No law prevents women from entering a place of worship and if men were allowed, then women too should be permitted, the Bombay High Court observed on Wednesday while stating that any temple or person imposing such restriction could face a six month jail term under a Maharashtra law.
The observations were made by a division bench of Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice MS Sonak during the hearing of a public interest litigation by senior advocate Nilima Vartak and activist Vidya Bal, challenging the prohibition of entry of women in the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.
"There is no law that prevents entry of women in any place. If you allow men then you should allow women also. If a male can go and pray before the deity then why not women? It is the state government's duty to protect the rights of women," Chief Justice Waghela said on Wednesday.
"If it is the sanctity of the deity that you are worried about then let the government make such a statement. Under the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, if any temple or person prohibits any person from entering a temple then he or she faces a six-month imprisonment," the court said.
The court also said that the government should give wide publicity to the Act and issue circulars, informing the general public at large about the Act and its provisions.
The court directed government pleader Abhinandan Vagyani to take instructions and make a statement on Friday (1 April), on whether or not it will ensure that women will be allowed to enter the temple.
The petition seeks the entry of women not just into the temple, but also inside its sanctum sanctorum.
The petition says that the prohibition is arbitrary, illegal and in violation of fundamental rights of citizens.
The Shani Shingnapur temple is located in the Shingnapur village in Ahmednagar. The unique open temple has no walls or roof. A self-emerged (svayambhu) five-foot-high black stone stands on a platform and is worshipped as Lord Shanidev.
The temple platform stands in the centre of the small village, also known as Sonai and attracts millions of tourists and devotees from across the country and abroad. However, barring the temple priests, no one is permitted to climb the nine steps up to the actual stone idol that represents the deity. Everybody must only offer prayers from below the platform, said a temple trustee Prafull N Surpuriya.
The Indian Express reports that only men who donate a certain amount of money can access the platform. Women however are not allowed even this privilege.
On 26 January, around 1,500 activists of Bhumata Ranragini Brigade threatened to storm the temple in order to protest this discrimination but were prevented from going to the village, nearly 100 kms away. The activists led by Trupti Desai, and joined by a few men, entered Ahmednagar district in a convoy of around 50 vehicles on their way to the temple, but were stopped by police near Supa.
After a brief argument and jostling with police, many women squatted or lay on the road shouting slogans condemning the police action and calling it a 'Black Day' on the occasion of India's Republic Day when the constitution, granting equal rights to men and women, came into force.
Later, police detained a few of the activists, including Desai (she was later released) while the others vowed they would not leave the place without offering prayers at the temple's sanctum sanctorum.
"The manner in which police behaved with us is objectionable... We were going peacefully to exercise our right of offering prayers... They are stopping us from going to a temple which is a place of worship. The country is celebrating Republic Day... for us it's a 'black day,' but we will go to the temple," Desai told media persons.
Their protest launched a nationwide debate with eminent personalities joining in. Art of Living (AoL) founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar suggested two models to overcome the centuries-old taboo. "The Shani temple committee can adopt the Kashi Vishwanath temple model where everyone is allowed to enter or the Tirupati model where only the priest is allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum," he said in a statement.
The matter reached Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and he tweeted in support of the activists, saying, “Indian culture and Hindu religion gives women have the right to pray. A change in yesterday's traditions is our culture. Discrimination in praying is not in our culture. The temple authorities should resolve the issue through a dialogue,” according to NDTV.
With inputs from agencies