“While the U.S. has clearly and successfully managed a separation between church and state, India makes no distinction between temple and state,” writes Gautam Bhatia.

[Excerpts of article published on The Wire website on 23 February 2022.]

What We Need in India is Freedom from Religion

[By Gautam Bhatia]

While the Karnataka high court debates its controversial decision to temporarily ban all non-conformist dress that may provoke religious reaction, headgear of all sorts has had a long and contentious history.

Home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, France’s Senate last year voted to ban girls under 18 from wearing a hijab in public. While French politicians termed it necessary for secularism, women’s empowerment and public safety, Muslim groups branded the law Islamophobic.

Fifty years earlier in England, Tarsem Sandhu, a Sikh bus driver in Wolverhampton refused to remove his turban on his bus route or shave his beard. Suing the city transport service, he eventually won the right to work and also maintain his religious dress code – but only after a contentious legal battle that pitted him against the then local MP, Enoch Powell, in the midst of the UK’s critical race and immigration issues. Sandhu has since retired, but his case set a new precedent; the British Police Sikh Association in 2010 even won the right to allow Sikhs into firearm units with bulletproof turbans, while exempting them from wearing crash helmets under the Religious Exemption Act.

Such religious liberalism has an uneasy history in the US. Though the Yarmulke is widely and publicly accepted as a symbol of orthodox Jews, and even Somali-American senator Ilhan Omar happily wears a hijab in Congress, the turban occupies a space of uncertain ambivalence. Worn by Sikhs, Arabs, Muslims in Asia and Africa as well, many Americans remain blissfully ignorant of its origins and distinctions. Mistaken for an Arab, a Sikh petrol station attendant was murdered soon after 9-11 in Arizona; some years back a mass shooting took place in a Wisconsin Gurudwara. A US university study on racism pointed out that Indian Sikhs dressed decidedly different from known stereotypes, and were more likely to become targets of white gangs.

As long as the temple continues to function as the state and the state as the temple, little is likely to change.

In India nowadays, every form of daily action is similarly misread and mutated in religious and ethnic terms. The wearing of a headscarf is seen as religion rather than an individual’s desire to wear what she is comfortable in. So is an act of ecology, like the cleaning of a sacred river; so too a civic act like the movement and herding of stray cattle; stand-up comedy, a social event, misfires for the comic for ethnic reasons; even a long revered Gandhian hymn is misinterpreted for its source rather than content. Everything is enlarged into embers of national rage.

In the end, conformity to a universal dress code, according to religion, sex, status, nationality is a maddeningly senseless debate. Should Muslim women in saris be persecuted for inappropriate formal wear? Should Hindu women who wear the salwar kameez or who don’t wear a bindi be similarly victimised? What then of people who wear saffron coloured clothes but are themselves non-Hindu? It is a difficult conundrum. Every little detail of daily life can have an anti-religious or anti-national intent. A person refusing a piece of dhokla is not only anti-Gujarati, but if he opts for ice cream instead, he is an Anglophile, and so, anti-Indian.

While the US has clearly and successfully managed a separation between church and state, India makes no distinction between temple and state. Beyond all the hate speeches, the hijab controversy, incessant election campaigns, temple building sprees and monumental religious festivals lies a fallow terrain waiting to be addressed. Current figures on rural nutrition, health, public education, unemployment, urban pollution, housing and sanitation have effectively landed India at the bottom of the livable index scale. But as long as the temple continues to function as the state and the state as the temple, little is likely to change.

How then can a religious code define a level playing field for all citizens?

Two challenging ways: First, is to confine all religious acts to privacy, so that any and all experience of temples, mosques, churches, or other structures occurs behind walls. That way there is no visible exposure of religious activity – no display or public celebration of festivals, no religious promotion in the media. Of course, this may not be easily implementable, but when ordinary daily encounters are being constantly viewed in religious terms, it is worth taking extreme measures. Perhaps we can start with public servants and elected officials confining their displays of religion to their own homes?

Certainly, for an unequal society like ours, setting limits on the public propagation of religion can have far reaching consequences. But its opposite may be equally effective – to open up religious practice fully to one and all, so that in some distant future we see altogether new and gratifying images of secular practice: Muslims offering Friday prayers in a church, a Hindu priest heading the Ajmer Dargah, and Christian women praying in the Sabarimala temple. Freedom of religion would come into play when equal access to all places for all citizens in any form of dress becomes a fundamental right.

In the end, the ultimate goal should be to confound the rigid insular structure of religion altogether, so that all its contentious symbols are reduced to insignificance. Not to trivialise religion in any way, but to erase the bitter implications of the hijab, the turban, the temple shikhar, the Islamic dome, the saffron robe, the church steeple etc. and so encourage only the common practice of all religions – the sanctity of prayer. When that happens surely we would cross a truly egalitarian spiritual frontier?

[Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect.]