India’s Decline From Secularism Into Religious Sectarianism
The modern borders of India do not precisely correspond to those of any one of the many sovereign entities that arose in south Asia over the millennia. Instead, today’s India in terms of its political geography was shaped by the modern Partition of British India which began in the summer of 1947. Because of this, India like its neighbours share many of the same historic sovereign antecedents. This has resulted in a rich mix of contemporary cultures, archaeological cultures, religions, architecture, art and literature. Owing to the reality of this rich living tapestry of history, it was decided that India would be established as a secular democratic state where no single ethno-religious group would be constitutionally predominant over any other.
This contrasts with the modern history of Pakistan (including what was East Pakistan) which was founded on the basis of being a specifically Islamic welfare state, albeit one with constitutional protections for non-Muslim minorities.
Yet while India’s secular democracy still exists in theory, in practice extremist Hindu groups that at both regional levels and now at a national level are threatening to erase not only the history of important periods in India’s development that were shaped by Islamic characteristics, but in so doing, the forces of political Hindutva are erasing the cultural and religious identify of millions of modern day Indian citizens.
Today, the greatest victims of acculturation and oppression in modern India are Indian Muslims – particularly those in northern India. Northern India remains the political heartland of the ruling political faction BJP as well as its allied paramilitary group RSS. The year 2002 remains a watershed in the post-colonial history of India as it was then in Gujarat state that a violent pogrom was instigated against Muslims leaving up to 2,000 dead. Most worrying, the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 was a man called Narendra Modi who is now India’s Prime Minister. Many witnesses to the violence in Gujarat continue to assert that Modi’s state government as well as police and other public authorities intentionally allowed the violence to spiral out of control when clearly it is the duty of any government to quash violence and enforce an orderly rule of law.
Earlier this year, the rape and murder of eight year old Muslim girl Asifa Bano by a Hindutva gang further shook India to the core, not least because Hindu extremist organisations took to the streets to rally in defence of the accused rapists rather than the innocent child victim. When two BJP ministers attended rallies in support of the accused, it became clear that sectarian politics and hated specifically directed against Muslims was now ingrained at the highest levels of state.
While the Asifa Bano case was a particularly shocking event, the sexual assaults on Muslims by male Hindu rape gangs is becoming an increasingly common and in some parts of India, a culturally normalised phenomenon. In the years since the BJP formed the current Indian government, the rise of so called “cow protection mobs”, the phenomenon where gangs of extremist Hindus attack and often lynch Muslims accused of eating or trading in beef products, has also skyrocketed. In many cases, the Muslim victims of murder and vicious assault were simply targeted for being Muslims rather than for having anything to do with butchering cows, selling or eating beef.
The contemporary assault on Muslims in India however is not just limited to the mob violence which is clearly sanctioned by elements of the ruling party and their far-right allies. The historic city of Allahabad in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has recently been the site of controversy after the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath decided to unilaterally rename the city Prayagraj. This is a clear attempt to erase the history of the Mughal Empire which incidentally was the pre-1947 sovereign entity which came closest to uniting all of what was now India.
One of India’s most internationally famous monuments, the Taj Mahal was built on the orders of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as an Islamic shrine for his wife. While Indian tourism associations promote the Taj Mahal as one of the country’s top destinations, the Archaeological Survey of India have now taken the decision to prohibit Muslim pilgrims from worshipping in the Taj Mahal’s mosque on every day of the week except Friday.
This attempt to de-Islamify one of the world’s most recognisable Islamic shrines is yet another attempt to erase Muslim history and specifically Mughal history from the collective consciousness of modern India.
Contextualising Hindutva Theocracy
While India still purports to be a constitutionally secular republic, the political power that Hindutva groups hold over both the national government and many state governments collectively means that much of the large nation has descended into a Hindu theocracy by proxy. While India made crucial economic reforms in the 1990s that have helped the economy to grow, much of this progress is being undone by a BJP government that focuses more on achieving electoral victories by stirring sectarianism than by approaching domestic economic issues and the issue of trade with neighbouring states in a rational and forward looking manner manner.
Duterte’s challenge to preserve a secular Philippines
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has just issued another rhetorical criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines when he stated:
“These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize”.
