Sabarimala temple row: India's liberalisation in 90s brought globalisation, unavoidable economics and politics of religiosity
The Sabarimala verdict has become a tool for political mobilisation in Kerala.
India adopted a ‘secular’ model of governance after Independence – though the actual word was inserted into the Constitution of India much later, during the Emergency years. And yet it has become more religious, especially of the organised variety. The ever-expanding empires of Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and the state patronage extended to them by way of cheap land, political support and other concessions in a number of states are an indication of that. The Madhya Pradesh government even appointed five Hindu religious leaders as Ministers of State (MoS) – Computer Baba, Bhayyu Maharaj, Pandit Yogendra Mahant, Narmadanand Maharaj and Hariharanand Maharaj – who had threatened to expose government irregularities in April 2018.
Historian William Dalrymple points out the paradox. In 2010, he wrote in Outlook magazine, “In 19th century Europe, industrialisation and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the death of God: organised religion began to decline and the Church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of South Asia has been more or less the reverse of this. All over the subcontinent faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region reinvented itself in different ways over the last twenty years. This is at least as much true of India as it is of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.”
Meera Nanda, US-based Indian writer and academic, provided a compelling account of this growth of religiosity in India in her 2009 book, The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu. She wrote: “As India is liberalising and globalising its economy, the country is experiencing a rising tide of popular Hinduism which is leaving no social segment and no public institution untouched. There is a surge in popular religiosity among the burgeoning and largely Hindu middle classes, as is evident from a boom in pilgrimage and invention of new and more ostentatious rituals. This religiosity is being cultivated by the emerging state–temple–corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era....Given India’s growing visibility in the global economy, Hindu religiosity is getting fused with feelings of national pride and dreams of becoming a superpower...”
This increase in religiosity is not only becoming more and more public and political, Nanda wrote that the newly prosperous middle classes are “turning away from the more philosophical, neo-Vedantic form of religiosity and embracing a more ritualistic and superstitious form of popular Hinduism centred on temples, pilgrimages and popular saints or god-men/women” – that is, adopting a more dogmatic form of religion rather than the spiritual as author and psychology teacher Steve Taylor would have described. She also pointed out that Hindus are not the only ones becoming more religious and wrote, “The 2007 State of the National Survey (by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi) shows that 38 percent of Indian Muslims, 47 percent of Christians and 33 percent of Sikhs, as compared to 27 percent of Hindus, claim to have become more religious in the last five years.”
This made a telling comment on the state of affairs, “...around the turn of the millennium, the country (India) had 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals”, which she ascribed to Indian diplomat (and now JD-U leader) Pavan K Varma’s 2004 book Being Indian, the data being sourced from 2001 Census findings.
What is the relationship between the spread of religiosity and liberalisation? Sriya Iyer, who teaches economics at the University of Cambridge, explains this in her book, The Economics of Religion in India, published in September 2018. The book not only demonstrates that religious organisations increased their activities “compensating for the retreat of the state” after India’s economy was liberalised in 1991, but also that religious violence is more common where economic growth is higher, apparently because higher growth leads to higher inequality, which politicians tend to use for their own end. The book says, as ‘inequality’ leads to social polarisation, religious doctrines become more extreme. It, however, also says that religious organisations, on balance, play a positive role in India’s socio-economic development.
Be that as it may, Kerala is on the boil. The Sabarimala verdict has become a tool for political mobilisation in Kerala. After the initial hesitation, both the top line political parties – the BJP and Congress – have come out in favour of the faithful, criticising the Left Font-led state government for not going for an appeal against the Supreme Court verdict. The BJP has held several public meetings and rallies in different parts of the state, including one by its women’s wing. It is at one such meeting that a BJP leader and Malayalam movie actor Kollam Thulasi threatened that women entering the Sabarimala temple should be “torn into two pieces”, attracting an FIR for hurting religious sentiments, sexist remarks and others under the Indian Penal Code.
Now mixing religion with politics has dangerous consequences and Pakistan is a good example of that. Starting Wednesday, this week will see more political and religious mobilisations as the Sabarimala temple opens for monthly rituals. The faithful, with the backing of political parties and Hindu organisations, have already announced that they would be guarding the temple entry to prevent menstruating women, should one dare to walk in. One activist, Trupti Desai, has queered the pitch by declaring that she would be visiting the hill shrine, evoking sharp reactions. An interesting battle awaits.
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