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 Politics in Karnataka

India: State, Religious Ritualism and
 Politics in Karnataka

by Dr. (Fr.) Ambrose Pinto SJ, 1 August 2012

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Mainstream, 28 July 2012

The Karnataka State is hit by drought. And the State Government of the BJP has found a brilliant solution by initiating steps to bring down rains from heavens by recourse to propitiating the gods. The Department of Revenue has issued a circular to 34,000 temples under its control to conduct ‘abhishekha’, ‘varuna mantra’, ‘jalabhishekha’ and several other rituals. The circular says the government is “convinced” that it is necessary to conduct these rituals in view of the severe drought, and “for the welfare of people and cattle”.

Unwilling to take a firm stand against the communal politics of the BJP, the Opposition parties have yielded to the ruling regime with some public noise. Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Revanna has criticised the way the government is spending its funds and urged it to ask the legislators to spend money from their own pockets on invoking the rain gods in their constituencies. H.S. Mahadeva Prasad of the Congress and Putte Gowda of the JD(S) said the money meant for the rituals could be spent on providing water and fodder in villages.

The suggestions are no doubt worthwhile. However, the question is much deeper. The BJP’s attack on the secular Constitution of the country has not been the point of contestation between the Opposition parties who claim to be secular and the BJP. Even earlier when there were violent attacks by the Sangh Parivar on the Churches, the response of the Opposition had been muted. In the anti-cow slaughter Bill, there was some noise once again without any ammunition. On the issue of forced conversion by Christians, the secular parties have not been able to challenge the BJP for evidence. The consequence is that the Karnataka society remains communalised and a communal consciousness is on the spread. To counter the propaganda machinery of the Sangh Parivar, there has not been a counter secular discourse. The Opposition has miserably failed to stand up for the secular cause.

In fact, the response of the civil society in Karnataka has been more focused and sharp than the Opposition parties. The Dalit groups in the State have been most articulate. The groups even went to the extent of preparing “beef biriyani” in order to express their opposition to the anti-cow slaughter Bill. Once again it is these groups that waged a war on the introduction of religious text in the schools and won their battle.

It is anybody’s guess why the so-called secular parties do not want to expose the communalism of the BJP. One of the reasons may be the fear of the Opposition that they may lose out in the next elections if they attack the communalisation of the society and polity by the BJP. There is a lurking fear that the consciousness of the people in the State has changed and opposing it might prove too costly for the Opposition parties. Secondly, temples have become important places for political mobilisation in the State and political parties do not want to invite their wrath with hardly a year for the State elections.

State Funds for Ritualism

This is not the first time the the BJP Government has directed public funds at promoting religious practices. The former Muzrai Minister, S.N. Krishnaiah Setty, had initiated the practice of sourcing Ganga jal (the Ganges water) from Haridwar for being distributed in temples during Shivaratri. When he had to resign from his Ministership due to corruption charges, he had promised to continue this practice at his own expense. He had also ordered temples to conduct pujas every day for the “welfare” of the Chief Minister. In spite of those prayers, Yeddyurappa could not save his chair.

And, with Jagadish Shettar, who is said to be an agnostic, taking over as the Chief Minister, it is for the third time that homas and pujas have been conducted in the offices of the Ministers. Now the priests of the temples have been asked to pray for rains and they have been offered money as a bribe for gods and goddesses. With drought in the State while the gods and goddesses may have become rich, people of course are sure to become poorer with State funds moving into temples. What do these practices or rituals mean for a secular democracy? They primarily mean an attack on the secular fabric of the State.

In a secular democracy religion may have a place in the lives of individuals. If individuals resort to prayers to propitiate gods or to obtain divine favours, no one needs to object. Similarly, the legislators have the right in their lives as private citizens to worship whichever gods or goddesses they desire. What should disturb citizens in the State is the circular of the newly installed government of Jagadish Shettar to 34,000 temples to conduct various kinds of rituals to appease gods and goddesses for rains and sanction of Rs 5000 for each temple and transfer of more than Rs 17 crores of people’s money to these institutions. One may ask: why should we object? The question should instead be: why shouldn’t we object? We must object simply because we are no more citizens of a theocratic state but a secular one. If such circulars were issued in Pakistan or one of the Arab states where the states are ruled by the religious tenets or rulers, one cannot raise objections. Secondly, we must object that the money that is doled out is public money and not the private property of individuals or a party. That money has to be used as the Constitution of the land directs.

