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(This article was written in the wake of the religious frenzy that overcame sanity in the subcontinent in 1992. It was printed by a small magazine called Voice of Asia in Houston, Texas. The weekly magazine was aimed basically at the expatriate community from India based in Houston. I doubt if anybody read the article. I also doubt whether anybody who did, understood what I was trying to say. What is worse, those who took the trouble to understand will not have liked what they read. My friend, Kiron Kasbekar who was at that time the Resident Editor of the Economic Times in Bombay was however kind enough to take a few photocopies to distribute to fellow journalists.)

Those of you who read it and who are not familiar with India and Indianisms may find the following brief glossary useful:

Temple: A place of worship used by Hindus. This is akin to a mosque or church.

Mosque or Masjid: A Muslim place of worship.

The Temple/Mosque issue: One of the great holy legends of Hinduism has it that the God Rama or Ram was born at a place called Ayodhya. The Muslim invasions of India started in the early part of this millenium and various Muslim kings ruled over vast tracts of India which had predominantly Hindu populations. Over a period of time the small town of Ayodhya came to be renamed Faizabad apparently after some local Muslim factotum of one of the Muslim kings. It today hosts hundreds of temples to Rama. It is in the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India.

Some time in the early part of the 16th century the Mughal Babar invaded India and set up the Mughal dynasty which ruled over most of India over the next two hundred years. One of Babar's lieutenants built a mosque in Faizabad and named it after his master. It came to be called the Babri Masjid or Babar's Mosque. It later came to be contended that the local Muslim overlord had destroyed a Hindu temple and built the mosque in its place and that the destroyed temple had signified the birth place of the God Rama. Muslim rulers had destroyed temples elsewhere and were known to have done it repeatedly in Indian history. The mosque itself had been a ruin and not in use over the last hundred years. But Muslims disputed the Hindu claim over the land on which it stood. The Hindus insisted that since it signified the birthplace of Rama the mosque had no business to be there in the first place and should be razed. And finally raze it, they did. The dispute continues till today.


The Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the World Hindu Organisation is a body devoted to the furtherance of the Hindu cause.

The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh or the National Self Help Organisation is an organisation which believes in Hindu supremacy on the basis of a philosophy that it has inherited from the Hindu Mahasabha or Hindu Greater Conference. It is a highly disciplined socio-military organisation involved in social self help work and disaster relief. The belief in Hindu supremacy makes a case for Akhand Bharat or Greater India which includes Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma or Myanmar.

The Bharatiya Janata Party in its latest incarnation is the political wing of the Hindu movement. It generally shows a much more moderate face in public and probably has a lot of moderate and modern minded individuals as its members. Its ideology is characterised by a pride in the country and a willinglness to work for its good, inherited from the RSS, a strong unstated bond with the Hinduism and the Hindu way of life or Hindutva as they call it and a strong stand against foreign religions not necessarily only Islam, cultures and their accoutrements.

The Congress: This was the political movement which led India to freedom. It later transformed itself into a political party and won the elections over some four decades of Independent India. It is now on the decline and may cease to exist by the end of this century.

Fundamental Rights: Akin to the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution are inherently justiciable and give an Indian citizen as much freedom as does the American constitution to an American citizen.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Indian's first Prime Minister

Indira Gandhi: India's third Prime Minister

Satyanarayana Pooja: An invocatory religious service to the Lord God Narayana seeking blessings before any venture.

Ramayana: India's first great religious epic.

Mahabharata: India's second great religious epic. The Bhagavad Geeta is a part of this epic.

Doordarshan: Indian Television beamed all over India

Aarti: A silver plate with a bit of burning incense which is ceremonially shown to a diety or to a person on ceremonial occasions as a sign of welcome.

Iftaar: The ceremonial breaking of the day long fast in the evening. The fast is undertaken by Muslims as part of the observances which they follow during the month of Ramzan or Ramadan.

Communal: In the Indian context this means religious or sectarian.

Prohibition: India undergoes periodic frenzies of puritanism which in the latter part of this century are disguised as socially desirable actions. Among them is prohibition.

