Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the separation of temple and state

With the Supreme Court deliberating on an Allahabad High Court ruling to stop all subsidies for Indian Muslims wishing to make the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, I thought it might be a good time to talk about the need for India to separate Temple and State. As most readers of this blog know, India's idea of secularism has always differed from America's*, in that India's secularism believes that all religions should be propped up by the state rather than (legally at least) ignored except to prevent discrimination. For this reason, countless holidays are enshrined in the official calendar--including, in recent years, more and more minor Hindu festivals. Temples and other religious structures get the benefit of state aid or concessionary land prices. A separate civil code protects the chauvinistic marriage and inheritance laws of the major religions instead of ensuring equal human rights for all Indians. And a small number of Muslims receive a subsidy to attend the Haj. So, too, the government spends huge sums to facilitate Hindu pilgrimages like the Kumbh mela--held in Allahabad--though I'm not sure whether there is any government aid given to poor people who wish to attend.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to see the ways in which Hindu rites and festivals receive support, but everybody is easily convinced by dodgy statistics and jingoistic arguments regarding the subsidy and other support that India's Muslims receive. How much money does the government really spend on the Haj subsidy? (Unverified) Published sources suggest that the government spends more than Rs. 1200 crores on the Kumbh mela, as an example, while the subsidy given Muslims to reduce the travel costs amounts to a state-funded boost to Air India and only totals around 150 crore. (Feel free to update these figures by comment if you find the government's sanctioned totals, but please don't add conflicting unofficial numbers.)

But my (main) point is not that India's Muslims are being singled out. My point is that India should not be funding or supporting any of these activities. Not only will religion fund itself--as has been shown in countless examples. There is also much evidence to suggest that we would all be better off with a little less of it. (No more communal riots. No more suicide bombers. And no more deafening prayers sung over crackling and screeching public address systems.) But most important of all, religion, or in its less browbeating form, spiritualism, is a private matter. No doubt faith that there is a plan, that you are part of it, and that it means something is comforting, if not uplifting. But it loses most of its value when you turn it into a product to be advertised and sold.

So - No more allowing religious groups to ignore the Supreme Court's prohibitions on loudspeakers and other noise pollution after 10 p.m. No more competition for which religion gets the most public holidays -- let the members of each group honor their own holidays for a total of seven days per year, in addition to regular leave, while the rest of the country gets on with life. And keep the booze shops open. Nobody's forcing the abstainers to buy the stuff. No more Haj subsidy, no more tax breaks for temples etc, no more railway tickets for religious rites, etc.

Or, if that's out of the question, muddle on with the system you've got--where everybody gets a piece of the government dole, regardless of the team he plays for.

*America's so-called separation of church and state is also plagued with problems, BTW, but mainly because the government doesn't follow its own principles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as a life-long atheist who grew up in delhi, but now lives in new jersey, i found your post interesting. c ouple of things though

firstly, your solution of absolutely no state support is hardly feasible in a place like india. especially since there are minority groups which deserve support simply to exist and continue their practices.

secondly, what exaclty do you thin is the middle ground. on the one hand i would like to see separation of religion and state but the other end of the spectrum is the no-merry-christmas bunch which seems like a rather extreme reaction too. what do you think is the middle ground in this, if tehre is one