About 15 years ago, I visited a Hindu temple in Karachi. At the entrance stood a Hindu male in a Pathan suit waving a cane to drive away Muslims. Every now and then he screamed, “Jai Shiv Shankar”. When I tried to enter, he told me that Muslims were not allowed inside. I told him I was Indian. He asked to see my passport. He was confused when he learned I had a Christian surname, but because I was Indian, he decided to let me in. I told him I would have thought it very dangerous for a Hindu to stand in a temple in the heart of Karachi and wave a stick at Muslims to deny them entry. He said he had rights. In another temple in the city, I saw a group of Muslim girls begging a cantankerous old woman to let them in. We just want to look, they said. “Then go to the zoo,” the unyielding old woman said.
When I reported this, Indians who rated freedoms higher than cultural norms marvelled at the phenomenon, which they interpreted not as discrimination against the Muslims of Pakistan but as a minority's exquisite right to practise their faith by following its cultural norms.
Now they hold a very different view in a very similar matter. After the Supreme Court ruled that the autonomy of the temple at Sabarimala was subordinate to the rights of women of menstruating age to enter it, there is a view in the mainstream intellectual community that if we aspire to be refined and modern, we must accept that all religious wounds are subordinate to any woman's right to enter any place of worship.
I am in Kerala right now and when I ask people about the issue, I get very familiar answers. The atheists, who covertly or overtly feel that believers in God are fools, say religion must reform. The believers in God, including young women, say the ban on women is not such a great evil that atheists should try to “reform” a cultural code. They point out that women of all faiths are allowed in Ayyappan temples but in Sabarimala, the God is present as a celibate, who does not wish to see the allure of women. Atheists find this laughable. But believers say it is bizarre that the world must consider the fable of religion extremely important, yet tinker with its story arcs. By the way, by “believers in God”, I don't mean those who say “I believe in a force” or some such bull, but I certainly include staunch Christians and Muslims.
There are no clinching arguments in this debate. Both sides have very powerful arguments. The controversy, in fact, exposes the true nature of arguments. An argument appears to substantiate a belief, it appears to come inside a person's head to build a case, but in reality, if I may repeat a point I have made earlier in this paper, an argument is a reverse engineering of a religious moment. We believe first and then we discover or plagiarise strong corroborations to dress up our faiths, including “scientific” faiths.
Yet, in all walks of modern life, arguments have risen in primacy because they provide the farcical optics of democratic procedure. It is this cultural pre-eminence of arguments in our age that gave the Supreme Court the confidence which the Kerala high court did not have in 1991-to resolve after hearing “arguments” an issue that is in actuality impossible to argue.
Let us look at some of the arguments:
■ Once “low-castes” were denied entry into temples. Courts intervened. Religious sentiments were hurt, but now everyone is fine with it. This is how faith is reformed.
■ The “low-castes” wished to enter the temples, so it was a right that they sought. But women who believe in Ayyappan did not ask for the right to enter the shrine. It is a right sought and won by atheists, who do not care about religious practices.
■ The idea that any aspect of women is impure or that women are an embodiment of something alluring alone has no place in the modern society. Also, in the future, female believers of Ayyappan may have a very different view from their mothers.
■ On what moral authority are a handful of people deciding these matters for a majority?
■ The morality of law.
■ Can law colonise faith?
■ In any case, in any civilised society, faith is subordinate to the law. The temple's moral code did not kill people. The Supreme Court's verdict did. At times, the intervention of an unqualified group of intellectuals can be very dangerous.
■ Political thugs cannot be allowed to hold democracy hostage.
■ Law is subordinate to emotions of the public. The people who want women to enter the shrine are those who have no stake in how the public feels. But politicians do. This is exactly why major ambassadors of liberal values, like Shashi Tharoor, are opposed to the entry of women. Politicians, except the communists, have made very “conservative” statements.
■ The court is above public sentiments.
■ If judges can lean on “the collective conscience of the nation” to hang people, then maybe they should also respect the “conscience” when it enacts law.
Only people who are infected by ideology can find a moral hierarchy for such arguments. Yet, the Supreme Court did exactly that.
In such arguments, “liberals” usually use the future as a trump card. The present is defamed as an inferior time, and the future is promoted as something that has to be “better” than the present. But the present is an important dimension in any cultural debate. We live in the present, we are wounded in the present.
If you keep pampering the future, you will disregard the present of the people, and they will drag the future deep into the past.
Manu Joseph a journalist and a novelist, was a Mint Lounge columnist.