For temples to win the equal-rights’ war, we need a permanent and structural fix. Equal rights endowed through legislation and have access to redress if denied.
Core natives” and “indigenous communities” in India have historically found it difficult to lobby for equal rights. In some cases, efforts to seek equality have been labelled as “majoritarianism”; while in others, media conveniently prefixes “saffronisation” as a broad-brush taint on these efforts.
Minorities, on the other hand, especially Muslims and Christians, enjoy special Constitutional rights and privileges. From special education-boards of their own, to tax-free income on religious bodies, to exemptions from common legal provisions, to subsidies and grants. Many have pointed out the condescending nature of provisions premised on a community “needing help”; as if minorities were somehow inferior to the others. Over time, with prominent members of minorities rising to the top of business, academics, bureaucracy, politics and Bollywood, there is indeed value to such claim (that minority-communities are in no way structurally inferior or disadvantaged).
The Dictatorship of the Small Minority
The hypothesis (that minorities are weak, and the majority overpowers) has been put to test often. Most prominently by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his provocative article, “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority”. He quotes an example, “In the United Kingdom, where the (practicing) Muslim population is only three to four per cent, a very high number of the meat we find is halal. Close to seventy per cent of lamb imports from New Zealand are halal. Close to ten per cent of the chain Subway carry halal-only stores…”.
Two questions arise here:
- Should, and how does society resist the “dictatorship of the minority”?
- If minority-community-rules were to become norm (for all of us), what might be the tactical ramifications that the majority community could leverage?
The answer to both lies in a very simple construct. One that is guaranteed by the Indian Constitution—the Fundamental Right to Equality.
The Temple Freedom movement
Take the example of the Temple Freedom movement. Lakhs of devotees across the country have been demanding that temples be managed by communities they were originally intended for. While most former Attorneys General and Rajya Sabha members wither away into the post-retirement sunset, K. Parasaran spent his golden years arguing for the right to Ram Janmabhoomi. Activists have been fighting judicial battles to ward off parasitical behaviour towards India’s temples. Despite their best intentions and selfless dedication to the cause, most of these efforts are reactionary in nature, and a response to undesirable behavior. With every step forward, the movement slides two steps back. Temples are winning battles, but losing the war.
For temples to win the equal-rights’ war, we need a permanent and structural fix. Equal rights that are endowed through legislation and have access to redress if denied.
This is precisely why Bill no. 205 of 2019, commonly known as the “Freedom of Temples Bill” is both urgent and important. Tabled by Dr Satya Pal Singh, former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, and currently the Minister for HRD, this bill seeks that Hindus have exactly the same rights in running their religious-institutions as Muslims, Christians and other minorities do.
As an example, the bill proposes, “for the word ‘minorities’, the words ‘all sections of citizens, whether based on religion or language’, shall be substituted…”. The fact that a level playing field has to be beseeched, in itself is unbecoming of a mature democracy. But we are where we are.
The Romanticisation of Battle-Scars
In 1993, 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. Referring to this Act, President Clinton said, “The power of God is such that even in the legislative process miracles can happen.”
So should we hope for that miracle to happen with the “Freedom of Temples Bill”? Sadly, the historical trend line points otherwise. Private members’ bills in India have had an abysmal track record of success. The last significant private member bill was passed in 1970; and 96% of such bills lapse without even a debate in Parliament (with the rare exception of “Rights of Transgender Persons Bill” moved by Baijayant Jay Panda). Diwan Chaman Lall, who tabled the last successful bill, has been gone half a century now, taking with him the hope for such bills to see the light of day.
Critics argue that this bill too is probably nothing more than a display of false-bravado; a distraction; managing optics if you will. Observers wonder why this bill is being brought in a format that is almost guaranteed to fail. As one cynic observed, “I don’t understand why we romanticise battle-scars instead of victories.”
These are fair concerns. Those involved in lobbying, advocacy and law-making understand the complexity of the process. The importance of backroom negotiations, of building consensus across party lines, of collectively finding an acceptable path. Individual/Private approaches are diametrically opposite to the collective approach that real legislation needs. In the end, as pertinent as this bill is, it will sadly go down as a well-intended failure.
Is there any hope?
While the majority-community understands social-activism (as seen in the Sabarimala and Chilkur Balaji protests) and judicial-activism (as seen in cases against HR&CE, in Ram Janmabhoomi, etc); they have still not gotten around to lobbying and advocacy as tools for asserting equal-rights. As a result, unfair and unequal laws continue to exist, giving rise to undesirable situations that need correction. Much of the energy is therefore spent in tactical and defensive play. We have too many goalkeepers and too few strikers.
What special-interest groups need is a keen understanding of legislative process, and levers that influence it.
This specific bill might not see light of day; both because of precedent, and more importantly tactical inadequacies. However, it still remains important as a milestone and as a reminder. A milestone that an attempt was made (even if half-hearted and unsuccessful); and a reminder that permanent line-in-the-rock changes are only achievable if communities invest in lobbying for real legislative change.
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