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


Religion, religious institutions and the state

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Religion plays very important role in our lives, at least in the Asian and African countries. It has become an integral part of our lives. But the important question is what is religion? This question is important, as there is great deal of confusion as to what exactly constitutes religion. For most of us what we have inherited by way of beliefs, dogmas, customs and traditions and institutions. For us all this together constitutes religion. And what is problematic is that we consider religious priests and leaders called by various names like rabbis, fathers, pundits, ulama etc. as true representatives of religion as they are considered as having knowledge of theologies of these religions.

Also, every religion develops powerful institutions and there develops politics of controlling these institutions. Be it church, temple or wakf institutions, they amass considerable wealth and priests and trustees wield considerable influence due to amount of money they control. Take for example the Sankaracharya who has been accused of involved in murder. His Mutt is reported to have wealth amounting to Rs. Five thousand crore. This is by any standard huge amount of money and misuse of such wealthy and powerful institutions is quite understandable.

Another example is that of the Bohra high priest and his powerful establishment. There is no estimate of his wealth available but it is not likely to be less than 5,000 crore; it may be more. No wonder then that he wields, like Sankaracharya Sri.Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi Kamakoti Peethum, considerable clout in social and political life of the country. Such priests, rather than protecting religion and religious beliefs, are more interested in protecting their powerful vested interests. They resort to all that is most irreligious in order to protect their properties and income.

They do use smokescreen of religion in doing so and to project their acts as legitimate. And to protect their interests they collude with politicians or politicians, having an eye on their resources and influence, try to politicise them. The BJP protest on arrest of Sankaracharya is hardly a genuine expression of religious faith in Sankaracharya. They are agitating with a view to win sympathy of followers of the Sankaracharya. However, it is heartening to note that ordinary Hindu, though having full faith in religion, has not given much importance to the BJP agitation. He has dismissed it as BJP’s political ploy. 

The Bohra high priest does all sorts of things under the garb of Islam. He has amassed, as pointed out above, great deal of wealth and owns big prime properties and gives money liberally to politicians of all hues, including those of BJP and Shiv Sena to protect his worldly interests. He is reported to have not only given huge amounts to Narendra Mody for his election campaign but also held felicitation for him in Surat (which is alternate head quarters of the Bohra high priest) after the Gujarat carnage. When the whole world was condemning Modi for his utter failure to stop mass murder of innocent people, he had no hesitation in felicitating him. Why? Syedna Saheb, the Bohra high priest, has huge properties in Gujarat to protect.

The BJP is demanding that Sankaracharya should be immediately released and is also saying that he should not have been arrested at all as if a religious leader is above the law of the land. No one, however, respectable and highly placed a person is, can be above the law of the land. No one is saying he is guilty, he is only accused and can be exonerated by the court after examining all the available evidence or convict him but no one can claim being above the law.

Syedna Tahir Saifuddin, the father of the present Bohra high priest, also had claimed in 1918 in the Chandabhai Gulla case filed by the then Solicitor General in the Bombay High Court, that he has his own laws and he does not follow law of the land. Justice Martin of the Bombay High Court reprimanded him saying no one however, exalted, can claim exemption from the law of the land. Even the Arch Bishop of Canterbury cannot, if he commits any crime, though he would conceivably not.

The Bohra high priest ex-communicates any Bohra, who raises any question not about his but about any of his functionary’s conduct; and all this in the name of religion. Islam has no concept of church yet the Bohra priesthood has developed a churchlike hierarchy and claims absolute authority and what is more problematic, absolute infallibility. Anyone questioning the concept of infallibility is severely punished by ex-communicating him. And once ex-communicated, no one can maintain any relationship with him/her and anyone even talking to ex-communicated person, is excommunicated and subjected to same humiliating treatment.

Last month Mr.Fakhruddin Khorakiwala, owner of Akbarally’s Departmental Store just chatted with this writer in an Iftar Party in the American Consulate and he was immediately ex-communicated. He is in deep trouble and is trying to get high priest’s pardon. We were not talking about the Bohra matter but about movement for communal harmony. Why the Bohra priesthood is so afraid of any one talking to this writer. Does it in any way endanger religious beliefs? Not at all. It endangers his iron-like grip over the community and institutions of the community, which he tightly controls. 

To play politics with religion and to create powerful establishments in the name of religion is the very negation of the spirit of true religion. A truly religious person would never like to control powerful establishments and become subservient to vested interests rather than to God, Ishwar or Allah. All those who control such institutions are any thing but religious. They do, however, try to legitimise their actions by invoking religious terminology. They can hardly deceive any discerning mind.

A truly religious person is first of all most humble and gives topmost priority to service to humankind. All Sufi and Bhakti saints never remotely touched wealth and ever associated with any ruler. Nizamuddin Awliya saw times of five Sultans but did not pay court to a single one and when Jalaluddin Tughlaq sent a message that if Nizamuddin does not come to my court I will go to his hospice, he said if Sultan enters my hospice from one door I will walk out from the other. Such was the distance saints and seers maintained from power centres and never allowed religion to be misused for political purposes.

Unfortunately religion today has not only been politicised but also commercialised. Religious leaders identify themselves with one or the other politician or political parties. They amass wealth by exploiting religious beliefs of people and lead life of luxury. They enter into profitable bargains with powerful politicians and politicians go to them for money and votes. Both together thus exploit religious beliefs of common people.

We do need religious values in politics but certainly not politicisation of religion. Moreover, a state should never prioritise one religion over the other, particularly in a secular country like India. But most of our politicians while paying lip service to secularism grossly misuse religion for political purposes. Our constitutional provisions are violated with impunity. It is only lately that the Election Commission has started enforcing rules but still it is too soft to make politicians behave. The irony is that these politicians take oath for secularism while filing their nominations but having filed that beg for votes openly in the name of religion and caste. The Election Commission opts to look the other way.

A political party, which openly agitates against the arrest of Sankaracharya just because he is Hindu and seeks to incite Hindu religious passions, should never be allowed to contest elections in a secular country. It is strange that the ex-Prime Minister of India leads such agitation demanding that law of the land not be applied to a person simply because he is a Hindu religious leader. How such a person can be expected to govern impartially, if again elected to power. The BJP has failed to entice even Hindus by taking up such a lost cause. As Shri.Swaminathan, an eminent agricultural scientist, has pointed out that the government of Tamil Nadu by serving food to Sankaracharya cooked by a Brahmin, has also violated the spirit of Indian Constitution. Our Constitution has abolished untouchability and any cook, Brahmin or a Dalit can cook food in the jail run by the secular government. 

Religion in our society has not only been poiticised and commercialised it has also become greatest obstacle for any meaningful change. Religion, unfortunately is identified with status quo. Most of the religious leaders oppose any change as violation of religious beliefs. This attitude does not arise from religious beliefs per se but by the interest associated with status quo. Every religion in the world brought social change and changed the face of the world. 
However, soon the religion came to be controlled by vested interests who benefited by maintaining status quo. A truly religious person would always fight against status quo and try to change society to make it more just and meaningful. Religion is basically a transcending force and fights against all sorts of vested interests. Priests who are associated with vested interests can never be truly religious people. A religion should be a revolutionary force, bringing healthy change in society.

When a religion becomes a powerful establishment it looses its spirit to struggle for justice. All the Prophets and saints devoted their lives for fight for justice and compassion for suffering humanity and came from poorer sections of the society. It is this spirit of religion, which we have to uphold if it is to be disentangled from powerful interests.

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