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At a time when the clergy and self-appointed guardians of different communities are engaged in verbal duels and polemics around reform of social, cultural and religious practices and leaders of political parties are busy capitalizing on it, it is worthwhile to reflect on the direction this debate should take, the role of enlightened citizenry and the reach of judiciary.

The first step is to recognize and accept prevalence of practices cutting across communities that are degrading to human dignity and are not in sync with modern times. As it is, this is true for Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Christians. Sister Jesme’s autobiography, Amen: The Autobiography of a nun narrates practices within the enclosure of church that are far removed from the ethical core of Christianity. Amen makes an impassioned plea for reformation of church. Other religious bodies could be afflicted with similar practices and in dire need of reform. 

It is an exercise in futility to debate ‘how’ one is to decide and, still less important, ‘who’ is/ is not a Zoroastrian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. and whether a particular prevalent cultural/religious practice draws its justification and legitimacy from scriptures and sacred texts. The real issue to debate is whether an individual, irrespective of the labels he is born with, feels free in society, unencumbered by covert and overt threats of punitive measures by the custodians of religion and culture, to profess and practise the faith of his choice and whether a particular cultural/ religious practice is in tune with modern times and is not inimical to living life with dignity. It is retrogressive and wishful thinking to be “left alone” in the era of globalization when no aspect of life of an individual or a community can remain insulated from outside influences. 

 History is testimony to the fact that cultural and religious practices are not static and reform in any community is the net result of raising of consciousness of individuals, internal resistance, external protests/ campaigns and intervention by the state and law enforcement agencies. Non-compliance with donning of the sacred thread by dvija (twice-born) and associated everyday practices among the Hindus today do not carry similar sanctions and purification rituals as in the past. Hindu social reforms like ban on sati (self-immolation by a widow on her husband’s pyre) and widow remarriage saw the light of day because scriptures and religious texts were interpreted in a way that supported these reforms.

It is instructive to look at the message given by some thinkers and leaders who have been a beacon of light for humanity. Buddha believed in the primacy of reasoning over matters of faith as a guide to an enlightened life. He tried to reform the Brahminism of his time by maintaining “by one’s action one would become either a Brahmin or an outcaste, not by birth.” Rumi rejected all identity labels including that of faith: “I am not a Christian, not a Jew, not a Hindu, not a Zoroastrian/ and I am not a Muslim.” He goes beyond identity labels to claim ‘placelessness’ as his birthplace: “I do not belong to any land... My birthplace is placelessness.” In modern times, Gandhi’s belief in and acceptance of Hindu scriptures and religious texts, or for that matter scriptures and religious texts of any other religion, was not unconditional. He said that he retained the right to reject anything in them that he thought was against reason and morality. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. These thinkers-cum-leaders made a difference to humanity not because they concerned themselves with the labels of birth, but rather because of their ability to transcend them. They all believed in oneness of humanity, and reason, morality, love, service and forgiveness are central elements in their worldview.

Yes, it is not the job of the judiciary to interpret religious texts. However, it is the job of the enlightened citizenry to see to it that scriptures and religious texts are not interpreted in a way that sanctify retrogressive and dehumanizing practices; it is also their duty to campaign for their replacement by ethically better practices befitting modern times and human dignity. And it is the job of the judiciary to see to it that no individual is coerced into submission and compelled to lead a life degrading to human dignity by whimsical diktats passed by ecclesiastical bodies and practitioners of politics who may have an agenda different from the well-being of their fellow citizens and the establishment of goodwill and peace in society. This is what the Supreme Court is doing in the case of Goolrukh Gupta who approached it to safeguard her fundamental right to religion and live life with dignity against a diktat passed by the Valsad Parsi Anjuman. There is no place for denial of entry to any place of worship in a civilized society. The enlightened citizenry must build up pressure upon the state and law enforcement agencies to ensure that all places of worship, be it a temple, a church, a mosque, a fire temple, etc., are thrown open to anyone, irrespective of religion, gender, nationality, caste, class or race, who wishes to go there and pray to fulfil his spiritual yearnings so long as he/she complies with harmless practices like removing footwear, covering head, being sober, etc. Leniency shown by the Zoroastrian clergy recently with regard to entry of non-Parsis into fire temple is heartening. And this has become possible not as a result of judicial intervention, but rather because of realization on the part of the clergy that the age-long practice was not conducive to promoting fraternity, goodwill and spirituality. It should be a matter of pride for every Indian that the doors of Gurdwara are not only open to everybody, but one and all is also welcome to join langar (community kitchen at a Gurdwara) there.

- Prof. Ganeshdatta Poddar, Associate Professor – Political Science & Spanish

*Views expressed are personal.