Duterte further accused the Catholic hierarchy of upholding double standards, a charge which Church leaders in The Philippines themselves validated when Catholic leaders called for the de-facto overthrow of the democratically elected President shortly after Duterte made his remarks.
The Philippine President continued his remarks, saying:
“The most hypocritical institution in the entire Philippines is the Catholic Church and the Pope knows that”.
Duterte who himself has stated that he would favour a law to legalise same-sex unions in The Philippines further pointed out the hypocrisy of a Catholic Church that rejects tolerance for same-sex couples, stating:
“No offense intended. I have so many relatives who are gay. I have two brother-in-laws who are gay. But most of the priests there are homosexuals, almost 90 percent of you. So do not postulate on my morality…
…We are very poor. We have a runaway population. It’s because of the Church. They have always been against family planning. But the priests and the bishops are also into it producing more Filipinos. The idiots of our times”.
While at face value, Duterte’s words may appear harsh, in reality Duterte is doing his utmost to restrain a Roman Catholic Church whose hoarding of wealth and whose historic and present day political ambitions pose a direct threat to the secular constitution of the nation which guarantees a separation of church and state. Furthermore, while the Church continues to promote obscurantist views on procreation and family life, Duterte reminded such people that it is a modern secular government that decides what is legal in The Philippines – not clerics.
Separating business (even if its a church) and state
Duterte’s criticism becomes all the more meaningful when one realises that the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines has a net worth of over P100 billion (around 2 billion in US Dollars). By demanding money from even the poorest Filipinos for the kinds of clerical duties that Duterte accurately listed, the Church has invested its earnings in a blue chip stock portfolio that allows it to accrue levels of wealth that would make many big businesses envious. Crucially, all of this is achieved without the Church having to pay any taxation.
Veteran diplomat and journalist Rigoberto Tiglao recently proposed the following elegant solution to the wealth gap between the faithful and those preaching to them:
“Why doesn’t the Church use even a small part of its vast wealth to feed the poor, with real food, and not just silly pious words?
A program to feed the poor isn’t complicated, and the Church has the infrastructure to do it: its parish churches, ubiquitous even in the poorest urban slum communities as well as its schools, both spread all over the archipelago. With its money and with the free labor it always manages to get (who cleans the priests’ toilets anyway?), it can set up what’s called soup kitchens, maybe in our case lugaw centers, free for anybody who cares for it, at least every of its Sabbath day but ideally – and “doable” with its wealth – every single day of the year.
Here’s my computation for this endeavor, which doesn’t even have to consume its assets, but only interest from these. A low 5 percent annual income on its P100 billion assets, will generate P5 billion every year. Divide that by the 365 days in a year and it will mean P14 million it can spend every day for soup kitchens. How many poor Filipinos (allowed to eat there only once a day) will that P14 million feed? At just P15 per lugaw, that would mean 1 million Filipinos fed every single day”.
And yet while Tiglao’s solution would help to put the Church’s vast wealth to good use, the organisation shows no signs of volunteering to contribute to such a public welfare initiative – just like few businesses would do so unless compelled under the penalty of law.
The difference is that a religious institution is in theory not a business and it is this theory which has led to most religious institutions enjoying tax exempt status in countries like The Philippines as well as in the United States, for example. And yet unless one’s nation has an official religion or a state owned religious institution, it is downright hypocritical to treat religious institutions as anything other than a business or a charity. This statement is not meant to offend believers who genuinely feel that their house of worship is something more than an ordinary business or charity, but if the eyes of the law took people’s emotions into consideration when determining taxation rules, one would be faced with thousands of arguments regarding why various businesses or products have an emotional value that should allow for the granting of tax exempt status. Furthermore, taxing a religious institution that functions like any other business in the service industry is not an infringement on the freedom of religion anymore than taxing a traditional business is an infringement on one’s ability to exercise his or her rights to conduct commerce in the free market.
