Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Irrational display

Union defence minister Rajnath Singh’s response to the criticism over performing “shastra puja” while taking the delivery of the country’s first Rafael aircraft was weak. Things that are not in consonance with the secular spirit of the country and do not satisfy the core spirit of the Indian constitutions cannot be brushed aside in the name of “our faith” and his own childhood fantasy of a belief in a superpower. He is indeed right in averring that “people from all religions have the right to pray according to their beliefs. I would not have objected if someone else had done the same.” Article 25 of the Indian constitution says that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. In accordance with that, as an individual he has every right to profess his religion in accordance to his beliefs and faith. But by turning an occasion in which he represents the country as a state functionary into one where religious rituals are invoked is unjustifiable in a secular country where different people profess different religions. Rafael is a national asset after India has procured it and belongs to all the people of the country, not of one particular faith. The argument being peddled by some BJP leaders that “shastra puja” on the occasion of Dusherra is a cultural practice is unsatisfactory because this cultural practice pertains to one religion. The state becoming an advocate of religious practices of one kind is uncalled for a makes a mockery of the secular ethos of the country. Any state functionary has every right to practice any religion or rituals only in his or her personal capacity. When official events, official spaces and assets of the nation are turned into tools of professing one particular religion, the state is seen as embarking on the dangerous course of preferring one religion over another, thus weakening the concept of equality. The second problem with the rituals performed by the union defence minister is that they reflect a lack of scientific temperament. The totems and symbols of lemon and swastika being used to welcome the purchase of the first Rafael jet is not just amusing; it impedes the image of the country as a modern nation. Flashing such ritualism promotes a culture of superstition that is antithetical to scientific way of thinking. The BJP has been talking a great deal about science promotion and has rightly thrown its weight behind scientific experiments of the prestigious ISRO but scientific temper is the basic pre-requisite of promotion of science. It does not mean promoting the study of science or promoting scientific experiments. Instead, it means promoting a way of thinking that breaks the hold of superstitions by applying rationality and thought. Through an open display of rituals stemming not just from religious practices but also superstitions in public spheres, several BJP functionaries have already made their contribution to promoting irrationality in society. It would be unfair to squarely blame only the BJP leaders of making a display of their religiosity and superstitious beliefs. Many of the opposition leaders, who profess firm belief in secular values, have also been doing the same. The promotion of superstition over rational way of thinking, however, has reached a crescendo under the present dispensation which wears it like a badge of honour. In view of the many questions related to constitutional morality, ethics, secular values and scientific reasoning, it would be worthwhile for the party in power to think of the negative ramifications of rash display of rituals in every public space.