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Why Secularism in India Is Under Serious Threat

When church and state come together, the patriarchal attitudes and assertions within religion, society, the polity and the state get consolidated, a cause for concern for women who are marginalised and discriminated against.

Adityanath embodies the marriage between religion and politics. Credit: PTI, Reuters

In March, we witnessed an event of momentous consequences – not only because it was so unexpected, but also because it was unprecedented. The head of a religious institution was appointed the chief minister of a state in the (secular) Union of India. At the time of writing, he continues to hold both offices: head priest of the Gorakhnath Math and head of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

It would be correct to say that nowhere in the world, with the exception of Iran, does this situation prevail, not even in Pakistan. Or Malaysia. Or Indonesia.

In May, the Supreme Court will hear a batch of petitions on the constitutional validity of the practice of triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala among Indian Muslims. The petitions have been filed by both the government of India and women’s organisations, notably the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and the Bebaak Collective.

Why am I mentioning these two apparently unrelated developments? What does Adityanath have to do with Muslim personal law?

For one, both matters have to do with constitutionality, although only one has come up for consideration (the other, whether the head of a religious body can also be the chief minister of a state, has not yet been raised.) For another, both are indicative of the extent to which the domain of religions now impinges on the political and vice versa. Also, both present a challenge to the secular character of the state, as well as of the nation.

However, my concern has to do with one other feature of this development – the steady consolidation of patriarchy that this nexus of religion, politics and the state portends – for the society and the whole country, obviously, but especially for women and all those who are marginalised.

Notwithstanding the Indian version of secularism, in which there is no clear separation of church and state, the Republic of India is statedly secular, as are its major institutions. We can argue about whether, in practice, they are unequivocally and unfailingly so, but the important fact is that they are bound by the constitution to uphold secular values. The appointment of Adityanath as chief minister of UP assumes significance in this regard.

The persistence and perpetuation of all personal laws, predicated on religious belief or religious-cultural customary practice, present a secular state with a peculiar conundrum: upholding the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice, and simultaneously upholding and guaranteeing individual freedoms, and freedom from discrimination on grounds of race, caste, creed, sex and so on.

However, all religions are fundamentally inegalitarian, inherently patriarchal and exclusive. No religion believes in equality as a fundamental right, and as an essential human condition. All religions actively endorse patriarchal control and privilege, and all practice exclusion in one form or another, albeit none as systematically and abhorrently as Hinduism.

When church and state come together, then, either by default or design, all three features – inequality, patriarchal control and exclusionary practices – are consolidated. What also gets consolidated are patriarchal attitudes and assertions within religion, society, the polity and, most critically, the state itself.

Adityanath embodies the marriage between religion and politics, and so far there have been no indications that the former will either be subordinate to the latter, or kept out altogether. In fact, all the causes that Adityanath espouses have been reinforced: ‘love jihad‘, reconversion or ghar wapsi (an echo of the erstwhile Arya Samaj’s shuddhi programme), closure of slaughter houses, tacit support to rampaging cow vigilantes, anti-Romeo squads. In the form of anti-Romeo squads, the arms of the state have been deployed to coerce, threaten and violently subdue. In other cases, the same arm of the state that is responsible for maintaining the rule of law refrains from enforcing it.

Meanwhile, readers will recall that as an MP, Adityanath, had voted against reservations for women in the parliament in 2010, saying “women power does not require freedom, but protection and channelisation,” and that “if a woman becomes powerful … she becomes a devil”. He doesn’t seem to have changed his mind.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board believes it is its religious duty to uphold patriarchal privilege, as sanctioned by Shari’a, in matters relating to divorce and polygamy. At the same time, using circular reasoning, it puts forward the argument that while triple talaq may be repugnant to Islam, it is legally allowed and so cannot be done away with. It recommends a social boycott of erring husbands instead. Adityanath, ever the champion of the oppressed, wants to hold mass meetings with Muslim women in UP to hear from them directly about whether or not triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala are acceptable to them.

The issue of Muslim personal law especially, always contentious and always politicised, presents yet another conundrum for a secular state: how to disentangle the religious from the political and adjudicate on the matter in accordance with constitutional principles, rights and guarantees.

As individuals we may be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi – or we may choose to be none of these. But as far as the Indian Union is concerned, we are Indians first and foremost, citizens of a secular state, and that should be our primary identity. Conceding or cementing patriarchal practices that underpin all religions not only flies in the face of individual fundamental rights, it also reinforces the multiple patriarchies that operate in families, in society, in politics. As a result, competitive patriarchy is what often surfaces, with tacit political sanction.

For all its limitations, the secular option is the only one that offers the possibility of realising substantive equality for all those, but especially women, who are marginalised and discriminated against. This is not to say that patriarchies will vanish overnight or be rendered ineffective; but that by maintaining a separation of religion and politics, some of the more strident among them will be neutralised.

We need a genuinely secular space in which informed discussions can take place on complex issues of identity and allegiance; a space in which an individual has the right to exit his or her religious community if they wish to and is assured the protection of the state; a space in which we are not required to exercise a false choice between self and community, or between religious conviction and personal freedom.

We need a genuinely secular space in which progressive social change is enabled, not impeded; in which conservative trends are discouraged; in which those on the margins are drawn in, not pushed over the edge.

It is this space that is under serious threat today.

Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher and writer.

  • Rohini

    I read your article with great interest.
    You say
    “For all its limitations, the secular option is the only one that offers the possibility of realising substantive equality for all those, but especially women, who are marginalised and discriminated against. This is not to say that patriarchies will vanish overnight or be rendered ineffective; but that by maintaining a separation of religion and politics, some of the more strident among them will be neutralised.”

    I assume that you are unstintingly in favour of the abolition of triple talaq, halala and polygamy AND support the call for a UCC?

  • jyoti chakravarti

    There is difference between Criminal background and somebody arrested for registration of FIR but not convicted for ‘ charges’ even during Mayabati/Akihlesh Regime. My contention was why Yogi Adityanath singled out even undivided Cyprus was headed by one Archbishop . No body is following blindly mere digging out certain FIR from police file does not make a person criminal.