IHEU meets UN Special Rapporteur in India

  • Date / 12 March 2008

IHEU has used a meeting with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Asma Jahangir to highlight human rights problems in India. At a meeting in Mumbai on 11 March 2008, IHEU International Director Babu Gogineni made a presentation to Ms Jahangir on separation of religion and state in India and the rights of Humanists.

India, a Secular State
The Preamble to the Indian Constitution declares that India is a Sovereign Socialist, Secular Democratic Republic and resolves to secure to all its citizens, among other things, ‘liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship’. Part III of the Indian Constitution guarantees to all citizens the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Religion. Part IV of the Indian Constitution which deals with the Directive Principles of State Policy, and Fundamental Duties of the Citizens, states in Article 51 A (h) (citizens have a duty) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.

The Indian Supreme Court in its decision on Kesavananda Bharati v. The State of Kerala held that the Preamble was a part of the Constitution of India, and in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India held that secularism was an
integral part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

The state has no religion, religious instruction is not allowed in government, or Government-aided schools and colleges. Government is not allowed to discriminate against any citizen on the basis of religion. There is legislation in place which disallows misuse of religion for electoral gains.

Asma Jahangir
(left to right) Front row: UN Official Michael Wiener, Harsha Badkar, Mrs. Dalwai, Ms. Asma Jahangir. Second Row: Prof. B.D. Desai, Narendra Nayak, Prof. Sinha, Sangeeta Mall, Babu Gogineni

India, a Religious State
Unfortunately, the understanding of concepts relating to Secularism, the Secular state and the related obligations of the State and of the citizens is inadequate in many cases in India.

Just as Secularists and Secularism are misunderstood and misrepresented internationally even by respected UN officers (for example, as is being done incessantly by UN Special Rapporteur on Racism Mr. Doudou Diene), Secularists are the victims of vilification in India.

Calls for Secularism made by Humanists and Rationalists are calls for State neutrality where people of all faiths and those of none have a level playing field to pursue their moral and intellectual progress. Humanists consider that for this to happen, a Secular state is needed – one that is completely disassociated with religion, thereby protecting religion from the state and the state from religion, allowing for intervention only for the purposes of maintaining civilized law and upholding the universal standards of Human Rights.
The prevailing confusion as regards the secular identity of the Indian state, and its vital link to the survival of democracy in a nation of plural religious identities has led to many aberrations and Human Rights violations.

• Instead of separation of religion and state, Secularism is interpreted as equal respect to all religions and equal distance from all religions – though in practice the state is closer to the practices of Hinduism than those of other religions.

• Personal laws, based on religious texts and traditional legal systems continue to prevail. Many of these religiously ordained principles have been struck off during judicial review as being incompatible with the Human Rights of citizens. Unfortunately, to gain political advantage the legislators have then intervened and changed the law to accommodate not the Human Rights aspect, but the medieval practices of religion. The infamous Shah Bano case is an example where the right to verbally divorce any of his four wives without adequate maintenance was reaffirmed by Indian Parliament by passing a bill cruelly titled Protection of Muslim Women.

• State media broadcast prayers and religious texts, mainly Hindu. Some have gone further, and in the case of Telugu language Doordarshan 1 Channel of Andhra Pradesh has changed its name to Saptagiri, in deference to Lord Balaji, whose heavenly abode is Saptagiri, the seven hills.

• State functions are invariably associated with religious rituals and practices. State funerals of important national leaders are organized as religious functions by the state. Universities, offices, public institutions, ignoring the fact that India is a land of many faiths and those of none.

• Even Indian Consulates abroad openly display Hindu religious symbols. For example, the Indian High Commission in London displays prominently a life-size image of the god-man Satya Sai Baba against whom the government is yet to constitute a credible inquiry following the murder of 6 young men in his bedroom over 12 years ago.
• State governments enthusiastically offer subsidies to pilgrims to perform the Haj are now extending this inappropriate incentive to Hindus and to Christians (Andhra Pradesh state).

• The Human Resource Ministry of the Central Government offered incentives to start courses on Astrology which has a basis in religion and was able to find the funds for starting these courses and departments, while closing down science departments due to non availability of funds!

• Two officials of the Archeological Survey of India have been suspended for the affidavit submitted by them in the Supreme Court of India for suggesting that there was no historical evidence for the existence of Lord Rama in the Rama Setu controversy, where claims based on mythology prevents the government from executing development work. The basis of protests is not the environment, but mythology, showing the scant respect for modern knowledge and scientifically validated data in the light of religious obscurantism and bullying.

• Justices Tilhari and A.N. Gupta of Allahabad High Court have strangely ruled in 1991 that Lord Rama is a Constitutional entity since a picture of Lord Rama was present in the original bound copy of the Indian Constitution. A recent judgement again from Uttar Pradesh state invokes the anti-human philosophy of Manu to justify his ruling, whereas in a modern sovereign democratic secular state the source of the law should be the Constitution rather than an antiquated religious text. Justice D. Raju of the Madras High Court held that the publication of 5000 copies of official greeting cards with the Gayatri Mantra of the Hindus was not violative of the Secular constitution. The Kerala High Court upheld the ban on women of reproductive age groups from entering the temple of Sabarimalai whereas the Communist government refused to stop the annual fraud of the appearance of a divine light on the hill top on the grounds that the over ten million pilgrims bring much needed revenue for the state.

