Paradox of Sabrimala temple raises serious questions about practice of religion: Shashi Tharoor


Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram is known for his plain-speak and not mincing words while commenting on issues of public importance. The politician from Kerala, who is now heading the All India Professional Congress, was recently in the news for his controversial views on the Sabarimala row.

Shashi Tharoor

Shreya Garg caught up with Shahshi Tharoor for a free-wheeling chat and began by asking how he would rate his tenure as a MoS in the external affairs and human resource ministry?

A. I do think I could make a difference from the external affairs ministry. As the MoS, I benefited from a genuine division of responsibility, and served as the de facto Minister for Africa, the Middle-east and Latin America, where I would travel to and speak for India, as well as for passport and consular matters, policy planning and for the Haj pilgrimage.
.On the other hand, as MoS in the Human Resource Development Ministry, no files stopped their journey at my desk, except temporarily on their way to the Cabinet Minister, with whom the ultimate decision making on all issues resided. Though I shared a very good personal relationship with the cabinet minister, this meant my role was limited to influencing and articulating policy, but not necessarily to making it. As I jokingly pointed out, when the Modi government was being sworn in, in many ways being an MoS is like standing in a cemetery: there are a lot of people under you, but no one is listening! And that to a great degree captures the experiences of an MoS in our government.

What are the chances of India becoming a member country in United Nations Security Council ?

A.Though I certainly think it is possible, whether or not it is probable or how it will happen remains to be seen, because at this point the momentum for any reform has unfortunately slowed down a lot. The mechanism of getting there requires the UN Charter to be amended, which is in itself a complicated process involving finding a formula that is acceptable to not just 2/3rds of the General Assembly but is also not unacceptable to any of the existing 5 Permanent members of the Security Council, whose powers could get diluted in the process. And that’s not an easy solution to find. Its already been 25 years since the then Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali first suggested that UN reform was long overdue. I remember him saying in 1993 that he wanted it sorted by the 50th anniversary of the organization in 1995. Since then, the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries have gone by and I seriously doubt that when the 75th anniversary comes along, which is just two years away, that there will be any significant progress on this issue.

You have quoted Swami Vivekananda extensively in your book “Why I am a Hindu” yet there are many groups which have misconstrued the idea of Hinduism. How do you intend to propagate his teachings to eliminate any ambiguity in future?

I certainly think that the Hindutva brigade has completely misunderstood the message of Swami Vivekananda and their attempts to project him as a Hindutva icon are ill-founded. Swami Vivekananda spoke about a Hinduism that is based on acceptance of diversity and inclusivity, whereas the Hindutva ideology that they propagate is an exclusionary, bigoted political doctrine and has little to do with Swami Vivekananda’s idea of Hinduism .

In your book “Why I am a Hindu” you have quoted Vivekananda as saying “Unity in variety is the plan of the nature”. What does he mean by that ?

Swami Vivekananda meant that if we look at nature, despite the diversity that exists,it is inharmony – that is the same core principle that Hinduism recognises. He quoted the Shiva Mahimna Stotram which stated that just as different rivers flow in different ways, some crooked, some straight, into the same ocean, so also different forms of worship reach the same divinity. “Ekam Sat vipra bahuda vadanti” – the Truth is one, but the sages call it by different names.

Swami Vivekananda believed in universal acceptance and accommodating all immigrants and refugees, he also said that Hindu word itself means tolerance. Do you believe in this ?

Yes, absolutely!In fact, as I mentioned earlier, Swami Vivekananda does not draw a distinction between one religion and the other. Swami Vivekananda’s idea was one of inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance: he said in his famous 1893 speech in Chicago that “I am proud to speak to you on behalf of a religion which has taught the world not just tolerance but acceptance”.In fact, thanks to him,I prefer the term acceptance. After all,tolerance is a slightly patronizing position. It says “I have the truth, I believe you’re an error, but I would indulge you in the right to be wrong,” whereas acceptance says “I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth, I will respect your truth; Please respect my truth.” That is the best prescription for a multi-religious society like ours, and today the best way for a pluralist democracy to flourish. We were never brought up to believe as unfortunately, members of the Sangh Parivar do, that Hinduism is the best faith and that everyone else should be hit on the head — that’s not our belief. On the contrary, Swami Vivekananda explicitly has pointed out that there are so many different parts to the divine, so many different parts to the truth. Our scriptures, we don’t even have one single holy book; we have multiple holy books.

Could you please explain your rationale for revising your stand on Sabrimala judgment soon after the SC verdict came about and considering it’s a blatant violation of the right to equality?

