Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in making many leading Indian politicians who describe themselves as secular and liberal believe that the average Hindu is concerned only about his faith and they must, therefore, pander to his beliefs if they are to make any headway politically. Making generalizations about the ‘average’ Hindu is perilous, given that there are close to 950 million people described as Hindus in India alone. Yet, after the 2014 elections, otherwise sensible politicians appear to accept the view that to secure the support of Hindus, they must accede to the demands of the shrillest, loudest, the most stubborn, and the least tolerant among them.
There is the spectacle of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, bowing at every temple he runs into and his fans declaring that he wears the so-called sacred thread, undermining his syncretic identity—Catholic, Hindu, and Zoroastrian. Instead of embracing that wonderful commingling of diversities, Gandhi seems to be in a race to worship at more temples than his BJP rivals can. If Gandhi’s belief is sincere, good for him; but why make a public spectacle of it (as his grandmother did later in her life), and why not keep faith and reason distinct and apart, as his great-grandfather did—a great-grandfather who saw temples in dams and laboratories, and didn’t seek divinity in idols and icons?
Cut to Shashi Tharoor, a politician whose liberal instincts are genuine—witness his genuine attempts to overturn the infamous section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and other regressive colonial-era laws. However, he will soon face a tough re-election campaign in Kerala, where manipulative and cynical politicians have begun a bizarre campaign to seek to overturn the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Sabarimala case, which allowed women entry into the temple. In an article on the website theprint.in, Tharoor mentioned four principles he respects: the equality of women and men; two, the Constitution and the institutions it has created, notably the decisions of the Supreme Court; three, the rights of religious adherents to follow their beliefs and practices, so long as they do no harm to others; and four, Indian democracy and the rule of law that sustains it.
As an unfailingly engaging writer, Tharoor’s views are often as crystal clear as water. However, his third principle muddies the water. He writes, “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance — all the more so when they are applied to matters of faith." That’s fine as an interpretation, but can be disastrous if it is applied as a matter of policy. That’s where the ground gets slippery and the path ahead then is no longer straight and clear, but becomes a slope, taking us downward, forcing us to retreat into our narrower identities.
The rationale to prevent women entry is that Ayyappa, the lord worshipped at the shrine, didn’t want to see women during their reproductive age, and hid in the jungle to avoid encountering them. Hindu men preventing women from entering the temple are essentially saying that menstruation makes women impure. Such thinking and outlook are dirty, not the women. Misogyny, not theology, is driving the orthodoxy.
Tharoor knows where acquiescing with majoritarian thinking can lead: he has eloquently argued that the BJP threatens to make India a Hindu Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have erupted on roads, demanding the head of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy (after the Supreme Court acquitted her). Is that the path forward for India?
To be fair, Tharoor wants the Centre to convene a dialogue with relevant stakeholders, to explore how the Supreme Court verdict can be implemented. He then blames Kerala’s ruling Left Front for mishandling the situation. However, expecting the BJP to be unbiased is naïve. Its president Amit Shah has clearly said what he thinks of the court verdict.
Some liberals argue that women who are made unwelcome should not go to Sabarimala and discover other divinities to worship—Hinduism’s divine supermarket offers choices for almost all tastes, styles, and occasions, and that’s great. However, that’s not the point. If women want to enter the temple, they have the right.
Many Indians, including Hindus, rightly supported Muslim women who sought access to the Haji Ali shrine, Shah Bano who sought alimony from her husband who had divorced her, and Trupti Desai and her campaign to gain entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur Temple in 2016. (Later, local women said they wanted to respect the tradition by not entering the temple and that is their choice). The liberal response, then, is not to insist that women must enter temples, nor that they must shun temples or mosques, but that their right should be respected and if they wish to exercise the right, the state should remove hindrances and obstacles in their path.
That’s the point Tharoor does not address. In suggesting a stakeholder dialogue, he risks acceding to a demand assumed to be majoritarian and moral, when the assumption isn’t justified. This is how politicians conceded the liberal ground to the Shahabuddins of the world and banned the import of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. The categorical imperative then is to uphold the Constitution and its instruments by all means, support equality, let the women do what they want, and finally, don’t concede ground to those claiming their sentiments are offended. Gods are strong. They aren’t easily offended.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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