Shashi Tharoor’s ‘intellectualism’ and ‘liberalism’

Justice Markandey Katju


In his article ‘ Why Sabarimala issue leaves instinctive liberals like me torn ‘ Shashi Tharoor has revealed much about himself and his claim to be a ‘liberal’ and an ‘intellectual’.


He writes that on reading the Sabarimala verdict he at first approved of it. This is of course expected of our ‘liberals’ who profess to be great champions of women’s equality, overlooking the fact that women’s equality is a feature of industrial society, not of a semi-feudal society like India (in fact even in industrial society women’s equality was won after great struggles like the suffragette movements, and in USA women got the right to vote only in 1920 by the 19th Constitutional Amendment).


But Shashi Tharoor’s  ‘liberalism’ did not last long. As he himself says, he found that upto 90 percent Kerala Hindus showed by their demonstrations etc, that they were against the verdict. This must obviously have made him realize that his Hindu vote bank may be adversely affected if he does not change his ‘liberal’ stance. Also, it must have dawned on him that the judgment cannot be selective for Hindus alone, for on the same logic demands may soon arise to give entrance to Muslim women to mosques (though in theory there is no bar, in practice hardly 1 or 2 percent Indian mosques permit entry to women).


But having already spoken out in favor of the judgment it was of course difficult for him to make a complete about turn. So, what does Shashi do? Like a clever politician he equivocates.


He writes ” In implementing the Supreme Court verdict the politicians should have sought to reconcile the principles upheld by the Court with the believers’ sense of the sanctity of their faith. There is a need for a mutual engagement between the liberals and traditionalists on what their convictions and doctrines mean in a changing world. The Court judgment might have been the occasion for such an engagement. ”


Now does this carry any sense? Regarding the Sabarimala verdict either one can agree with it or disagree with it. There is no middle ground. If one is a ‘traditionalist’ one will say that religion is a matter of faith, not reason, and since the Ayappans (devotees of Lord Ayappa ) believe that he is a Naishthik Brahmachari ( celibate) menstruating women cannot be allowed in his presence, otherwise the very nature of the temple gets destroyed.


On the other hand, if one is a ‘liberal’ he will stand for women’s equality, and regard the Naishthik Brahmachari idea to be irrational and humbug.


Obviously, there is no meeting ground here. So how can one ‘ reconcile the principles upheld by the Court with the believer’s sense of the sanctity of their faith ‘ when the two are irreconcilable, and what will any ‘ mutual engagement between the liberals and the traditionalists ‘ achieve except acrimony, abuse and possibly even violence?


What should the correct approach towards the Sabarimala verdict be? In my opinion it can only be that of Justice Indu Malhotra, the sole dissenting Judge on the bench, who rightly held that religion is a matter of faith, not reason, and in a country like India with such tremendous diversity it would be extremely imprudent for Courts to intervene in religious beliefs and practices.


There are numerous religious places with their own peculiar rituals and customs. For instance, in Srinagar there is a Hazratbal shrine which is believed to contain a hair of Prophet Muhammad. One cannot ask the question whether it is really the Prophet’s hair, and what proof is there for such assertion? The only legitimate question which can be put is whether the people who come to the shrine believe it is the Prophet’s hair? The answer is yes, and the matter ends there. Some years ago, the hair disappeared resulting in massive disturbances in the Valley, which ceased only when it was recovered.


In Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh there is a Sitaji’s rasoi ( kitchen ) where it is believed Sita used to cook food for Ram and Lakshman. In Kandy, Sri Lanka there is what is believed to be a Buddha’s tooth. The Lourdes in France is believed to have healing powers, and the same is believed about the church in Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, which is called the Lourdes of the East.


All these are matters of faith, and they cannot be tested on the anvil of reason. In fact, all religions are superstitions and unscientific.


Yet the fact is that religion exists, and is particularly strong in underdeveloped countries like India.


The basis of religion is the feeling of helplessness before natural and social forces (originally all religions were nature worship e.g. worship of Vedic gods like Indra, Agni, Surya, etc). The lives of poor people are so miserable that they would go mad if they did not have religion as a psychological support. And even for the middle and richer classes, the chance factor is so powerful in life that they plan one thing but often something else happens. Hence, they believe some supernatural entity controls their lives, which has to be propitiated. For instance, there can be business losses due to poor management, recession, change of govt policy, etc. Therefore, most businessmen are highly religious, going to temples to please the gods who may save them from losses.


The truth is that it is not because of some supernatural entity but because of the low development of science as yet in the world that we are unable to control our lives. So, religion (and with it irrational beliefs and practices) will continue to exist for several more generations, maybe for over a century from now, until science has advanced to such a high level that we are able to control our lives. Any attempt to obstruct religious beliefs and practices are usually counterproductive as it makes people more bigoted and aggressive, as was witnessed after the Sabarimala verdict.


About all this our so called ‘intellectuals’ like Shashi Tharoor have no understanding, yet they strut around among the ignorant public who keep clapping their hands and bowing their heads at the former’s ‘profundity’. But when it comes to reacting rationally to a problem like the Sabarimala judgment our ‘liberals’ and ‘intellectuals’ are all at sea.


[Justice Markandey Katju, former Judge, Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are his own]


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