Prime Minister Narendra Modi performing bhoomi pujan at Ram Mandir. Also visible are Mohan Bhagwat and Anandiben Patel. Photo: PIB
India’s greatest strength lies in the idea that no single religious, linguistic, ethnic or social identity forms the basis of our nation, which requires vigilance on our part to avoid the problematic fusion of religion and the state.
A few days before the Congress leadership declined the invitation for the Ram Mandir consecration ceremony, Karnataka deputy chief minister DK Shivakumar defended the decision of his government to celebrate the consecration of the Ram Mandir by saying “ultimately we all are Hindus”. In saying so, he ignored the numerous Hindus and non-Hindus who would view the idea of a secular state celebrating a religious ritual, as objectionable.
The predictable response to this objection is that the “separation of church and state” arrangement does not work in a country like India where the state actively engages with religious institutions, ignoring the fact that India is not an outlier in its interaction with religion. In Germany, the state funds religious schools and facilitates the collection of taxation imposed by churches on their congregants. In Australia and the United States, it is constitutionally permissible to extend the level of aid available for private secular schools, to religious schools as well. Cooperation between state and religion is commonplace in the field of education, because funding private schools, many of them run by religious organisations, for the purposes of teaching secular subjects may be more efficient than the construction of additional public schools by the state.
France is often touted as the strictest form of separation of church and state due to their philosophy of Laïcité as embodied in their 1905 Act. Interestingly, the 1905 Act permitted France to take ownership of existing religious sites and ensure their maintenance, provided the state did not construct new religious sites. The Debre law of 1959 allows public funding of religious schools in France for the teaching of secular subjects. These nuances are forgotten due to the way Laïcité has been imposed in the last two decades to prohibit religious outfits in certain settings, disparately impacting Muslims. In many democracies, the notion of a strict separation of state and religion is a myth. Between a strict separationist state and a theocracy, there are various forms of institutional arrangements between state and religion, based on the principles of neutrality and cooperation.
State neutrality towards religion is celebrated as a virtue in democratic societies, but neutrality on its own is not a self-defining concept. One aspect of neutrality is that the state should not encourage or discourage individuals to follow a particular religion. However, state practices are not limited to incentivising religious conduct, they can also send out a message that a particular religious identity has a higher status compared to others. This principle of neutrality was articulated by Justice Sandra O’Connor, the first woman judge of the U.S Supreme Court, to argue that when the state endorses a religious identity, it “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”
In a democratic society, one religious identity should not be treated as superior to others by the state. This is why even though Germany does not follow a strict separationist model, the Constitutional Court ordered the removal of crosses from courtrooms in 1973, and crucifixes from public schools in 1995. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled against the use of public land for a Shinto Shrine. The Supreme Court of Canada in 2015 put an end to the use of Christian prayers by the Mayor of Saguenay to open official sessions of the Municipal Council, reasoning that the state should neither favour nor hinder any particular belief. This is the same value that forms the basis of Article 27 of the Constitution of India, which prohibits the use of taxpayer’s money for the promotion or maintenance of any religion.
The Indian state should not endorse or disapprove any particular religious identity especially since it does not have an official religion. The United Kingdom is cited by some as a model of democracy with an official religion, the Anglican Church. However, nearly half the UK population doesn’t follow any religion, and only 12% are affiliated with the Anglican Church. Religion is not a major factor in the political discourse in the U.K. In contrast, religion heavily informs Indian political discourse, and 97% of the population are religious. Despite the de-jure position of the Anglican Church, courts in England have reasoned that the precepts of a particular religion cannot have a higher position in law in comparison to others.
When the state uses its instrumentalities to promote religious activities, it enters the forbidden sphere of religious endorsement. The endorsement of religious identities to reap political dividends is not limited to governments run by the BJP. The Punjab Assembly passed a law to make the telecasting of Gurbani from the Golden Temple free of cost. The previous Congress government in Chhattisgarh organized the National Ramayana Festival and the Karnataka government ordered temples in the state to conduct special pujas on the day of the inauguration of the Ram Mandir. However, very few acts of endorsement can match the scale at which the Union government and BJP-run state governments are promoting the Ram Mandir inauguration.
The UP government allocated Rs 100 crore for a series of religious activities in temples across the state and the UP Minister Dharmveer Prajapati announced that there would be live-streaming of the consecration ceremony of the Ram Mandir in all jails in the state. The U.P Government also allotted money to make a music album on the life of Lord Ram, and the Mayor of Indore ordered malls to install replicas of the Ram Mandir. Doordarshan will also feature a 4K live broadcast of the temple consecration ceremony, with 40 cameras installed at various locations around the temple. The UP government is also undertaking 187 beautification projects in Ayodhya with a budget of Rs 30,570 crore. The chief minister has made no secret of the fact that the projects in Ayodhya are linked to the construction of the Ram Mandir. BJP states have decided to impose religious norms on all their constituents by declaring 22nd January as a dry day. All educational institutions in UP will also be closed due to the ceremony. In the latest development, the Union government has declared that the first half of the 22nd also as a holiday for central institutions and offices. These are clear-cut examples of state endorsement of religion.
India’s greatest strength lies in the idea that no single religious, linguistic, ethnic or social identity forms the basis of our nation. In order to protect this strength, we must remain vigilant against the problematic fusion of religion and the state.
Arvind Kurian Abraham is an advocate with an LLM from Harvard Law School and a B.A LL.B (Honours) from NUJS.
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