Has the involvement of Bhumata Brigade founder Trupti Desai in the movement to secure women equal access to the Haji Ali dargah been a boon or a curse?

It has certainly put up the backs of the male Muslim political establishment, all of whom were at Mumbai’s landmark shrine in the sea on April 28, waiting to blacken her face, guard the shrine and perform other manly feats.

Perhaps the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the Samajwadi Party, the Indian Union Muslim league, the Awami Vikas Party and the Shiv Sena’s Haji Arafat Shaikh would have been there anyway to counter a dharna announced by the newly-formed Haji Ali For All Forum. But there would have been no individual target for them to focus their anger on since the Forum comprises many organisations – some made up of Muslims, such as Muslims for Secular Democracy, most of the others mixed, such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association, and some predominantly Hindu.

The Desai provocation

Is the issue of equal access for women to the Haji Ali dargah a women’s issue, a religious issue, or both? And should Hindus be taking the lead in it? These questions came to mind as events played out at the entrance to the dargah last week.

Right where devotees were entering, a group of Muslim men led by Haji Arafat Shaikh holding placards and banners defending the Sharia, loudly declared their opposition to those who wanted equal access for women. All devotees heard their message loud and clear.

A little distance away, cordoned off, not in the path of dargah-goers, were the Haji Ali for All protestors, a mixed group of men and women, Hindus and Muslims. What they were demanding could neither be heard nor seen by any devotee, but the television cameras were there to convey their message to the world.

Many dharnas are held knowing that they won’t attract much public attention, but the organisers hope media coverage will compensate. But in this case, would the media have been there in such large numbers if Desai, who has waged a high-profile battle against Hindu temples that have traditionally prohibited the entry of women into their sanctums, was not expected there?

After her success at the Shani Shingnapur temple, Desai had declared on TV that her next stop would be the Haji Ali dargah. Immediately, a Muslim political and social worker forwarded this writer a text message that he had sent to Mumbai’s Police Commissioner, describing her announcement as a provocative act that would lead to communal trouble.

It certainly was provocative.

A Muslim fight

From the days of Shah Bano – the divorced Muslim woman against whom the Muslim establishment ganged up in the 1980s to the extent that she had to forego her right to maintenance from her husband that had been granted to her by the Supreme Court – it has been an axiom among progressive-thinking Hindus, that the fight for equality for women within Muslim personal law has to be fought by Muslims. Hindus can only support them. Once Hindus take the initiative in such a fight, what is a confrontation between conservative and liberal Muslims becomes a Muslim-Hindu fight. “We don’t want Hindus interfering in our religious affairs,” say Muslim leaders, and the entire community closes ranks.

This understanding has come to Hindus after having worked closely with Muslims and seen the siege mentality that marks most minorities anywhere, but especially Muslims in India, and more so today, when an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh rules Maharashtra and the country.

Shah Bano lost her fight in 1985. A generation has grown up since. Today, across the country, Muslim women are challenging personal laws, and being supported by many more Muslim men than Shah Bano was. This is the time for Hindus who care for women’s rights to come out fully in support of Muslim women.

But Trupti Desai wasn’t supporting the Muslims – women and men – fighting for equal access to the Haji Ali dargah. She was taking over a movement that was set off three years ago by a group of Muslim women – the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Since then, the Andolan has filed a petition in the Bombay High Court on this demand, and have won vocal support not just from the usual handful of liberal Muslim men and women, but also from male social activists from the Muslim mainstream in Mumbai.

Though the final decision lies with the High Court, the movement has become a broader issue within the community. Given that women have no restrictions in other dargahs in Mumbai and elsewhere, the trustees of the Haji Ali dargah have begun to look like a particularly rigid bunch of men out of tune with today’s Muslims.

A supportive role

Desai’s entry into the scene changed everything. At the Haji Ali For All dharna, there were few Muslim women. Many had been expected but were stopped by their families who were apprehensive that this wouldn’t be the usual peaceful harmless demonstration their women were used to attending with their Leftist colleagues. The reason was Desai’s TV announcements from the morning that she was going to enter the dargah.

This wasn’t the plan of the Haji Ali For All Forum, said its members Javed Anand and Feroze Mithiborewala. They had planned only a dharna to tell the world that Muslim liberal voices, which supported the demand for entry for all, existed. It was a first step in a process that would spread awareness in the community, and perhaps even lead to a dialogue with the dargah trustees.

The dharna had been announced at a press conference where Trupti Desai had been present. She had, at the time, fallen in line with the collective programme. But on the morning of the dharna, she reverted to her persona of an iconcoclast out to breach all traditions that kept women away from places of worship.

Anand and Mithiborewala said they tried to reach her all day, but managed to do so only at 4 pm, when the dharna was already on. By 5.15 pm, when she landed up, it was dispersing. But who noticed the dispersing protestors?

Photographers and boys in white kurta pyjamas and green scarves ran towards her car, the latter banging on it. Other boys followed, asking each other: “So they blackened her face, right?” Naturally, the police didn’t allow Desai to step out. The entire movement for Haji Ali for All became reduced to a defiant Desai. Print media coverage focused on her individual fight with the cops that night.

Why was she invited at all into what was essentially a Muslim struggle? Both Anand and Mithiborewala disagree with this characterisation, pointing out that the organisations that comprise their Forum are mixed, and that the issue is a women’s issue.

So was Shah Bano’s, but like it, Haji Ali too is predominantly a Muslim issue. After all, Hindus may visit dargahs but they remain primarily Muslim places of worship.

The fear that Desai would anyway go ahead and launch her own Bhumata Haji Ali entry, which would have subverted the Haji Ali For All movement, seems to have prompted the Forum to invite her to their press conference. The experience thereafter was not pleasant.

But the Haji Ali struggle cannot also be disassociated from Desai. Her successful breach of male bastions of Hindu worship has led to the inevitable question being posed by Hindutva supporters who are fighting a losing battle with modern trends in their community: “You can bring about reform within Hindus, would you dare to do so within Muslims?” That was a challenge that had to be met not just by Muslims, but also those Hindus who supported the entry of women into their temples.

But the answer to that question is clear: If a Hindu had led the fight for equal entry into temples, Muslims must lead the fight for entry into their places of worship. Trailblazer she may be, but Trupti Desai’s role in that fight has to be only supportive.