Secular judges, religious matters and liberal values

Analysing policy issues concerning religion and the judiciary in the Indian republic is complicated

In today’s lead column in The Hindu I argue that India runs the risk of slipping into a “judiciopapist” order, wherein judges have power over matters of religion. In the context of a case before the Supreme Court concerning women’s right to enter traditionally puritanical male domain of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, I argue that “we should be wary of a judiciary that encroaches on more domains, even for causes we consider as desirable and good.” The article reasons that state intervention in religious norms not only create resistance and backlash, but weakens the incentives for endogenous reform to emerge from within religious communities.

“The caveats [circumscribing the domain of religion] are eating into the right [to freedom of religion]. More significant than the issue of whether women should be allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple is the question of whether secular judges ought to be the ones making that call.” [Reform, only left to the judiciary?]

From this, a few readers promptly arrived at the conclusion that I was in favour of rules keeping women out of the temple, and further—on the basis of an older tweet applauding a Supreme Court ruling against polygamy among Muslims—that I was chauvinistic right winger. Amusing as these labels are, an explanation will certainly help.

Is there a contradiction between my support for the Supreme Court rejecting polygamy and my concern over the Supreme Court deciding on Sabarimala entry rules? Well, only if you presume I oppose women’s entry into the Sabarimala. The value judgement on a decision is quite separate from the value judgement on the process by which the decision was taken. As I spell out in the article, it is better for social reform to emerge within society. The position is the same, whether it is temple, church or mosque entry; or whether it is temple elephant markings, polygamy or voluntary suicide.

However, if the Court is seized with a case, it is just as well that it upholds the constitutional values of liberty and equality. It would be a “good” decision if the court permits women entry into Sabarimala, just like it was a good decision to disallow polygamy. Even so, we should be worried that secular judges are making those religious calls.

Related Links: More this issue by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu and IndConLawPhil blog; and a monograph by Ronojoy Sen on the Indian Supreme Court and secularism (pdf)

Pakistan has nothing to do with Indian democracy

And why it’s absurd to ignore the pachyderm in the tent

It is not hard to see why there is an enormous amount of pablum in the Western circles when it comes to figuring out what to do about the mess that is Pakistan. [See recent posts by Dhruva Jaishankar & Rohan Joshi fisking one such case]. One part is that mindsets are not keeping pace with geopolitical realities. The second part is that the reality itself is so terrible that it is far easier to avoid confronting it. This situation is possible and inexpensively maintained when you are a few thousand miles away from the reach of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles.

Take Christophe Jaffrelot’s review essay in Foreign Affairs on why India is a democracy and Pakistan is not. It is a commentary on Philip K Oldenburg’s “India, Pakistan and Democracy – Solving the puzzle of divergent paths”. Both book and review devote themselves to debunking the “reductionist and not particularly productive approach” of attributing these difference to religion. To author and reviewer, it is almost an article of faith—ironically—that Pakistan’s being on intensive care and India’s longstanding democracy and recent development have nothing to do with the former being beholden to Islam and the latter driven by its Hindu civilisational ethos. So they spend a lot of time, energy and ink splitting hairs and teasing out minor variables that might have instead contributed to these starkly different outcomes.

Even the two examples Mr Jaffrelot cites to argue religion is secondary in explaining political trajectories—Indonesian democracy and Sri Lanka’s ‘march to dictatorship’—are weak. He ignores the fact that Indonesian Islam is constructed on a still palpable (but fast declining) bedrock of Hindu-Buddhist civilisational values. As for Sri Lanka, he ignores the possibility that his presumptuousness might receive a slap at the hustings of the next election. But what about Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Libya and so on? To reject the notion that states that organise themselves around Islam have serious problems may be politically correct, but is certainly empirically wrong. [See Deepak Lal’s argument on the issue of “settled rule”]

It is not a coincidence that India is the only robust democracy in Asia. Both Mr Oldenburg and Mr Jaffrelot confuse Hinduism as a narrow denomination of faith, and Hinduism as a source of values that underpin Indian civilisation. You don’t need to be a Hindu nationalist to realise that the pluralism, tolerance, moderation and secularism that underpin Indian civilisation and are consistent across its many denominational faiths are the very same values that sustain its democracy. [See “Who says nationalism must be intolerant?“]

