21/09/2016 2:01 PM IST | Updated 13/02/2017 11:30 AM IST

The Haji Ali Verdict Is A Case Of Liberal Authoritarianism

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It sounds contradictory. A liberal outlook is often associated with a kind of wimpery that seeks to create a neutral space where regressive, traditional, reform and liberal traditions and views co-exist— but with a strong caveat that these are all limited to self-expression and not enforced upon others. Yet, the recent decision by the Bombay High Court to prevent women from being barred from the inner sanctum of Haji Ali Dargah is nothing more than an attempt at social engineering and liberal dictatorialism.

True reform can only take place through a shifting of attitudes and a willingness to embrace change in the community—not through the State telling people how to live their lives.

The exemption from tax for places of worship under the Indian Income Tax Act (1961) arguably makes all places of worship open to scrutiny, and no longer private spaces where they can follow religion in an interpretation they wish. The case involved a debate surrounding the theological grounds for excluding women from places of worship, indicating that it was a ban that the High Court would have supported if there were sufficient theological grounds—but whose grounds? The grounds of the literalists? The government has already favoured a liberal/reform interpretation by virtue of its decision.

This is a decision that should worry anyone who values freedom of religion and secularism. It is not the place of the government to intervene in the affairs and rules of a private religious space. After all, there are countless religious practices—which are essentially civil matters—that are anti women. These too could easily be prohibited, using the legal system as a way of bullying traditionalists and conservatives into liberal submission.

The criticism here is not of the struggle itself. I support women challenging misogyny and gender bias in all spaces of society—but I also support freedom of religion and secularism. This means that the government is not in a position to decide which interpretation of Islam, or any other religion, is more authentic.

It is difficult not to digress into an exegesis of how all religions have essentially originated in patriarchal contexts and are therefore inherently misogynistic. We live in much more enlightened times in terms of our attitude towards women, with powerful and traditionalist religious authorities stuck in the past. At a time where secularism and freedom of religion are also valued, is it a useful tactic to use the State as a tool to encourage religions to accept egalitarian values? This is an approach that comes with an uncomfortably unintellectual, bullying and authoritarian streak.

Taxing religious institutions will relegate them to the private sphere rather than as public service providers. This will serve as a greater buffer between church/mosque/mandir and State, and may hopefully reduce these types of cases. After all, people's private family lives are often filled with misogyny, and where it doesn't cause physical harm, the State does not intervene. They also do not intervene when women within those families stand up and challenge misogyny in the home. When religious institutions function much like the family home and no longer expect tax exemptions, only then will there be a level playing field for the debate between traditionalists and liberals. This will hopefully help in reducing cases like these where liberals behave like bullies and use the State as a weapon to force religious institutions to reform. For true reform can only take place through a shifting of attitudes and a willingness to embrace change in the community—not through the State telling people how to live their lives.

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