Religion is a strictly private matter of every citizen in which the state has no role to play except to foment discord when its spokespersons make disparaging comments about a holy prophet. The relationship between man and God is "very personal" and should be "nobody else's business", the 43rd Chief Justice of India T. S. Thakur declared while he was in office. More lives have been lost in religious wars than due to political ideologies, he explained six years ago.
He is right. Religion is divisive and polemical which is why the former Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju declared in 2015 that politicians from all political parties were “rogues and rascals” who exploited religion as they “had no love for the country” and “should be hanged.” As always, his utterances were intemperate – and were like a preview of Nupur Sharma five years before she put her foot-in-her-mouth to dent India’s trade with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) countries amounting to 87 billion dollars with 8.5 million expatriate Indian workers sending home millions of dollars.
But Justice Katju has a point because the Indian state is ruled by politicians who wantonly interfere in the private lives of its citizens by propagating myths about minorities to enact anti-conversion laws and regulate what we eat, drink, or who we choose as our spouse. Jumping into the fray is the Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan who has now rubbished Qatar’s demand for an apology and said Indians should focus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s vision of inclusiveness.
Faith and reason are irreconcilable foes which is why a spokesperson can point out paragraphs that defy reason in every holy text. But Article 25 guarantees every person the right to freely profess, practice and propagate any religion of his choice subject to the curbs of public order, health and morality. This right to propagate a religion even extends to atheists who can publish pamphlets to disprove God’s existence.
But to denigrate a revered holy prophet who is seen as the perfect man by billions of Muslims around the world constitutes creating enmity between citizens of India on the grounds of religion or ethnicity which carries a jail term of up to three years. This is why the OIC has flayed India for its alleged Islamophobia which after the two Dharam Sansads in 2021 at Raipur and Haridwar was waiting to happen.
What causes consternation is the state has furnished her with 24x7 police protection after Nupur Sharma received death threats for her remarks. She could be made to pay for this police protection. She and her colleague, Naveen Kumar Jindal claim to be proud Hindu nationalists. But they are responsible for Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Indonesia, and the Maldives condemning India for its alleged so-called Islamophobia. This row provoked by these two so-called nationalists proves that nationalism and religion do not go together.
No less a person than the former Vice President of India, Abdul Hamid Ansari pointed out in an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai on Tuesday that Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal were official spokespersons of the ruling political party which did not condemn those who called for ethnic cleansing of the minorities during the Haridwar and Raipur Dharam Sansads in 2021. Hence, by no stretch of the imagination could they be described as “fringe elements” by the ruling political party which has dumped them for damage control.
What we forget is the Constitution creates a social contract between the government and its citizens. This social contract comes into effect when a new government is sworn in to maintain law and order and govern as per the diktat of the Constitution which nowhere declares the government–of-the day is charged with stereotyping citizens by their religion to enact laws which infarct Constitutional morality.
Constitutional morality is the antithesis of religious morality which is based on the holy texts of different religions as interpreted by the high priests of those religions. Unlike Constitutional morality, religious morality is not gender-neutral because it is based on what the prophets declared in various holy texts aeons ago.
Changing climes ensure new governments invidiously support crimes against minorities so that the motto of one nation-one religion-one language-one culture is insidiously introduced through the backdoor while the state temporarily dumps its spokespersons like Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal to mitigate the backlash from the OIC.
As the ex-Vice President Hamid Ansari pointed out, spokespersons of the External Affairs Ministry always make the right noises to defend India and condemn those who condemned India. But the Hindutva values propounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar permeate this government’s policies as reflected in its laws having pitribhumi (fatherland) and punyabhumi (holyland) at its hushed core. Savarkar had his plus points because unlike Mahatma Gandhi, he was against casteism which is the core of the Manusmriti.
This is why religion is best left to the choice of the individual with the mandate of the government being to preserve law-and-order. The government must not sermonise its citizens on religion and culture which is why Nupur Sharma ended up denigrating the holy prophet of Islam. And just as we have the right to freedom of speech and expression, so do the 57 OIC members who profess to represent the voice of global Islam.
It is inconceivable that the State will allow us to decide which God we choose to worship, how we choose to worship Him - within the privacy of our homes or even allow some of us to deny His very existence. There is not a single declared atheist among the 32 Supreme Court judges which would have resulted in developing a non-conformist jurisprudence. For it has often been said, the Supreme Court has never declared something which was never declared before.
Religion camouflaged as nationalism has become an explosive concoction as Nupur Sharma has learnt to her chagrin.
(Olav Albuquerque holds a Ph.D in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay High Court)