The Hidden Agenda

What is under threat is the secular fabric of the State. The goal of secularism is to eliminate religion from the public realm and the hidden agenda of the BJP is to bring religion to the public space. It is this hidden agenda, openly exposed, that has helped the party to keep itself in power in spite of several crises in the party and use it as a weapon against its opponents.

The credit of openly patronising the Lingayat temples, Mutts and the priests of the religion should go to the previous Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, who bestowed all kinds of favours especially on the caste Mutts of his community which is the single largest group among all castes in the State with 17 per cent population. In fact, when the Central High Command of the BJP had announced the replacement of Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister, the Swamijis of the Mutts were on the street protesting against the decision of the party. One of the important reasons for the survival of the BJP in the State in spite of several internal conflicts is the strong support the Lingayat Mutts have provided to the BJP regime.

The Mutts do not provide support for nothing. They have been equally provided with benefits of land and money and the government has fattened them. While they are willing to mobilise their own people for a Chief Minister of their own caste for strengthening the power of the caste, the Chief Minister has in turn provided benefits to the community. The BJP in the State of Karnataka has found large support from the Lingayat community.

If the kind of circular that is issued by the State Government is issued in a theocratic state where a priestly group directly administers the state in reference to what they believe are divine laws, citizens may not have problems. In such states religious and political orders are identical. Karnataka is not a theocratic State but run as one in accordance with the Dharma-shastras. Rituals are conducted in the Vidhana Soudha prior to the taking of office by Ministers, large pictures of gods and goddesses are found in most offices of the Ministers and legislators, the visit of Ministers and Chief Ministers to temples is telecast by private channels and widely reported.

There cannot be an official alliance between the state and religion in a secular state. A secular state has to be disconnected from religion at the level of ends, institutions and law and public policy. What would this mean? This means any State in India, in order to be secular, should refrain from privileging established or non-established religions. There is no place for religion in the public realm. By sanctioning State funds to conduct rituals and by particular mention of prominent temples like Kollur Mookambika, Kukke Subrahmanya Swamy, Kateel Durgaparameshwari and Nanjangud Srikanteshwara Swamy, the State has not only patronised a religion but even discriminated against faith groups within the dominant religion.

What makes some temples more prominent than others? The State perhaps opines that since large number of devotees throng to these temples, the party would be able to transform some of the devotees as voters to the party in power when the elections come.

The principle of equidistance from all religions without patronage to any, religious liberty to all groups without any discrimination, and equality of active citizenship are features of a secular state. These principles are foreign to the BJP. Instead of keeping equidistance from all religions, the party has favoured some temples and religious groups within Hinduism more than the others and fostered a culture of hate against minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, in the State. The Lingayat temples have benefited the most followed by the Brahmin temples. Article 27 rules out public funding of religion. The State has extensively funded religious groups including providing support to Archakas. Article 15(1) states that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion. With the grant of money to temples and issue of circular to conduct rituals there to bring down rain from heavens, the State has violated all these norms.

Indian secularism is committed to the idea of “principled distance” from all religions and strict neutrality in matters of religious practices. It is only when the state maintains an equal distance from all religions, the state can put an end to inhuman practices of religions like untouchability, child marriages and devadasi system and initiate progressive changes by framing laws towards communities oppressed and suppressed sometimes with the legitimacy derived from religion. In the last four years of the BJP what one has witnessed is not initiation of progressive measures but taking people back into superstitions, encouraging beliefs and myths. It is in the interest of the secular state therefore 
citizens irrespective of religions may have to come together to defeat the sinister designs of the State Government.

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is with St. Joseph’s College Institutions, Bangalore.


The above article from Mainstream is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use