• The Lieberhans Committee inquiry into the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu hooligans led by their leader L.K. Advani is still incomplete despite the 18 years that have elapsed.

• In several states in the country repressive laws are in force (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa in particular) where conversion to another religion from Hindusim has to be approved by a District collector, a bureaucrat.

• In Gujarat State it is the conversion away from Hinduism that is frowned upon, but not the coversion into Hinduism, which is being encouraged by government, and facilitated by school text books which contains grossly inaccurate and religiously biased information.

Rule of Law Replaced by the Medieval Mob
Because of how religion has been allowed to interfere with the public life of the country, dark forces have been unleashed onto Indian society with no political will to contain them.

In the infamous Imrana rape case, in 2005, when Imrana was raped by her father-in-law, the Islamic Deobandhi sect passed a fatwa that the victim of the crime should now marry her father-in-law and that she should hence-forth treat her husband as her child. This was supported by the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav by saying that he would not interfere with the decisions of learned men. Pandering to political constituencies and religious vote banks is severely eroding the credibility of India as a modern state.

Religious communities are increasingly taking upon themselves the right to excommunicate dissenters amongst them. The Dawoodi Bohras are victims of their religious leader Syedna who collects a private tax from members od the community s well as has the power to excommunicate members of the sect, leading to total exclusion from community activities, prohibition on other members of the community from contracting marriages with the family of the excommunicated as well as denial of burial sites for the dead. The Parsi community too has persons who similarly have been victimized because of their relations with non-Parsis.

Hindu mobs ransacked and destroyed the treasures in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004, because they did not like the results of a research conducted there on Maharashtra state’s Hindu past. No effective action has been taken.

The nonagenarian Indian and celebrated artist M.F. Hussain is a fugitive in Dubai and in London as he fears for his life following threats from Hindu fundamentalists the likes of who also attacked an art student Chandramohan in Vadodara University for blasphemous paintings of Hindu Gods.

How the Rights of Humanists are Impacted
The right not to hold any religious belief is implied in the Freedom of Religion, as has been affirmed by the various UN Committees themselves. It is the right of all human beings to receive unhindered the most modern of education which has a basis in science. The prevailing atmosphere of intolerance and non-liberal attitudes, and hostility to Human Rights has led to a deterioration of the situation in which it is becoming increasingly difficult for Humanists to enjoy the freedoms and rights guaranteed under the constitution and protected by International Human Rights standards and declarations.

Moral policing by religious persons has meant that Humanists are unable to live their lives as Humanists all the time.

For example, while officers of the Government freely participate in religious functions, Humanists find it difficult to assert their identity because of the prevailing suffocating atmosphere.

Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code (deliberately injuring religious sentiments) and Section 194 A (causing disaffection between members of religious communities) has been all too frequently invoked by the police to harass writers and activists who are exposing cheating of the gullible by charlatans who claim to perform miracles. The fight against debilitating superstition wich leads to the death of people, and human sacrifice as well, is vital. While the Indian Constitution is committed to science and enjoins citizens to promote the scientific temper, when Rationalists and Humanists try to perform their constitutional duty, they are accused under these two pernicious sections, arrested, harassed and threatened.

The associated problems are not different from those being posed by attempts to introduce resolutions at the UN to combat ‘defamation of religions’ which has grave implications for established freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Within the context of human rights, the very concept of ‘defamation of religion’ is flawed, since it is individuals, both believers and non-believers alike, who have rights, not religions. Furthermore, the lack of a definition of the term “defamation” or ‘offence to religious sentiment’ leaves these resolutions open to abuse.

Our colleague in the movement, Taslima Nasrin, upholder of women’s rights and fierce critic of religious bigotry and superstition has been the prominent victim. It has been suggested and declared by both religious leaders as well as the Foreign Minister of India Mr. Pranab Mukherjee that Taslima Nasrin’s freedom of expression must accommodate people’s sensibilities and sensitivities, but a freedom that cannot be freely exercised can hardly be considered a freedom. While we should all draw back from giving gratuitous offense, it should be for the good sense of every individual as to how best to express oneself, in a way that minimizes conflict in society. Defenders of the freedom of religion need to accept that whilst it includes the freedom to freely practice one’s religion, it does no include the right not to have one’s religious feelings or beliefs challenged or criticized. Freedom of religion implies the right to criticize one’s own or another’s religion, a freedom that is at the heart of religious reform and social progress. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and is the freedom that underpins many other freedoms. All too frequently denial of freedom of expression results in deprivation of other substantial human freedoms and liberties. We do not accept that the freedom of religion takes precedence over the freedom of expression. In fact the debate over conflicting rights is based on a false premise. There is no freedom not to be offended. Meanwhile, Taslima Nasrin who broke no Indian law is virtually under house arrest while those who broke the law, threatened her with murder, and continue clamouring for her head have gone unpunished.

The Indian State continues to ignore the presence of Rationalists and Humanists and makes no provision in the census exercise to count the number of Atheists and those who profess no religion at all.

Babu Gogineni

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