It is a good thing to examine the second- and lower-order variables that might affect political trajectories. But it is intellectually unsound to ignore the obvious. Worse, it leads to hideously grotesque policy recommendations. Mr Jaffrelot writes:

To overcome (Pakistan remaining in a limbo between dictatorship and democracy-Ed), the relationship between India and Pakistan — not just the comparison between them — must be addressed. [Foreign Affairs]

This argument, to put it mildly, is bunkum. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why the Pakistani government can’t collect taxes and electricity bills from its elite. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why Salmaan Taseer’s assassin is celebrated as a national hero. The mess that is Pakistan is the creation of the Pakistani people. Pakistan can’t be fixed by changing its ‘relationship’ with India any more than North Korea can be transformed by tweaking US-South Korea relations.

India, a growing economic power, resents being grouped with a quasi-failed state. Indian leaders were quite happy, for example, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited India but not Pakistan during his last Asian tour. But decoupling is not only bad for U.S.-Pakistani relations — Pakistan longs to be recognized as on par with India and could be easier to work with if it is, even if only symbolically — it is not really in India’s interest, either. China, India’s real rival, could take advantage of a Pakistan alienated from the West. [FA]

This is theoretically a good argument. It would have merited attention had it been made in 1950. However, given that the China-Pakistan alliance is more than five decades old and continues to be robust, it is unclear what more India has to fear from that front. On the contrary, a Pakistan alienated from the West—like North Korea—might actually be strategically less useful to China.

And if Pakistan falls apart, democracy in India might be affected as well. Already, routinized terrorist violence has taken its toll on Indian civil liberties. And communal harmony in India, which has always been tenuous, has become increasingly strained thanks to terrorist attacks and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies.[FA]

This is precisely the kind of conclusion you’ll arrive at if you ignore the obvious and focus on lower-order variables. Mr Jaffrelot fails to mention how democracy in India will be affected if–and that is a big if—Pakistan falls apart. Nothing bad happened to the United States and Western Europe after the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc collapsed. In fact, it can just easily be argued that Indian democracy will be stronger if the security threats from Pakistan diminish. Mr Jaffrelot’s comment on communal harmony might have been taken as merely gratuitous if he had not left out the adjective describing “terrorist attacks”. As for BJP’s ‘Hindu nationalist policies’, we might be able to assess their their impact on communal harmony once they occur, because right now, there is scarcely one policy that can be described as ‘Hindu nationalist’. What are ‘Hindu nationalist policies’ anyway?

If there is a reason why communal harmony is threatened, it is because of entitlements and identity politics that breeds competitive intolerance. We do have plenty of those policies.

The best way forward will be for both countries, with the support of the international community, to launch a new round of dialogue. Without such attention to Indian-Pakistani relations, India’s democracy will not prosper and Pakistan’s generals will never unclench their fists.[FA]

People who make such recommendations should be forced to put their money where their mouth is. Perhaps a charge of $1000 every time they repeat this formula will sufficiently deter analysts from offering the same, ineffective prescription. Double that if they prescribe it when “dialogue” is not only in progress but the stated policy of the Indian government. This might help reduce India’s fiscal deficit.

Neither Indian democracy nor India’s development is contingent on Pakistan, its generals and their fists. It is pointless talking to Pakistan. It would make more sense talking to the powers that pay to keep Pakistan in intensive care. Unlike Mr Oldenburg & Mr Jaffrelot, we do not have the luxury of pretending that what makes us feel good is actually what is real.

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

Sunday Levity: Tell me Khomeini wasn’t a Sikh

Did the Ayatollah qualify for a PIO card?

