The address by the Jain monk, Tarun Sagar ji, to the Haryana assembly has exposed deep constitutional and cultural faultlines. A number of issues have been thrown up by the debate that followed. But these do not adequately capture the stakes in what transpired. The constitutional mindset revealed in this episode should be deeply dismaying, both to those who care about constitutions and those who care about religion.
But first, let us set aside a technicality. In Parliament, there is an express prohibition even on using the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as “lecture halls,” as it were. State assemblies have had more lax rules. Outsiders have been occasionally invited to address legislators. But they are addressing a group of legislators, not a legislative assembly. And they have used the same hall where the legislature meets. So technically we can make this distinction: A group of legislators, not a legislative assembly in session qua its legislative function, is being addressed. But the invitation was certainly deeply inappropriate and should not set a precedent. The fact that it was an all-party invitation might rescue this episode from political partisanship. But it makes the constitutional imagination at work all the more dismaying.
The address itself was underwhelming. It had more low comedy and violence than you would expect. But what should worry us is the constitutional imagination it displayed. The central premise, expressed in patriarchal language, was that dharma has to tame politics. This is an enticing idea, but deeply flawed. Our family’s Jain preacher, Hastimal Maharaj, used to have a rather different metaphor for the relationship between dharma and politics. There are different kinds of dharma, but each has its place. In fact, entangling them should be a cause for concern.
Society needs both dharma in the sense Tarun Sagar ji used the term, and politics. But both have to run in parallel, like different pillars holding up society. They are not to be entangled. This is because they have different logics; dharma is more likely to be contaminated by power. It can be on display in crude material ways: When both politicians and preachers seek favours from each other; where dharma gurus are put in the position of having to eulogise politicians or put power on a pedestal more generally. But in a deeper sense, the two are parallel because a constitutional and political morality on the one hand, and dharma on the other, are very different. One way in which the two are different is that the central challenge of politics is plurality, not conviction. How do I deal with those who disagree with me?
One contrivance to deal with that question is: Respect other people’s rights. To respect other people’s rights means that they cannot be made instrumental to social goals that you might consider desirable. Part of what is dangerous about constitutional discourse in India is that this plain truth is being disregarded. What might be an appropriate debate in the realm of ethics is not an appropriate one for politics.
Being vegetarian, not eating beef, perhaps even not drinking, or having no more than two children may be dharmic. They should be matters for voluntary persuasion and vigorous intellectual and moral debate. But those conceptions cannot and should not “tame” politics. Even “honesty,” something we desire both in dharmic and political conduct, will have different meanings: In politics it should always have reference to an institutional meaning, not some mysterious dharmic quality.
But more seriously, the erosion of rights at the altar of social goals, making rights instrumental, has become ubiquitous, often in the name of desirable goals. Remember, the Haryana government is not just regulating beef using state power. It also passed the blatantly unconstitutional and disenfranchising act of disqualifying those who have more than two children, or those who are not fully literate from exercising their political rights. Rights are sacrificed at the altar of social engineering — without even establishing any link between the two.
Tarun Sagar ji was right to raise the issue of female foeticide. But his articulation gave succour to those whose constitutional imaginations readily sacrifice rights to any social goal (again, deprive people of rights if they don’t behave in a certain way). What should worry us about this taming of politics by dharma is that it does not seem to understand constitutionalism as a distinctive morality. It partakes of the same confusion between “our ethos”, and the realm of legislation and constitutionalism, that so bedevils our government. When dharma becomes political, it contaminates constitutionalism.
But his presence also raised interesting cultural issues around pluralism, shame and the body. In a way, his presence was a riposte to liberals not because it was religious. But it did raise the question of how modern societies deal with really radical difference. How much are we seamlessly willing to accommodate cosmologies that are radically different, where monks are sky clad and inhabit public spaces? Or is modern society more disciplinary, and less pluralistic, than we suppose? We should not be so smug.
But there was also a deep irony in a Digambar monk’s articulation on gender equality. He gave all kinds of instrumental arguments for the worth of women, including acknowledging the fact that they prevented India from being “shamed” at the Olympics. But curiously he skirted a key issue. One difference between Digambars and Svetambars was over the possibility of attaining salvation in a women’s body (see the riveting study by Padmanabh Jaini, Gender and Salvation). Jains had very radical ideas that sexuality and biological gender need not be aligned. But both sects agreed that women could be nude. Both also saw the female body as a site of himsa, not an irrelevant matter in the context of temple entry debates. But Svetambars allowed for the possibility of women attaining moksa. Digambars also believed that following Mahavira’s example, being sky clad was necessary for salvation; hence women could not attain moksa in any straightforward way. Svetambars thought nudity was not necessary to signify the overcoming of all attachment. In short, “spiritual inequality” based on gender was more enshrined amongst Digambars.
There was something deeply ironical about a monk wading into public policy with an assortment of moral suasion (justified) and disciplinary proposals but no attempt to come to terms with the deep cosmological and spiritual premises from which questions of gender and inequality flow. In short, the real question is not taming politics with dharma; it is how to understand dharma differently. Unwittingly, Tarun Sagar ji showed that when dharma becomes political it ceases to have the ability to deal with genuinely dharmic questions.
The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor,‘Indian Express’
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