A petition filed in August 2021, seeking daily worship rights at the Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal within the contentious Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque complex in Varanasi, is driven by five women.
The petitioners, backed by the Vishwa Vedic Sanatan Sangh (VVSS), headed by Jitendra Singh Vishen, have largely remained unknown so far.
ThePrint spoke to four of the five women — including a housewife married to a Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) member, a beautician and an RSS worker — on what inspired them to fight and what united them.
Originally from Mumbai, Maharashtra, Lakshmi Devi moved to Varanasi after marriage. Her husband Sohanlal Arya, VHP vice-president for Varanasi ‘prant’, was the first to claim the black stone structure found inside the “wuzukhana” of the Gyanvapi mosque was a Shivling.
Lakshmi, a housewife who has studied till intermediate, said she was inspired by her husband to join the legal battle.
Speaking to ThePrint, the 66-year-old added that she and the other women of Varanasi were unable to perform puja at the Maa Shringar Gauri site regularly, and felt sad to see the statue of the sacred Nandi Bull (Lord Shiva’s carrier) “waiting for him”.
Asked about historical records that suggest Nandi was gifted to the Vishwanath temple by the Rana of Nepal around the 1800s, possibly much after the old temple was demolished on Aurangzeb’s order, she insisted that “Nandi always faces his master”.
Although not affiliated with any organisations or outfits herself, 40-year-old Sita Sahu is no stranger to politics.
Her mother Prabhawati Devi fought the municipal elections on a BJP ticket in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, 15 years ago and, according to her husband Balgopal Sahu, a general store owner and member of the BJP’s local mahanagar unit, Sita was active in local politics even before marriage.
The mother-of-three attended an RSS training camp as a student.
She mentions her mother as an inspiration, but says “it was more sentiment than inspiration” that led to the petition.
“While visiting the Shringar Gauri site during Navratri, we weren’t able to offer prayers everyday, we could see only the platform,” said Sahu.
Born and raised in Varanasi, Pathak is the daughter of Dayashankar Tripathi, mahant of the well-known Laat Bhairav temple in Varanasi. In her late 30s, Rekha says that “love for the deity is in her blood”.
Her family can, self-confessedly, “die for Hindutva”. “We just want respect. We are ready to die for Hindutva,” Dayashankar told ThePrint.
Rekha said “the way puja is done during Navratri in all temples should be how it is done at the Shringar Gauri temple too”.
“We cannot perform the pooja at the chaukhat (platform), it has to be done inside the temple,” she added.
Vyas runs a small beauty parlour from her home, where she lives with her husband Vikram Vyas. Their teenage daughter studies outside the city. Despite her social nature, Vyas doesn’t wish to share much more about her life.
“Many people want to know about us and I have been getting calls. Someone asked me my age and I told him he should not be asking us anything about our profile,” she said.
The invisible driver of the Shringar Gauri petition till now, Rakhi Singh is based in Delhi and has never met her co-petitioners. While other women agree that Singh was the first petitioner, they claim to have never seen her.
“It’s the four of us now,” said Rekha Pathak. “Please don’t ask us about Jitendra Singh Vishen and Rakhi Singh. They are defaming us now and, hence, we decided to part ways with them. Vishen was asking for our power of attorney but if we do that, what would our role be? We are in the limelight and he knows it,” said Rekha.
ThePrint tried to reach Rakhi Singh but Jitendra Singh Vishen said Tuesday she will not speak and “her contact details have not been shared with anyone because she faces a security threat”.