Bhumata Brigade founder Trupti Desai talks about her firebrand activism that has caught the imagination of people
Geetanjali Minhas | May 16, 2016 | Mumbai
Bhumata Brigade founder Trupti Desai, sporting a short haircut and wearing a Nehru jacket, led a group of women into the sanctum sanctorum of Maharashtra’s Shani Shingnapur temple, dramatically ending a 400-year-old ban on the entry of women. Desai talks about her firebrand activism that has caught the imagination of people.
Are you crusading against gender divide or discrimination against women in places of worship?
The constitution gave right to gender equality in the 1950s itself. Yet 68 years after independence, we are struggling against gender divide. At many places of worship only men are allowed, and women are not allowed. We are fighting for gender equality in every sphere. It is a different thing that this agitation has started from a temple. Whenever and wherever the issue concerns equal rights to women or denial [of them] due to cultural reasons, we will continue to raise our voice against that. Prime minister Narendra Modi had promised ‘achchhe din’ for all. We are going to meet him next month and seek a central law to allow women inside places of worship. Instead of filing a PIL every now and then or protesting, women must be given their right to places of worship.
How are women responding to your fight?
We have absolute support except from those in villages in the vicinity of temples at Trimbakeshwar, Shani Shingnapur or Kolhapur. Ninety-five percent men and women are supporting us and people want equal rights for women.
How do you plan to counter the mindsets deeply rooted in religion and culture?
Our movement was never against god or religion. We are fighting for women and men of all castes and religions and we have their support. Even with our andolan at Haji Ali Dargah, we do not want to hurt [religious] sentiments, but we are fighting against injustice and discrimination meted out to women wherever it is taking place. If people want to give it a religious colour, we are not bothered. This is 21st century and we will take along people from all religions and castes in our struggle. We are taught right from school that “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christians are all brethrens.” Then which fight are we talking about? We all live together as neighbours. If we fight in the name of religion, India will disintegrate. This is also the message of our andolan that people from all castes and religion should join hands.
The Haji Ali for All Forum recently said they are dissociating themselves from you for going inside the dargah as against the original plan of peaceful protests outside.
No. I told them that on April 28, the Haji Ali protest did not turn aggressive as had been agreed upon by all the forum members. Instead of running away scared, members should have stayed there and gone inside the inner chamber. If I am praying outside the dargah, then it is my right to go inside and pray too. What is wrong in that? The forum did not agree with this and I withdrew my support. Our approach under the Bhumata Brigade is aggressive. Unlike our earlier approach when we announced our plans before going, and it was called a publicity stunt, next time we will go unannounced.
How do you deal with threats arising from your crusade?
I was attacked at Kohlapur, Shani Shingnapur, and there was an attempt to attack me at Haji Ali too. We are working for the right cause as provided under the constitution. I do not think we are doing anything wrong.
You are zealous, bold and aggressive. What motivates you?
By nature I am aggressive and have a strong willpower. Even if someone comes to attack us, I [will] not break or cow down and that is the way I work.
No one knew about you before Shani Shingnapur incident. Were you active on social issues earlier?
Since 2003, I have been working for the state of Maharashtra from Pune, where I live. It was after the Shani Shingnapur protests that our name has spread through the country, thanks to the media. In 2010, I established Bhumata Brigade to fight against atrocities on women, corruption issues, problems faced by farmers, wages and rights of workers, etc. My big success was [with regard to] a fraud in Ajit Cooperative Bank associated with former Maharashtra minister Ajit Pawar where I helped 30,000 people get back their money. We also lent our support to the Lokpal issue, protested for black money recovery and against the Nirbhaya gang rape.
Though you have been taking up these causes, such cases and incidents are only increasing. How do you plan to tackle the trend?
For this, all women including those in villages must come together and stand united for action. Wherever such incidents are happening, women must hit the streets and if that happens, eve-teasing and other crimes will come down by 30-40 percent. We will now press that respect towards women be inculcated in the minds of children right from school.
You are fighting a battle for societal change which requires change in mindsets. How will you overcome this?
Yes. In Shani Shingnapur, I was told that not just me but even my future generations will not be able to change the tradition. But we changed that culture in four months. So definitely the change in society is coming, though it will take time. We will have to be firm and take a bold stand and maintain continuity. I am now going to Sangli where 50 girls have left college due to eve-teasing. This behaviour must stop. In my 13-14 sabhas at Latur, Kolhapur, Sholapur, Nashik, Aurangabad and other places, we are doing awareness campaigns to bring about change in mindsets. Like our aggressive approach against women discrimination in places of worship, in cases of rapes and other crimes across the country, we will adopt the same approach.
What is your family’s reaction to your activism?
Whether it’s my mother or in-laws, they all have been fully supportive. My mother, who was a social worker, got me involved in her work. She passed away last month before seeing the success in Shani Shingnapur. Even my seven-year-old son, whom I have met for barely four-five days in the last five months, tells me to keep fighting for such causes. If a small child can understand this, why not older people? n
(The interview appears in May 16-31, 2016 edition of Governance Now)