Civil Liberties and Religious Beliefs at the Cross Roads

An Agnostic Looks at Indian "Secularism"


Sharad Bailur

The crisis resulting from the temple/mosque issue is only one of a long series of such problems which India will face, if it is unable to solve the problem on the basis of its secular credentials.

While it is true that the VHP/RSS/BJP has been responsible for regularly bringing the situation to a boil, it must also be seen that they can today get away with it only because those in power over the last four decades, namely the Congress, have never been clear about the principle of secularism involved in a modern constitution based on a rule of law - and unfortunately, neither is any other political party.

The principle of secularism in the Indian Constitution gives the citizen the freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion. This right, like the other fundamental rights, is negative in nature and merely limits the power of the state, preventing it from forcing any particular religious belief upon its citizens. It has no other connotation. It does not mean that the state respects all religions equally or that it respects any religion at all. Implied in it is the inviolability of the right to hold a belief, indeed any belief, not respect for beliefs themselves.

For instance, I might hold a belief that two and two is twenty-two. So long as my belief is private to myself and my followers and does not impinge on the rights of others to hold beliefs different from mine, my right to do so is inviolate. So, for instance, would your right be to have no belief whatsoever, in other words to be an agnostic. This right is closely allied to the right to the freedom of opinion and expression which is the keystone of the civil rights arch. This was the interpretation that the country's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru stood by throughout his long tenure.

But other leaders, even during his time, were not so clear. The public demonstration of their private religious convictions was something which he was powerless to prevent. Their visits to temples, mosques and churches were news on the radio and in the papers. Over the decades it became the norm. When the ordinary man in the street goes to a place of worship it is his constitutional right and evokes no response. But when, say, the President or the Prime Minister does, it makes for publicity, and possible unhappy interpretations because of the official position which he holds. It has to be publicly justified. The only way to justify it is then to say that the leader in question has respect not just for the religion he practices but, for the peace of mind of those who do not share his convictions, for all the other commonly practised religions as well.

Indira Gandhi was the first to popularize this theme of " equal respect for all religions ". The travesty of secularism that we today have comes of this background. The inability of the government to bring in to law a common civil code stems from just this misinterpretation of secularism. It glaringly exposes our congenial inability to work out, in advance, the possible implications of a policy before it is publicly announced. And it is this, if anything, which is responsible for letting the genie of political denominationalism out of the bottle.

Since all religions involve conviction and faith, not reason and evidence they are, by definition, intolerant. Equal respect for all religions is therefore ipso facto impossible. Political leaders are aware of this hypocrisy without saying as much. So are the people. Besides, does the principle of secularism as presently trumpeted about profess equal respect for the views of agnostics and atheists. If it does, it means that there is no respect for any view. If it does not, it means that atheists and agnostics cannot claim protection under the relevant fundamental right; that because secularism involves respect for religion, atheists and agnostics must somehow acquire religious convictions of one colour or another, to be treated equally with other citizens. It is surprising and sad that the Indian Secular Society did not raise a voice in protest when this twist first became public.

A second angle to this interpretation is that the Constitution has no definition of what a Hindu is. It merely says that Hindus are all those who do not practice the other religions specifically mentioned in its contents. According to the Constitution, all agnostics and atheists are therefore Hindu by definition whether they like it or not.

With the new interpretation has come the encouragement of religion in public, often with official sanction and invariably with studied silence from those in authority, apparently in the hope that looking the other way will make the problem go away. Instead it has only got bigger and more menacing each day. The word " religion " has come to acquire a dogmatic public sanctity which even the forces of law and order do not wish to be seen controlling. This was made frighteningly obvious when the BBC showed the Babri Masjid being destroyed.

Various organs of government and public sector bodies permit their employees to demonstrate their private religious faith at their places of work. Central and State government offices, police stations, public hospitals, railway and airline offices and bus stations maintain shrines to various deities which are ceremoniously looked after by the staff during working hours. Many public sector orgasnisations officially approve the holding of Satyanarayana Poojas in their offices on the ground that it is a social occasion.