From Hooman Majd’s excellent The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran:

Some secular Persian intellectuals … reserve a special hatred for Ayatollah Khomeini, not just because he founded the Islamic Republic, but because to them he wasn’t even Persian. Since his paternal grandfather was an India who immigrated to Iran (to the town of Khomein) in the early nineteenth century, some Iranians feel that his “tainted” blood means that a true Persian was not at the helm of the revolution, the most momentous event in their country’s modern history, good or bad. And soon after that revolution, when the time came to change the symbol of Iran on its flag from the lion and sun (which the revolutionaries incorrectly associated with the Shahs), Khomeini himself chose a symbol among those submitted by artists—a stylized “Allah”—which is opponents, at least the more race-conscious ones, continue to insist bears a remarkable similarity to the symbol of the Sikhs.

Some of Khomeini’s enemies see it as proof of a foreign hand in the revolution, perhaps British because of their influence in India, or, worse, a secret conspiracy by an Indian religion to destroy Persia, and today, when Iranian exiles and even some inside Iran want to disparage him, they sometimes refer to him as Hindi (which happened to be his grandfather’s surname but is also Persian for “Indian”). One such Iranian in Tehran, when he found out where I was staying, insisted that I take a short walk in my neighborhood past the Sikh center of Tehran, a large white compound with a garden surrounded, naturally, by high walls. “Look at the logo on the gates of the walls, and then tell me that Khomeini wasn’t a Sikh,” he said. I found that there was indeed a Sikh center, right in my neighborhood, and the emblem on the gates I have to admit, does give one pause while viewing it in the Islamic Republic, where its own emblem is ubiquitous. But after a few moments reflecting on the coincidence of its uncanny similarity to the “Allah” of Iran, I moved on, reflecting instead on my compatriots’ love of and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. [Hooman Majd/The Ayatollah Begs to Differ pp168-169]

Khalsa and Iran
The Khalsa and the Islamic Republic

Related Links: With thousand testicles—the Vedic-Avestan divergence; and the ensuing discussion.

The reality of radical Islam

…is that it doesn’t accept compromises

It is one thing for the United States to attempt to recycle a strategy that worked in Iraq and consider applying it in Afghanistan. As Joshua Foust argued in the July 2008 issue of Pragati, that model is unlikely to yield comparable results in Afghanistan because of differences in socio-economic structure, historical paths and geo-political neighbourhoods. While we hope that it listens to good sense, you can’t deny the Obama administration a chance to learn by making big mistakes.

But it is entirely another thing to provide a kind of intellectual cover for what is essentially an exercise in wishful pragmatism by advancing an argument—as Fareed Zakaria has done—that the world should learn to live with radical Islam, because “not all (radical Islamists) advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world—in fact, most do not.” Actually, this argument is invalidated by his very next sentence—when Mr Zakaria argues that “no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack over the past 10 years—including 9/11.” It is breathtaking to see a person of Mr Zakaria’s intelligence engage in such poor sophistry: by his logic, even Osama bin Laden has not participated in any significant terrorist attack over the last decade either.

The fundamental mistake Mr Zakaria makes is to conflate Islam and radical Islam. He is right when he argues that emphasising “the variety of groups, movements and motives within (the Muslim) world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West.” But the sentence is illogical—for if there are a variety of groups, movements and motives then there can be a battle between the West and some of them. And there is. It exists regardless of whether the West wants it or not—because radical Islam defines itself by that battle. How then can the rest—and this includes moderate Muslim societies—learn to live with it?

Mr Zakaria points to the fact that radical Islamic parties are currently on the wane in Nigeria—one solitary example that is an exception to the norm—to build a case that this will invariably be the case elsewhere in the world. It’s hard to believe that radical Islamic parties (as opposed to moderate Islamic parties operating in institutional democracies) will relinquish power once they are voted out of office. To believe this would be to ignore the observed fact that radical Islamists define political success in being able to set-up a revolutionary state like Iran, the Mullah Omar-led Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Swat. It’s almost always a one-way street. What about Nigeria? Well, it isn’t over and time will tell.

That’s not all. Mr Zakaria suggests that the world can live with most radical Islamists as the latter do not pose an external threat to their neighbours and to the West. Well a case can be made that what radical Islamists do within their borders—in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sudan (a word missing from Mr Zakaria’s essay)—is itself a threat to international security. But it is hard to find a radical Islamist state that does not have an external agenda. So what caused Mullah Omar’s Taliban to host al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups? Why does Iran support Hizbollah? Why did Pashtuns and Pakistani Punjabis fight the jihad in India, Iraq and elsewhere?

