Religion has been defined as a belief in a God or a group of Gods, and as an organised system of beliefs, ceremonies and rules used to worship a God or a group of Gods. The general feeling is that one turns to religion for comfort in times of stress, and a visit to a place of worship, theists believe, would bring inner peace and solace.
In our country, the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to freedom of religion, and as a fundamental right one can pursue the religion of his or her choice without fear of persecution, which also implies that the right to remain an agnostic too is sacrosanct. India is the birthplace of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and as per the 2011 census, Hindus constituted 79.8% of the population, Muslims 14.2% and the other religions constituted the rest 6%. India thus is a pluralistic society where all major religions co-exist, and there is unity in diversity.
Religion, therefore, should rightfully remain in the private domain, and its pursuance is largely left to the individual’s wisdom and choice, and as India is a secular state, persecution on grounds of religion is punishable under the Indian Penal Code. Religious intolerance of any kind is ultra vires and the intervention of the state in religious matters, except perhaps to ensure that the rights of religious minorities are protected, is unwarranted, and any such activity could be construed as a threat to religious freedom. The state however, has the bounden duty to come down heavily on those fanning the flames of communal hatred, or indulging in acts that can be prejudicial to the rights and privileges of any religious sect.
When the Britishers ruled our country, a number of Christian missionaries landed on our soil, and their avowed mission was not just to propagate the Christian faith, but also to convert people to Christianity. To a very large extent these conversions were restricted to the lowest strata of society whose upliftiment was linked to their abandoning their religion and embracing Christianity.
With time however, such activities came to a standstill as they were thwarted by militant groups belonging to the majority Hindu religion; the incident in which an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were allegedly burnt to death in Orissa (now Odisha) on 23rd January, 1999, by Hindu zealots belonging to the Bajrang Dal on grounds that he was engaging in conversions, created a furore across the country and the world. A strange twist in more recent times was the ghar wapsi movement unleashed by certain fringe groups where Hindus who had converted to other religions were brought back into the fold with great fanfare and jubilation. Incidentally, the individual’s right to change his religion is also protected and no offence can be made out against those who choose to abandon their faith and cling to another.
The role of religion in contemporary India
In recent times, religion has transcended from the private space into the public domain, and not only predominates the social discourse, but has also become an electoral weapon, whereby appeals are made to religious entities to cast their votes based on religion or caste. The practice has been frowned upon by the country’s apex court, which in a reiteration of an earlier judgment, has decreed that no votes should be sought by any political party by appealing to religious faiths professed by the voters. Stringent penalty in the form of disqualification will hang like a Damocles’s Sword over the heads of the candidates who have been found to have gone against the diktat of the Supreme Court. However, like a number of laws that have been observed in their breach, political parties continue to swear by caste politics and vitiate the atmosphere by appealing to caste sentiments during election time.
Majoritarianism is a dreaded word in religious circles as in simple parlance it means that a religious majority if it chooses, can ride roughshod over the minorities and trample on their rights with impunity. In our nation, a very large majority of Hindus have neither the intention nor the inclination to use the weight of their numbers to crush the minorities or deny them their legitimate rights. However, the existence of fringe groups that are wedded to the idea that Hinduism is in danger and needs to be protected at all costs, is a fallacy that has created an atmosphere of unease and insecurity in the minds of the minority segments. The riots that followed the razing of the disputed shrine in Babri Masjid to the ground on 6th December, 1992, and the Mumbai bomb blasts that ensued in the aftermath were clear instances of religion being used to foster hatred between communities and to settle scores adopting violence and arson as weapons.
Even today, the issue of Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi continues to hang fire, and claims and counter claims over the disputed site continue in the form of suits in the courts. The clamour to build a Ram Temple at the site too continues unabated, and the sane voices that seek a solution to the imbroglio by constructing a Ram Temple and a mosque adjacent to each other at the site, continue to be drowned in the cacophony raised by fanatics on both sides.
Years later, the torching of compartments of a train in Godhra, Gujarat, which took a toll on karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, was followed by the Gujarat riots where the minority Muslim community was targeted, and again hundreds of lives were lost. The carnage that came immediately after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards which saw as many as 2000 innocent Sikhs being massacred, was another instance of religious intolerance and extreme cruelty being inflicted to avenge a murder.
The secularism debate
The word ‘secularism’ has a different connotation nowadays, and it is the term ‘pseudo-secular’ that has greater currency and denotes not just tolerance of all religions, but appeasement of the minority communities. How this can be justified is perplexing as secularism hardly slants towards any community, and could only stand for ensuring equal rights to all as prescribed in the Constitution. While ‘Hindutva’ as an ideology is all very fine, the concept of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in a secular country is hardly tenable.
Should religion be in the public domain?
There can be no two opinions that religion should be within the four walls and should not enter the public domain, as it then becomes a yardstick to judge people and also results in an animus between different castes and communities.
Crimes committed in the name of religion should not be tolerated, and the long arm of the law should reach all fanatics who indulge in violence at the drop of a hat and terrorise the weaker sections of society. Vigilantism has today become an offshoot of religious prejudices and the country is witness to brutal lynching of perfectly innocent citizens under the garb of ‘protecting cows, ending cow slaughter, etc. The lynching of a Muslim on the charge that he was storing beef in his house and that of a teenager in a train on the grounds that he could be a beef eater, are instances that prove that religious terrorism is on the rise, and has to be leashed immediately. These incidents might be sporadic, but every time the perpetrators of such crimes go unpunished, there is a definite chance of such crimes spiraling. Religious tolerance is the need of the hour, and the spirit of the Constitution should be upheld at all times.