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A Crisis of Faith: The Wages of Selective Secularism

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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The issue at Sabarimala is not about equal gender rights

THE SANGH PARIVAR HAS FOR LONG BEEN DERIDED BY secularists for allegedly trying to cast Hinduism in the mould of a Semitic religion. They argue that Hinduism is not unified, but diverse; it has several variations; and that, in contrast with Judaism, Islam or Christianity, it is a plural faith. They not only say that Hinduism’s essential pluralism—its multi-dimensional and multi-cultural approach—distinguishes it from religions that adhere to the tenets of One God and One Holy Book, they also contend that proponents of Hindutva have been trying to destroy the essence of the Hindu faith by sculpting it in the image of those monotheistic faiths. In effect, secularists charge the Sangh Parivar’s approach to Hinduism with being quintessentially anti-Hindu.

The merits of that critique aside, the stance of secularists on the Sabarimala temple issue and the zeal with which they have been trying to enforce a judicial verdict, informed and inspired by notions of modernity and feminism, underlines the irony of their own perspective thus far on the subject. Even more so, it makes a mockery of their accusation that the Sangh Parivar is engaged in an exercise to ‘standardise’ Hinduism.

If Hinduism is diverse and it is the richness of its diversity that makes it unique, then it also has to be acknowledged that varied beliefs within Hinduism can be autonomous. The faithful among Hindus have their own special manner of devotion to their deity. At some temples, devotees must remove their footwear before entering the premises to pay obeisance to the deity, and at others, wearing even leather shoes is not considered sacrilege. In some places of worship, it is mandatory for both men and women to wear traditional outfits on a visit. There are shrines that are strictly vegetarian, and then there are also others where animal flesh is offered to the gods. Similarly, the deity in one sanctum sanctorum may be celibate, while He or She may be an embodiment of kama or love in another.

Sabarimala has a unique way of worshipping its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa. Here, Ayyappa is a naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate) and hence the temple prohibits females in the age group of 10-50 years from visiting it. Exceptions do exist, though, such as the Achankovil Sree Dharmasastha Temple. Here, the deity is depicted as a married man with two wives, Poorna and Pushkala, besides a son named Satyaka. In keeping with the diversity that the faith allows, no such restrictions on the entry of women apply to the Achankovil temple, which is barely 30 km away from Sabarimala. There are hundreds of other Ayyappa temples across the country that do not bar women.

Yet, strangely, some secularists are now trying to standardise Hindu practices of worship at the Ayyappa temple, which is exactly what they have been accusing the Sangh Parivar of. Their attempt is to impose a homogenised form of worship on devotees, dictated by their own views—and irrespective of court rulings on previous cases of temples barring some Hindu devotees.

They fail to see the irony of their argument.

The Supreme Court went by the established jurisprudence that prevails on such issues. At the core of its time-tested approach lies a test of ‘essentiality’ that is meant to scrape off the non-essential practices of any religion from what the Court deems essential to it. In this, it has applied a uniform standard across religions. For example, in Stanislaus vs Madhya Pradesh (1977), it ruled that conversion is not an essential feature of the practice and propagation of Christianity. Similarly, in Acharya Jagadishwaranand Avadhuta vs Commissioner of Police, Calcutta (1983), it declared that a particular skull-and-knife dance was not an essential feature of the Hindu religion.

Sabarimala highlights the limits of this jurisprudence. The Court has tried to craft a procedure whereby it avoids deliberating upon the merits of a particular religious practice and instead interprets Articles 25 and 26 in a manner that skirts any controversy. It was only a matter of time before trouble emerged in using this doctrine too liberally. As argued above, Hinduism is a faith that is diffuse and built on an exceptionally large number of local practices, rituals and processes. Under its peculiar circumstances, tests cannot perform the task of outlining its ‘non-essential’ practices. A new and creative interpretation of constitutional rights and their relation to Hinduism is necessary. In the Sabarimala case, the majority of the bench did not demonstrate any propensity towards that end. It was left to a single dissenting judge to point out the dangers of judicial intervention in religious matters. The safer option here would be to not entertain litigation in this domain. This is what Justice Indu Malhotra drew attention to. ‘Permitting Public Interest Litigations (PILs) in religious matters would open the floodgates to interlopers to question religious beliefs and practices, even if the petitioner is not a believer or a particular religion, or worshipper of a particular shrine. The perils are even graver for minorities if such petitions are entertained,’ Justice Malhotra noted.