Pick a radical Islamist organisation. It is likely to have one or both goals—territorial and religious-ideological. It is the mixing of the two that makes compromise impossible.

Mr Zakaria’s arguments are dangerous because they undermine the very internal opposition to radical Islam within the Muslim world that he claims the West should work with. Once the United States begins to negotiate with the ‘good’ Taliban, the moderate Afghans will be done for. So why is it that the surviving moderate Awami National Party (ANP) leaders can’t venture out of their homes in Swat? Because the Pakistani government struck a deal with the Taliban. Those who are opposed to the radical Islamist agenda should do the opposite. It is understandable why the Pakistani government won’t do the correct thing, but why should the United States bolster its strategic adversary?

The truth is that you can’t stop worrying and learn to live with radical Islam. It has to be countered and contained, and ultimately defeated. The tactical exigencies of the war in Af-Pak, important as they are, should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the big picture. While it is important to prove Mr bin Laden wrong when he “constantly argues that all these different groups are part of the same global movement”, it is important to do so without doing Mr bin Laden’s job for him.

Related Post: Why India must export its Islam

The airman’s beard

Permitting beards, regulating lengths

Other than tradition, there is no good reason for a the Indian Air Force to impose a blanket ban on beards. Sikh officers in all three armed services and the police force are allowed to wear beards and turbans. Beard-keeping is a tradition in the Indian Navy, and naval officers are allowed to keep beards regardless of their religious persuasion. Now, if operational reasons demand it—say, it gets in the way—it makes sense to ask the concerned officers to trim or shave their beards off.

Just like the armed forces have a sensible policy on haircuts, uniform and other aspects of turnout, they could have the same for beards, mustaches, sideburns and eyebrows. It need not involve religion at all, as long as it involves common sense.

The airmen who are fighting to keep their beards on their jobs might be motivated by religion. But the decision to allow them to keep them need not.

Weekday Squib: Pray to ward off the plague

Religious diversity is the side effect of…increased threat of infectious disease

From the British Psychological Society’s Research Blog comes a rather startling conclusion: religion was established for the “avoidance and management of infectious disease” (linkthanks Rajeev Mantri):

Fincher and Thornhill used the World Christian Encyclopedia and the Global Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Network to compare the spread of infections and religions across 219 countries. Their results were clear: in regions with a greater variety of infectious parasites, the diversity of religions also tends to be greater. This association held strong even after exploring the impact of other potential factors, such as differences in democratisation and histories of colonisation.

The researchers say the association between religion and parasites occurs because reducing contact with outsiders can help protect against disease. In turn, when cultures fragment and groups avoid making contact with each other, more religions are likely to spring up.[BPS Research Blog]

Reality, it appears, mirrors satire. Or the Proceedings of the Royal Soceity:B Biological Sciences mirror The Onion. Now unless journals of learned societies mistake correlation for causation (the world’s oldest professional mistake), one should wonder why God created disease.

Ill-conceived dialogue

…played into the Hurriyat’s hands

Praveen Swami’s indictment is damning: “New Delhi’s well-meaning but ill-conceived dialogue process communalised Jammu and Kashmir and laid the ground for the ongoing crisis”

Experts have been telling New Delhi that the solution to this Islamist upsurge lies in negotiations which will give power—if not independence—to secessionists. Both the premise of this received-wisdom and the prescriptions it lends itself to are false. In fact, the crisis now unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir can also be read as the consequence of New Delhi’s peace process. In its effort to make peace with the Islamist-led secessionist movement in Kashmir, this counter-intuitive argument suggests, India ended up fuelling competitive communalism in each of the State’s three regions.

New Delhi deferred the (round table conference) dialogue process until after the Assembly elections scheduled for October. Islamists in Kashmir, though, feared that the elections would lead to their annihilation, and began sharpening their knives. To anyone other than Prime Minister Singh’s house-intellectuals, whose eyes seemed to have been paper-clipped shut, the brewing crisis was evident. [The Hindu emphasis added]

The dialogue process in Jammu & Kashmir was in piece with the UPA government’s policy DNA: entitlements based on communal socialism, accepting competitive intolerance and yielding to the resulting political violence.

