Hindu religious ritual has too great a presence in Indian public space

In a post-9/11 world, where the secular space shrinks every day (ask Brit-Asian males in London), the very definition of secularism needs to be constantly refreshed and contemporised. As Amartya Sen writes in The Argumentative Indian, "Indeed, there are two principal approaches to secularism, focusing respectively on (1) neutrality between different religions, and (2) prohibition of religious associations in state activities. Indian secularism has tended to emphasise neutrality in particular, rather than prohibition in general". Therefore "the secular demand that the state be ‘equidistant’ from different religions…" Mr Sen goes on to indicate the advantages of the neutrality aspect of secularism rather than the prohibition of all religious associations. I could not agree more. The former interpretation has an inclusive, humanist exposition of the issue rather than the absolutist, ‘take-no-prisoners’ position of the latter. The point of examination in this piece is not whether India’s implementation of its secular ideals has reflected this neutrality. The answer to that question is painful in its unambiguity.

Successive governments have failed spectacularly. Whether it is Shah Bano, Babri Masjid or the state-sponsored pogrom in Gujarat, at crucial, defining moments of the secular character of this nation, we have made choices more suited to an intolerant, biased, opportunistic state. And while these outrages must propel, must compel us to fight the hypocrisy of our political masters, equally I find my attention of late being drawn to a gentler though deeply insidious form of bigotry in our polity. I refer to the daily, almost unconscious use of Hindu religious symbolism and practices in forums where religion should have no entry.

Consider the arti done on foreign dignitaries when they visit the country. The lamp-lighting ceremony at government-sponsored cultural festivals. Advertising films selling motorcycles to the chant of Hindu scriptures. The breaking of a coconut when a new film is started. Admirable symbols of tradition, piety, sanctity, but clearly, religious symbols. More specifically, religious symbols of one religion, the religion of the majority. I recollect visiting a Bombay college owned and run by Hindus where I was greeted with an arti ceremony. At the conclusion of the lecture I had been invited to deliver, I asked the college principal what connection a Hindu ceremony had with an address on gender equality. Bemused, she replied that it was the Indian way of showing respect to a guest. Is it the Indian way? Will I expect a similar welcome if I go to a college run by Christian missionaries? More probably, will it be a Christian version of the arti? What then, when I visit Aligarh Muslim University?

My growing concern is not with the use of ceremony to mark an occasion. It is the use of religious symbolism. Occasionally when I have raised the point I have had Hindus say I am making too much of the issue. That these symbols have now taken on a pan-Indian significance. That they capture the ceremony of a moment most appropriately. That they are accepted and practised not as Hindu traditions but as Indian traditions. A soothing, tempting position, but not entirely correct. If I do not ever see a Muslim family conduct a grihapravesh ceremony as they enter their new home (probably in a Muslim neighbourhood they have been ghettoised into, in places like Narendra Modi’s Gujarat), why then does a paint commercial use this ceremony in their latest television advertisement? This is where it all gets worrying. Looked at any which way, consciously or otherwise, a Hindu-dominated advertising agency is selling the idea to a Hindu-dominated paint company that is selling a product to a Hindu-dominated country. As one-fifth of your market with their belief in other religious persuasions, notwithstanding atheists and agnostics, watches – helpless, unmoved or even resentful.

If indeed this country professes to practice a secularism that is founded on the theory of neutrality or equal distance from all religions, then surely it should follow that either we remove the use of Hindu traditions to mark non-religious gatherings or ensure all religions find equal expression in all forums. The latter option will result in a political correctness that promises chaos, not all of it without humour. Bewildered dignitaries will find themselves accorded the traditional Zoroastrian greeting at one five-star hotel and a Buddhist welcome at another. Government functions will automatically expand by a couple of hours as they start with a reading from religious scriptures of all different faiths. The latest advertising commercial will feature a Sikh couple racing to bless their new car through an Ardas at their neighbourhood gurdwara.

Clearly the case for removing religion from the non-religious sphere is a strong one. Any step to erase feelings of alienation that Indians who are not Hindus might feel both within and without this country is a step towards peace, not to mention prosperity. Why cannot children tell us about their dreams for India at the inauguration of a cultural festival? Why cannot dignitaries be invited to have tea with their designated hospitality staff as a welcome gesture? Why cannot we see a TV spot about a couple marking their 25th anniversary, not by a recreation of their Hindu wedding, but by donating to their favourite charity? Underlying all of this will be the quiet belief that religion has no place in the public sphere. It will require the correct interpretation and implementation of our Constitution to firmly steer the nation away from this sense of divisiveness so deep-seated that questions that should be asked lie unspoken. But make no mistake about this. One hundred and fifty million Indians watch in resignation every day as a car maker uses Karva Chauth to sell its latest luxury model. Whether this incredibly regressive ritual should be used at all is matter for another article altogether.

Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2005 Year 12    No.112, Guest Column 1





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