As I pointed out in a detailed Op-Ed, I had initially taken the view that when there is a clash between two Constitutional principles — in this case, Article 14, promoting equality, and Article 25, promoting religious freedom — it is the duty of the Supreme Court to reconcile the two or decide which one should prevail. The Supreme Court did this, by a 4-1 majority, in favour of Article 14. And I reacted by expressing my respect for their verdict.
But as subsequent reactions in Kerala demonstrated, abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance — all the more so when they are applied to matters of faith. It is all very well to say that religions must adhere to the normal rules of liberal democracy, but the truth is they don’t. Gender equality is a vital principle in civic society and in political democracy, but it is by no means universally observed in the religious world. Just look at the example of a 1000-year-old temple in Kanyakumari, called the Kumari Amman Temple, where only female devotees worship Devi as a virgin, the “Kanya”goddess for whom Kanya Kumari is named, and male devotees are not permitted in the sanctum sanctorum.

I implore people to ask themselves if the abstract principle of equality of gender is more important than the point of view of the religious faithful and their respect for the sanctity of their temple.What if men were to protest and were allowed entry into the temple, would it not destroy the sanctity of the place for lakhs of women worshippers? The paradox of the Sabrimala temple raises serious questions about the practice of religion–a woman who believes in the power of the Sabrimala myth and wishes to worship there will not go till she turns 50 because it would be incompatible with her faith and beliefs in Lord Ayappa. Those women who wish to enter the temple before they turn 50 are the those who don’t believe in the nature of Lord Ayappa: they are going out of curiosity, not belief. Therefore, the paradox is that they are essentially converting what lakhs of people see as a sanctified, sacred site into a tourist site. Similarly, in western democracies, there are clear rules as to what is permissible and what is not; however, the actual way in which the religion is practiced is left to the people.

Why would you oppose Triple Talaq bill which is a fairly progressive bill if it could be extrapolated to a larger section of society after a subsequent amendment?

The practice of Triple Talaq has already been declared illegal, therefore, there is no need for a specific bill per se. It doesn’t protect Muslim women; it penalises Muslim men. Rather than focusing on the larger of mistreatment and the abandoning of wives and other dependents – which is not purely a Muslim problem — it criminalises an otherwise civil offence, making it even more difficult for a dependent to get any sort of support from the man since he can hardly be expected to provide that from jail. The bill is merely apolitically motivated legislation by the BJP government that is manifestly arbitrary and has no safeguards against its misuse.

I must congratulate you on the amendments proposed in various bills. One such intelligent and empathetic amendment is to criminalize marital rape. However, what would be the differentiation in quantum of punishment between in and outside marriage rape charges ?

Rape is rape — it is the Judge’s job to decide on specific cases. As a parliamentarian, I only draft the law to be applied in such situations. My main point is that rape is not about sex, it is about violence, and ought to be treated as such.

Then why can’t there be an amendment in the Domestic Violence Act itself to include marital rape as an offence?

Marital rape is not dealt with under the Domestic Violence Act and is therefore still legal in India. Through my Bill, I am recommending the removal of the exception of marital rape from the definition of rape, which will thereby criminalize this heinous offence. It istime to accept that women have autonomy over their bodily integrity, and one has to let go of this archaic view of the marital relationship.

Also, is this marital rape bill gender specific ?

No, it is not gender specific.However, de facto, as you know,it is usually men who are guilty of raping women with whom they share a marital relation.

Your Bill to legalise online sports gambling and the freedom of literature bill might open floodgates for gambling industry and pornographic industry. Your views on that ?

Let’s face it, if you are inclined to do something bad, you will find a way to do it, whether it is legal or not. Now, most people that I know wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to gamble in an addictive manner. They might occasionally bet about something they might care strongly about. That kind of thing I would feel ought to be regulated, kept clean and taxed. In view of all of that, it’s good for the country.

A total prohibitory approach towards betting and gaming will only push the entire market into the black economy – by regulating the sector, the bill will be able to weed out criminal syndicates from the industry. Therefore, this bill essentially provides a regulatory framework. And it will bring revenues to the government.

Part of our obligation as lawmakers and representatives of society is to see society as honestly as it is. Now we may aspire to make it something else, and that could certainly be worked on, but to pretend that something is not there, to bury our head in the sand is an irresponsible action, we should recognise what there is and seek to regulate it in a way that makes it safe for everyone.

Shreya concluded her interview with a rapid-fire round with Dr. Shashi Tharoor.

1. IPL is – Fun to watch, easy to forget
2. Surgical strike was – Something that has been done several times in the past and is being unnecessarily hyped today.
3. You describe feminism as – Every single modern person ought to be a feminist irrespective of gender, I am glad that we are seeing women challenge vested authority today.
4. MeToo movement is – The MeToo movement is about more than creepy sexual behavior; it is about exploiting a power differential. The controversy has made men more conscious of their behaviour & women of their rights. The next challenge is to instil in society a culture of true respect for the dignity & autonomy of women.

5. Trump should –Resign (Laughs)
6. Rahul could –Rahul could be our Prime Minister in few months time. (Smiles)
7. Modi will – Modi will step down in May 2019.
8. Mamta Banerjee and Mayawati are – Feisty, remarkable and courageous women.
9. You can’t – I can’t get enough hours in the day to do all that I want to do.