The decision to allow the showing of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat on Doordarshan would have been completely harmless if, these great epics were to be regarded as great literature or mythology which they are. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, mythology is religion and religion, mythology. There is a lot of truth in the apocryphal stories of television sets being garlanded and shown aartis - when the serials came on.

As a sop, official functions are held involving other religions. The spectacle of a Hindu President holding " Iftaar " parties during Ramzaan is telecast for the gratification of Muslim viewers. It is only an act of inadvertent omission, or perhaps the weather is too cold then, for the Prime Minister to be shown on TV attending Midnight Mass at Christmas.

Secularism gave way to equal respect for all religions. This has given way to equal encouragement of all religions. It has not occurred to anybody that what is being equally encouraged is competing forms of intolerance. At what point does one call a halt to encouragement of religion? The short answer is none. Equal encouragement of all religions invariably results in competitive obscurantism and oneupmanship. Hence Ayodhya. It is the best fuel for communal riots.

"Anti-social elements ", are always blamed for such riots and rightly so because they are in the best position to take advantage of a combustible situation. But the dynamite which explodes is first provided by shortsightedness in the interpretation of secularism.

Even educated people who hold sympathy with BJP's views often say that if other (presumably western) constitutional democracies can have a state religion, so can we. That there is nothing wrong in going ahead and changing the constitution to make India a Hindu state in which "the rights of religious minorities are respected". That other constitutional democracies in the west find their religious incubus a constant embarrassment over which they have to maintain eternal vigilance to prevent religious forces from entering the temporal arena is something nobody is willing to talk about. In all such cases the state religion is a relic of the past; not a blueprint for the future. Without going in to the merits of such a move, it becomes quite clear that what is being aimed at in our country is the curtailment of the freedom of belief and thence of opinion and, perhaps later, even of expression. It has apparently not occurred to anybody that succumbing to the temptation to impose one religion on the country is the first step to the abolition of all civil liberties. If the right to freedom of opinion and expression is curtailed we shall no longer be a free democracy. We can at best be a dictatorship in the majority in which the Hindu shall be more equal than the others where there shall be no place for such Occidental fancies as the concept of equality before the law or even of a rule of law.

Much of the problem is caused by the fact that the concept of the modern state and the rule of law is something which was imposed upon this unwilling conglomeration of nations, (which later became the India we know), by those wicked imperialists, the British. For every law we have made, we have made exceptions. Some perhaps inevitable and justified. Others, for completely frivolous reasons. This again betrays our congenital lack of foresight. Take prohibition. We first make a law which prohibits drinking. Then we say that those with medical certificates may be permitted to drink. Later we say that medical certificates are not necessary; just a permit to drink is. The law of prohibition stands on the statute books. Nobody respects it and, nowadays nobody gets himself a permit. This applies to every law. If laws are flouted through exceptions the respect for law diminishes in direct proportion to the exceptions made till it vanishes altogether. Hence Ayodhya. In matters eligious, it, in addition, spawns corruption protected by the religiosity of the fanatic.

The Indian mind is far sharper than almost any other mind in the world. Its weakness is laziness. We are always therefore on the eternal hunt for short cuts, looking for ways to reduce the mental effort involved in modern democratic practice. The only way to reduce mental effort is to ritualise action. In action the Indian mind prefers the safe route taken by the herd. But where possible, it is substituted by symbolism and sloganeering; ceremony and sermonizing. We go through the rituals of modern democratic practice and of a rule of law in the hope that the ritual will fetch us the essence. It is quite clear that secularism as a concept is only a ritual to which we wish to be seen publicly paying lip service.

It is not something to be put in to practice with the full might and backing of the state and of the rule of law. This is because of the rule of exceptions and in spite of a rule of law. Having compromised and made exceptions on the question of secularism all these decades till the word has become utterly meaningless, secularists are forced on the defensive to the point of being called anti-religious, thus increasing the level of intolerance which leads to explosions like Ayodhya.

It is imperative that civil libertarians take up the secular cause if this country is to be prevented from falling in to a dictatorial trap, because once a compromise is made on one fundamental right, the erosion of other fundamental rights will follow extremely quickly in its wake. That will be the end of the Indian democratic dream.