In 1993, US President Bill Clinton signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. This Act overturned a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that validated the restriction of religious practices. In short, the head-of-state overruled the Supreme Court and upheld a religious-order’s right to their traditions.
In 2006, Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee of British Airways, was asked to cover up the crucifix on her necklace. When she refused to cover it up, or shift to a backoffice job that would allow her to brandish it, British Airways sent her home. Multiple legal escalations later, the European Court for Human Rights ruled in her favour; essentially classifying the right to religious beliefs as a human right.
The Right to Religious Belief has been held sacrosanct, and has been protected by institutions globally. Governments have acknowledged, in more than words, that protecting national and civilisational identity is part of their core responsibility.
SABARIMALA, STOLEN GODS, AND LOST PRIDE: The recent Sabarimala crisis has shed much needed sunlight to the stark contrast with which India handles its traditions and heritage. Let’s draw a parallel to a cause I understand much closely—that of bringing back India’s temple murtis (statues) and stolen heritage.
On the one hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown conviction in personally receiving our heritage back from four nations (the US, Canada, Germany and Australia). On the other hand, most of the 200 objects that were offered to him by the US (in June 2016) are yet to come back home. On the one hand we build a huge murti of Sardar Patel (and rightly so); but ignore centuries-old murtis that should be going back to their temples (incidentally, Jordan, with just 2% of India’s GDP has a dedicated agency for heritage recovery).
Sadly, while some female devotees do not have access to Sabarimala; none of the citizens have access to thousands of their murtis and heritage that languish in foreign warehouses. Shouldn’t that deprival offend us as well?
In both these cases, and in many others, our Right to Pride (in our religious-tradition and heritage) has been torn away. In both these cases, the Right to Civilisational Continuity has been unceremoniously plundered. And that is the core of the issue, what is a nation or a civilisation, without the most critical idea, that of continuity?
SELECTIVE APPLICATION AND AMNESIA: I would be factually amiss to call this a blanket apathy. Political and national leadership has, of course, jumped to action in the past. Who could forget the Shah Bano case where the then Prime Minister forced an immediate ordinance, to overrule a court judgement that awarded a frail, old woman her right to dignity? Recent ordinances though have hovered around all other areas (sports, healthcare, bankruptcy provisions, etc) but have stayed timorously away from subjects like religion, tradition and civilisational-identity.
LOST OPPORTUNITY? Someone once said, India has “a problem for every solution”. The silent treatment towards issues of civilisational-continuity just adds to the scrap yard of lost opportunities.
What the government could have achieved (by focusing on Sabarimala, reclaiming heritage, etc.,) is critical. A much needed Act in Parliament or ordinance could have been:
a. An opportunity to show alignment with the will of the people.
b. An opportunity to strengthen civilisational identity and nationalistic pride.
c. An opportunity to show geo-political strength to the world.
Imagine the grandness of the success if India were to bring back hundreds of murtis and heritage from foreign lands? (Which, in fairness, might happen soon.)
Imagine these murtis/objects going back to their temples, churches, and gurudwaras; bringing back joy and pride that the community had lost.
Imagine if these places of worship were allowed to be run resplendent in their full glory, exactly the way they were meant to be.
Most importantly, imagine a “Religious Freedom Restoration Ordinance, 2018” that would not just be equitable socially, but statesmanlike and politically prudent.
THE POWER OF GOD: Referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the US, President Bill Clinton said, “The power of God is such that even in the legislative process miracles can happen.”
Here is hoping that PM Narendra Modi comes up with one such miracle.
Anuraag Saxena is based in Singapore and leads India Pride Project. He has been featured/published in BBC, Washington Post, Economic Times, Times of India, Sunday Guardian, Doordarshan, Man’s World, Swarajya, DailyO, and SPAN. He tweets at @anuraag_saxena