The media’s reaction to a protest for equal access to women in Haji Ali Dargah was typical: they rushed hammer and tongs towards the star
“Abbe ye Trupti Desai kab aa rahi hai,” - when is Trupti Desai arriving - I hear a bored TV journalist ask the cameraman who has switched off his camera. This is strange because the person speaking right then before them, Anjum Rajabali, scriptwriter of such renowned films as Ghulam and Rajneeti, is saying something controversial: “As a Muslim I am embarrassed”.
Explaining himself, Anjum says, “Islam is a humane religion. It is embarrassing as a Muslim to hear of discriminatory rules when I know that Islam does not discriminate between men and women. What gives the management of the dargah the right to deny women entry into the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali?”
100 meters away, before the Haji Ali Juice Centre that serves as an entry to the Haji Ali Dargah, surrounded by an equal number of riot police and policemen on the hot summer afternoon of April 28, 50 odd people are gathered to ‘guard’ the dargah.
When I ask who they were guarding against, Ashraf Wankar, Western Maharashtra President of the Awami Vikas Party (AVP) who claims to have filed the first FIR against Trupti Desai says, “We are here to prevent Trupti Desai from entering the dargah. She can come tomorrow, follow the rules and pray. But we won’t allow her to break the rules today.”
On the face of it, it seems a contest between progressive Muslims supported by grassroots and Left organisations on one side and conservative Muslims supported by parties like the AVP and Samajwadi Party on the other. The truth, as I discover slowly, is that besides this group of social and political activists demanding equality under the name ‘Haji Ali Sabke Liye’ (Haji Ali For All), everyone else is waiting for Trupti Desai – the media expecting some fireworks, the conservatives ready to provide it, and the police trying its best to prevent the spark.
This bunch of human rights activists, meanwhile go on with logical, well-articulated arguments. The photographers, cameramen and journalists – whose total number is more than the protestors –are disturbed about the illogic of the light. The protestors are standing with their back to the dargah. Logical one might say, except if you consider the direction of the sun which is behind them at 4 in this hot afternoon.
The cameramen get together to manage the show. They ask the protestors to face the Haji Ali Dargah after moving back a little while the rows of cameras mounted on six feet high tripods, stand on the two inch high elevation granted by the footpath. They take atmosphere shots: dargah, banners, some sloganeering, some of the speeches and wait.
A lanky journalist from a local channel hobbles to Feroze Mithiborwala of Bharat Bachao Andolan, and the most active organiser of this protest. “When is Trupti Desai expected?” she asks, impatient at the sun that seemed to be dehydrating everything but the unconcerned sea behind. Feroze calls, finds out that she has reached Chembur and should be here within an hour.
As the drama would evolve later, I’d hear many activists lament that it is Trupti Desai who has taken the limelight instead of the issue. And this despite Desai presence merely for solidarity. She has neither organised this, nor deliberated its arguments.
I know this because I have been privy to the emails exchanged between the group of social activists for weeks before the event where they fine-tuned the argument they would present and debated on how not to make it seem like a communal or even vaguely islamophobic protest.
“It will be unfortunate if you turn the issue of equal rights of woman into a communal, religious one,” Javed Anand, of Muslims for Secular Democracy and husband of activist Teesta Setalvad tells me. “This is about the rights of women to be treated equal to men. If the men are allowed inside the sanctum why not women? And if the Mahim dargah, which shares a trustee with Haji Ali, can allow it, why not here?”
On the other side, Ayesha Khatar tells me on camera, “Women have more respect and freedom in Islam than in any other religion. We are very happy with it. We don’t want others to fight for our rights.”
Many of them are carrying placards that read “We Won’t Allow Women To Enter The Haji Ali Dargah”. They don’t realise the mistake that women are already allowed inside. They are just not allowed anymore to touch the sufi saint’s grave and hence are not allowed near it unlike men.
I ask Anjum Rajabali about women being on the other side in large numbers. He says, “That’s a sad fact of human psychology that people who are victims are also co-opted by the oppressor with the belief that your very identity, your religion is under danger and when those kind of issues come up they are willing to forgo their rights and not think as independent people. It’s not just in Islam, it is happening everywhere.” Anjum, who coined the term ‘Haji Ali Sabke Liye’ – Haji Ali For All, calls this the ‘battle for hearts and minds’.
A battle they seem to be losing, at least on the other side of the debate. As if to counter Anjum, Rizwana Sheikh uses a similar argument, “I know that some Muslim women are with them but this is due to the lack of education. Most people haven’t read translation of Koran and Hadith. Those who are aware, know that this is wrong. Every religion has people who are educated and those who are not. So this is a creation of the illiterate.”
