In a boost to gender equality campaign, the Bombay high court on Wednesday observed that if men are allowed in a place of worship then women should also be permitted as no law prevents them from doing so.
The high court while underlining the need for giving equal access to women also stated that any temple or person imposing restrictions can face a six-month jail term under a Maharashtra law, and asked the government to make a statement if it is worried about the sanctity of a deity.
The observations were made by a division bench of Chief Justice D H Waghela and Justice M S Sonak during the hearing of a PIL by senior advocate Nilima Vartak and activist Vidya Bal, challenging the bar on entry of women in the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.
"There is no law that prevents entry of women in any place. If you allow men then you should allow women also. If a male can go and pray before the deity then why not women? It is the state government's duty to protect the rights of women," Justice Waghela said.
"If it is the sanctity of the deity that you are worried about then let the government make such a statement. Under the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, if any temple or person prohibits any person from entering a temple then he or she faces a six-month imprisonment," the court said.
The court also said that the government should give wide publicity to the Act and issue circulars, informing the general public at large about the Act and its provisions.
The court directed government pleader Abhinandan Vagyani to take instructions and make a statement on April 1, on whether or not it will ensure that women will be allowed to enter the temple.
The petition seeks the entry of women not just into the temple but also inside its sanctum sanctorum.
The petition says that the prohibition is arbitrary, illegal and in violation of fundamental rights of citizens.
The debate over the issue in Maharashtra escalated after a woman last year tried to enter and offer prayers at the Shani Shingnapur temple, in 'breach' of the age-old practice of prohibiting entry of women.
This had prompted the temple committee to suspend seven security men and the villagers to form purification rituals.
Subsequently, the Bhumata brigade led by Trupti Desai had on January 26 launched a high-voltage campaign to breach the ban at the temple and vowed to carry on with its movement for gender justice.
Keeping up the campaign against gender bias at places of worship, around 150 women under the banner of Bhumata Brigade had earlier this month left for the famous Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik district seeking to break the bar on female devotees at the inner sanctum of the Lord Shiva shrine. Their attempts were, however, foiled by the police.