Equal respect for all religions

THE PRIME Minister has spoken of his Government subscribing to the concept of equal respect for all religions. The Union Education Secretary, whose Minister is an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, has also recently spoken on similar lines. How should the secular forces respond to these propositions? Should they be ready to abandon every concept that Hindutva appropriates, as has already happened to some extent with nationalism?

Some writings from the secular side of the debate in the last 15 years or more were dismissive of the concept of equal respect. It was rubbished variously as the ``Ram-Rahim approach'' and as ``Hindu ecumenicalism''. The reference to the ``Ram-Rahim approach'' was used to suggest in the pre-independence context that those adopting it had taken no interest in providing constitutional safeguards to the minorities or that their approach did not provide for a religiously neutral or secular state. Both these propositions are contrary to the record. Similarly, the dismissal of the equal respect concept as ``Hindu ecumenicalism'' was fallacious. It seemed to imply, albeit unintentionally, that religions apart from Hinduism did not have the intellectual and emotional resources to support a multi- religious society based on mutual respect.

How then do we relate to the equal respect concept? First, it is useful to specify whether what is being discussed is the individual, society or the state. The norms to be expected at the three levels are a set of complementary ideas which cumulatively support one another. But these do not need to be identical ideas. So if the state is religiously neutral it is not necessary for its sustenance that all individuals should be, say atheists. They could be religious. Individually they may, and many probably will, give priority to their own faith. What is required of them here is no more than a sense of humanism or respect for difference. Similarly, at the level of society at large it is not necessary, even if it may in one view be desirable, that the religious element be eliminated. It is enough that groups and individuals, or the vast majority of them, are prepared in their social intercourse to meet on a par, without claiming in civic space priority over one another on account of their religion. Equal respect for all religions is primarily a concept of the social domain, though the state may seek to internalise it consistent with other applicable obligations.

At the level of the state, additional norms apply. Yet the religious neutrality of the state and equal respect for all religions are not inconsistent ideas, as the Union Education Secretary seems to believe, but are complementary ones. It is only by its religious neutrality that the state expresses its equal respect for all communities. The state must make this claim good in its attitude to governance, with the protection of the lives and property of, and provision of opportunities of growth and development to, all sections. Obviously, protection would in the first instance be for the ones threatened. In focussing on them the state only enforces the equality principle. It does not amount to bestowing a special favour. When the Prime Minister reacted more than a year ago to the violence against Christians in Gujarat by merely asking for a debate on conversions, it was not evidence of equal respect for all religions on the part of the state or his party.

Yet another aspect of the equal respect concept is sometimes overlooked. When the concept was promoted in the pre-independence period it did not mean that all practices and ideas propounded in the name of the various religions were entitled to respect. When Gandhi undertook his anti-untouchability tour in 1933-34 a significant section of Hindus opposed him wherever he went. It was claimed that untouchability was part of the Hindu religion and that Gandhi had no business to interfere with this belief. In Bihar his car was attacked and stoned, and the windscreen broken. In Banaras he was greeted with black flags; in Pune, heartland of Hindutva, an attempt was made on his life and a lethal bomb hurled, injuring several persons.

Equal respect for all religions is not a concept which offers any shelter to beliefs or activities that violate the civil rights of others. The Bajrang Dals cannot hide behind the equal respect concept. The concept implies equal respect only for the humanistic tendency in each religion. It is not a passive, static or hold-all concept, as the BJP seems to believe, but an active, dynamic and discerning one. It strives continually to seek out the humanist underpinnings of society.

Is this the concept to which the Prime Minister claims to subscribe? While he speaks of equal respect for all religions, he retains as his Home Minister yet another accused in the Babri Masjid case. And is it merely coincidental that the attacks on Christians have become frequent and systematic after Mrs. Sonia Gandhi became the leader of the Congress(I)? Are these attacks not politics by other means and are not the BJP Government's low- key condemnations of them a confirmation of this?

Compare this party politics with what the equal respect concept in fact entails politically. Had the outlook underlying Hindutva as also the Huntington clash-of-civilisations thesis, which recently originated in the U.S., been allowed to define Indian nationalism, it would have taken very little to give an anti- Christian twist to the Indian freedom struggle. That this did not happen despite the repeated colonial jibe that the Congress was Hindu-oriented is a tribute not only to the contribution Indian Christians such as Joseph Baptista, Madhusudan Das, S. K. Rudra, J. C. Kumarappa, S. K. Datta and many others had made to aspects of the struggle; it was also a momentous triumph of the concept of equal respect for all religions.

A struggle against the Raj conducted for nearly three decades at the mass level did not take on an anti-Christian character. On the contrary, the message of the Sermon on the Mount was popularised by Indian nationalists in a manner that has never happened in any country not predominantly Christian. The Hindutva organisations, on the other hand, as their track record after Mrs. Sonia Gandhi came to the fore in the Congress(I) suggests, are incapable of internalising the concept of equal respect.

At the state-level, equal respect for all religions cannot mean a state without humanism. Humanism is the key element in the making of a secular state. That the state in independent India would be religiously neutral was stipulated in the 1931 Karachi resolution to which Gandhi, Azad and Nehru were all party. Neutrality does not mean that the state would stand by while people did what they liked in the name of each religion. It cannot be neutral between humanistic and anti-humanistic religious impulses. It would respect religion; but it would also offer a humanistic critique of it.

Constitutional safeguards for minorities are important. But they too rest upon the existence in society of feelings of equal respect for all religions. To appreciate the relationship between such safeguards and the concept of equal respect, consider this: suppose prior to independence all demands, including the most extravagant, raised on behalf of every sectional minority had been conceded. What guarantee would there be that the compact would be maintained after independence?

Feelings of mutual respect among the communities are the ultimate safeguard. The moment that respect goes, no Constitution can substitute for it. No safeguards will count if society does not find it within itself to live by them. That is why Hindutva is so pernicious a phenomenon. If it undermines mutual respect in society, what it does or does not do to the state will only be consequential to the damage it would already have inflicted. That is also why the notion of equal respect must be carefully understood. It may be further refined. It may be supplemented. It must never be dismissed. In some respects it goes beyond many European secularisms which rest primarily on a reduced visibility of the religious element even as the idea of privileged official religion is retained in the state and the laws, as in the case of the blasphemy law in England.