On Republic Day, the biggest question for Trupti Desai, 31, was whether she would be able to enter the temple in Shani Shingnapur, a village in western Maharashtra. The problem was that as a woman, Desai is not allowed to set foot on the open platform where the idol is installed. Men, however, can do so, for a princely fee of Rs 11,111.
Desai, founder and president of the Bhumata Brigade, an activist group in Pune, decided to upend the status quo. She made grand plans to march to the village with 1,000 women and if they were barred at that point, to swoop down from the sky in a helicopter and land on the platform where the idol is installed.
Residents of Shani Shingnapur and right-wing religious groups bitterly opposed her plans, but she was not deterred.
On Republic Day, the group of around 1,000 women from across the state set out from Pune to the contested village. Two kilometres from the Pune-Ahmednagar boundary, the police detained them at a village called Supa.
“Women themselves remained firm without my saying anything,” Desai said. “When the police came and told us to get up, not even one person stood up. The women said that even if we become martyrs, we will stay here, but we will not leave here without winning our right for darshan.”
Her day ended in police detention, but not without hope. Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister of Maharashtra, finally weighed in on the debate that had been raging for almost two months. He said on Twitter that Hinduism and Indian culture do not allow for discrimination in praying and that traditions could be changed. He called for temple authorities to engage in a dialogue with the protestors.
Building an image
Three days after her detention, Desai was overwhelmed with news interviews at her home in Pune.
“It’s been like this for days,” she said apologetically, as she rattled off the list of appointments she had lined up over the rest of the day, an impressive list of Marathi, Hindi and English publications.
The ground-floor apartment that shares a space with a dark parking stilt serves both as the Desai home and the headquarters of the Bhumata Brigade. The small space bursts with awards and news clippings on every flat surface – tokens of appreciation for the brigade's six years of activity. The pink and green walls of the outside office bristle with multiple idols.
“This is not about fighting religion, it is about equality,” Desai said. “They are saying that their religious sentiments are hurt. How have they been hurt? Have we ever said that there is no god? We are also devotees of Shani [the deity embodied in the planet Saturn] and we just want the same rights as men for women of all castes.”
Desai is now practiced at meeting the demands of journalists. She is also conscious of maintaining a consistent public image – short hair, kameez and leggings and a sleeveless jacket.
“You want to take my photo?” she asked this reporter. “Wait, I’ll just wear my jacket.”
Desai’s house has been a mess of reporters since the end of November, but even more so after her failed Republic Day campaign.
On Friday afternoon, a reporter from a Hindi news channel had come to take his turn. The reporter divided tasks swiftly and directed group members to do different things in different parts of the house. For Desai, he reserved the desk in the main room of the office. Together, they will give the impression of having been interviewed in three different spaces.
“You are very lucky,” that reporter said sardonically to this one. “You can just write and leave. Look at what we have to do. Hum toh yahaan serial banate hain. We make serials here.”
Desai’s involvement with this issue began when she heard the news that the priests at the Shani Shingnapur temple had performed a purification ceremony after a woman accidentally stepped up to the idol’s platform to take darshan.
“We couldn’t bear this that a woman worshipping a god is thought to be impure,” she said. “Even I worship Shani bhagwan. Am I impure? Even Shani was born from his mother’s womb. And this offering which was made to the god, it was the milk of a cow, not bull.”
So on December 20, Desai, with three other women – Priyanka Jagtap, Pushpak Kevadkar and Durga Shukre – attempted to enter the temple and climb the platform of the idol. They got only within five feet of the idol before security guards wrestled them back.
Their next move was to demand that the villagers also appoint women to their board of temple trustees. This backfired in January when the village appointed a housewife named Anita Shetye as the head of their temple trust board. Shetye promptly confirmed that the trust would continue to bar women from the temple.
The brigade then announced its plan that on Republic Day they would storm the temple with 400 women. Hindutva groups said that they would bring 4,000 people to prevent them. Desai countered this by announcing a drop into the temple’s open sanctum by helicopter. The idea, naturally, was Desai’s.
“After they said they would stop us on the road, I thought the best way would be to drop down from the sky instead,” she said. “How can they stop us coming from the air?”
The collector doused that plan when Desai wrote to him for permission – which also relieved her of the burden of having to pay for the chartered helicopter from Pune.
“The man who owns the company was sympathetic to our cause, so he had agreed to take our deposit only after we got permission,” she said. “Otherwise, we had a donor who was willing to pay Rs 80,000 for renting it for two hours.”
