Photograph of Anil Chawla

Denial of Religious Rights of Hindus by Indian State

Author - Anil Chawla

Preamble of The Constitution of India makes India a secular republic. Article 15 of the Constitution provides a guarantee that Indian State shall not discriminate on ground of religion. In addition, Articles 25 to 28 provide fundamental rights related to Freedom of Religion.

Article 25 gives everyone a fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate one's religion. However Article 25(2) makes very interesting reading. The sub-article reads as follows:

(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law -
(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;
(b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.

Article 25(2)(b) gives the Indian State the 'fundamental' right to interefere in Hindu religious institutions in the name of "social welfare and reform" or for "throwing open to all classes and sections of Hindus". In explanation to the Article 25, Hindu is meant to include persons professing Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion.

The Article 25(2) favours one-book religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) and discriminates against Hinduism. There is no reason that the right of Indian State to provide for "social welfare and reform" and to "throw open to all classes" should not extend to Abrahamic religions in the same way and manner as it does to Hindu religious institutions.

It has to be admitted that founding fathers of Indian Constitution were largely pro-British and anti-Hindu. Exceptions aside, most of them probably thought that Hinduism is nothing more than a bundle of superstitions in urgent need of "social welfare and reform" while the Abrahamic religions are embodiments of virtues in no need of any welfare or reform. They also probably thought that the problem of restricted access is unique to Hinduism and does not extend to any of the Judaic religions. Surely, the founding fathers, if they indeed thought in this manner, were wrong.

It is not proper for me to point fingers at Islamic or Christian religious institutions. However, there can be no denying that there are problems in plenty there. Of course, the Constitution neither defines "social welfare and reform" nor lays down the ills that need to be corrected by "social welfare and reform". Nevertheless, one may assume that terrorism, anti-national preaching, sexual perversion, denial of rights to women, persecution of minority sects etc. surely fall under the category of ills that need to be corrected by "social welfare and reform".

The concept of "religious institutions of a public character" is unique to Hinduism. In Judaic religions, a church or mosque or synagogue belongs to the sect or group of believers that build it. A Sunni dare not enter a Shia mosque and vice versa. When there was the famous hurricane Katrina in August 2005 in New Orleans, USA, affected persons sought shelter in various churches on high places; the clergy of those churches stood with loaded guns to drive away such shelter-seekers.

While we, Hindus, take pride in the fact that doors of Hindu religious institutions are open to everyone, it is painful to see that instead of being appreciated for this openness, this very openness is rubbed on our noses. Some religious denominations or sects of Hindus do have practices that are to some extent different as compared to mainstream Hinduism. Surely, Hindu society should be allowed to resolve these differences internally with patience, empathy and dialogue. Instead, the full brute power of Indian State is sought to be unleashed against such denominations or sects.

Shani Temple Shingnapur

A classic example of this use of brute state power is the recent order of Bombay High Court ordering entry of women in Shani temple at Shingnapur. Worship of Shanaishwara or Shani or Saturn is not a mainstream Hindu activity. There are very few temples of Shani across India. The Shanaishwara temple at Shingnapur has a unique history. Residents of village of Shingnapur do not lock their houses. In fact, the village houses have no doors. Thefts are very rare or almost unheard of. If Bombay High Court is indeed concerned about law and order in the society, the Honourable High Court should have gone to the village and studied with humbleness and devotion the unique social phenomenon where crime is practically unknown. Instead, the Honourable Court considers it more prudent to use the brute power of state to modify a practice that the Hindus of Shingnapur have followed for centuries.

Villagers of Shingnapur can easily either declare themselves to be Not Hindu (like Ramkrishna Mission unsuccessfully tried to do more than two decades ago). This declaration of giving up Hinduism would make the Shani worshippers an independent minority religion with full protection of the Constitution of India to manage affairs as they please without any right of the High Court to intervene on the pretext of "social welfare and reform".

The other option open to villagers of Shingnapur is to declare their Shani temple a non-public temple. It is doubtful whether this will be acceptable to the judges of Bombay High court who appear to be blinded with the power granted to them by the Constitution of India and are inclined to use the brute state power.

It is sad that Hindus are being forced to change their centuries old practices while the same practices in Judaic religions are left untouched by courts as well as by legislative and executive wings of Indian State. Women cannot enter any mosque and most dargahs (a dargah is an Islamic shrine built over a grave) across the country. Will the Bombay High Court take suo moto notice of this and order the mosques and dargahs? Probably, they dare not and probably they have no power to do it due to Article 25(2) of the Constitution.

The irony of "social welfare and reform" is that the Constitution neither defines it nor are there any limits on what can be done under its pretext. So under the cover of this constitutional fig leaf, all major Hindu temples across the country have been taken over by state governments. District collectors of the respective districts are heading the managing committees of almost all major Hindu temples across the country. The irony is that the bureaucrat heading a Hindu temple is not even required to be Hindu. Government of India, as a practice, always nominates a Muslim to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But, Hindus cannot expect similar courtesy when it comes to even their religious institutions. That is secularism in action!

In recent years, governments have been eyeing the gold, land and wealth of Hindu temples across the country. Again, Hindus will always agree that the resources of their temples as well as of all religious institutions should be used for public good. But, it pains Hindus to see that they are singled out for being looted of their wealth. Christian churches and their associate NGO's collectively own more land in India than anyone else. If one combines church lands with wakf lands, one is talking of a land mass that is incomparable to any other in the country. While governments (state as well as centre) try to loot the wealth of Hindu temples, they cannot even think of touching the church and wakf lands. And of course, the churches and wakf are protected by the Constitution of India while the same Constitution gives governments the right to loot Hindu temples in the name of "social welfare and reform".

No wonder that Hindus are feeling persecuted in India. Hindus feel that their rights and practices are trampled upon with impunity by governments as well as by courts who either do not dare to touch Judaic religious institutions or do so with kid gloves. Hindus feel that the secularism of the type propounded by the Constitution of India has led to a situation where Hindus have no religious rights. This is clearly unacceptable. It is high time that the political class of India takes note of the accumulating anger and dissatisfaction of Hindus before it turns into an uncontrollable volcano.

3 April 2016

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer and a lawyer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a legal and management consultant by profession.

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