The Bombay High Court recently said that no law in India bars the entry of women in any temple, and neither should it. What it said further on this matter should be of great concern to those who value freedom of religion and secularism. It said that anyone imposing this restriction contravenes the Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorization) Act, and may face a six-month jail term. The case refers to recent attempts by women to enter the Shani temple, which were met with refusal by temple officials, local villagers and the police. The last one here brings the greatest cause for concern. Regardless of the religious and political persuasions of officers on duty, they are working in a professional capacity serving citizens and should remain neutral. The actions of the police in this situation epitomizes the problem--what place does any state have in dictating what should be done in private community spaces?
What place does any state have in dictating what should be done in private community spaces?
The lines between the state and citizens are always blurred by virtue of the state comprising citizens, who like the rest of the country, have beliefs and political persuasions of all varieties-- including those of a religious nature. This makes secularism, as an ideal, difficult to implement anywhere in the world. Yet, a secular state should never interfere in private community spaces and dictate theological views, regardless of how un-egalitarian they are. After all, all religions possess a plethora of interpretations with practitioners each choosing for themselves the degree to which they practice, and the degree to which they dissent and reform.
The state tarnishes the spirit of secularism and neutrality, taking a stance and favouring one religious doctrine over another and making it law.
Women wishing to enter the Shani temple are brave reformists and should continue to protest for entry. This applies everyone pushing for reform, whether it is for Dalits or the LGBTQI community or any other group. But the government should not take sides on such matters. It should protect the right to religious freedoms, even in forms that the orthodox find offensive and heretical. It should never intervene, except where violence is being promoted or when this disadvantages citizens outside of private religious spaces, such as loss of job opportunities or refusal of service. The recent passing of the 'Religious Freedom' Bill in Mississippi shares some resemblance to the Bombay High Court's judgement in that both favour an interpretation of religion, enshrining it in law to disadvantage the freedoms of another. While both promote very different sets of values, they share an illiberal, interventionist root whereby the state tarnishes the spirit of secularism and neutrality, taking a stance and favouring one religious doctrine over another and making it law.
As a liberal, I cannot tolerate the state imposing interpretations of religious practices that conform to egalitarian principles when they are in private community spaces.
Freedom of (and from) religion works both ways, with the ideal secular state being neutral on any religious practice. Both traditionalists and liberals should not use the state to promote their values. As a liberal, I cannot tolerate the state imposing interpretations of religion and religious practices that conform to egalitarian principles when they are in private community spaces. Working towards a clear dividing line between religion and state is the first step in solving this issue. States should not be funding any place of worship and should stay out of regulating doctrine, religious customs and theology. Protecting minors, ensuring that intolerant doctrine does not mean discrimination in wider society and protecting the right to dissent and criticize religion will work both in the favour of the 'orthodox' who want to bar women, but also for those who protest this prohibition. Ultimately, a truly secular state should stay well out of affairs like these--its intervention ultimately hinders freedom of religion. Like many other 'secular' countries, India has a long way to go.
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