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Trupti Desai treads her own path

Mumbai,RAHI GAIKWAD:Trupti Desai is the rising star of the women’s rights movement in Maharashtra. She was pitch-forked into the national discourse after her trailblazing agitation at the Shani Shingnapur temple led the High Court to order women’s entry into the inner sanctum of the shrine.

Ranragini Brigade leader Trupti Desai (centre) visited the Haji Ali dargah along with other members of the Brigade.

Emboldened by this success, she led a movement for gender equality to the Trimbakeshwar temple and Kolhapur’s Mahalakshmi temple.

When Hindu right-wing groups dared her to enter Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah. She took up the challenge. However, protestors stopped her from entering the dargah on April 28.

On Thursday morning, Ms. Desai entered the dargah, giving an unexpected twist to the campaign, and overshadowing some basic facts. The initial demand for women’s entry into the dargah’s sanctum sanctorum was raised by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) last year, when it filed a PIL before the Bombay High Court. To the BMMA, which has kept away from the agitation owing to its pending plea, Ms. Desai’s visit has come as a surprise.

Noorjehan Niaz, co-founder of the BMMA, said, “We had no idea. The timing is telling. We are not in consonance with the protests. As we have a petition before the court, we cannot be part of an outside process. We need to be patient, wait for the verdict. We have to respect the court and democratic process. The support from the Muslim men is a welcome development, but if we had to protest like this we could have done it ourselves.”

Ms. Desai’s agitation at Haji Ali has also failed to strike a chord with Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye (Haji Ali for All), an umbrella group formed on April 16 comprising rights activists and intellectuals, predominantly from the Muslim community. The group has dissociated itself from her movement. The seed of discord was sown when she led a protest to the dargah on April 28. The group is unhappy with Ms. Desai’s decision “to act unilaterally at the last moment.” Activist Javed Anand of the forum has said its aim was not to “short circuit” the judicial process, but to create awareness through “secular-minded voices in the Muslim community.”

‘Issue turning communal’
Mr. Anand said, “That’s when we feared that a gender issue was being turned into a communal one. Because we agreed with Ms. Desai’s objective that women should be on a par with men at places of worship, one of our members invited her to plan a joint action. However, she has her own approach.”

The forum’s plan on April 28 was to stage a peaceful dharna at the Haji Ali Juice Centre. “We even held negotiations with the police,” said activist Feroze Mithiborwala. “But that morning, Ms. Desai announced before the media that she would enter the dargah. Her protest created a lot of commotion and political leaders also began gathering. This led to many Muslim women staying away from the protests. I respect what she has done and wish her best. She is the symbol of the movement for the right to sacred spaces. We are not attacking her, but we do not want the issue to be communalised. We only wanted to create public opinion ahead of the High Court’s verdict in July.”

Ms. Desai’s push for women’s entry into the dargah seems to have upstaged the voices of Muslim women; stalling their efforts to spearhead a movement within their community. Mr. Anand said Ms. Desai should have shown sensitivity to such concerns.

In Pune, her home turf, political sources have termed her as a person who seeks the limelight by taking up controversial issues. Though Ms. Desai has no known political affiliations at the moment, she had contested the Pune Municipal Corporation election on a Congress ticket. In 2007, she took on the Ajit Cooperative Bank, whose chairman was NCP leader Ajit Pawar, in an alleged fraud case. She is also protested against the irrigation scam when it came to light in 2012. “She takes up causes that put her in the limelight. With the temple entry issue, her popularity has risen,” said a political source.

Fight for change
However, some see the criticism against Ms. Desai as society’s way of pulling down a woman who stands up for a cause. A Pune-based political veteran said: “Let her fight for social change. She is still very young. She took up the Haji Ali issue in reply to the challenge thrown by Hindutva sections. Her andolan is spreading the message of women’s equality. The forum was attracted to her because of her Shani Shingnapur success. So what if she has her own plan? She is creating social awareness. How many women have the courage she has displayed?”

Meanwhile, a delegation from the Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye forum is planning to approach the custodians of the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, who have backed the entry of women. Ms. Desai, on the other hand, seems firm on going it alone.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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