The banning of Muslim traders at temple fairs in Karnataka and a self-proclaimed atheist from attending a dance performance at a temple in Kerala is both mystifying and disturbing. He militates against the Hindu ethos and its centuries-old heritage of syncretism. Nor does it jibe with RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s rejection of the term “ahindu” as meaning religious minorities.
Bhagwat said last month that “Hindu” is a cultural identifier, not a religious one, and is therefore interchangeable with the term “Bharatiya”.
A statement that arguably prohibits discrimination by any “Hindu” religious body on the basis of belief systems.
Koodalmanikyam temple authorities refused to allow Bharatnatyam dancer Mansiya, who was born into a Muslim family but married to a Hindu, to perform because she identifies as an atheist. Apparently dancer Soumya Sukumaran, who identifies as a Christian, was also turned down. For all their blackball of “non-Hindus,” temple authorities would find it hard to define “Hindu” themselves, given the diverse ontologies and epistemologies the term entails.
By their logic, Amrapali, the famous dancer of ancient India (immortalized by Vyjayanthimala in a 1966 film of the same name), would not have qualified for temple dancing. Literary sources testify that she embraced the predominance nastika tradition (atheist) of the time, that is to say; Buddhism and became a nun. Of course, historians claim that there were no temples in early Vedic or Buddhist India. The fact is that Indian – or Hindu – philosophical thought includes both astica and nastika traditions. The latter includes the Charvaka or Lokayata and Ajivika schools, which persisted into medieval times and are mentioned in epics and Arthashastra. the sramana movement that gave birth to these schools also profoundly influenced astica traditions.
As for the banning of Muslims from temple fairs, one BJP lawmaker from Karnataka called it “madness”, while another rightly pointed out that it breaches constitutional norms. In his constituency, he has publicly declared, there will be no such ban. It is up to the consumer to decide who and where to buy from, not the temple authorities. The state’s interior minister called the ban a “reaction” to protests against the hijab ban in academic institutions. While he’s probably right to confuse the hijab protests with the ban on Muslim shopkeepers, he comes across as an apologist. The fact is that the two situations are totally dissimilar. If India’s secular ethos is cited as the reason for the hijab ban, then the ban on Muslim shopkeepers violates that ethic. The hijab, as a religious marker, arguably has no place in a secular educational institution, especially one where students might be expected to wear a uniform. But then neither does discrimination against minorities in any public space.
A temple fair is a public event and therefore constitutes a public space. Everyone is free to attend, regardless of religious affiliation. Similarly, everyone should be free to set up a stand. The 2002 rule that land around a temple cannot be leased to non-Muslims is not valid in this case, as no lease is involved. Temple authorities can decide how goods and services are authorized, but cannot dictate the identity of the seller.
Strong “Hindu” activism is now manifesting itself in a campaign against halal meat. Some of these provocateurs tout the entirely false premise that India is a predominantly vegetarian country. The reverse is true. According to the National Family Health Survey-4, over 70% of Indians eat some form of meat. In some states, the figure is as high as 97%. Given that those who identify as Hindu make up nearly 80% of the population, being Hindu clearly does not equal vegetarianism. Brahmins can be vegetarians, or they can eat fish or meat or both, depending on their geographical origin. If the argument against halal was based solely on animal rights, it might have had some force. While clerics argue that if the strict rules governing halal are followed, the animal is immediately rendered unconscious, scientific studies have indicated otherwise. For those who avoid meat for moral reasons, halal is a particularly inconvenient practice. It is banned in many countries in Europe, as is a similar practice followed among Orthodox Jews.
Unfortunately, the movement against halal in Karnataka is expressed in anti-minority sentiments, which makes it self-destructive. Respect for animal rights does not violate constitutional freedoms; dictating gastronomic choices does.
In Karnataka, the radical fringe on both sides must be contained. The state government must follow its constitutional dharma and negotiate with the temple authorities, to uphold the rights of Muslim traders instead of hiding behind tenuous clauses. Hijab protesters, for their part, must pursue legal remedies and avoid polarizing the atmosphere in academic institutions. The anti-halal brigade is also free to go to court.
The RSS leadership, which spoke out strongly against the inflammatory anti-minority sentiments expressed at the Dharma Sansad in Haridwar earlier this year, should take a clear stand against the retrograde measures of the temples and the hate speech of disaffected people. But minority leaders must meet them halfway.
(The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now a freelance writer and author)
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Posted: Thursday March 31st 2022, 09:08 IST