By Prateek Goyal
On entering the dark alley of saffron-coloured Gurukrupa building on the busy Satara road in Dhankawadi locality of Pune, one can easily find the nameplate of the woman who has taken center stage in the agitation to enter the core shrine area of Shani Shingnapur temple which has not allowed women to enter its sanctum in the last 400 years.
Orange-coloured walls with posters of Hindu deities, a desk full of trophies and photographs with political leaders (Rahul Gandhi, Sudheer Mungantiwar, Prithviraj Chavan) cutting across party lines, form the layout of the office cum apartment of 31-year-old Trupti Desai, president of Bhumata Ranragini Brigade - an organisation which is in the limelight for rallying a strong force of 1000 women to enter the core shrine area of Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar on Republic Day.
Born in Nipani Taluka on the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra, Desai has her roots in Kolhapur, and at the age of eight, she moved along with her family to Pune. She claims to have a spiritual background and is an ardent follower of one Gagangiriji Maharaj of Kolhapur.
A home science student of Shrimati Nathibai Damodar Thackersee College, Desai left college in first year due to family problems and was made the president of an organization known as Krantiveer Jhopdi Vikas sangh which was her first foray into activism.
“I used to work on social issues since I was in class 10. In 2003, I started working with Krantiveer Jhopdi Vikas Sangh and used to work for people living in slum areas. We generally used to help them with their day-to-day problems like providing ration cards, dealing with unemployment, legal problems and so on,” said Desai.
In 2007, she came in to the limelight when she protested against Ajit Cooperative Bank with NCP heavyweight Ajit Pawar as its chairman, for allegedly perpetrating a fraud of 50 crore. She said, “Ajit cooperative bank was a den of people with political nexus and only people with political connections used to get loans. Thirty-five thousand people who deposited their money in this bank were cheated; I formed Ajit Bank Sangharsh Samiti and after a rigorous battle of four years, I managed to get back the money of 29000 depositors.”
After her campaign against Ajit Cooperative Bank, a few people suggested Desai to form a social organization, which led to the formation of Bhumata Brigade on September 27, 2010. According to Desai, the organization started with 40 people but now has 5000 registered members.
Desai said, “Land is one of the most important things in this world and without it nothing can survive, that is why we named our organization Bhumata Brigade. Our organization works on various issues such as corruption, farmer suicides, and women rights, environmental issues and we help everyone who is in distress and needs our help.”
According to Desai, her organization had also extended support to Anna Hazare’s Janlokpal movement and Baba Ramdev’s protest against black money.
Bhumata Brigade is an organization for both men and women. But it has a special wing only for women known as Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, which is leading the agitation to enter the shrine area in Shani Temple.
Narrating the chain of events, Desai said, “On November 29, when we came to know that a woman had entered the core shrine area of Shani temple which was deemed sacrilegious, we decided to go to the temple to enter the shrine area. On December 20, when we tried to enter the sanctum, we were stopped by 15-20 guards, after which we told the temple trust that if they are not going to allow women inside the shrine within eight days, we will come with a strength of 400 and enter the core shrine area.”
“Even after requesting the trust when we didn’t get any response, we decided to enter the shrine area on Republic Day as it was the day when our Constitution came into force. Our Constitution gives equal rights to men and women, it gives us Right to Worship and even after 66 years, if we can’t have equal rights, then this is an insult to our Constitution,” added Desai.
Desai said, “Women of every religion should be allowed to go to religious places of their respective faiths. People, who consider women as impure, should realise that they have come into existence only because of women. Even the milk that is poured on the shrines inside temples is from cows and buffalos, which are also female.”
Bhumata Brigade tries to help women in distress regularly. According to Desai, she and her group members receive calls from women across the state and most calls are from western Maharashtra. They also receive complaints about eve teasing, dowry, exploitation, physical or sexual assault and corruption et al. She informed that at times they have helped women even with issues such as mobile thefts.
It is important to note that members of Bhumata Brigade had recently assaulted a man in a district court, who had murdered his wife by cutting her head off and paraded it on a busy city road. “When we were informed that the murderer didn’t have any regret for the crime he had committed, we decided to beat him up when he appeared in court for hearing under heavy police presence,” said Desai.
Sheela Arun Kumar, a 31-year-old former marketing professional and member of the brigade said, “The objective of our organization is to help women, to work for them, to fight for their rights and to safeguard them. This organization doesn’t have any boundaries to help women; it is in existence for them only. Our organization is not limited to Maharashtra, we are there to help women across the country,” she added.
Tejashree Shinde, another member and younger sister of Desai informed that she has been an active part of the organization since 2012. She said, “We get calls and we go to the spot to help the affected person in the best possible way. No matter what, our aim is to sort out the problem.”
Desai who married in 2006 has a 6-year-old boy and has full support of her family. Prashant Desai, her husband said, “I always support my wife. She is doing a good job by fighting for the rights of women, not only me but my parents also are very proud of her.”