While the Tamil Nadu government prohibits overt display of religious symbolism at its offices, little majoritarian breaches continue to be normalised at some places under the auspices of its lower bureaucracy.On Monday, a stone idol of Lord Vinayaka was consecrated amid grand rituals by a priest outside the office of the Krishnagiri Municipal Commissioner M.R. Vasantha, with the senior official herself and the staff in tow.
Conspicuous by her absence was the Chairperson of the Municipality Farida Nawab, who was unaware of the programme. The idol was erected next to an idol of Goddess Lakshmi, which was installed during the previous term by the then AIADMK chairman K.R.C. Thangamuthu. But none of the officials were aware of the April 1968 internal circular by the first DMK government or the subsequent 1993 Government Order (G.O.) under the AIADMK banishing religious symbols from government offices.
Secularism as the basic structure envisioned by the Constitution underlines a line of separation between State institutions and religion.Citing this “Secularism” and the “Secular Nature of the Indian State and its Government”, the 1968 circular an internal circular, issued by the then Chief Secretary C.A. Ramakrishnan under the first DMK government, ordered the removal of portraits of gods, goddesses and godmen from government offices/properties and added that it be carried out “without any show or attracting public attention.”
In 1993, the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department under the AIADMK government issued a G.O. forbidding the conduct/installation of religious ceremonies/structures within government premises.In 2010, the Madras High Court directed the State government’s compliance with the 1993 order and forbade conduct of religious ceremonies or building of religious structures within government buildings.
However, the commonplace religiosity of the officialdom in many districts normalising inveigling of religious rituals and idols into government spaces has rendered the State’s practice of secularism tenuous.Last year, the DMK MP from Dharmapuri S. Senthil Kumar lashed out at local officials for conducting a ritualised “ground-breaking” ceremony led by a Hindu priest, flouting the “Dravidian Model” that espoused rationalism and secularism.
According to Ms. Vasantha: “All district commissionerates have a Vinayaka. Here there is only (Goddess) Amman, and I felt Vinayaka being the ‘first God’ will help in the smooth running of the office, easing tensions.” She was unaware of the secular dictates or the G.O.s. “The old building had a cement idol of Lakshmi, which broke, and the municipality staff requested me to get a stone statue,” says Mr. Thangamuthu, justifying his earlier action.
These continuing breaches also have a blasé indifference to the sensitivities of other faiths. Ms. Nawab, the DMK Chairperson of Krishnagiri Municipality, says, “I am a Muslim. I cannot even voice my opinion.Even if I feel it is not right to install a religious idol at a public place, and say so, it will be twisted as ‘she’s objecting because she’s a Muslim’. Even the Council was not aware of this.”
Aadhavan Deethchanya, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Association, called it a deliberate attempt to create hostility.“Majoritarian religious beliefs cannot be paraded into public spaces that is not exclusive to any community.Would it be acceptable if it was a Quran or a Cross in its place?Also, when the Commissioner is aware that the Chairperson of the Krishnagiri Municipality is a Muslim, it is an attempt to create social tensions, and she must be booked and suspended,” he said.