Should the state leave religion alone?

There is no simple yes or no answer to this question. Much depends on what we mean by the term religion

February 17, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 01:04 pm IST

Sabarimala: Devotees wait to offer prayers at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Kerala, Wednesday, Jan 2, 2019. Two women Bindu and Kanak Durga, in their early 40s, Wednesday, Jan 2, 2019, entered the shrine and offered prayers. (PTI Photo) (PTI1_2_2019_000116A)

Sabarimala: Devotees wait to offer prayers at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Kerala, Wednesday, Jan 2, 2019. Two women Bindu and Kanak Durga, in their early 40s, Wednesday, Jan 2, 2019, entered the shrine and offered prayers. (PTI Photo) (PTI1_2_2019_000116A)

The Sabarimala judgment and its aftermath have brought the issue of state intervention in religion back to the table: should governments leave religion alone, instead of interfering in it? Much depends on what one means by religion.

In one sense, religion refers to that aspect of human life where we relate to the transcendent, through personal belief or collective practice. This transcendent entity can be seen either as existing within human persons or outside them, in the highest possible realm. Religion then largely consists of spiritual exercises by which one digs deeper or goes higher. A mind-boggling variety of ways to carry out these exercises exist — god-dependent, gods and goddesses-dependent, or entirely independent of god. Let us just call this religion faith. To the question, should governments leave faith alone, the answer simply has to be a resounding yes. Not that the government’s interference is always unwarranted. For example, if collective rituals involve human sacrifice, then states should intervene. The point is that there must be a general presumption that governments must not interfere in faith.

Intervening in organised religion

However, it is commonplace that as faith communities become large, they feel the need to be rule-bound; in order to become stable and self-sustaining, they institutionalise themselves. But institutionalisation often involves the introduction of hierarchical relations of power and status. Some people in this relation have more power and status, are ‘more equal’ than others. They systematise beliefs surrounding spiritual exercises into explicit doctrines. They insist on doctrinal purity and lay down strict but spurious rules that split followers into the normal and the deviant. They fix violent and exclusionary penalties for the ‘deviants’ and thereby manufacture gated communities with robust notions of who is inside and who is outside. Concepts of heresy and infidelity are generated and a whole society infested with persecution comes into being. In this second sense, religion refers to institutionalised faith communities, such as the those headed by a church, math or sangha. Now, spiritual exercises cannot be undertaken without belonging to such strongly institutionalised religion. Should the state allow discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation, humiliation, oppression, or persecution by elite-controlled religious institutions, or instead ensure that those within the faith community lead a free, dignified life? My view on this is crystal clear. A government must, albeit with great care and sensitivity, intervene in organised religion to prevent any practices of domination within it. It should also inhibit any attempt on its part to dominate members of other religious communities.

There is, however, a third sense in which the term religion is used, one that refers neither only to faith, nor to powerful institutions that order and control it, but instead to historically transmitted traditions, indeed to an entire way of life. Thus, people frequently say that Hinduism is not a religion in the conventional sense but is rather a way of life. But if religion is a whole way of life and if this entails the breakdown of the very distinction between religion and society or religion and culture, then all relations of hierarchy and domination that are found in society are also subsumed under ‘religion’. In this conception of Hinduism as a way of life, caste or gender hierarchies are as religious as they are social. Caste domination or gender violence then become integral to Hinduism. How can a state that has accepted freedom and equality as one of its founding principles turn a blind eye to these oppressive practices within the Hindu way of life? In short, if religion is conceived as a way of life, then the state is duty-bound to intervene in religion. Here, the answer to the question, should the government leave religion alone, must be an even more categorical no.

Keeping a principled distance

It is because religion is a complex and morally ambivalent phenomenon that there cannot be a single, emphatic yes or no answer to the question raised above. In my own work over decades, I have consistently maintained that a strict separation between state and religion is not desirable. The state can neither take the view that it will control all aspects of religion, nor that it will have nothing to do with it; that no matter what happens, it will always keep religion at an arm’s length. The state must keep, what I have called, a principled distance from all religions.

What does it entail for law and public policy in relation to religion? On the principled distance view, there is absolutely no need for a state to have any law or public policy pertaining to matters of faith untainted by control, hierarchy or exclusion. A state must not interfere in what faith we have and how it is practised. Faith in god, gods and goddesses or in god-independent human qualities such as reason must remain free from interference. But equally, a just, egalitarian, and freedom-sensitive state cannot abandon its obligation to remove the residue of intra- or inter-religious domination from its society. This is why laws that prohibit triple talaq or lift restrictions on women to enter temples such as Sabarimala must be enacted. Customs that demean or humiliate women must go.

I have consistently argued that this is precisely how secularism is conceived in India: not as a political perspective that permits authoritarian control of religion by the state; nor one that encourages a libertarian hands-off approach towards it; but as one that promotes a nuanced and flexible policy of value-based political or legal decision on whether or not to intervene in religion. This principled distance variety of secularism is the unique ethical stance of the Indian Constitution, a gift from India to the rest of the world.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.