What We Can Learn From Religious Liberty Battles in India
The Constitution of India declares the nation a secular republic. Despite this, the nation’s left-leaning Congress Party has long sought to appease conservative religionists. That is, as long as they are members of a minority religious community. This results in a deeply hypocritical approach to governance, in which the Congress Party fails to stand up for liberalism and universal human rights in the face of theocrats. The party may pay lip service to progressive causes, but, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.
This is evident in Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s “welcoming” of the Indian Supreme Court’s decision a few weeks ago to ban triple talaq, a practice whereby one can instantly divorce one’s spouse simply by stating “talaq, talaq, talaq,” provided that one meets the government’s requirements of being 1) Muslim and 2) male. Both the party and Rahul’s father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, protected the practice in an attempt to appease its regressive base in the 1980s. The major opposition party, BJP, is no better. The party claims to defend “Hindu” values, but more often than not simply defends the most regressive attitudes imported by the Christian British and Islamic Mughal colonizers.
To illustrate this dynamic, consider the issue of the Victorian-era ban on homosexuality in India. The Congress Party’s conservative Christian and Muslim minority constituents have defended the ban, as have BJP’s conservative Hindu constituents, leaving only smaller liberal minorities in both parties to attempt to enact change. As Sadanand Dhume explained, “Opposition to homosexuality in India may appear to remain relatively broad, but it doesn’t run particularly deep … [unlike in Islam,] antigay positions lack deep scriptural sanction in Hinduism.” As a result, the Congress Party’s secular elite say they want the ban overturned but have done little to enact this change, and the BJP has tried to appear neutral and uninterested in the issue.
However, when it comes to issues that are explicitly unrelated to Hinduism, the BJP often takes the lead where Congress flounders. Despite claiming the mantle of progressivism, the Congress Party used its supermajority in Parliament in 1986 not to ensure the elimination of triple talaq once and for all, but to instead dilute the Indian Supreme Court’s 1985 decision against the policy. The Party did so out of fear of electoral losses, essentially proving BJP’s accusations of appeasement correct.
When the Supreme Court finally put down the policy once and for all a few weeks ago, Congress was quick to welcome “a progressive, secular judgement for equal rights of Muslim women in India.” The party did not seem aware that the implication of this statement was that their own policy was regressive, anti-secular, unequal, and misogynistic toward Muslim women. As writer Taslima Nasrin has put this strange situation, “Most secular people [in India] are pro-Muslims and anti-Hindu. They protest against the acts of Hindu fundamentalists and defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists.”
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board had fought to keep this barbaric practice of triple talaq in place, stating that “setting the validity of customs and practices of a community is a slippery slope.” This is a slope India needs to slide down at full speed if it wants to join the community of modern nations. If Congress is not simply continuing its long-standing policy of empty words without actions, it would do well to support the mounting pressure for a Uniform Civil Code. The UCC would ensure that Indian law applies equally to everyone, regardless of their religion. It would go a long way toward protecting the fundamental, universal human rights of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, atheists, and all Indians, for that matter.
It would also avoid entrenching and legitimizing the most regressive religious attitudes as official government policy, putting an end to forcing government judges to attempt to interpret the true tenets of the Bible and Quran, and empowering religious reformers against the worst elements of their respective religions. From a purely political perspective, by avoiding hypocrisy Congress should work with BJP when it supports progressive, liberal policies so that it can make a stronger argument against BJP when it fails to oppose illiberal practices within the Hindu community. Otherwise, it risks alienating the country’s Hindu majority through its current strategy of hypocritically appeasing the fringe sentiments of religious minorities.
Commentators who claim “Indian secularism” is different from “Western secularism” are disingenuous. The U.S. has gone through a similar debate regarding the limits of religious freedom in a secular country and given religious groups the right to override even generally applicable laws — a defense used in a plethora of cases, such as those protecting historic landmarks, prohibiting illicit substances, preventing discrimination against gays, ending child abuse, or ensuring women’s reproductive health — privileges not afforded to those who hold sincere secular beliefs.
Regarding this issue, in 1990, American Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained that the constitutionality of generally applicable laws is an “unavoidable consequence of democratic government [that] must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself.” American politicians failed to adhere to Scalia’s sage advice, preferring to enable religious supremacy. The Congress Party would be wise not to make the same mistake, or risk further entrenching religious divisions in the country.