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A potpourri of religions

India’s secularism is a hodge-podge of faiths and the thread of unity that runs through them. Leave it as it is, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2009 20:35 IST

The electoral din has distorted these two words — secularism and communalism — into meaningless clichés and lazy fodder for TV debates. Talk about Varun Gandhi and it elicits the example of Sanjay Dutt. Bring up the shame of 1984, and be confronted with the counter-argument of Gujarat and the 2002 blot. Debate Mayaben Kodnani — and the Jagdish Tytler controversy comes up as a parallel.

Drowned in all the noise is any real understanding of just how complex the question of cultural co-existence can sometimes be. We have been so narrowly focused on the secularism debate as it has been defined by the polarisations of politics that we have missed a story that raises some genuinely complicated questions. How far should a secular society go in allowing religious symbols in public institutions?

The story began with the desire of a 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Salim, to sport a beard. Now, normally that should be no one’s business but the boy’s. Except, the government-recognised convent school that he studies at in Madhya Pradesh wasn’t prepared to hear of it. The school rules required boys to shave, and that’s how it would have to be. But Salim argues that being allowed to keep his beard is part of his religious identity. Shaving, his lawyer says, goes against “his religious conscience, belief and the custom of his family.”

The Supreme Court saw this as an example of “stretching secularism”. Justice Katju — widely known to be fiercely independent and often unpredictable in legal circles — declared that the danger of “Talibanisation” had to be fended off. “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa. Can we allow it?” he observed.

Now here’s the problem. My first instinct was to both agree and disagree. I do think that autonomous schools should be allowed to set their own rules without the pressure of religious diktat. But I didn’t think the court should have equated the desire for a beard with the vile fundamentalism of the Taliban. That observation clearly stretched the point.

Yet, scratch the surface of the subject and there are no easy answers. Why then — some Muslims are asking — do Sikhs have an unquestioned right to sport their beards and turbans in public schools and even in defence institutions like the Army and the Air Force. The answer, says well-known writer Rahul Singh — who himself is a Sikh who doesn’t wear a turban — is because the turban is much more central to the religious identity of Sikhs than the beard is to the identity of Muslims. In a recent TV debate, Rahul took on a representative of the Muslim Personal Law Board by demanding to know why almost every major Muslim leader on the global stage (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) did not sport a beard. Were they, he asked, any less Muslim for that? Interestingly, Justice B.A. Khan — the lawyer representing Salim is clean shaven, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of the Supreme Court.

Listening to them argue, I was getting more and more confused. I was no longer that certain of my original position. What if a sect in Islam does indeed demand the beard as a sign of the believer? What if a certain Church asks its followers to wear the Cross at all times? Isn’t the bindi — so beloved to us as an aesthetic statement — Hindu in its symbolism? Where do we draw the line between faith and dogma? On the one hand religious literalism infuriates me. I don’t believe these are the issues that should take up the time and energy of India’s Muslim minority. And each time some self-appointed gatekeeper of the faith holds forth on rigid rules and regulations, he ends up stereotyping his own community. On the other hand, I’m no longer that sure of where the markers divide religious freedom from sheer orthodoxy.

Liberal countries like France have dealt with the dilemma by banning all overt religiosity in public schools. So, no headscarves and no turbans and no crosses, no matter what — the French have stood firm on this despite personal petitions from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to allow Sikh children to tie up their hair in turbans. In America — a Christian majority country — the Bible cannot be read in many public schools due to exactly the same principles of secularism.

Could something like that ever work in India? I doubt it. The traditional definition of secularism may have been the separation of the church and the State. But frankly, in our country, secularism is much more about the colourful hodge-podge of multiple faiths and their ability to come together in a miracle of nationhood. Many of our symbols are more about culture and less about religion per se. I can’t imagine a sanitised approach to our secularism. Each time we have tried it, we have failed miserably. Our instinctive comfort with the intertwining of faith and everyday life is the

reason why when we were kids we didn’t even notice whether the prayer songs we said at school were Hindu, Christian or ‘secular’. Strangely I don’t remember any prayers from other faiths. Does that say something? I’m not sure.

But that’s what makes it all so tough. We agree that we don’t particularly need or want faith to be adjudicated. Yet, we don’t want cultural conservatism to define our happy, messy, all-embracing Indianness. We also want our schools to be modern, forward-thinking institutions that are able to set their own rules without getting stuck in the perils of orthodoxy. And we want to continue to boast that the tapestry that is India is woven together by a million different threads. What would you do if you were the Supreme Court? Honestly, I’m no longer that sure.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV