I am writing this not in defence of “inquisitions or kangaroo courts” in which “anchors and their hand-picked panellists” flagellate those with “politically incorrect views” (with reference to Madhu Purnima Kishwar’s article in The Hindu (Op-Ed, “Don’t like this temple? Choose another,” January 17, 2013). I did not watch the programme that, in Ms Kishwar’s opinion, wronged “one of the young hereditary priests of Sabarimala,” but I too take a dim view of shouting matches on the television, especially with the anchors themselves doing more than a fair share of the shouting. There is a great need to promote reasoned argument and a healthy respect for difference in our public culture. Television news channels are not exactly covering themselves with glory in that regard.

But, it seems to me that Ms Kishwar too has fallen prey to the same temptation. One may not exactly shout in print, but it is equally disagreeable to make a caricature of one’s interlocutor in a debate and then beat that caricature with the logical stick. Appeals for respecting difference and for being tolerant towards a diversity of faiths and benign religious practices are welcome. But are faiths and religious practices out of bounds for all reasoned debate? Must every belief that is sanctioned by a religion and held by a sect or by a multitude be considered indubitable and inviolably sacred by everyone else too? Is it fair to denounce all questioning of ancient beliefs and practices as following in the footsteps of colonial rulers and as intolerance of the “imperious missionaries of liberalism”?

Even more important is the attitude one should have towards the filth that may spill or secrete from the sacred. The interiors of a temple, with all that goes on inside it, may be held by many as holy, but much of what flows out into the society from the temple’s drains may be quite toxic. If a deity is fond of modaks and laddoos and other high cholesterol, high calorie diets, who can have an argument with him! But if the followers of that deity (or the members of the priestly class who get to eat most of the prasadam) begin to die from cardiovascular ailments far more frequently than the statistical average, it may be necessary to investigate the correlation between the religious practice and its social fallout.

There have been, and still are, far more pernicious fallouts than mere obesity. If Dalits and many others from the so-called lower castes have been prohibited from entering Hindu temples, it is not a matter of what the reigning deity of the temple thinks of Dalits and other outcastes. It is more a matter of what his or her followers think of them and what kind of social relationships, behaviours and practices come out of that belief. I have known activists who are confirmed atheists, some of them even communists, who have fought for the rights of Dalits, women and other outcastes to enter a temple where such people were not allowed. It is not the case that these atheists suffered a sudden bout of belief, or they were merely spoiling for a fight. Such practices sanction and symbolise the modes of oppression, discrimination, exclusion and humiliation that a society practices in domains far beyond the precincts of a temple. These must be fought against and the underlying beliefs must be brought under rational as well as normative questioning. Diversity is generally a good thing and respect for difference a good value. But not everything can be justified and tolerated in the name of diversity. Ideologies of universality and homogeneity may have originated often in the conceit and the megalomania of colonial and imperial modernity. But not all agreements in the modern world about what are moral and civilized ways of living are to be undone because they smack of universality. We have no reasons to celebrate a malignant diversity that may result from adding or tolerating beliefs and practices, whether of ancient or contemporary origins, that are oppressive, inegalitarian and anti-human.

Cannot escape scrutiny

The beliefs and practices of any community, sect or nation cannot escape being scrutinised for what they do to their own members and what they do to others. No form of life — cultural, social or civilizational — is eternal and unchanging, and none can seek from the diversity principle an absolute protection for all kinds of practices. Of course, any threat to a life form that comes simply from the might of a majority, or from the naked and irrational power of a system, or from the lure of gold held out by motivated interests, is immoral and must be resisted. But no form of human life can refuse to listen to arguments of reason and ethics over which humanity has come to an agreement even if to a minimalist and contested degree and even if through a tortuous course of history.

Ms Kishwar seems to conflate the desires and dispositions of the deities with those of the devotees. Diversity of deities may be benign in itself. But too often it gives rise to malignant diversity in the social sphere. The injustice done to “Others” — whether Dalits, women or adherents of other religions or non-religious belief systems — in the name of religious beliefs and practices is not merely a matter of faith-based diversity. It is a matter that must be subjected to rational and normative-ethical scrutiny.

When I feel that my rights are being violated by the loudspeakers of Azan or by the blaring out of bhajans and chants at 5 a.m., I should not be made to feel guilty that this is a thinking worthy of an imperious missionary of liberalism. Nor should I be held responsible for not soundproofing my bedroom.

(Prachee Sinha is a New Delhi-based activist and development professional.)

Madhu Purnima Kishwar responds

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