When asked about Mecca and Madina where women are allowed, she says, “It’s different there than it is here. You cannot compare the two.” In the same tirade she complains, “Why is she (Trupti Desai) interfering with our religion. When she is not of our religion, why is she doing this?”
The bone of contention for these protestors is not the rights of women, but interference in their religion. That is how it had been articulated to them. Bilal Khan who works closely with Medha Patkar on the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao andolan tells me that when he entered the area through the juice centre, he was surprised to see people from one of the slums he works in. They had come to protest on the opposite camp. When Bilal asked them why they had come, they told him that they were informed that Trupti Desai was to perform a pooja inside Haji Ali Dargah and they were there to prevent that sacrilege.
Did the protestors plan to enter the dargah? Feroze Mithiborwala say, “We went and met the police yesterday and they graciously gave us the permission to protest. But not to go inside the dargah. It was never the plan. The plan was to protest outside, make our point before the gathered media and go away. The battle is being fought in court, why would we want a drama here?”
Drama is exactly what Trupti Desai of the Bhoomata Ranragini Brigade promises everyone, every single time. Be it in Shani Shignapur where she entered the sanctum sanctorum or the Mahalaxmi temple in Kohlapur where she was roughed up. She likes to court attention, entertain the media and through them enrage or delight the masses depending on which side of the debate you are on.
And the media? They are no longer the seeker of truth. There are a few print journalists and some from the enlightened publications that have emerged online who keep digging. But the electronic media, like a lover of Bollywood cinema, wants action. And they love anyone who provides it.
Take the case of another person who has acquired a cult personality status because of the actions of the media – Kanhaiya Kumar. One moment they take the side of the government against Kanhaiya Kumar. But when he gets bail, they seem to take his side and broadcast his speech live, turning him instantly into a celebrity.
But the truth is: the only side the media is on is its own. Anything that gets them extra eyeballs, they want to be on it. So much so that when Kanhaiya Kumar came too Mumbai on April 23, they stepped over one another, over the public seated on the ground (one of them almost toppling my camera mounted on a stand), scuffled with the organisers to get close enough to Kanhaiya. It was as if a media lynch mob was on a rampage. Were they not carrying telephoto lenses or did their video cameras not have zoom, I wondered.
As a journalist, I have covered the entertainment beat and been to functions ‘graced’ by the three super star Khans – Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan. The media’s craze for Kanhaiya, that mad frenzy, I have not seen even with their treatment of the Khans.
The media is so caught up in these ‘performers’ – be it a Kanhaiya or a Trupti, that they aren’t bothered to dig for interesting, controversial incidents happening all around them. Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan told me that Shiv Sena was aiding the religious protestors at Haji Ali. The Sena’s anti-Muslim mind-set is well known. Hence, this odd Hindu-Muslim collaboration makes for an interesting story. But who has the time to dig deep? Or the patience?
At 5 pm, the political protestors are told by the police to stop their sloganeering and disperse. The protestors, grateful to the police for their permission when the crackdown on protestors has increased in the last few months, oblige. Trupti Desai has still not arrived and this group of protestors are the only ones who aren’t bothered where she is.
Around 5:30, Trupti Desai makes her entrance. It is the journalists who come to know first. What ensues is a media stampede. Cameramen jump over police barricades to reach the road to get a closer view. Some scramble atop a parked truck for height and visibility. Someone thrusts a mike through her window.
The religious protestors come to know and rush in, jostling with the journalists to get to Trupti. The police try desperately to keep them away. They needn’t have bothered. The journalists, unintentionally, have provided her the perfect protective cordon while, ironically blocking the very action they had waited impatiently to cover.
The road chokes up. The police moves with deliberate focus. They clear the car’s surrounding first of the outer ring of religious activists and then the inner circle of journalists. Then they escort the car to the end of the road, more than a kilometre away, where later Trupti would address journalists.
Much later she would march to the CM’s house, get detained at the Azad Maidan police station and deep into the night, the cops would ‘escort’ her back to her house in Pune. The media reports are full of this drama. Not one word appears in most reports about the democratically minded protestors and their pointers about the rights of women.
Meanwhile, the human rights activists look at the media frenzy for this one woman with disbelief. One of them tells the other a bit sarcastically, “Trupti Desai aa gayi. Ab ghar chalte hain.” (Trupti Desai has come, let’s go home).
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)