In January 2019 two women activists crossed the threshold of the inner sanctum of the Sabarimala temple into a “forbidden world.” The temple’s pontiffs reluctantly allowed the women entry after the Supreme Court struck down a religious injunction that forbade women of menstruating age to pay respects to the residing deity.

The temple entry of the women activists was celebrated as a coup de grace against one of the prominent bastions of Hindu male entitlement. Feminists, liberals and rights activists were beside themselves with joy. The right to equality took primacy.   

With the apex court itself setting the line, one assumed that the Karnataka government’s order curbing the donning of outward religious symbols (the hijab, saffron shawls) in classrooms to reduce religiosity and promote gender equality would find all round support.

But the hearty espousal of women rights with regards to the Sabarimala episode is in stark contrast to the moral outrage now sweeping through the citadels of “woke liberalism.”

Many of those who rallied against regressive religious injunctions in the run up to the Sabarimala verdict are today speaking in the same voice of Islamic fundamentalists. The latter, it bears little reminding, have routinely handed out Taliban-style punishments to women for violating dress codes prescribed by the scriptures in the name of modesty.

Why are religious customs that visibly fail the test of constitutional morality being judged using two unequal yardsticks? Is one religion getting preferential treatment?

Ideally, a state that is wedded to the principle of secularism should maintain equidistance from all religions. Like in some progressive Western liberal democracies.

But pre-Independence stalwarts, like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru, were wary of the West’s stringent secularism. One of the main reasons was because their Muslim contemporaries, like Muhammad Iqbal, feared living under a “communal (Hindu) oligarchy in the garb of democracy.” Gandhi and Nehru quickly realized that if Muslim separatists were to be appeased only an Indian state amiable to religion could satisfy their notion of nationalism. The principle of legal pluralism not uniformity, it was decided, would shine a light on the path ahead. The world “secular” was not even included in the preamble of the Constitution. It was added much later. 

Instead, the post-independence Indian state has practiced “positive secularism” committing equally to preserving the religious rights of all.

Indeed, the Indian State isn’t anti-religion and neither does it call for a total separation between “church and state.”

But over the years the State has often intervened to uphold uniformity. Interestingly, here the courts, not the Hindu right, have led the charge arguing for uniformity while adjudicating conflicts arising from the dissonance between personal laws and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.   

Unfortunately, the interventions have been lopsided. While several Hindu and Christian personal laws have been codified, this isn’t true for Muslim personal laws. Regressive Muslim customs often have been spared the scrutiny of the state.  Personal laws governing polygamy, inheritance, property rights or the custody of children are clearly in favour of men and yet prevail.

In the mid-1980s, when the Supreme Court ruled to favor divorcee Shah Bano – who dared to seek alimony generally considered haram under Islam – Parliament passed a bill overturning the award.   

Beyond personal laws, there are other instances of selective state interventions.

While Article 26 of the Constitution guarantees freedom to all to manage their religious affairs, the reality is that almost all Hindu temples are nationalized by state governments. In sharp contrast the state allows Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to manage their places of worship. Perhaps the state just doesn’t trust Hindus!

However, with the scales of justice tilted against one religion, there is now renewed talk about finding a lasting solution.

In the backdrop of the hearings on the centrality of Hijab to Islam, the Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan and the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami have both made a public push for the Uniform Civil Code.

Is the hardline over the hijab then setting the stage for a clear break between state and religion in India?

While one understands that consultations over the adoption of the UCC could take decades, the Modi government must at least take the first visible step in that direction. It could start by removing the word “secular” from the Constitution. For it is an appellation that serves no purpose other than being decorative.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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