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Disabled Indians have climbed the Mount Everest, but still struggle to enter temples and mosques

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It is sad that barriers are built on the basis of a person’s disability- especially in a country like India where the Gita of peace is based on Ashtavakra, a person with eight physical disabilities

Mohammad Faisal Nawaz, 34, is a social activist focusing on gender equality and girls’ education in Jafrabad, North East Delhi. A practicing Muslim, he was excited to attend the Haj this year after learning about the initiatives taken by the Saudi government to make the it accessible to Persons with Disabilities.

These arrangements include allocating special blocks for tawafa establishments and domestic pilgrim companies to serve the disabled. The government has also decided to allocate special restrooms and signs to guide the disabled to the special utilities.

However, Nawaz’s excitement would not last long. Sub-clauses of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Minority Affairs lay down the following criteria for ‘Eligibility for Haj’:

“Those who do not have the mental or physical health to perform the pilgrimage.”

“Persons whose legs are amputated, who are crippled, handicapped, lunatic or otherwise physically / mentally incapacitated.”

“Those afflicted with polio, tuberculosis, congestive cardiac and respiratory ailment, acute coronary insufficiency, coronary thrombosis, mental disorder, infectious leprosy, AIDS or any other communicable disease / disability”.

These guidelines are grossly violate the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, which seeks to promote equality and non–discrimination for India’s disabled community. In addition, it is extremely offensive to refer to a Person with Disability as ‘crippled’ or ‘lunatic’. Incidentally, Pakistan allows Persons with Disabilities to attend the Haj.

Nawaz was shocked and saddened on reading these guidelines. “Since childhood it’s my dream to kiss Khaana Kaaba and to feel its natural energy that empower so many. I hope one day I will able to do so without these policy barriers as an Indian Muslim with Disability, with dignity and equality.”

Nawaz is not the first disabled Indian who has struggled to practice his faith. There have been at least half a dozen reported cases on temples denying entry to wheelchair users in the last year. One of them was Sanita Keskar, a student in Panvel. Sanita was visiting the Mangueshi temple in Goa to offer her prayers when a temple committee member denied her entry as wheelchairs are ‘vehicles’ that can’t be allowed entry. In Belur Math temple, Kolkata, London resident Saikat Barman was told by the Maharaj that his wheelchair-using daughter would not be allowed in as wheelchairs are ‘impure’.

On 24 December, Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee to climb Mount Everest decided to seek blessings at the Mahakal temple, Ujjain, to seek blessings before her Mount Vincent climb in Antartica. She alleged that she wasn’t allowed in the prayers as she wasn’t wearing a ‘saree or dhoti’. She reasoned that she couldn’t wear these clothes due to her disability but her pleas went unanswered. Eventually, she broke down and left the temple.

One of the first steps taken by the present government for Persons with Disabilities was to rename them as ‘Divyang’ which translated means ‘divine’. It is ironical to see a combination of religious institutions and policy close down the doors of faith for many under the very regime.  

Temples do not judge whether a person is criminal or innocent, an infidel or loyal, a fraudster or a nation builder. It is sad to see such barriers being built only on the basis of a person’s disability – which is outside their control. Especially in a country like India where the Gita of peace is based on Ashtavakra, who was born with eight physical disabilities.

Religion for many is the only hope. More so for Persons with Disabilities and their families who feel they are equals at least in front of the gods. I remember the role god played in my mother’s life. When I was a child, doctors had written me off, schools weren’t ready to accept me and many in my own family felt I didn’t deserve a normal life. It was from her visits to the Shiva temple that my mother drew the strength to give me a normal life.

I remember a particular quote from the blockbuster movie Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne (Tony Robbins) tells Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman) “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. I do ‘hope’ policy makers take remedial actions to ensure the doors of faith do not close down for India’s disabled.

Nipun Malhotra, a wheelchair user is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, Wheels For Life. He can be followed on Twitter at @nipunmalhotra

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