Right to worship is a disputed subject in India. Who can enter a temple, when a person can enter are concerns that remains a much debated issue. Interestingly, the outcry against when disabled persons are denied entry into religious places has never been loud and sustained enough. While the issue of women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple became a national one – with the court verdict being discussed and debated upon extensively in popular news channels and eventually made into a political weapon during elections, the disabled people being denied entry has barely made it to national news and dies down after a bit of social media outrage.
One such case that took place at the Somnath temple in Gujarat in January 2021 is not an exception. Dr. Jayant Mahadevan, father of a five-year-old girl, took to Twitter to narrate how his daughter was denied entry and thus, the right to worship, in the temple as she has cochlear implants. His Twitter thread tells us:
“As we were entering the temple, we were stopped by the police who said that my daughter cannot go in with her hearing device as ‘electronic items’ are not allowed inside the temple.” Ironically, all security personnel, even those inside the temple, had phones with them, he tweeted.
We tried to explain to them in detail that it was a medical device without which she cannot hear and therefore understand or appreciate the experience of visiting the temple, he wrote. The reply we got was “Dekhna hi toh hai, sun ne ki kya zaroorat hai”. (You just want to see right, so what is the need to hear anything?)
Dr. Jayant Mahadevan has every right to be anguished. Let us recall here similar kinds of discriminatory incidents that happened at various holy places of India earlier. Jagannath temple of Puri is one such place. Ironically, the idols in this temple: Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra are known to be without any limbs and it is very common to associate disability with the deity of Jagannath in belts of Odisha and Bengal. Disability activists have complained of not being allowed in the Jagannath temple many times. It was in 2009 that the Jagannath temple administration finally laid a ramp at the North gate of the 12th century shrine and took a decision of allowing wheelchair users inside the temple complex.
Arunima Sinha, the first woman amputee to scale Mount Everest, was denied entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the Mahakal temple because she was wearing jeans and not a saree – apparently only women wearing sarees are allowed entry at this temple of Madhya Pradesh. This is an example of discrimination based on gender, as Arunima Sinha said she saw men wearing jeans allowed within.
Similar cases of discriminations were reported in 2017 from Goa and West Bengal – a police complaint was lodged against trustees of Mangueshi temple of Goa for denying a young girl entry stating “wheelchair” is a vehicle and cannot be allowed within a temple. A similar case happened at Belur Math of West Bengal in the same year. Saikat Barman, a NRI Bengali, complained that his daughter was not allowed inside the math. He wrote in his Facebook post which went viral: “Despite repeated requests, pleading with monks, volunteers and security guard and several journeys up and down the stairs lifting the wheelchair to gain access to the temple, my daughter was told that the rules in Belur Math do not allow wheelchairs to be taken inside the temple. Tears in my daughter’s eyes knew no bounds and I had nothing to console her. This was the biggest embarrassment life so far for her.”
Apparently, the reason given to him was,
“Wheelchairs travel on road and dirty and hence will be detrimental to the sanctity of the temple.”
Later, the monks of Belur Math called a press conference to deny that this incident took place. In 2019, newspaper reports informed us that activists were happy that they could enter the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. But this achievement came after so many struggles. Evidently, the recent discrimination at Gujarat’s Somnath Temple is not the first of its kind. Of course, we come to know about cases that are either reported by newspapers or highlighted in the social media. Many such cases go unreported. Temples and all other religious places are public places and should be accessible for disabled people. Importantly, not just physical ramps or barrier-free environment, majority of the temple authorities showed attitudinal barriers towards worshippers with disabilities. Most of these temples are run by private trusts. Awareness and sensitisation of both the authorities and the guards will be an important step to be taken by the state structures.
Government of India have coined a patronising and otherising nomenclature, “Divyangjan”, meaning “persons with divine body” for persons with disabilities in current times. However, it is a cruel joke that people with so-called divinity are denied entries in their choice of worship and the government, on its part, not taking any initiative to stop the harassment.
Featured image source: Onmanorama