In the month leading up to Republic Day, Desai, her colleague Pushpak Kevadkar and two men from the organisation travelled across the state for two weeks to meet women’s organisations and ask for their support. Kevadkar, who runs a driving school with her husband, drove the entire way.
“We had to call a huge group of women from Thane because there were already so many people coming with us,” Desai said. “And a group of women from Nagar [Ahmednagar] had said that if we gave them ten 50-seater buses, they would fill them and come. We had run out of money by then so we had to tell them that we couldn’t take any more people with us.”
Desai has been a social activist since her days in SNDT College in Pune, where she studied home science for a year before family problems forced her to drop out.
“Even then, I had the habit of going for meetings and andolans,” she said. “After college was over, I just continued with that.”
Desai worked for various social causes until her first real success in 2009, when she exposed a cooperative bank’s fraud on its 35,000 customers. She had come across the case in 2007 and with expedient manoeuvring, got herself appointed the leader of the victims. Ajit Cooperative Bank was associated with Ajit Pawar, then a minister in the state government. Desai faced several death threats for her activism, but did not back down. In the end, 29,000 customers got their money back.
A year later, Desai started the brigade, with the three women who accompanied her to the first storming of Shani Shingnapur. Everyone in the organisation is young. Desai herself is 31. The youngest member, Jagtap, was 16 when she joined the group six years ago. Nobody is above 40 years old.
The brigade now has 4,000 members and 21 branches in Maharashtra, most concentrated in western part of the state. The Bhumata Brigade has male and female members. The Ranragini Brigade is its female wing. Despite its size, the brigade does not exist officially on paper as it is not registered with the Charity Commissioner or any other authority. Desai considers the brigade to be more of a movement than a trust.
Now, Desai is facing the backlash of conservatives. As before, she shows no sign of backing down.
“Did you watch me last night on ABP?” she asked another of the brigade’s members, Prashant Jagtap, Priyanka’s husband, when he walked in to the office. “They were asking such hard questions and I gave it to them.”
The questions have been tough – those who oppose their activism have accused them of being atheists, opponents of tradition and the nation, and that political parties are paying them to create a ruckus.
Anyone who makes even a cursory visit to Desai’s home will notice the prominent presence of a variety of Hindu gods in her house, including Shani himself. Her co-workers, however, are more concerned than Desai about the accusation of being atheists. A worried conversation on the sidelines of the television reporter’s interview discussed the possibility of getting female monks to support their cause.
“It would be very good if the sadhvis came out in support of us,” Priyanka Jagtap said. “The Hindutva people find it easy to call us atheists because we are activists. But they can’t say the same thing to the sadhvis.”
Linked to this accusation of not being within the faith is that they are out to target Hinduism in particular. This critique too Desai dismisses.
“We want to work for the women of all castes and faiths,” Desai said. “On Thursday, we got in touch with the [Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan] activists who were protesting for entry into Haji Ali in Mumbai and we told them, whatever your cause, we are ready to stand with you.”
It is the last accusation, of angling for a political post, which irks Desai the most.
“They say that we have been paid by the Congress to defame the [ruling] Bharatiya Janata Party government,” she said. “But every rupee that went into this came only from our supporters. We don’t want to get into politics at all.
Desai got a chance to run for corporator in 2012, but was not interested in that. She is vehement, however, that she wanted to continue her work independently, without having to navigating the politics that comes with belonging to any party.
“The kind of work we do is not possible in a party,” she said. “They will say that we should not file cases against some people or other people because they are known to the leaders. But we want to pursue our cases freely.”
Next on the radar
After Fadnavis expressed his support for the brigade’s movement in his tweets, the village administration of the temple finally bent and said that if the issue was one of gender equality, then they would not allow men to enter the sanctum sanctorum either.
Desai is not satisfied with this compromise.
“Even if they don’t let any regular visitors inside, are the pujaris robots?” she asked. “We are saying that if they want to do that, then they should have women priests as well, who can serve on alternate days to the men.”
She now plans to take the fight to Trimbakeshwar Temple in Nashik and has given them an ultimatum of one month to begin allowing women inside – or to face the consequences.
“Hindutva people want women to stay behind, that they should keep quiet and not succeed,” Desai said. “But this is the 21st century and we need to change for that. Women are coming ahead and this 1% of people who oppose it cannot stop us.”