And Italy should mind its own business

Indian Christians are Indians.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry, the Indian Express reports, “will summon India’s ambassador to demand ‘incisive action’ to prevent further attacks against Christians that have left 11 people dead in India so far, the government said on Thursday.” They even want the European Union to take up the matter.

Italy has no right to demand anything. It may be within its rights to express selective, biased, communal concern over the killings of one particular religious community in India, but “demand”? Well, the Indian ambassador in Rome could perhaps task his lieutenants to look up the English-Diplomatese dictionary for the equivalent of “stuff it”. Preferably, pleasantly. He could, if he would like to permit himself a moment of indiscretion, point out that Italy itself is hardly a safe place for Christian monks.

Related posts: French Sikhs are French; Malaysian Hindus are Malaysians

Sunday Levity: Two papal emissaries to China

They didn’t do too well

No, not quite laughing matter, but amusing nevertheless. Here are some excerpts from Harry Gelber’s readable account of China’s relations with the (western) World, from 1100 BC to the present:

One Christian embassy was entrusted to the Franciscan, John de Plano Carpini, a provincial of his order at Cologne. He set out in mid-April 1245, a mere eighteen years after Ghengis (sic) Khan’s death, carrying a letter from Pope Innocent IV. Carpini must have been a very brave man. He set out in his sixties, unfit, without knowledge of Asian languages and with no idea what his reception might be. Perhaps he would just have his head cut off by the first Mongol patrol he met? In the event he was hustled through Asia for weeks on horseback, to his total exhaustion, and arrived at the Mongol centre of Karakorum in time to witness the coronation of the new Great Khan, Guyuk, another of Ghengis’s grandsons. He delivered his letter and returned in 1247 with the Mongol response. Guyuk simply said:

‘… Thou, who art the great Pope, together with all the princes, come in person to serve us. At that time I shall make known all (our) commands…Now you should say with a sincere heart: “I will submit and serve you.” …If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy. Likewise I shall make you understand…”


The empire continued to see itself as the centre of the civilised world, to which properly brought-up foreigners should pay tribute. The reception ceremonies which lay at the core of Chinese diplomacy, with everyone kow-towing in the presence of the emperor, remained more or less unchanged until the nineteenth century.

In 1687, five French fathers arrived and one of them managed to cure the (Manchu emperor) Kangxi of malarial fever by using quinine. In 1692 came an edict of toleration that allowed the Jesuits to build churches. When the Jesuits ran into trouble it was not with the Chinese but with other Christian missionaries. For instance, they claimed that it was entirely justifiable for missionaries in China to adopt any prudent adaptation to Chinese customs in order to advance the faith. That aroused strong opposition from Dominicans and Franciscans as well as groups in France itself.

That created serious trouble, for the emperor insisted, as he was bound to do, on respect for the traditional Chinese homage to Confucius and the rites of ancestor worship. He demanded that the missionaries regard these as civil and not religious ceremonies, and that Christian converts should continue to practise them. The Jesuits were willing to accept that, but the Dominicans and Franciscans were not. The disputation was sent to Rome. Pope Clement XI sent out Bishop Maillard de Tournon, to investigate. He arrived in 1705 and was granted several meetings with Kangxi which ended in total disagreement. The issue, as the Church saw it, had ultimately to do with papal supremacy in matters of religion. From that point of view, the Jesuit willingness to accept Kangxi’s opinions amounted to a critical weakening of the fundamental claims of Catholic Christianity. In 1715 came a papal bull banning the strategy of accommodation and Maillard forbade Catholic missionaries, on pain of excommunication, to obey the emperor in this matter. But there was no possibility that the emperor could tolerate that.

Kangxi’s response was to therefore expel anyone who did not sign a paper accepting his view. The emperor had Maillard imprisoned in Macao, where he died in 1707 (sic).[Harry G Gelber/The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, pp74-75 and 120-122]

Related Links: Kerry Brown’s review at the Asian Review of Books