Trupti Desai: the woman who took on a 400-year-old tradition and won

The denial of access to women to the Shani Shingnapur temple is just one of the more substantive stereotypes that Trupti Desai has just shattered

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil
Updated12 Apr 2016, 12:04 PM IST
Indian activists including Trupti Desai (centre) gather as they attempt to enter the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmednagar, on 2 April. Photo: AFP<br />
Indian activists including Trupti Desai (centre) gather as they attempt to enter the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmednagar, on 2 April. Photo: AFP

Mumbai: When you call Trupti Desai, president of the Maharashtra-based social NGO Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, on her mobile phone, you hear a caller ringtone that’s a song from Subhash Ghai’s superhit Hindi film ‘Karma’ from the 1980s. The song ‘dil diya hain jaan bhi denge aye watan tere liye’ is one of those typical pulp patriotism songs which scream at you on 15 August and 26 January every year. But Desai, 31, who has just won a spirited battle against the temple trust of Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmadnagar district for securing access to women to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, is not bothered about such superficial stereotypes. This fiery social activist rather believes in challenging the more substantive stereotypes that have created fault-lines in the Indian social life. The denial of access to women to the Shani temple is just one of those more substantive stereotypes that Desai has just shattered.

She relishes wearing sleeveless jackets, cutting her hair short, and knowing where the cameras are for better pictures. In a telephonic interview with Mint, she agrees these things may have created the stereotype of a woman activist but says they have ultimately popularised her campaign. “The real stereotypes are in the mind,” she says.

“I am a believer in god, in Lord Shani. Why must I be denied access to the god I believe in? What is this tradition which suggests women are impure,” asks Desai. She adds her campaign was not only about physical entry for women to this temple but also about the change in attitudes towards women. “My campaign was and is against this superstition that women somehow are lesser mortals than men. I refuse to accept this is what the god desired,” Desai says.

Desai hails from Kolhapur district and believes her fiery activist draws from the district’s history of fervent social and political mobilisations. “The aggression in my campaign perhaps has something to do with the context of social activist that Kolhapur district has,” she says. Desai, who is based in Pune now, dropped out of the SNDT College in Pune, where she was studying home science, because of family problems. But she completed her Bachelor of Arts as an external student from a distance education university. In 2010, she formed the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade to take up social causes.The NGO now has more than 4,000 members all over Maharashtra.

Aggression has been a hallmark of Bhumata Brigade’s agitation for Shani temple entry ever since it was launched in November 2015 after a woman, not from the NGO, forcibly entered the prohibited area, and prayed. Since then Desai and her band of equally aggressive and young activists have made several bids to enter the temple though each time the police and locals stopped them.

“On April 1 too when even the Bombay high court ruled in our favour, we went there to enter but the locals and police beat us up. I had the court order with me but yet the police stopped us,” Desai says. All through this campaign, she has been at the end of a vicious propaganda including death threats and fake images of her being circulated on social media to intimidate her into giving up the agitation. She fought on, using all the legal and democratic means available to her including a threat to file a contempt of court petition against Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis for “not honouring the court order”.

She is glad she does not have to file this petition now but says the temple trust allowed entry to women only under fear. “This does not exactly represent an attitudinal change. Because on April 8 when the trust even stopped local men from entering the sanctum sanctorum, the men disregarded the trust and entered forcibly. The temple trustees got scared that their ploy to deny entry to men had backfired and so they allowed women to enter as well under fears of backlash,” Desai says. But she agrees the battle has been won, giving her organisation lot of ammunition and encouragement to look at similar issues of gender and social inequality.

On her immediate agenda now is lending strength to similar campaigns for other places of worship including the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai where women are barred from going near the dargah. The Bombay high court is currently hearing a petition against the Haji Ali Dargah Trust’s decision filed by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). The BMMA has supported Bhumata Brigade’s campaign for Shani temple and the Brigade has reciprocated by lending its support. On 13 April, the Brigade women plan to enter the inner sanctum of Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur. “Only women from the royal families and from the families of priests are allowed entry here. We want to challenge this now,” Desai said.

Next month, Desai also plans to meet prime minister Narendra Modi to push for a central legislation that upholds women’s right to pray at all places of worship across all faiths. “I want Prime Minister Modi to bring in this legislation because he promised achche din for women,” she says.

Also on the agenda is reaching out to the widows of farmers who have committed suicides in Vidarbha and Marathwada.”Farmers kill themselves, thus making their wives and families vulnerable to all kinds of economic and social problems. In Vidarbha we are taking an initiative to arrange mass marriages of girls whose fathers have committed suicides because they could not marry their daughters off,” Desai adds.

Asked if she had political ambition and if her critics during this campaign had accused her of political motivations, Desai says she has grown wise from her first political exposure in 2012 when she was nominated by the Congress party in the elections to the Pune Municipal Corporation. “I lost the election but gained an insight into understanding the real nature of politics. All political parties are the same and they have no inclination to challenge the social stereotypes unless there is a political gain to be made,” she says. Dismissing the charge made by her critics that her campaign was backed and funded by the opposition parties in Maharashtra—the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—she says no one from the opposition parties openly came forward to support her, which proves they are hand-in-glove with the ruling parties. “They are all the same. I have no political ambitions nor do I have anything to do with any political party now,” Desai says.

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