Shani Shinganapur Temple, Haji Ali and now Section 377: These mini revolts keeping hopes alive

Who said the missionary position is the only way to go about sex? And who said Constitutional provisions are written in stone and can never be changed? As the Supreme Court decides on the curative petition on Article 377, these fundamental questions will weigh heavy on the minds of those on the bench. Forget what might be the verdict, the fact that the gay community has managed to throw up such a challenge to the powerful status quoist mindset and raise an intense debate is an achievement itself.

The status quo is under challenge somewhere else too, and the challenge is religion-neutral. In Ahmednagar, Hindu women want access to the core shrine area of the Shingnapur Shani temple, which, if allowed, would mark a break from a 400-year old tradition. Till 2011, they were denied access to the temple. Then a small concession was made. They were allowed entry to the temple but were prohibited from stepping into the core shrine. Now they want that to change and an equal space for themselves as men.

In Mumbai, Muslim women are up in arms against the decision of the trustees of Haji Ali dargah denying them access to the inner sanctum which houses the tomb of Pir Haji Ali. In 2012, the trustees broke a long tradition of gender equality with this decision and they invoked the Sharia to justify it. A Muslim women’s group now has moved the court citing discrimination and violation of the constitutional right to equality. The religion might be different but the spirit in this case no different from that of the Hindu women seeking equal treatment at the Shani temple or the gay community demanding a status of legal equality as others.

Group of women who were stopped from entering the Shani Shingnapur temple at Supa village in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. Image courtesy: Solaris

Group of women who were stopped from entering the Shani Shingnapur temple at Supa village in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. Image courtesy: Solaris

Beyond the deafening din of politics, there many such mini but powerful revolts taking place across the country against status quo-ist arrangements. Orthodoxy and the people and groups with vested interests in perpetuating them are being asked tough questions. What is critical in the development is the absence of fear of a strong backlash. The agents of change are prepared to wage the good fight and are not as afraid of consequences as earlier. It does not matter anymore where political parties stand on a particular issue or whether they back the cause, in the era of social networking and an active media the equations have changed.

Coming back to Article 377, or more specifically the topic of unnatural sex, who decides what is natural or unnatural? The Constitutional provision, the peg on which the defenders of the Act hang their argument, is a weak one. Constitution as a document must evolve with time, as also the legal interpretation of its provisions, taking into consideration changing realities. To begin with, the state should have had no say in what consenting adults to in their bedroom. The article itself was anti-freedom in a way. If it goes it won’t hurt anyone.

Matters like women’s entry in shrines are more complex given the custodians of religion seek to link it to beliefs and age-old traditions. Any call for change in religious practices means an attack on the vested interest of the custodians and blind followers of customs. But religions like constitutions, are not meant to be static entities. They have been changing over centuries’ albeit slowly, through push from inside or through protestant movements. Hinduism has seen many of the latter, the most important examples being Buddhism and Jainism.

The quest for equality of status, not only for women but the socially disprivileged too, has always been the prime driver of change. What we call Hinduism is so diverse today because the original religion allowed differences to exist and take shape and identity. It has a tradition of accommodation and it’s difficult to understand why the Shani temple issue has to be met with resistance from traditionalists. Muslim women face a bigger challenge from the forces of orthodoxy, but the custodians cannot afford a rebellion within. It’s immaterial what the legal view of the case is, the latter have to change.

The challenge to status quo is a sign that the society is intellectually alive and kicking. The hope for change is not dead yet.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2016 12:40 PM

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