It would be arrogant of secularists to form a worldview based on perspectives of gender equality, leaving little space for local culture and a pattern of worship specific to a Hindu deity

These fears came true after the judgment was delivered. Suddenly, a handful of activists belonging to different religions and people who could not realistically be called ‘devotees’ descended on the banks of the Pamba river to make their ascent to the hilltop shrine. This has reinforced the belief that it was secular disregard of the particularities of the Sabarimala temple’s norms that lay behind the claims of justice for women devotees.

Even the courts have not found rulings in such cases easy to deliver, and it would be arrogant of secularists to form a worldview based merely on perspectives of gender equality and equal access for women in a liberal democracy, leaving little space for local culture, decades of tradition and a pattern of worship specific to a Hindu deity.

THE CONSTITUTION guarantees the freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion, both by individuals and groups, in Articles 25 and 26, within the ambit of public order, morality, public health and the fundamental rights of citizens. Article 25 (2) (b) also grants the state the power to legislate, in the interest of social welfare and reform, on the issue of allowing all Hindu devotees entry into a temple. Article 26, on the other hand, gives religious denominations the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes and to manage their own affairs in matters of religion.

In the current legal and liberal discourse, secularists like to uphold the value of a citizen’s privacy. In India, where the distinction between the private and the public spaces often gets blurred, this is welcome. At the same time, Hindu scriptures consider each deity a living being. Also, a legal entity—a juridical entity. Like all other legal entities, a deity is also entitled to His or Her own private space and the right to live a particular style of life at any specific place of worship.

Interestingly, this is unfurling in a state where three children, not too long ago, were allowed by the Supreme Court to not sing the National Anthem. In August 1986, an apex court bench of Justices O Chinnappa Reddy and MM Dutt had granted protection to three children of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect who didn’t sing the National Anthem at school (Bijoe Emmanuel & Others vs State of Kerala & Others). The Court held that forcing the children to sing the anthem violated their fundamental right to religion. ‘[Jehovah’s Witnesses] do not sing the National Anthem wherever it is played, whether the Jana Gana Mana in India, God Save the Queen in Britain, The Star Spangled Banner in the USA and so on…. They desist from actual singing only because of their honest belief and conviction that their religion does not permit them to join any rituals except in their prayers to Jehovah, their God,’ Justice Reddy had observed. In their wisdom, the country’s apex court considered Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a separate sect.

In keeping with the fundamental rights of citizens, Sabarimala, too, caters to a distinct religious sect that has its own norms and practices. It is entitled to be treated as a separate religious denomination. If this is accepted, as it ought to be, then not allowing women in the age group of 10-50 to the shrine of a celibate deity does indeed constitute an essential practice. This is the test that the Supreme Court had laid down to decide which religious practice it can interfere with and which it should steer clear of.

The Supreme Court had declared the practice of Triple Talaq among Muslims to be illegal because it was not considered an essential practice of the religion of Islam, as the majority judgment said. That very Supreme Court is now oblivious to an essential practice of Ayyappa devotees at the Sabarimala temple. These ironies escape Indian secularists because of an arrogance that leads to a certitude, a belief in the inherent superiority of one’s argument over the other’s and a failure to appreciate contending viewpoints.

In keeping with their attitudes and with the help of media narratives that cherry-pick their facts, secularists have reduced the issue to one of upper-caste patriarchy. These secularists have been insisting that the temple’s practices are evil, outdated and ought to be abolished without caring to ask what this means for a group of people who are worshipping their deity their own way without causing any inconvenience or injury to others.

It is possible that the resistance currently being put up by devotees will lose its intensity and start giving in to the pressure of political correctness in an effort to pick a compromise over the shame being heaped upon them. Secularists would then likely move on to other targets. Their choice will probably be just as selective, with their onward march for equal treatment of women in matters of religion bypassing the fundamental issue of a Uniform Civil Code or the practice of polygamy in a certain community. But that should not cause any surprise, given their disregard of diversity and inconsistency in recognising the rights of religious denominations in this country.

Also Read

A Tale of Two Temples
Sabarimala: Among the Believers
Sabarimala: A Trek Too Far
Lekshmy Rajeev: ‘Local religious rituals were crushed by Brahmins in Sabarimala’