A few days ago, I had a chat with a close acquaintance of mine. She told me about a time in her early teens when her mother, being a devout Hindu, used to take her for govardhan parikramas on ekadashi (circumambulating in the major temples in the town of Govardhan, on the 11th day of the moon cycle ).
During one such routine parikrama, she was separated from her mother. It happened to be some minor festival and hence, the temple was a bit more crowded than usual.
While looking at the flowers decorating the temple premises, she recalled being beckoned by a middle-aged priest. He was seated on a nearby pedestal with another godman holding a bowl of prasad (edible offering) He proceeded to ask her if she found the flowers pretty. To this, she replied: “Yes!”
He then turned around and offered her a massive marigold in full bloom. And, as she touched the flower he grabbed her hands and pulled her towards him. She couldn’t remember what happened next, except that he did not let go of her even as she struggled, till some other devotee came to offer prayers.
The thing that most struck me about this ordeal was the fact that my acquaintance could still remember the smirk that man gave her when she was backing away. Just thinking about it still sends shivers down her spine.
That smile to me signifies his confidence in the non-redressal of any potential complaints from the survivors.
She considers what happened to her as relatively benign. According to her, it only resulted in a loss of faith in religion for her. Comparing this to news reports and the condition of women in ashrams and other religious centres, one can realise that this isn’t about a few isolated incidents.
Rather, it’s about a nexus of predators hiding behind orange garbs and an insufficient state machinery (to do with early redressal and sensitisation). The poor redressal of India’s sexual harassment laws has furthermore caused massive stigmatisation and disillusionment from judicial systems.
Nowhere is it starker than in cases involving religious and theological institutions. This usually results in most such cases being unreported and perpetrators flying under the radar… thus continuing to harass more people.
Be it the Asaram ‘Bapu’ case, or the Nithyananda one, or Jai Gurudev from Mathura (who is allegedly implicit in genocidal accusations), one can think of many cases where self-proclaimed godmen have been ungodly.
In 1992, Bhanvari Devi an Indian social worker from Bhateri Rajasthan was gang-raped by men, angered due to her efforts to prevent child marriage in their family. The subsequent treatment by the police and court acquittal of the accused attracted widespread national and international media attention.
This became a landmark episode in India’s women’s rights movement. It paved the path to the landmark Vishakha Guidelines (1997) against sexual harassment in workplaces.
Later, we saw various new laws being framed like the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act. In both these instances, legislations were not enough to fix the problem, but rather, they provided a base to work with.
Likewise, we need special legislations pertaining to religious institutions. Alternatively, we need to increase the ambit of current legislations in light of many advocates and survivors arguing that religious institutions do fall under the umbrella of workplace sexual harassment, so as to do the bare minimum in creating a safe space for women in such places.
The issue of understanding sexual harassment in the temples of Mathura, where I hail from, poses another major difficulty. There is a lack of comprehensive data collection from both, the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) and independent research organisations.
Although a few newspapers have looked into the sexual assault cases in various ashrams, the data is, nonetheless, not enough to construct a complete picture. Some estimates point out that Vrindavan has more than 4,000 temples and ashrams, with about 2,957 widows living in them.
Another study pointed out to the ashram owners indulging in and soliciting young widows into human trafficking and prostitution. This results in a lot of them acquiring venereal diseases which often go unchecked. These rampant STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and several others like diarrhoea etc. due to a lack of sanitation make their life a true rendition of dystopia.
What’s more, there is gross neglect of the older, so-called “less desirable ones” by the owners. The Indian society has a deeply misogynistic place for a survivor of any kind of sexual harassment. This is taken up by a notch when cases pertaining to religious leaders are brought to light.
The sheer mental trauma and harassment faced by the survivor and their families at the hands of the followers of the godmen are enough to de-incentivise any further action against them by the survivor.
This, notwithstanding the media trials the survivor has to face and the protection the godmen usually have in lieu of being a part of the politico-religious nexus.
The sexual harassment faced by women and children at such religious places, essentially, puts such institutions out of their reach. It creates a sense of deep mistrust and fear of approaching various establishments against their practices.
As is true in all cases, the law isn’t enough. But, it is the bare minimum required to take the fight forward, to the doors of each temple. A special committee needs to be constituted to look into such issues, which can take necessary steps in case of non-redressal.
Not to mention, a survey and fact-finding of actual data of the survivors, their rehabilitation and the matter of their mental well-being is the need of the hour.
We, as a society, owe an apology to all the girls, women and trans people, who were wronged. They were forced to face such gross violations of their bodies in front of an almighty being, who stood there and looked on with his unblinking, cold eyes and a non-beating, stony heart in his bosom.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.