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The right to freedom of religion and practising, professing and propagating it freely, subject to reasonable restrictions under the Constitution, forms the backbone of our secular country. Ensuring gender equality and striving towards a more inclusive society is also a salient feature of our Constitution as well. And who would have thought that the right to pray would be something to be debated upon?! Recent cases involving the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra and the Haji Ali Dargah, where women have been denied access to the inner shrine, have brought this issue in focus.

But it is what it is and there is an uproar by self-proclaimed ‘guardians’ of religion and temples, preventing the entry of women inside temples, citing reasons ranging from the requirement of tradition, to the fact that the main shrine belongs to a God who was celibate and hence women cannot be allowed to enter to the very incredulous as well. For instance, during a debate on the issue on television, an official from a temple trust said that women of menstruating age are not allowed to enter the main shrine premises of the temple because they are considered impure. The temple authorities attracted the ire of people when they claimed to install machines to detect women who are menstruating and prevent them from entering the temple. Another temple official claimed that women are not allowed entry into the inner sanctorum of the temple because certain ‘radiations’ emanate from the main shrine which may be harmful to the health of women and adversely affect the foetus.

Things came to a boil when a group of women activists led by Trupti Desai, of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, were stopped from entering the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. There was a faceoff between the activists and locals who tried preventing their entry. The case went up to the Bombay High Court. The Court ruled in favour of entry of women in temples based on the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, which guarantees equal right to worship and entry into temples, irrespective of barriers. The court held that women had a fundamental right to worship as much as men did. The court opined that it was the duty of the State to protect and enforce this right. However, such free entry is allowed only when men are allowed to enter that santorum. If men are barred from entry as well, then women will also not be allowed to enter that area.

The day after this landmark judgment, Ms. Desai, along with some other activists, tried entering the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple again but was held back by police as a huge crowd had gathered to prevent the entry of women there, and the police feared a clash between the two groups. Some claim that the temple does not allow men to enter that area as well but Ms. Desai claimed that the authorities earlier allowed men entry and only changed the rules after the agitation started.

It remains to be seen how efficiently the State government will handle the situation this time and for how long will worship remain a ‘war’ship for vested interests…

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