Seeking religious aid in governance in India

Faith-based institutions have played a pivotal role over centuries: it’s time to revistalise those links

Pallavi Sharma | February 28, 2020


#Secularism   #Governance   #Religion  
An aerial view of the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, 2019. The Kumbh administration is an example of religion and governance coming together. (File photo: Arun Kumar)
An aerial view of the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, 2019. The Kumbh administration is an example of religion and governance coming together. (File photo: Arun Kumar)

India is known for its old and rich culture, and religion forms a substantial part of it. In India it is hard to find people who categorise themselves as atheists, unless we refer to the matrimonial or dating apps that now have a breed distancing themselves from any religion and categorise themselves as spiritual rather than religious. But for all practical purposes, one inherits the religion one in born into, it is seldom changed. This communion with religion has been a part of Indian people and governance, from ages immemorial, whichever geographical boundary one refers too, be it the Vedic age, Mahajanapandas, Ashoka, Slave dynasties, Lodhis, Tughalks or Mughals.

This association had many advantages. For example, religious institutions also served as a medium to spread information both to the state and to the people. These were built on higher grounds, and thus were a natural point for people to gather and take shelter during disasters. These performed actions for welfare of society not restricted to religious rituals and were places for jamboree of people. Eventually, people inside these institutions became stronger than the institutions in every state; religion associated itself more with ritual, and economics of wealthy institutions corrupted people. As a result, we had to deal with ugly truths like the varna system, untouchability, devadasi tradition, jizya etc. These may have been more pronounced in the European countries that led to the severing of religion with state. Since we inherited the same ideology from the Government of India Act of 1935, which forms the major chunk of our constitution, the constitution makers decided to distance religion from state, though the word ‘secular’ was inserted much later. There were many ills then to make this seem logical, but did we really distance ourselves from religion? Should we? What were the consequences of this decision?

Starting with the consequence there is a broken channel now for the state, from an established route from the state to religious institutes to people. It made sure important information was communicated to all, especially women, since they frequented these places too – men still gather, go to work and have ways to get information, but for women a place to gather, seek valuable information was severed too. This led to a further weakening of religious institutions because information brings power not just to rule but to help too, whatever one chooses, so the communication and welfare have taken a back seat in comparison to their role previously. Gatherings do continue but the people visiting these have been restricted, not in numbers but maybe socioeconomic class too. And it is a known fact still that a hungry stomach in India can find survival at god’s doorstep. India being a god-fearing country, the opulence has not diminished, and if there was a census of growth of religious institutions India might be growing at an exponential rate.

But did the state really distance itself? It is called secular, and a dictionary meaning of the term is the doctrine that rejects the role of religion and religious considerations in matters of state. Did the state really reject it? No, if we consider our political realm where votes are garnered on Gauraksha, Ram Janmabhoomi, Dusherra celebrations or judicial interventions now on women’s entry into temples, or even constitutional amendments on abolition of untouchability, protection of minorities, and the government-offered hajj subsidies for welfare of minorities or maintaining Vaishno Devi Shrine board. The Indian state conveniently uses the word ‘secular’ to construct its own meaning of being equidistant to all religions, ensuring protection of the rights of the minorities. Therefore, there is no iron-clad distinction, and an amalgamation which does not weaken the social fabric can be considered.

Now coming to the question why we should consider a greater role of religion in governance. Apart from the above two of providing a communication route and places for disaster management, we still have a lot many ways in which religion influences people, for example, in relation to their food choices, marriage, child birth, clothes, education, economic choices etc. A few of the religious institutions have humongous riches, like the Tirupati temple, Padmanabham temple, Banglasahib gurudwara, Shirdi Sai baba temple, and they are in a position to economically help the government. According to domestic tourism statistics, around 63,000 households do conduct a weekend religious trip, which means a substantial form of tourism in India is religious. Therefore, the people-religion connect is still strong. Unfortunately, we do not have much research on contribution of religion to welfare in India, maybe because in India’s custom is to never count the good deeds.

But India can learn from international experience. A book titled ‘Development and Faith’ published by World Bank in 2007 documents how these organizations never separated themselves from development, even when the inverse relation ceased. It discusses how a Friday morning group of six people in 1980, discussing problems related to faith, led to a movement that reinvigorated interest in faith and development. Three major assemblies in the early 21st century marked revival of faith in development. The book shows how cognizance of their role both development organizations and institutions of faith, clarity in objectives and goals, effective communication and other steps taken to augment partnership helped in effective achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eradication of HIV, fighting malaria, providing healthcare. This reciprocity yielded two-way benefits, as exemplified by the fact that when the new World Bank president sought help from faith organisations for eradication of poverty, there was a prompt commitment till 2030 from these organizations.

For the religious institutions, it might bring them more reverence from people, aid their welfare goals and bring them more satisfaction. There are countless temples where a tile, a fan etc have a testimony of people donating the same for welfare, to have their name written in history. If donations are routed through the religious route, people also get more satisfaction. Therefore, the state should look for ways to seek religious aid in governance. Look at religious funding as CSR funding, seek their help in governance programmes.

This is a subject that should find limelight in India. We must talk about ways to do this, the background knowledge that is needed, the capacity we need. There should be debates on how to resolve issues when religion and state differ in their vision, when economic aid seeks right in governance, faith literacy, capacity of religious organisations to participate, setting goals and objectives for corporation. For a rising India, it would be meaningful to build all lost interconnections, while rejecting their ills.

Pallavi Sharma, a sustainable development consultant, has worked with the National Institute of Urban Affairs, has been a researcher at IIT Delhi and won DAAD Scholarship to Germany during her Masters.

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