Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is India secular in the public sphere? Does it have a "religious" government?

Recently, I traveled in Tamil Nadu government buses.  These are buses funded and operated by the government. Yet, on one bus I saw a decal of a Shiva Lingam. Another bus had a cross.  A third one had a figure representing another Hindu god, Muruga.

We are not talking about the bus driver wearing any religious symbols--that pertains to the individual, and we generally do not worry about what a single person says.  Of course, if the driver were to discriminate against passengers of other faiths, for instance, then we worry. 

The decals were on taxpayer property!

Such acts in the public sphere are all too common in India. 

I was flummoxed to read in the newspaper that the Madhya Pradesh government was going ahead with its mass "surya namaskar" while conveniently pretending that there are no religious undertones, despite protests from minorities.  An editorial in the paper that dad subscribes to had this to say:
The ostensible purpose of these camps, which saw heavy participation by schools, colleges, and other organisations — many of them privately run and obviously feeling compelled to go along — was to get into the record books. Yet questions do arise when the entire State Cabinet led by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan makes a fetish of performing a particular asana that is known to cause unease among Muslims, including secular sections otherwise supportive of yoga. The surya namaskar carries with it a suggestion of sun worship, which is anathema to orthodox Muslims. ... Ahead of the surya namaskar mobilisation this year, the government secured presidential assent for a draconian law against cow slaughter, which was followed by reports of attacks on Muslims. Clearly, a stint in power and more than a decade of coalitional leadership have not changed the BJP, whose single preoccupation is Hindu sectarian politics. Matters have been made worse by the Congress' emulation of the BJP's communal politics — in reverse.
The editorial concluded that politics was making it increasingly difficult for India to shed its communal baggage.

Even as that was unfolding, there was another controversy--about Salman Rushdie's visit to India, in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival. 

A few--by no means any majority--Muslim leaders, who continue to be upset with Rushdie for this Satanic Verses, wanted the government to prevent him from entering India.  But, the federal law minister pointed out that  Rushdie, who apparently went through the process that I chose not to, has the paperwork that recognizes him as a "person of Indian origin" and, therefore, doesn't need a visa to visit India.  Rushdie can, legally, come and go as it pleases him.

The protesters won--Rushdie stayed away from the literary event.

A few writers, upset at the manner in which Rushdie was treated, decided to read a little bit from, yes, Satanic Verses, which is banned in India.  A book, authored by a person who was born in India and recognized around the world as a talented writer, is banned in India, which proclaims itself as a democracy. 

Anyway, does reading from the book mean it is an illegal activity?  Can those people be hauled off to jail?
Q.What then does this mean for Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru and the other writers who read passages from “The Satanic Verses”?
A.I would say that as a writer you must have not any fear of cases and other things. We must not have any fear.
Q.Could festival organizers be held liable for their readings?
A.When a case is filed, it’s in the investigation it would be known whether they were responsible or not. As far as I am concerned, as a civil liberties person, no law has been broken. As far as I am concerned, nobody has committed an offense. As far as the organizers being worried, I do think that they do have a right to be worried. I don’t think there is any reason for them to worry.
Crazy, isn't it?

An op-ed author writes:
Salman Rushdie's censoring-out from the ongoing literary festival in Jaipur will be remembered as a milestone that marked the slow motion disintegration of India's secular state. Islamist clerics first pressured the state to stop Mr. Rushdie from entering India; on realising he could not stop, he was scared off with a dubious assassination threat. Fear is an effective censor. ...
The betrayal of secular India in Jaipur, though, is just part of a far wider treason: one that doesn't have to do with Muslim clerics alone, but a state that has turned god into a public-sector undertaking.
I liked the argument that the op-ed author makes, and the evidence he provides for how the state has made god a big time government activity, with large budgetary allocations too.  And "god" as in budgets for every flavor of god:
Few Indians understand the extent to which the state underwrites the practice of their faith. The case of the Maha Kumbh Mela, held every 12 years at Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nashik, is a case in point. The 2001 Mela in Allahabad, activist John Dayal has noted in a stinging essay, involved state spending of over Rs.1.2 billion ...
There are no publicly available figures on precisely how much the government will spend on other infrastructure — but it is instructive to note that an encephalitis epidemic that has claimed over 500 children's lives this winter drew a Central aid of just Rs.0.28 billion.
The State's subsidies to the Kumbh Mela, sadly, aren't an exception. Muslims wishing to make the Haj pilgrimage receive state support; so, too, do Sikhs travelling to Gurdwaras of historic importance in Pakistan. Hindus receive identical kinds of largesse, in larger amounts. The state helps underwrite dozens of pilgrimages, from Amarnath to Kailash Mansarovar. Early in the last decade, higher education funds were committed to teaching pseudo-sciences like astrology; in 2001, the Gujarat government even began paying salaries to temple priests.
In 2006, the Delhi government provided a rare official acknowledgment that public funds are routinely spent on promoting god.
I am pretty sure that his concluding sentences will not draw accolades from those who have a political fortune to make:
Dr. Nanda ably demonstrated the real costs of India's failure to secularise: among them, the perpetuation of caste and gender inequities, the stunting of reason and critical facilities needed for economic and social progress; the corrosive growth of religious nationalism.
India cannot undo this harm until god and god's will are ejected from our public life.
Will India ever be able to secularize its public sphere?

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