By Swapan Dasgupta
A delegation of British Muslims was in town last week. Meeting them, a subversive question entered my head: why do Indian universities shy away from having departments devoted to the study of religion? It is not that theology is totally absent: it fits uneasily into a larger perusal of philosophy.
“We don’t do God”, Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell once barked in response to an insolent query from the media. That may well be understandable for a Britain where, as a recent survey undertaken by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science discovered, nearly half the population hadn’t attended a regular church service for the past 12 months, and where 74 per cent were opposed to religion influencing public policy.
But what about a country that counts as among the most religious. Why, despite being ‘God fearers’, does India shy away from doing God?
The question arises in the context of an engaging debate in the UK over the limits of secularisation. Firing the first salvo, Baroness Sayeda Warsi, the only Muslim member of David Cameron’s Cabinet, called on Europe to oppose a wave of “intolerant secularisation.” There is a need, she argued, “to give faith a seat at the table in public life.” Europe, she asserted before embarking on an official visit to meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, must become “more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity.”
Warsi’s plea to rediscover the faith underpinnings of civilisations was echoed by, of all persons, the Queen celebrating the 60th anniversary of her reign. Repudiating the scepticism over an established Church in the 21st century, she said that the Church of England has “created an environment for other faith communities and people of no faith to live freely.” It was an assertion that bore a strong resemblance to the argument, frequently heard here, that India is free, tolerant and respectful of all faiths precisely because it is predominantly Hindu.
Both Warsi and the Queen’s robust defence of faiths had its critics. Dawkins, predictably, articulated the standard atheist argument that you couldn’t have faith in an entity whose existence was scientifically unproven. More relevant, however, was the defence of secularism by Trevor Phillips, the outspoken Commissioner of Equality. Unless religious authority ended “at the door of the temple” and gave way to “public law”, society would witness competitive sectarian identities. If Roman Catholic adoption agencies demanded that gay couples be denied the right to adopt children, what prevented Muslims from demanding they be governed by Sharia law?
Quite remarkably, Phillips was roundly denounced as having a “totalitarian” bent of mind and journeying from the sublime to the ridiculous. However, in the context of the never-ending furore over abortion rights in the US and extremist Muslim organisations in Britain demanding the right of Sharia law, his invocation of social anarchy hit very close to the bone. If faith is not to end at the “door of the temple” at which point must it terminate?
The question has often been asked in the Indian debate over religion and secularism, and it is interesting to see its replay in Britain. Yet, there are differences. If British society is becoming increasingly irreligious, the appeal of religion hasn’t suffered in India’s journey to modernity. Contrary to what Jawaharlal Nehru hoped for, the inculcation of the “scientific temper” hasn’t led to a corresponding decline in either spirituality or adherence to rituals. If churches in Britain are facing depleted congregations, places of worship in India are permanently busy and freelance spirituality is thriving.
There is a bigger difference. In India, laws are not uniformly secular. There are separate civil laws for different communities and there are constant endeavours to inject a sectarian gloss to economic policy. For all its republican ideals, India has a differentiated citizenry and there are demands for the differences to be highlighted.
Sunday Times of India, February 26, 2012