PIL against colonial code barring women temple administrators in Bombay HC

Panaji, Apr 9 (IANS): Days after Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde lauded Goa for following the Uniform Civil Code, a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a young lawyer has questioned a colonial era temple code, which bars women from being appointed as "mazanes"/"mahajans" (temple administrators).

A Bombay High Court bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Mahesh Sonak has directed petitioner Shukr Sinai Usgaonkar to issue notice in daily newspapers to invite intervention from affected parties.

Goa's major temples are governed by the Portuguese-era Devasthan Regulation, a 1933 law, which is based on codification of customs, usages and practices in temples around the time. The regulation continues to be followed after the liberation of Goa in 1961.

One of the contentious provisions of the law prohibits women from being appointed as mahajans of a temple, a hereditary right enjoyed only by male descendants of the temple founders.

"Members (mazanes) shall be those who, according to the respective bye-laws, enjoy this quality, in which their male descendants in direct line and those adopted according to the respective Code of usages and customs shall succeed," states paragraph one in the Devasthan Regulation, 1933.

According to Usgaonkar, the obvious discrimination of women needs to be reversed, as the Indian Constitution forbids any state from discrimination on the basis of gender.

"Since the Devasthan Regulation, 1933, merely codifies the customs relating to Hindu temples as they existed back then, it is evident that women were always barred from becoming mahajans. This discrimination however received the stamp of approval of the state with the enactment of the Devasthan Regulation in 1933," he said.

Usgaonkar states that he was "driven" to file the petition in light of recent judgments of the Supreme Court in the Sabarimala case and the Bombay High Court in the Haji Ali Dargah case, "both of which resulted in a victory for women's rights".

The mahajans, collectively are known as the mazania, and elect the managing committee which looks after all the affairs of the temple.

Usgaonkar said that while the Uniform Civil Code, which is applicable in Goa is by and large a progressive legislation guaranteeing equal rights to women, some provisions under the family laws continue to be discriminatory towards women and have also been challenged in his petition.

"One such provision is Article 10 of a Decree dated December 16, 1880 which governs the usages and customs of Gentile Hindus in Goa. Article 10 allows a Hindu to adopt only a male, that too if he does not have male issues. A female cannot be adopted according to this provision and since this amounts to discrimination on the basis of gender..." he said.

The Bombay High Court bench has directed the Goa government to reply to its notice by May 7 and the matter will be scheduled for hearing in July this year.



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