NEW DELHI -- India inched closer to treating men and women as equals, last week, when women defeated a centuries- old ban and offered prayers in the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra. It was by no means a glorious victory. Temple officials were so desperate to keep women out that they even barred the men, and relented only when a mob of men stormed the inner sanctum. But eventually, women got in.
Now, it is time for Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala to lift its ban on women. In the southern state, religious leaders, who believe that they are protecting the celibate Lord Ayyappa from menstruating women, considered to be unclean, have the full backing of the Congress Party-led government.
In Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government never lifted a finger to help women gain entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple, but Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at least paid lip service to gender equality. In poll-bound Kerala, however, the Congress Party government has said that it is duty bound to protect the right of devotees to practice their religion, which involves the exclusion of women, a tradition continuing from "time immemorial."
By that logic, the Congress Party should have also backed a status quo in the Shani Shingnapur temple which has excluded the entry of women into its inner sanctum for 400 years. In BJP-run Maharashtra, however, the Congress Party was all for women's rights.
When the Maharashtra government failed to enforce the Bombay High Court's order for women to enter the Shani temple in Ahmednagar, Congress Party's national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedisaid, "The High Court verdict has been disregarded to continue tradition which has been going on for years."
The Maharashtra government had failed to fulfil its "promise of women empowerment and equal rights to women," she said.
Janardan Dwivedi, Congress Party's General Secretary, said that it was the "pious duty" of whole society to support lifting the ban on women in the Shani Shingnapur temple. "This is also the responsibility of the government so that reason prevails over those people who are creating hurdles and problems in this direction," said Dwivedi.
"Women have got equal rights in the field of religion and philosophy in our country for centuries," he said.
Meanwhile, the Congress Party-led government in Kerala told the Supreme Court that devotees in the Sabarimala Ayyappa are protected under the Article 25 and Article 26 of the Constitution, which is the freedom to practice religion and manage religious affairs, but the right to equality under Article 14 does not apply to women between the ages of 10 and 50, who are barred from entry.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, which is hearing a plea challenging the ban on women entering the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple, the state government said, "the right to exclude persons who are not allowed to participate in worship according to the tenets of the religious institution in question is a matter of religion," which is "immune" from challenge under Article 14.
What makes the Congress Party's regressive stand doubly appalling is that it is driven by political opportunism.
Just a few months before the scheduled Assembly Election, the Congress Party-led United Democratic Front reversed the stand which its predecessor, the Left Democratic Front government, had taken before the Supreme Court, opposing the ban on menstruating women in the Sabarimala temple.
The Supreme Court isn't even sure whether it can allow such a "somersault or u-turn."
Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi has routinely tried to cast his party as more enlightened and progressive than the right-wing BJP and the nationalist Modi government. Just this week, Gandhi said that his party would "continue to strengthen the voice of Dalits, tribals, women and poor.”
Could Gandhi say how the Congress Party's stand on the Sabarimala Ayyappa is strengthening the voice of women?
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