About 400 women are gearing up to enter the inner sanctum of the popular Shani Shingnapur temple on Republic Day to protest against gender discrimination. For centuries, the temple has barred women from paying obeisance at the platform where the rock idol of Lord Shani is installed.

But this year, activists of the Bhumata Rangragini Brigade have mobilised hundreds of women to defy the centuries-old ban. Tripti Desai, the president of the Brigade, had said in December 2015 that "we feel it is a symbol of gender inequality which cannot be tolerated in the 21st century".

The inner sanctum of the temple | Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the past few months, women have been trying to make a foray to the sanctum.

On November 28 one woman was severely criticised after she did so, while four women, including Desai, tried to climb the platform where the idol is installed on December 19. Angered at these intrusions, the priests of the temple had performed 'milk purification rituals' at the temple.

While the women have vowed to accomplish their objective, it's going to be a tough fight as the temple authorities and some Hindu organisations are up in arms against them.

Bracing for a showdown, these groups have marshalled 2,000 women to form a protective ring outside the temple, according to a report in The Hindu.

"If anyone tries to break the tradition, we will stop them with the help of police," said Monika Gawade of the Ranragini Shakha, the women's wing of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS).

A week ago, Sunil Ghanwat, an office-bearer of HJS had told The Indian Express:

"As per Adhyatma Shastra (spiritual science), Lord Shani is considered as Ugra Devata. The vibrations emerging from Lord Shani have harmful effects on women… So the issue of women not being allowed to worship from close proximity should not be seen as gender inequality."
Source: Wikipedia

The district administration has also warned activists of creating a ruckus on Republic Day. In fact, Ahmednagar District Collector Anil Kawade had issued an order recently banning any assembly of people till February 4. The Bhumata Brigade’s protest could coincide with political rallies around the area and give rise to a law and order situation, the order said.

The Ahmednagar police has also served a warning notice to the Bhumata Brigade, according to a report in Pune Mirror. The notice states that the planned agitation may make matters tense in Ahmednagar, and if such a situation arises, the police will take legal action against the members of the Bhumata Brigade.

However, the women of the Brigade remain defiant. According to their plan, Desai will alight from a helicopter to offer worship at the prohibited inner sanctum.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This isn't the first time that the temple has been mired in the gender controversy. The last time there was a massive fracas was in 2000, when rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar had tried to storm the temple to fight for the women's right to enter its sanctum.

A rally that had been organised by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti was stopped by the police near the temple and its members arrested, including Dabholkar and actor Shriram Lagoo.

Feature image source: Shanidev.com