(photo credit: http://www.en.wikipdia.com)
By polishing shoes at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, in New Delhi, as “Kar Seva,” the refreshingly ordinary Lt. Governor, Najeeb Jung and his wife, have raised the bar for people in high public office.
A “Kar Sevak” is one who volunteers to provide pro-bono service for a religious cause. That a deeply religious Muslim couple should choose to do so in a Sikh gurudwara, showcases the best practice role model for our plural society.
Critics will dismiss it as mere tokenism. But in a country starved of demonstrated public consciousness amongst the high and mighty, even tokenism is helpful in building bridges across our social divides.
In a similar vein, PM Modi launched his Swachh Bharat campaign by sweeping a poor colony of the kind that the Mahatma used to prefer to live in on his travels, to show solidarity with the Dalits; again tokenism of course but of the right kind.
Pseudo secularists of course would prefer to build a more religiously sanitized society where religion becomes purely a personal affair and the State keeps away consciously from religious events.
To expect this to happen in the near future is “pie in the sky”. Indians of all denominations are a deeply religious people. Even those, like the “Dalits” who were once doomed to be the dregs of society, under the orthodox Hindu caste system, rebelled not by abandoning religion altogether but instead chose to became Christian in earlier times, inspired by the egalitarian society of the Christian faith. More recently they choose to become Buddhists, led by Bhenji (Sister) Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh.
Religion is here with us to stay, just like man’s selfish nature or inequality. The real issue is how the downside of a deeply religious society can be minimized. As in matters economic, a vibrant society requires the push and pull of competing religions for people to choose from. Reform and change is often sparked by enough people “voting with their feet” to cross over to an alternative group or religion, whose sentiment resonates better with their current aspirations. If this was not so, religions would atrophy and become preserves of elites preying on the ordinary people. This, in fact, is the problem with theocratic states. There is little room or opportunity, for reforming the State religion. The only real choice is to exit the country.
Clearly a plural, traditional country like India cannot offer such blunt choices to its citizens. Hinduism is a fairly elastic religion and can fit all manner of beliefs. This is why, despite 700 years of Theocratic State rule, till 1947, by non-Hindu, monarchic or colonial governments, Hinduism has flourished even in the North and the East where these theocratic rulers were most firmly in power. This is also illustrative of the essentially extractive objectives of these theocratic government. So long as people paid their taxes and did not expect to share in political power, their religion mattered not a whit to the non-Hindu rulers.
It is odd, therefore, that in modern, democratic India, Hinduism should be perceived to be under threat. The real truth is that being the dominant religion in India, Hindu leaders have not felt the bite of competition to keep them on their toes.
If Christian missionaries could expand their fold by providing public services (education, health and social equality) what has stopped Hindu religious leaders from being similarly socially active? If Madrassas can attract poor Muslim kids with the promise of a free education and care why are Hindu institutions not able to compete and retain their market share of adherents?
An areligious State is not anti-Hindu. Similarly a State which does not recognize the deep reverence of Indians for religion can only be blind. Till now we have sought to covertly protect one religion or the other whilst pretending that in State matters religion does not exist. This is hypocritical. Let us confront the issue frontally.
Most Indians would want a State which deals with religions in an even handed manner. Here are five ground rules we could establish to illustrate that the State has no religion.
First, establishment of new religious shrines should require the consent of the entire community resident around an area and must not be undertaken on public land. If people want a new Temple, Gurudwara, Mosque or Church, they must find the land for it privately and do so in a manner which does not create opposition.
Second, all those entitled to fly the India flag officially, must be required to participate in religious occasions in their local areas to give visible proof that the State respects all religions. Whilst in such high public office, officials must eschew public demonstration of their private religious faith. People judge intentions by how a leader behaves not by the rhetoric. Leaders have to be areligious whilst in public office if the State is to be benign to all religions. Being areligious means being accessible to all religions, including for their key events.
Third, the State must intervene forcefully to protect and facilitate inter-faith marriages, so long as they are legal, including being based on choice. The current trend is highly regressive where the Police act illegally to dissuade such marriages. Choice is the corner stone of liberty so long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law. By subverting this ideal we are subverting the very basis of democracy.
Four, affirmative action by the State (reservations) must be available to all religions on a common economic and social basis. So long as the basis of affirmative action is based on belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Castes or Other Backward Castes, they must not face the prospect of losing the benefits of affirmative action on opting for an alternative religion.
Five, the convention of rotating the positions of formal power (President, Governors, nominated members of Parliament) across all the religions is a fine, albeit symbolic gesture. Similarly, maintaining proportionate representation of all religions in such formal positions is an excellent convention which should be upheld.
No one knows better than PM Modi the power of symbolism. He is the symbol of New India: aspirational, confident, eager for change and enabled to compete in the World. In our race to “catch-up” with the World we must not repeat the mistake that China made of a black and white choice between tradition and modernity.
The “Big Mac index” only works if there is sufficient diversity in the World. If all countries were clones of each other it would not be needed. Innovation is the preserve of alternative minds and evolution the consequence of differentiated genes. Let us preserve and grow both in India. More power to the elbows of “cross-religious Kar Sevaks”.