“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms…”, said German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. India is a secular country with religion occupying centre stage. Religion is, has always been, an indispensable and ineffaceable part of human civilisation. Man is “incurably religious”, and Indians more so. Sir Harcourt Butler, first governor of United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, had rightly said that the “Indians are essentially religious as Europeans are essentially secular. Religion is still the alpha and omega of Indian’s life”. The litigation about the Bengaluru Idgah and the Hubbali Idgah is yet another example of the centrality of religion in our lives and how it can be used for political purposes.
What is the religion-state relationship under our constitution? What kind of freedom of religion has the constitution guaranteed? What is the history of Ganesh Chaturthi? Why should faith communities, rather than the state, come forward to resolve such disputes? These are some of the issues at the heart of the Idgah controversy.
Freedom of religion can be best described as the relationship between religion and the individual from which the state is completely excluded. The state is expected to maintain a principled distance from all religions. Moreover, the state won’t align itself with any particular religion, particularly the majority religion, nor pursue any religious tasks of its own. To the framers of our constitution for a multi-religious society like ours, the state’s neutrality in religious matters was the mechanism to regulate inter-group behaviour.
Unfortunately, the Indian state, rather than withdrawing from religion, has been playing a central role in religious matters in the name of “public order”. To further their narrow political ends, political parties too have been using religious idioms in their election campaigns. Even in the latest controversy, the Karnataka government did not demonstrate the desired neutrality. The matter unnecessarily went to the high court and Supreme Court.
Inter-religious disputes are best resolved by the faith communities themselves. It would have been much better if the organisers of Ganesh Chaturthi had entered into a dialogue with the Waqf Board and involved liberal Muslims in the deliberations. Ideally, in the spirit of tolerance and accommodation, the Muslim management should have come forward and helped the organisation of the Ganpati festival. Such an action on the part of Idgah committee would have created an atmosphere of amity and harmony.
The state’s active involvement in support of one community’s demand in order to garner a few votes is short-sighted strategy. Coercion and use of state power in such contentious matters not only goes against the neutrality principle but also undermines the lofty ideal of “fraternity” mentioned in the preamble of our constitution.
The visionary framers of the constitution, in their wisdom, made the freedom of religion the most restricted fundamental right — it is not only subject to public order, morality and health but also subject to all other fundamental rights. The right to profess, practise and propagate certainly includes the right to take out religious processions as we rejected in the Constituent Assembly the suggestion by Naziruddin Ahmad to insert the word “privately” in Article 25. Accordingly, religion is in the public square.
Ganesh Chaturthi had also played a major role in our freedom struggle. In fact, initially, the Hindu cultural revival in the 19th century and the freedom movement were intertwined.
The Hindu reassertion of rituals, pujas and processions did help mass mobilisation against the colonial government and ignited feelings of pride in the Hindus’ own spiritual heritage. In subsequent decades, some of these religious processions by Hindus as well as Muslims led to communal disturbances. In Pune, until 1894, Hindus used to enthusiastically participate in Muharram processions; in fact, they used to out-number Shia-Muslims. Hindu musicians were stopped from playing music before tabuts and Hindu girls were prevented from singing marsiyas(poetry commemorating Imam Husain’s Karbala martyrdom). Subsequently, Hindus were told not to celebrate an alien religion and Ganpati was organised on a much bigger scale.
One Marathi pamphlet said it in so many words — “by celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi festival with more and more pomp and by entertaining a pride for his own religion and Gods, every Hindu should give up fondness for an alien religion”. As a matter of fact, Ganesh Chaturthi as a festival used to be celebrated in a “quasi-public” way from the time of the Peshwas. It was fundamentally for the kinship group. By the 1890s, Ganpati celebrations were revived in a big way. The festival was not only deliberately modelled as a mirror image of Muharram but was also unfortunately politicised. But in 1895, to the disappointment of communalists, Hindus, in big numbers, returned to Moharram processions.
We must celebrate all festivals together in the spirit of harmony and brotherhood. The controversy over the 2.5 acres of the Idgah maidan in Bengaluru has revived memories of 1894. Till 1983, Ganesh Chaturthi used to be celebrated on the Idgah but then, just as in 1894 Muharram and the Ganpati festival fell on the same day, the Ganpati festival and Bakrid fell on the same day, leading to communal clashes.
The Waqf Board has been asserting its claim over this land for some 200 years. The claim was not denied by the state government in the Supreme Court and therefore the three-judge bench led by Justice Indira Banerjee ordered maintenance of status quo. On August 6, 2022, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) said that the Waqf Board has not registered the Idgah in its name in spite of having Eid prayers there since 1965. Karnataka High Court stayed the BBMP order on July 25 and permitted the use of Idgah not only for Eid prayers but also as a playground on Independence Day and Republic Day.
The BJP government within 24 hours moved the divisional bench and got the right to take the decision on the applications seeking use of the Idgah for Ganesh Chaturthi. The Waqf Board challenged this order in the apex court. When on August 30 a two-judge bench differed on this issue, CJI Justice UU Lalit immediately constituted a three-judge bench that eventually ordered maintenance of status quo.
The Waqf Board may have got a temporary legal relief but the task before the nation is to permanently kill the virus of communalism. A Muslim initiative to permit Ganpati pooja at Idgah would have been the fitting reply to those who want to take political advantage of people’s religious sentiments. Let there be peace between religions and fraternity between communities. Let the governments not deviate from the constitutional idea of absolute neutrality. Elections may be won or lost, but India as a multi-cultural nation must always win.
The writer is a constitutional law expert.