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Needed: a code of conduct

By Swami Agnivesh and Valson Thampu

Impatience with inconvenience is the hallmark of our times. Gone are the days when people would have put up with anything for any length of time. Speed is basic to modern culture: a recognition that underlies the massive investment being made on developing a sophisticated mass rapid transport system for Delhi, even as several basic civic amenities remain inadequate and substandard.

It is inevitable that preference for speed aggravates impatience with bottlenecks. Given this, it is amazing how patient people continue to be with inconveniences and disruption of civic life when they are brought about in the name of religion. The length, breadth and duration of religious processions continue to increase in Delhi. Sometimes, traffic along the affected route is stalled for hours.

More often than not, the temper and spirit at these religious processions and public displays are hardly religious. A little spark, and the situation could erupt into violence. Because we cherish the spiritual core of religions as the reservoir of higher values and ideals, we feel troubled by the perpetuation of these practices that entrap people in the past.

The importance of processions and morchas is declining in politics, where they used to thrive till recently. Yet, it seems only to increase in the sphere of religion. Religious processions and public displays made sense when they were evolved. They were shared events which served as a

rallying point for the local community. Exciting public events were so few and far between, and life was so unhurried, that the festive air these processions conjured up provided the effervescence to alleviate the monotony of routine life.

This is no longer the case. Religion is becoming a ready excuse for indulging in irrational and otherwise indefensible behaviour. From encroaching public land to browbeating jurisprudence to one's own advance, religion is being increasingly deployed for sanctifying no-sense, even non-sense. "Politics,'' said George Bernard Shaw, "is the last resort of scoundrels.'' We must ensure that religion does not suffer a similar degradation in this land of religions.

If religions are to be a blessing for our people, it is necessary to evolve a code of conduct to guide their self-expressions in the public space. Arguably, such a code cannot be improvised by some thinkers or groups, no matter how well-meaning they are. It has to be evolved through a series of consultations, involving all religions, to identify the dos and don'ts objectively. If this is not done without delay, the nuisance value will continue to increase and assume epidemic proportions. Religion is meant to help rather than hinder life. Nothing that disrupts, devalues, dehumanises or destroys life should be allowed any religious legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the practitioners of each religion to ensure that this is so. They must deem it a spiritual duty to dissociate themselves from such traditions, practices and advocacies. This calls for a large measure of objectivity. Sadly, the capacity for objective thinking is conspicuous by its absence from the religious nurture that takes place today. Communalism revels in breeding and exploiting subjectivity and its inevitable accompaniment of double-standards. The spiritual mandate, on the contrary, is to treat others as we would wish to be treated by them. No one likes to be held up for hours together, especially in situations of medical emergencies.

We would urge our Muslim brothers, for example, to ensure that Friday prayers do not spill over to adjoining roads to the inconvenience of the public. Prayers are important and religious traditions need to be honoured. At the same time, due consideration for people's needs must be factored into one's religiosity. If the mosques are not spacious enough, these prayers can happen in two sessions. Alternatively, if it is imperative that all people pray together, it should be possible to organise these prayers in suitable public places like parks or playgrounds.

Promotion of slothfulness and lowering the dignity of work in the name of gods makes religion a corrupter of our work-culture. Swelling the quota of public holidays for each religion is the communal largesse that politicians proffer to the keepers of religions.

These are only a few pointers to a long-neglected agenda that brooks no further delay. Religion, until it is commandeered and corrupted by organised vested interests, is a profoundly rational thing. And it is time the practitioners of religions were urged to heed the demands of rationality and reasonableness.

(Swami Agnivesh is the working president of the World Council of Arya Samaj. Valson Thampu is a peace activist and Christian theologian.)

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