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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Trupti Desai: The ‘bhakt’ activist

Humare yahan, jab ladkipaida hoti hai toh barfi baanti jaati hai, aur jab ladka paiyda hota hai toh pede baante hain (In this place, when a girl is born, barfi is distributed and when a boy is born, peda is handed out)." On 2 September, Trupti Desai’s sister gave birth to a girl. But Desai, now a resident of Pune for many years, distributed pede. In the neighbourhood where her home (which doubles as her office) is located, some refused to accept the sweet. “Hum toh barfi hi khayenge (We’ll only eat barfi)," they told her.

Trupti Prashant Desai (like several other Hindu women, Trupti has taken her husband’s first name) is the founder of an organization called the Bhumata Brigade started in 2010.

Two court verdicts this year, including a 26 August Bombay high court ruling that held the ban on entry of women to the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah as unconstitutional, have shone light on the inequality of access that women of faith experience. In 2014, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a rights organization for Muslim women, had filed a petition against the Dargah trust’s decision to bar women from entering the asthana, or grave. Desai extended support to their cause, although her means differ widely from theirs. In March, the Bombay high court also ruled that women could not be barred from the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. In this, Desai played a far more central role.

No one, says the 31-year-old, made her feel she was less important than a boy when she was growing up. The eldest of three children—two girls and a boy—Desai recalls her early childhood in Nipani, on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, and her primary school years in her mother’s village in Kolhapur, with fondness. Her father worked at the ashram of a guru, Gagangiri Maharaj. Desai’s mother Sanjeevani Shinde would often tell her children that she would rather send them to bed hungry than keep them away from school. She died last year.

“We grew up very devout," says Desai—she uses the word “adhyatmik"—“yet we were never told to not pray or touch the idols while we were menstruating." Which is why, an incident at the Shani Shingnapur temple last year rankled. A woman reportedly stepped on the idol’s platform at the temple, prompting priests to conduct a purification ceremony. “I am also a bhakt of Shani bhagwan. I go to the temple close by and make offerings regularly—the god doesn’t have a problem. It’s the custodians of faith, those with a male-centric point of view, who are giving women a secondary status," says Desai.

Women’s entry into spaces of worship is codified in Hinduism, informed not just by age, but also by caste. Last year, four Dalit women were fined by their panchayat for entering the Basaveshwara temple in Sigaranahalli village in Karnataka’s Holenasirpur taluk. The Hindu newspaper reported that the women refused to pay the fine even as the village’s Dalit community rose against this instance of upper- caste discrimination. In Converting Women: Gender And Protestant Christianity In Colonial South India (2004), author Eliza F. Kent writes: “One could argue that the whole system of redistribution and exchange organized around the Hindu temple was based on the exclusion of the low castes. Members of the low caste were categorically excluded from the value-laden interior spaces of the temple, where the deity resided in its most powerful form, the stone mula-vigraha."

In 1956, the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorization) Act was enacted—it protected the rights of all Hindus to access places of worship equally. Yet, Shani Shingnapur banned women from the sanctum sanctorum.

Desai was one of the women who played a role in getting the ban reversed. In January, she, along with other members of her organization, mobilized hundreds of women to gather at the temple—their plan was to enter the “garba griha" together. They were detained at Supa village, about 70km from the temple, and later released. In March, activists Vidya Bal and Neelima Vartak filed a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging this tradition. On 31 March, the Bombay high court ruled that women should enjoy access to all places of worship where men were granted entry. Since then, Desai has taken her andolan to other shrines, including the Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur and the Kapaleshwar Temple in Nashik. Both times, Desai was roughed up by locals.

When we met early this month, Desai said her next stop would be the Sabarimala temple in Kerala—women between the ages of 10 and 50 are not allowed into the temple. A PIL filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in 2006 is pending before the Supreme Court. In February, an intervention was filed by a 20-year-old, third-year college student, Nikita Azad, and her 24-year-old partner, Sukhjeet Singh, a psychological counsellor, arguing that this rule was a form of “menstrual discrimination". The next hearing is in November.

By the time Desai started the Bhumata Brigade in 2010, she was already a believer in aggressive campaigning that not only drew the public’s attention, but didn’t shy away from the use of force. “We called the organization ‘brigade’ instead of sanstha because it’s a military term," says Desai.

They aimed to cover a large swathe of the disaffected—farmers who were driven to the brink of suicide, women who were victims of sexual aggression, working-class men and women hit by corruption. Their modes of protest ranged from rasta roko (road blockades) to effigy burning. Today, says Desai, the organization has a presence in 21 districts, with over 6,000 members.

One of Desai’s sustained campaigns is against gender-based violence, especially sexual assault. “Next week, we’re launching a programme, Taigiri Pathak. No more dadagiri and bhaigiri (bullying and big brother syndrome). Now it’s time for taigiri." The campaign will see teams of women park themselves outside public places, armed with lathis to catch men who harass women, and take them to the police. “I recognize that we should not take the law into our own hands, but we’re living in a world where even babies get raped. It’s time we women come to the streets and show that we can defend ourselves. We have to create fear,"she says.

A short film called The Angry Goddesses that went up on YouTube in August, starts with a segment in which Desai packs her eight-year-old son’s tiffin, gets ready, and leaves the home with a lathi. Made by Blush films, it shows Desai as a warrior—of women and of faith. Yet the challenge that Desai poses to the Hindu right-wing, which the film ignores—whom she calls “dharm ke thekedar" (custodians of faith)—is central to her activism. “Faith is not bigger than the Constitution. After all, our victory is based on constitutional rights

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