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The Politics of Religion and Identity


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There was a Supreme Court directive which banned traditional bull racing festival Jallikattu in Tamilnadu. Today, as I write this, women groups are storming into a small temple in obscure town in Maharashtra. Media is in overdrive. Times Now seeks the rationale behind why women aren’t allowed in Sanctum Santorum of the temple. Yesterday they covered a Member of Parliament, sworn to the same constitution we celebrate today, who urged people to vote for their party, else they will lose their right to eat beef, which he posited, is a way of life for Muslims and Dalits. The rationale of it? Well, nobody would ask that. The same tribe which fights for the well-being of the animal also fights for converting the same animal into their dinner. But no, we don’t have it in us even to question such inept political positioning.

Left, always boastful of being atheist, jumps in gleefully. The people who have no faith in religion, step in to modernize the religion. I am not much of a religious person. That possibly diminishes whatever position I am here to take. If anything, I am borderline atheist. But possibly that gives me a viewpoint which is more objective, as I would like to believe. I care two hoots either way. These women are neither fighting for women reservation in parliament nor are they arguing for combat role for women in Indian Army. They want to get into a temple far 0ff. They won’t storm the TN assembly for three girls who committed suicide in Chennai or UP assembly where a man convicted of raping a girl was let off with five slaps as state sat impassive, or where a Dalit girl was raped and killed as political revenge.

They are neither perturbed by the cause of the women, nor by the cause of the religion. They are pursuing symbolism. Our politics is today the politics of symbolism. There was a student, who suicide had all politicians rally around. He was a symbol which carried political weight. We did not find the same politicians rally behind the IAF personnel mowed down by an influential politician in Bengal, nor found them asking higher compensation for him from the state.

There are many rituals we do not understand. When it comes to many tribal rituals, we do not and we are not supposed to understand. They are not supposed to give explanation. These rituals represent their way of life. If this were made uniform law across all temples around the country, possibly that might call for action. Why one temple singled out? Not that women are not allowed in the temple. They are not allowed in the core sector of the temple. But then most are not.

We are a generation in hurry, and we are great misers. We want our activities and protests and causes to fit in our weekends. We do not have time and patience to step in a do any change grounds up, like for instance, Brahmo Samaj movement resulting in abolition of Sati or child marriages. TRP needs media to move from symbolism to another symbolism. That is why we stay from the substantial work which could bring about substantial changes. Women having a drink and smoke is a larger symbol of women emancipation for us that a woman who shuns cosmetics and go for her morning run in unattractive sport shoes. It is a sad thing to happen, not only because it makes our positions untenable and weak. We seek symbols and we lose, even when we think we have won, those are pyrrhic, empty wins. Our movements are coordinated with the Sundays and driven by media.

It would be hard not to acknowledge, that India was only country to resist being overwhelmed by both Islam and Christianity. That position, that fluid faith which continued to survive both centuries of Mughal and British rule, has done so only because of the tradition of debate and reform. It is not a static, political religion. There are no military postulates garbed under God’s instruction to follow. There are thoughts, on multiple sides of any arguments. With time, the truth loses its relevance and changes happen. But the demand in Shani Signapur Nashik is not for visit to the temple. It is to touch the Shani idol. It is not a good time to be a Hindu. One is almost apologetic of being a Hindu. An intellectual Muslim/Christian is a proud Muslim, but an intellectual Hindu is an atheist. Being a woman, it is hard to stay away from the feminist groups or being Dalit, staying away from the tag. One can of course, but that doesn’t meet the liking of those for whom tags are banners to hide personal and political ambitions behind. One escapes it with difficulty, oftentimes with death, like a young student, who wanted to refuse to surrender his individual thought to mob mind, but ended up being a tag of identity politics in his death. One who is enlightened, refuses to be a tool and therefore is not liked by those who want young to agitate and die, to serve their cynical, old age in the glory of lofty principles, which they know to be untrue, as they settle down to debate with Champaign. That is why they do not support living causes, they prefer dead, for the dead could bring about something disruptive.

We do not have activist who read much to strengthen and evaluate their position. They take the noisiest one and make it their own. On one holiday. When your arguments are weak, you seek comfort in number. That is how it happens even in context of feminism. It is getting so shrill that objective arguments are losing their space. The collective- yes that is what we get from communism. The lofty elusive dream, which sadly has been ably exposed by Ayn Rand. From Intellectual perspective, Ms. Rand might seem low-brow, but one needs to go through We, The Living to understand, how the theory of herding men at the cost of individual, is nothing but a conspiracy to benefit the few, who are first among the equals. What collective decides, individual cannot counter or question, therefore, long list of sentence dissenters in Russia and in China.

If it is such flawed a philosophy, why there are so many left intellectuals? I guess the answer would be, because you need them. Man is inherently, as one would draw from Darwin’s survival of the fittest, capitalist. To make him communist, need aggressive reasoning, if not Gulag. You need lot of intellectual firepower to handle rational thinking which will not surrender reasoning to a little red book. The left thrives on it. The left hates any philosophy which celebrates individual thought. It loves a debate, when it can win it. That is the philosophy which is now ruling our public space. It wants to win, and individual is too little a cost for that win. It carefully picks its causes, causes which can ignite public anxiety. We, hapless individuals, are troubled citizens. We have to align with public outrage. If we don’t, it impinges on their freedom of expression, we are old-fashioned, bigoted, . Embarrassed, we either stay silent or fall in line. There is such power wielded by those who lament being powerless. It is horrifying, one can sense something sinister going on which people like us do not understand.

It is a deep web that spreads wide. And the disruption to that design is barely offered by the democratization of the debating space offered by social media. In this space, one struggles with old satraps of national opinion, the media. Every dissent is responded with you vs. us kind of argument. But that is another debate. For now, about religious freedom, I stand with it. If it is to go, and religious practices are to be changed per-force not by reasoning, in the interest of equity, I will support it. Then it should be without religious discrimination. First step should be uniform civil code, state take-over of all religious institution and enforce uniformity in line with the constitution. Pakistan’s biggest failure was uniformization of state as a uniform theocratic state. Let us not do it. Reforming religion, by all means, do it. But not by storming, I would say not by courts (unless after uniform civil code), but by debate and discussion. Every nation has a way of life. Hinduism is one of the most fluid of religions, where is the need to storm? There is no prophet in Hinduism whose words are the last words. Change is always a possible. That is why it always accommodated opposites like Dvait and Advait. For clarity, Temple in Nashik allows women, only prohibits them touching the statue, which is a matter of faith. Not my faith, but of those who takes care of it. Why mustn’t we value it?  We are OK on the instruction at Archies Gallery telling us not to touch the things. If below 21 are not allowed in bars, is it discriminatory to twenty year old? We must choose the worthy fights and fight worthy evils, like the rapes in UP as political tool. That will go long way in women emancipation, but path will be difficult, may not bring votes. Not now, and maybe not ever, as it will be slow and gradual to catch public fancy and grab votes.

PS- I guess, in this post I do not make much sense, but I am suffocated by righteousness and had to write this. I am a Hindu and not very religious, or as the Christians or Muslims would say, not a practicing Hindu. I believe, existence of all religions in India makes a delicate balance, which is necessary for the character of nation. If one looks at the nations which became religious states, it started somewhere here.
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