In a popular film during my college days, John Malkovich’s hijacker threatens to kill the pilot of the plane after killing the co-pilot. The pilot reminds him that if he is killed then nobody on board would be able to fly the plane. Malkovich answers, “I never think that far ahead!”
I am often reminded of his funny exchange while reading the various battles the Hindu right gets into where zeal and a strong sense of being wronged often clouds sound judgement and an ability to assess future consequences of own actions. The recent enthusiasm towards a PIL filed by a Chennai-based lawyer to stop government from using temple funds for flood relief is a good case in point. A few days back, I came across this conversation on Twitter and was struck by the gung-ho enthusiasm of supporters and the strong sense of victimhood accompanying it.
Before we discuss why this is a battle the Hindu right would be well advised to stay away from, a brief disclaimer - I am not in favour of government ineptness being covered by private largesse as a rule. When Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Dr Udit Raj had suggested a public movement to “demand” temple funds for Kerala flood relief, I had written a strongly worded rebuttal to it. Nor am I blind to the discriminatory treatment the Hindu places of religious worships face when it comes to government intervention. However, this demand raised mostly by online right that temple funds to be earmarked solely for ‘dharmic’ purposes, points to a worrisome strain of intolerance towards the weaker section among their own. Therefore, the scope of this article is largely whether a law/court order restraining temples (or government acting on their behalf) from using temple monies for purposes such as flood relief and rehabilitation is in the larger interests of the Hindu society as a whole.
The most worrisome aspect of this issue, and possibly the reason to pen this piece, is the appropriation of voices of many by a vocal few. Sadly, this is becoming a trend in our discourse where a few wilful individuals with the right platforms/celebrities backing them, can quickly assume mantle of representative of a section of society. On what basis are we saying that Hindus don’t want their donations to be used for their lesser fortunate brethren?
I, for one, put money in my local temple donation box regularly, and not only would I not mind, but I can’t think of a better use of the money than helping someone truly in need of it. How do we make sure that my voice is a truly minority opinion, and then how do we make sure that in this case the minority ought to be overridden by majority? As long as we are getting upset with someone else deciding how the money we donate should be spent, why should the group fighting PIL get to decide how to use my money?
The two arguments put forth by this group are 1) why Hindu temples only and 2) why should money of Hindu religious institutions be used for state relief (since the state would have people of all religions). When you consider these arguments from the point of view of those needing help, i.e. the flood victims, they don’t make sense. If you are a Hindu from Kerala or Karnataka, does it matter to you whether other religious institutions are offering help to their own or not? In fact, many of the victims of this flood disaster might have donated money to these temples during better times. The “why Hindu Temples only” is hardly a valid argument to keep them from getting help. The second argument of the help not being directed at people from one religion is equally hollow. Effectively, you are saying given the choice between not helping a Hindu and helping all, the former is somehow more acceptable.
While we are on this topic, I also must take an exception to this penchant of unusually strong words used by Hindu right in such issues. It is doing no good to anyone, least of all the affected Hindus of the region, to read terms such as jizia and “stop temple loot” describing an order (unfair as it might be) to essentially help the victims of flood relief. This is the ugly face of the class war that we keep seeing in Indian society where ‘othering’ the have-nots is not only tolerated, but treated as a symbol of virtue. This won’t do any good to the unity of the Hindu samaj in the long run.
The moral considerations apart, there is also a very strong sense of incongruity about this position with other goals for the Hindu society. For instance, we keep reading about making the temples as a centre of political and social power. With great power comes great responsibility, can a case be made for greater power (autonomy) for the temples, while expressly refusing to use it for the greater good of the lesser fortunate sections of the society? During the recent assembly elections in Karnataka, BJP had made temple autonomy as part of their manifesto. How many of BJP’s rural lower income voters would be enthused by this point, now that they know that the autonomy might result in access to help in time of need being cut?
In the last few years, judicial intervention on what Hindus consider as religious issues has been a very contentious point. In fact, even as I am completing this article, the Supreme Court has ruled that woman of all age have the right to enter the Sabarimala temple. Other issues such as the Jallikattu races and Dahi Handi have drawn similar critic of judiciary from many ordinary Hindus. How consistent is it to invite the same judiciary in the religious affairs when it suits one’s purpose? If there is an adequate case for such ideological inconsistency, it must be explained with context.
Thirdly, refusal to help in times of distress is completely inconsistent with the goal to outlaw institutional conversion out of Hindu religion. There is simply no moral, ethical or logical ground on which you can legislate against helping people in your own religion and also seek to close the exit doors on them. If the Hindu Right aims to protect its own from the evils of religious conversion, it must learn to be more magnanimous than this.
As we live in the age of distinction denial, my argument above is bound to meet with rhetoric like “then do we simply allow government to loot temples?” As I have mentioned earlier, I am not in favour of government ineptness being covered by private largesse. However, in this case, a judicial intervention, even if successful, (and as I write these words a tweet confirms that the government has indeed withdrawn the notification asking temples to donate money) will only affect those afflicted by the flood.
You can’t be insensitive towards those people to mark your autonomy against government. The ideological position on this must be 1) no opposition in principle to temple donations being used for relief work but 2) seeking guidelines to be made for such instances in future. Such guidelines can either specify events that warrant such help (to avoid this becoming the go-to plan of action for governments) or capping the amount pledged. Being stubborn and simply saying “hell no, we won’t!” might make for good social media grandstanding, but in a war to preserve and revive a civilisation, it will turn out to be a strategic blunder.
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