[Representational Image] Nearly 38 percent of the women in India face sexual violence in marriages, a new report has suggested Picture: Hindu devotees stand in a queue to offer prayers inside a temple during the Mahashivratri festival in the northern Indian city of Allahabad March 2, 2011.Reuters

The Bombay High Court Friday told the state government to strictly implement the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, and protect the fundamental rights of women. The state government has agreed to abide by the court's order. 

The court rejected the petition challenging the traditions barring women's entry to the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple located in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district and said it cannot go into individual and specific cases, but pass a general direction to the government, Press Trust of India reported.

"Secretary of Home Department, Maharashtra, will ensure due compliance and enforcement of the provisions of the Act, and in order to ensure that the policy and purpose of the Act is fully carried out, they (Home department) will issue directions to all superintendents of police and collectors in each district of Maharashtra," a division bench of Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice MS Sonak said.

"The government shall take all necessary steps to implement the Act," it further said.

"Ultimately it is the fundamental right of a woman and the government's fundamental duty to protect their (women) right," Waghela added. 

The court's observation came in response to the Maharashtra government's statement in connection with the petition filed by women activists Vidya Bal and Neelima Vartak, who have been protesting against the ban on women's entry to Shani Shingnapur temple's chauthara (platform) where stone idol of deity Shanidev is installed. 

The Maharashtra government told the court that it is against gender discrimination and will ensure the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, is strictly implemented. Circular or directive pertaining to the provisions of the Act will be sent to all district collectors and superintendents of police, state government's acting advocate General Rohit Deo said.

Women activists, politicians welcome court's order

Petitioner Vartak and BJP spokesperson Shaina NC welcomed the court's order, saying their fight was primarily against gender discrimination and its a victory for women. Shaina NC said she would worship at Shani Shingnapur temple Saturday.

"The main observation is that there should not be any discrimination between men and women. Our petition was that place of worship should not have any discrimination. This is a very important right and this should be followed," NDTV quoted Vartak as saying.

"This is a victory for women. I will pray at the Shani Shingnapur temple tomorrow. This issue is not confined to religion only. It is about gender equality. Court has given a landmark judgement. Men and women have to be treated equally in 21st century," Shaina NC said.

What is Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956?

The Act contains provisions that allows people of "all classes and sections of Hindus" entry to any places of public worship, be it temple of any public place meant "for the performance of any religious service or for offering prayers." 

"'Section' or 'class' of Hindus includes any division, sub-division, caste, sub-caste, sect or denomination whatsoever of Hindus," it adds. 

Those who defy the provisions or "abets any offence" would be "punished with imprisonment which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to five hundred rupees, or with both," according to the Act. 

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