Therefore, one needs to approach the relationship between religious institutions and taxation in a manner akin to the old adage “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck – it is a duck”. As such, if a religious institution like the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines acts like a business, sells services (such as the ones listed by Duterte) like a business and has a large stock portfolio like a business, then it should be treated like a business for tax purposes. To understand this, one should just consider the following. In countries like the United States, privately owned yoga schools and yoga studios are taxed in the same way that a boxing gym is taxed. Yet yoga is a religious practice in Hinduism while boxing is a secular sport. But in the eyes of the law ‘1st Street Yoga’ and ‘2nd Street Boxing Gym’ are treated the same. Yet if places of religion are treated differently than businesses, should not ‘1st Street Yoga’ be exempted from taxation?
While some might argue that while Hinduism isn’t indigenous to countries like The Philippines or the USA, neither is Christianity. In the case of The Philippines, it was the Spanish Empire that brought Catholicism to the land while in the Americas it was also the Spanish along with other European colonists who arrived with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. In any case, a society that allows for the freedom of religion should not pick and choose which religious organisations to tax based on a preference for faiths falsely described as being indigenous.
Of course, if a religious institution were to allow itself to be audited and renounced profit, then it would be perfectly reasonable to offer such an institution tax exempt status in the same way that a secular charity can easily attain the same. The fact of the matter therefore is that while there are certainly good individuals in many religious institutions, at an organisational level, the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines functions like a business in the service industry rather than a charity.
While food is important to the hungry man and shoes are important to the working man, grocery stores and shoe stores are not given tax exempt status just because they sell products that are important to people’s lives. Likewise, just because a religious institution offers a service that is considered important to some people, this should not change the fundamental relationship between church and state in countries with a legal separation between church and state.
The dangers of political Catholicism
While post-colonial India was founded as a secular state against the wishes of Hindutva extremists, the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines has managed to retain much of its power over the temporal life of the country that was first established by the Spanish Empire which was an official Catholic state at the time. Since then, the Catholic Church has consistently had the ear of many politicians and even helped to foment the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
In a true secular democracy, political change is determined by one man or woman and one vote. Any organisation whether a secular business or a business portending to be a spiritual institution must not exercise a direct or indirect meddling influence over the political life of the nation even though this is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines aims to do – just as it has done for centuries.
When in June of this year Philippine Bishop Arturo Bastes said of the elected President, “Duterte’s tirade against God and the Bible reveals again that he is a psychological freak, a psychopath, an abnormal mind who should have not been elected as president of our civilized and Christian nation“, such a statement was a direct political intervention by a religious institution aimed at sowing public discord against the popualrly elected President.
And what did Duterte say to elicit such a dangerous intervention? The Duterte quote that inspired Bastes’ rant was:
“If I choose not to believe in any god, what’s the fucking thing about it? It’s about freedom to choose one”.
Duterte’s view on religion is simple – Duterte advocates freedom of or from religion within a secular state
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states the following,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
While Duterte’s language is more colourful than that in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Philippine President is actually saying the exact same thing that is inscribed in the Declaration. Just because certain religious institutions would like a monopoly on people’s beliefs, it does not mean that they are legally or ethically entitled to such things. Rather than acknowledging Duterte’s right to believe in a universal being as a matter of conscience, Catholic leaders criticised Duterte using language which itself is offensive at a secular level.
Thus, while Duterte has consistently urged Catholic leaders to cease their political ambitions and to simply play the role of a modernised religious institution within the framework of a constitutionally secular state, Church leaders in The Philippines, like their Hindutva counterparts in India seem unable to accept the idea that their dogmas should be privately held views rather than a public stick used to club the heads of a people who are legally guaranteed the freedom to reject religion or embrace religion on their unique individual terms.
Indeed Duterte’s personal views on religion have been made clear multiple times. Duterte is neither a believer in organised religion nor an atheist – although being either is perfectly legal according to the secular laws of The Philippines. Duterte again clarified his personal view which he does not seek to impose on anyone, in the following way:
“I never said I do not believe in God. What I said is your God is stupid, mine has a lot of common sense. That’s what I told the bishops. I never said I was an atheist”.
Duterte’s words might sound strong but the alternative is the destruction of The Philippines as a secular state. As India’s social decline can attest to, Duterte is acting like the dam between a raging river of religious zealotry and a people who have the right to think and believe for themselves.