The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi

Secular courts should not tinker with matters of faith

Published Oct 24, 2018, 1:20 am IST
Updated Oct 24, 2018, 1:20 am IST
Echoing Gandhi in a way, the Sabarimala shrine is a latter-day Temple Entry Movement.
Sabarimala temple
 Sabarimala temple

Bhim Rao Ambedkar had the antidote to quell with reason and firm argument the Sabarimala flare-up, which neither the left government in Kerala nor the centrist Opposition Congress has the imagination to accept. Ambedkar would probably counsel Hindu and Muslim women, clamouring to enter the shrine in Kerala’s thickly forested tiger sanctuary, to find something more worthwhile to do.

Remember that Mahatma Gandhi had asked him to join the Temple Entry Movement whereby India’s “Depressed Classes” (as Ambedkar called his dalit flock) would be allowed to worship equally with the upper castes. Ambedkar flatly refused.

 

What he prescribed, instead, for the dalits was what he might have reasoned with women of childbearing age in Kerala to do. They too were assigned an unequal status, which barred girls and women of menstrual ages from praying at the shrine as they would offend the deity of Sabarimala. The revivalist RSS has backed the clergy although the Supreme Court has permitted all women to enter the shrine as equal citizens. Earlier, RSS supporters destroyed the Babri mosque against the apex court’s orders.

Echoing Gandhi in a way, the Sabarimala shrine is a latter-day Temple Entry Movement. The court’s order was not acceptable to the clergy who refused to allow any woman forbidden by tradition to enter the precincts. What would Ambedkar have to say here? His response to Gandhi is worth recalling.

“The main question is: do the Depressed Classes desire Temple Entry or do they not? This main question is viewed by the Depressed Classes by two points of view. One is the materialistic point of view. Starting from it, the Depressed Classes think that the surest way of elevation lies in education, higher employment and better ways of earning a living. Once they become well placed in the scale of social life, they would become respectable (and) the religious outlook of the orthodox towards them is sure to undergo change, and even if it didn’t happen, it can do no injury to their material interest. Proceeding on these lines the Depressed Classes say that they will not spend their resources on such an empty thing as Temple Entry. There is another reason why they do not care to fight for it. Their argument is the argument of self-respect,” Ambedkar reasoned.

He recalled how there used to be boards on club doors and other social resorts maintained by Europeans in India, which barred “dogs and Indians” from entering. “The situation in both cases is of parity. But Hindus never begged for admission in those places from which the Europeans in their arrogance had excluded them. Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus?”

The depressed class man, said Ambedkar, was prepared to tell the orthodoxy: “To open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman.” The women in Kerala might wish to adlib this. It is not something that the left or the Congress has the moral courage say to the women of Kerala.

Should anyone feel slighted at being equated with the status of the dalits as Ambedkar experienced it, there are other examples, which women and men could learn from.

In Tamil Nadu, Sheikh Chinna Moulana, a Muslim by faith, would belt out squatting outside Hindu temples devotional compositions on the traditional nadaswaram, a large shehnai-like wind instrument, which is difficult to master.

The RSS would be scared to embrace the thought that it was a Muslim shepherd who discovered the icicle in the Amarnath cave in Kashmir, worshipped as a symbol of Lord Shiva. Should that qualify Muslims to enter the cave shrine? The simple and reasoned answer is that Yesudas and Chinna Moulana were happy where they were. If anyone could change the conditions — for the women at Sabarimala or the musicians outside Hindu temples — it should come as a sea change from within the groups that practise segregation.

And this last point links an argument in Ayodhya. As Ambedkar or any other good lawyer would see it, matters of faith are not justiciable in a temporal court. The SC did right albeit unsuccessfully to restrain the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya on a point of law. But was it for the Allahabad high court to carve out a piece of disputed land to hand it to a deity?

Here, the Manmohan Singh government’s submission to the SC was clear. In September 2007, his government was asked to comment on a Hindutva campaign to alter the geography of the sea that separates India from Sri Lanka as was purportedly done by Lord Ram’s army. The Singh government told the court it had no evidence of Lord Ram’s existence as a historical figure. Secular courts should ideally not tinker with matters of faith, and preferably let society come up with civilised solutions. The alternative is the mess in Ayodhya and now sadly in Sabarimala.

By arrangement with Dawn

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