Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bigots vs the Constitution of India

I've always watched with amusement and exasperation when inter-religious conflicts play out in India. From my distant outpost, all religions are pretty loony about some issues. Then again, all are sources of comfort, guidance and even inspiration to their followers (here I'll include my ultra-rationalist, atheist self: Buddhist philosophy has been an important influence for me through most of my adult life, and I've also on occasion appreciated the "spiritual feeling" at places of worship of every religion).

The claim that religious practice is timeless (and comes down from God) is of course nonsensical. All religions have undergone significant - sometimes very major - shifts in their attitude and presentation over the ages. However, if one thing rarely changes with time, it's the inability of various religions to get along with each other. In a world where increasing numbers of young people are bound less to religion and more to Facebook and Twitter (these could turn into new religions given enough time!) one might expect existing religions to find common ground and seek to retain followers in their own self-interest. But that rarely happens.

Like the angry opponents of Martin Gardner's famous book "Fads and fallacies in the name of science", each of whom felt his own fad was fine but all the others were nonsense, each religious group will agree with prevailing criticisms of all other groups besides itself. I remember reading a letter in the Hindustan Times wherein a Christian lady from Bombay fulminated against Muslims for very generic practices (being "dirty", "fundamentalist", "uncooperative" etc). It was precisely at this time that poor Christian tribals in Orissa's Kandhamal district were being slaughtered in riots. That the Christian minority in India could be (and was being) accused of very similar things did not occur to this kind lady.

But, just as all nations, communities and religions will stand together if the earth is attacked by aliens, it's also true that religions can work out a temporary understanding when faced with a threat to their "values". Just consider the following quotes about feminism that I got off the net:

"...scripture declares that in the matters of authority and leadership men and women are not equal. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman..."


"Suggesting that egalitarianism can be Islamic ignores genetic differences in within gender. By challenging Islamic understanding from the Prophet Muhammad and the companions, it cannot be plausible to state Feminism can be Islamic,..."

Neither of these quotes are necessarily representative, but it's amusing how similar they are to each other. It may be that Muslim, Christian and other religious communities around the world have in the past actually banded together to oppose feminism, or even just equal gender rights, though this is not known to me in any detail and I would be interested to hear from readers about it. But there is a more recent example in India that is illuminating because it deals with a more focused issue.

This is the Delhi High Court's decision, last week, to strike down a line from Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Thereby, homosexual acts between consenting adults are no longer illegal. What's fascinating about the judgement is not simply the one-line consequence, which was long overdue, but the way in which the liberal, humanist nature of the Indian Constitution has been highlighted by the judges.

And now that there is a cause to oppose, various religions in India are finding common ground. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the Muslim Personal Law Board, the Sikh SGPC and Jain and Hindu organisations have come together on a common platform to oppose the recent legalisation of gay sex in India. Of course it isn't only the specific consequence of this specific judgement that that they truly oppose. All of them agree (though they will admit it only to varying degrees) that every liberal, humanist position threatens the stranglehold of their particular religion over its followers, by freeing people up to be themselves and make their own choices rather than be held to ransom by perceived (and usually invented) "social obligations".

I hate to point out the obvious, but no religious group in India would be comfortable if sexual practices between its own male priests were to be investigated, so it's a risky business going down the political road they are now travelling. I believe the reason they are doing it nevertheless has to do with female, rather than male, sexual practices. Any diversity in this sphere poses an obvious threat to the patriarchal system and I expect this threat will be targeted over the next few months.

While the law takes its course, I'd like to end this particular musing by reproducing a quote from the recent Section 377 judgement (the entire 105-page judgement can be read by following a link on the Wikipedia page).

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of 'inclusiveness'. This Court believes that Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as “deviants' or 'different' are not on that score excluded or ostracised.

Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the 'spirit behind the Resolution' of which Nehru spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.

In these lines the learned judges have laid down a standard and rationale for civil rights of every kind in India, and they have based this on the Indian Constitution. Religious bigots are welcome to fight the constitution, but I believe they will lose.


Rahul Basu said...

As I predicted, religions whose extremists elements go around killing each other will always come together when it comes to preserving the old obscurantist order. Baba Ramdev has now approached the Supreme Court for overturning this verdict, and there is talk of other religious groups joining hands with him. How strangely comforting that they should be so predictable! Interestingly, Lalu Yadav, the darling of the liberals in India, has joined this chorus.

Anant said...

Sunil: the main difference between you and me, and all these religious freaks is that, they have a hot-line to God, who has told them what is right and wrong and what is moral and what is immoral. The trouble is that `ultra-rationalist, atheist sel(f)ves' like us have to use our brains to figure out the modalities for ourselves, using our brains, right? Maybe we should also start being religious and then we too may see the light?

Meta Dynamic Systems said...

Two references of 'bigots' that props up in my mind.

"And I have no desire to get ugly, But I cannot help mentioning that the door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly."

- "Seeing Eye to Eye is Believing" by Ogden Nash. (If you have not already done it, do give a dekho at it. I Guess you will like it)

And a three part supposed to be a joke:
I have firm opinions(/beliefs/faith/judgement);
You are dogmatic;
He is a bigot.

Not at all trivial to defeat Bigots. All the more reason why - 'Inclusiveness" zindabad.

Anant said...

Try this one (not my own, but I do not have the source): my opinions may change but not the fact that I am right.

Sunil Mukhi said...

My analogy with readers responding to Martin Gardner seems to be doing quite well. Over the weekend I happened to see the fag end (no pun intended!!) of NDTV's "The Big Fight". As I tuned in, the inevitable Catholic Priest on the panel (I think his name was Varghese) roared out his opposition to the representative of modern medical science: "If Europe and the US ask us to stand on our head, will we do it! We have our own Indian culture here and don't have to follow others."

I just wish I could have asked him: "in that case please tell us why you follow a European religious leader?"

Neither these buffoons, nor usually the audience, can see a plain and simple logical contradiction.

My other favourite line, which I'll probably never get to use: "But father, wouldn't you admit that religion too is against the order of nature? After all, animals don't practice it!".

Ashim said...

Oh the religious bigots have fought court battles and won. Remember the famous Shah Bano case. Between Logic and votes, votes win most of the times.