ensure that these fundamental rights of women are fully realised and are not encroached upon by any authority or individuals,” they added while reminding the government of the rights of women and the state’s duty towards them.
The statement from the state government came after court rapped the state authorities for failing to protect fundamental right to equality of women – to enter temples and worship alongside men.
The issue of discriminatory treatment meted out to women at the famous Shani shrine was raked up by Pune-based activists fighting for the cause of gender equality - Vidya Bal and Neelima Vartak. According to them, the shrine of Lord Shani at Shingnapur has been established on an open platform on which men are allowed to enter and offer prayers from the platform, but women are not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine.
Their PIL stated that when the issue was taken up by Trupti Desai of Bhumata Brigade from Kolhapur, she was just prevented from entering the shrine, and instead of extending help to her, the authorities imposed section 144 of the Maharashtra Police Act, thus prohibiting their entry into the town on the ground that their presence created law and order problem.
Counsel for the activists, advocate Kalyani Tulankar, had pointed out that after the controversy, Shingnapur Devasthan Trust, had banned entry of men also on the platform, but this act of achieving so-called equality had come as a measure only to ensure that women do not get entry on the platform in any circumstances.
During course of earlier round of hearing on the PIL, the judges had insisted that the state must protect rights of women, and the authorities cannot shirk the responsibility of implementing the legislation made by the state itself.
“It is your own law, you are obliged to enforce it,” said Justice Sonak referring to provisions of the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Worship (Entry of Authorisation) Act, 1956, which makes the imposition of restriction on any Hindu person in any Hindu religious shrine an offence. The judges had said that the collector and the police must take action against the concerned persons, if anyone tried to prevent women from entering a shrine, and had sought a statement from the state government to that effect.
Accordingly, Deo clarified the state government’s stand and assured the court that authorities will take all steps to protect fundamental rights of women, and take action in case of discrimination.