While battles may be fought in open fields and dingy courts, in reality they are only won in the daily struggle with society. With Ayodhya’s long awaited judgment in our hands today, the fissures of communal biases become more prominent. Was the site to be divided in order to settle questions of claim and status? The Court treating the masses as one joint family cut the melon of "sanctified earth" between the two majority Indian communities - Hindus and Muslims. There exist numerous reasons and an enormous need to doubt and challenge that judgment. But, I think there is an equal need to recognize that judicial pronouncements ought not to delineate our ability to be secular as a nation, which we definitely failed to be in the Ayodhya case and fail to be, ever so often when we automatically turn neutral equations into communal ones.
The issue of communal solidarity has great significance for the cultural mosaic that India represents. Having birthed many faiths and witnessed life-cycles of various religions makes India unique. Few countries in the world offer such a variety in faiths and are religiously tolerant, and even fewer in the manner India de jure is. In contrast to the growing legislative trend overseas of pushing symbols of religion away from the public eye, the Indian government has not attempted to reduce the burden on the people. Within Indian society people are oft constrained to sport communal indications. Thus, the Indian scenario may rightly be described as being diametrically opposite to that in France today - where people are fighting for their right to expression, while in India people are often forced to wear their faith on their sleeves. The use of the purdah, naqab, burqa is neither prohibited nor mandatory in India. Rather the law is at an arm’s length from the socio-religious rules (often in the form of fatwas and diktats), in its silence legitimizing their presence. It fails to acknowledge the impact on free will of these institutions of social control and the norms they propagate. Despite the nominal protection of personal liberties afforded under the Constitution, instances of religion being used as a tool to violate human rights are many and frequent. In these circumstances it is of utmost importance to have a clear social vision of what would constitute a trespass on human rights.
However, Indian society is fraught with such multi-layered questions, juxtaposing the rights of women, LGBTs and children against religious rights. Though that in itself would not create controversy, the imposition of religious diktats would. Notably, the Indian legislative mechanism has not yet recognised this growing need to resolve the conflict between free will and religious norms. Practices such as the use of sindoor and chuda by wedded Hindu women, social persecution for cutting of hair and discarding the turban by Sikhs, or refusal to wear the burqa by a Muslim woman are cases in point. Far from this, the country is grappling with an explosion in the incidence of honour killings, which is nothing but the application of communal rules to determine a person’s right to live. The need for such determination of the right to life is then justified on the basis of matrimony outside one’s cast – proscribed by religion. While the said act is illegal as it constitutes murder, there is nothing in the law to criminalize this process of the determination of rights. Neither the law nor society, in its local circumscription, comes to ones aid against this social institution. Since the law may not always be the most appropriate tool to proscribe a thought process one must once again turn to society.
While these instances are direct fall outs of religion, issues that may not fall but are forced in to the scope of religious speculation are more noteworthy. Foremost amongst these is terrorism, although such a weighty cannot be adequately covered in this forum. However, one may note the positive attempts to bring to light and improve the conditions of the oppressed that are often thwarted by a stout refusal to comprehend. Movies such as Water and Fire have been met with strong ire by religious groups. None of these groups present arguments based on research but are still successful in converting the subject of rights of widows and lesbians respectively to religion. In 2007 a student of art at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Vadodara (Gujarat) came under fire when he depicted a nude Hindu goddess. Again freedom of speech met religion even though nudity appears often in texts and architecture! Further, sex-education has been vehemently opposed by religious groups in the country. The most common line of argument is that a woman’s body is the site of 'community and family honour' and needs to be protected. This approach is contradictory, since it only leads to an increase in transmission of STDs and thereby fails to protect the body it so purports to hold in honour. The argument implies a community interest in the body of a woman, and consequently dis-empowers her to exercise full control over it. Similar arguments lie with respect to abortion, implying a control over sexual and reproductive behaviour, a right that should vest in the mother and not the community, for would the community pay for the education and development of the child?
The tendency of looking at neutral issues through a prism of religious bias leads to an unambiguous refusal to recognize human rights. It is as if the communal perspective has been dragged in when the same issues would be better dealt with a filter of humanness. Such a trend smacks of the sloth with which the Indian leaders belittle the relevance of contemporary social issues and rights of people arising not out of law but humanness. It signifies the consistent translation of “social” to “religious” within the bounds of Indian polity. While it is incorrect to take away all the credit that is well deserved for changes made in law, it is a long way before rights encapsulated therein become social realities. While Courts have granted legality to homosexuality, there is still a good deal of opposition based on religious grounds. Once again the opposition is not based on researched arguments, for Hinduism provides numerous instances in architecture and texts of prevalence and acceptance of homosexuality. There is also an argument that a gay couple was blessed by Jesus – giving religious sanction to the stigmatized orientation. But none of this helps in creating social acceptance of homosexuality. Only sustained awareness will culminate in acclimatizing the population and create a conducive environment for acceptance of these social facts and needs. But till then, a communal disguise ought not to be donned upon these issues.