Why the Right to Pray campaign makes me uncomfortable

In a deeply religious country, there are dangers in turning the issue of gender discrimination into one of religion.

 |  5-minute read |   27-01-2016
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"Right to Pray" is gathering momentum and becoming a movement after a group of women marched to the Shani temple in Maharashtra, demanding entry to the shrine platform in the premises from which women are barred by the temple trust, a "humiliating" rule to which the group demanded an end.

This is only the third place of worship which has been in the news in recent weeks for links to religion and discrimination against women. Also earlier in January this year, the Supreme Court has asked the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala, to clarify why it prohibited women from entering the shrine, saying this breached the nation’s constitution.

Following this, the Bombay High Court has said it will wait for the SC's Sabarimala ruling before deciding on a similar plea relating to the Haji Ali Dargah. The case relates to a Mumbai-based group having challenged the ban imposed on women from entering the shrine, claiming gender discrimination.

The issue has been bubbling for months - if not years and decades and centuries - but the dramatic spectacle by the women's group outside the Shanni temple in Maharashtra, symbolically on Republic Day, has brought out the issue forcefully into the spotlight.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in light of messy protests where women seeking entry were detained by cops, has announced that women indeed do have a "right to pray" and has offered to mediate between temple trust authorities and protestors. This is indeed very nice of him, and many have hailed the move as "progressive" and "reformist."

While it is true that right to practice and promote one's religion is a fundamental right of all citizens, there are some dangers in making the issue of gender discrimination turn into a "Right to Pray" one, in a deeply religious, traditional and diverse country, where religion is hardly all-but-forgotten.

The issue is equal right to entry to all public spaces of educational, historical, cultural value, including places of worship and places of natural beauty, regardless of whether one is going there to fervently pray, admire the surroundings, or merely out of curiosity as a student of culture or religion, or indeed as an enthusiastic tourist.

This is of course a touchy topic. A place of worship is considered a sacred place by most followers of the religion, and any act that is "disrespectful" can be seen as "hurting religious sentiments", for which we already have laws in place.

The right wing outfit Hindu Mahasabha, for instance, has filed a plea against Bollywood superstars Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and a private TV channel for allegedly showing the actors inside a temple wearing shoes during a reality show. The local court which had earlier accepted the plea has now dismissed it.

But while entering a religious premise to intentionally or inadvertently hurt sentiments is not either a recommendation or can be seen as a right, on the other end of the spectrum, promoting equal right of citizens to entry as a "right to pray" is also discomforting.

Religious places of worship often have a tendency to take over the most scenic places. Take Sabarimala, which is in the Western Ghats, or Haji Ali, a delightful extension of land into sea.

To then hijack these places of natural beauty as belonging to a certain religion and then proceed to ban random groups from entry is tantamount to denying not just right to religion and praying but also natural beauty, which is also a right of all.

For instance, there are a number of temples in India, including the Somnath temple in Gujarat and the Jagannath temple in Puri, where non-Hindus cannot enter without prior permission both for security concerns and "sanctity" of the place.

Reform in religion is not only about "equal right to pray" but also of equal right to full access to all places, including places of worship in a spirit of openness and sharing.

I, for instance, have visited a number of diverse religious places for various reasons, and praying was not on top of the list for my visit for all.

At the Kartik Swami temple in Garwal, Uttarakhand, the trek up a secluded hill, navigating snow and watching the sun rise along the way, was the attraction, though the temple bells framing the view of the Himalayas upon reaching the destination were a magical sight and added greatly to the ambience.

On a visit to Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, churches were not on the agenda, but we were attracted by the blue and white beauty of the La Salette church before taking the climb and learning about the 133-year-old church and enjoying its ambience.

Or similarly, my visit to the famous Chishti shrine in Ajmer, where I undertook the journey with a friend, more an experience of friendship than "praying".

On the other hand my childhood trek up the steep steps of Vaishno Devi are not memorable for beauty or peace - from what I remember, the place was overcrowded and littered and I went because my family, led chiefly by my mother, dragged me. However, it added to my experiences and informed me in a different way, and I cherish the memory.

Religious places, like historical and cultural spots, add to our experience, be it spiritual, cultural or educative. It is not merely about a "right to pray."

When Indians visit churches in London as tourists or elsewhere, are we transformed into fervently devout Christians who are preoccupied with praying or do we respectfully admire the architecture and the stained glass windows, the glowing candles and decorations at the altar?

The equal right to public spaces is not merely about a "right to pray." It is also about an equal right to access to all the beauty, natural and man-made, that informs both our intellect as well as our spirituality, both or either, and offers an opportunity to help us understand cultures and civilisations and each other at a deeper level.

Writer

Kanika Gahlaut Kanika Gahlaut @kanikagahlaut

The writer is a journalist of more than two decades and author of Among the Chatterati (Penguin India).

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