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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Arrest of Shankaracharya

By Ram Puniyani

The arrest of Shankracharya Jayendra Sarswati, the pontiff of Kanchi Kamkoti Peetham as the main accused in the murder of Shankar Raman, a manager in the math (place of the holy seer) (Nov. 12,2004) came as a big surprise to many. The possibility of political motives being there is not very strong as he was close to the AIDMK Government of J. Jayalalitha. Just because DMK was threatening to launch an agitation may not be a strong motive for his arrest. In this case already many an accused have been arrested and interrogated. It is probably on this basis that he has been arrested. While it remains a mystery as to why he had to be arrested in Mahboob Nagar near Hydrabad in the middle of the night on a Divali day, it seems the police had prima facie case on hand and that’s why they arrested him.

While many observers said that it is a police case and should be dealt with like that, Vishwa Hindu Parishad went hammer and tongs against the Government. As per its major media face, Dr. Praveenbhai Togadia, this arrest has been made to please the Muslims in pursuance of the vote bank politics. He went on to state that there are many cases against Shahi Imam but he is not arrested. Also that it is a humiliation to the Hindu society and in retaliation they will protest and the ministers will not be blessed in the Hindu temples for the next day. He also threatened to launch an agitation against the arrest of Holy seer, while Mr. Modi the Chief Minister of Gujarat talked to the Prime minister saying that Government should think of the sentiments of the people before arresting such holy people.

One is not sure as to how much religious following Shankracharya has amongst the Hindus. It seems it is only amongst a section of Hindus. One also does not know as to which cases are pending against Shahi Imam of Delhi and as to why Dr. Togadia did not demand Imam’s arrest earlier. It is noteworthy here that Shahi Imam had issued a statement before the general elections to vote for BJP. Also that Jayalalitha is a part of the previous NDA coalition led by BJP. Also, her pro-Hindutva leanings are no secret for anybody. One has to basically fall back on the assumption that there is a case for arrest of Shankaracharya and so police have arrested him.

Does he represent the Hindus of the country? Surely this is not an elected post and it is through the inheritance of the Maths that the likes of him come to occupy these seats of power and pelf. The views of Shakaracharya about dalits and women may not be heartening to large sections of India’s Hindus. Talking of such maths, these are the places dime a dozen, though Shakaracharay does have an exalted position amongst those. These maths have great amounts of wealth, which comes through donations of the people. Since most of the chiefs of these Maths are bachelors, many a times there is a power struggle after the demise of the chiefs and in that there are serious clashes tantamounting to even the most serious crimes. This is a whole world by itself full of all the dimensions of human life, quest for power, jealousy, money and all that. But of course all this is in the name of religion.

Can these Holy seers be above the law? Can they be law unto themselves? One recalls that in pre industrial Europe Church, clergy was very powerful and was in close alliance with the power of Kings and landlords. Also that the other type of religious people are saints, the one’s who generally live in penury, close to the average people and away from the power centers of society. The saints used to be persecuted by the clergy for their articulation of the problems of the downtrodden, for their association with the poor and deprived.

After secularization, the coming in of modern education and industry the social equations change. This process of secularization sees the changed role of religion in the life of society. Especially the role of clergy changes and it no more remains a dominant force. In India unfortunately the process of secularization, the disjunction between power and clergy has not been complete. Though this clergy does not enjoy the same pre-eminent position like the one they enjoyed a century ago, their power is still palpable and many of them like Shahi Imam or Shankaracharya come to assume a dominant position through their ochre robes or beards and Sherwanis. Surely nobody, whatever be one's status in religous heiarchy can be above law of the land.

Democracy does not recognize the power of the landlord clergy. Here the basic principle of liberty, equality, fraternity prevails and all of us are equal in the eyes of law. The clergy, whatever its role as the mediator between man and God, for whom woman does not matter in this scheme of things as in this value system women have a subordinate status in the society, does not have a special legal position in democratic set up. Of course one has to ensure that neither favor nor discrimination, towards anybody, is done in the matters of deliverance of justice. While this Shankaracharya has been prominent due to his efforts to ‘solve’ Babri issue, his values and worldview do not go along with the values of Indian constitution. One can understand as to why VHP, BJP are up to attribute motives to this arrest and to project this as an insult to Hindu community. It is such type of issues in which these organizations thrive, emotive and generally not concerned with the problems of the people. They are on the look out for such issues and starting from Ram temple issue to Baba Budan Giri, Bhojshala down to Afzal Khan’s tomb one can see a clear pattern in their approach to politics.

The only drawback in this arrest seems to be that the RSS progeny will get one more issue to whip up hysteria. It has been looking for more emotive issues after Ram temple has stopped being electorally productive. But surely people have seen too much of it over a period of last decade. It is unlikely that this will affect an employed person or one struggling for better livelihood in any sense of the term.

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