Mitali Saran: The extempore has no clothes

On the subject of Jain monk Tarun Sagar’s much-glorified extempore speech to the Haryana Assembly, I’m okay with the naked bit. Monastic nudity is a powerful statement about detachment and spiritual striving, and it takes enormous commitment to walk around naked in a clothed world. Good for him. Course, it would be a much more convincing philosophical stand if Jain nuns also walked around naked, since they are also spiritually striving humans, but then religion is very clear about what it thinks of women and their bodies. Whatever—I’m okay with Tarun Sagar going starkers. But that’s the least important part of the whole thing, and it only clouds the issue.

It is nothing short of pathetic for a religious figure, no matter how little or how much clothed, to a) be invited into a house of secular democracy against the rules, and b) deliver a speech about how politics must be subservient to religion—like a wife to a husband. Instead of a howl of protest from lawmakers, whom you might expect to most cleave to their own powers, we got only oily enabling, in the form of a raised dais for Tarun Sagar. By the way, he was invited to speak by the education minister. #Facepalm.

When hapless Vishal Dadlani tweeted his disgust of the whole matter, packs of god-botherers immediately jumped down  his throat and filed a police case for hurting religious sentiments. Instead of lawyering up and standing for the right to criticise religion and religious leaders, a right which needs to be repeated often and loudly, he put out a statement of cloying contrition and praise for Tarun Sagar’s ‘magnanimity’ in ‘forgiving’ him. While that’s disappointing, I don’t judge Dadlani—it takes so much time, energy, and resources to fight stupid court cases, that you can’t begrudge anyone for choosing not to sacrifice their peace of mind.

But surely somebody has to? Surely that’s what the state, which serves the Constitution and is meant to uphold the law, is meant to do? Fat chance. You couldn't hear yourself think for all the sanctimonious tut-tutting from Arvind Kejriwal and co. And while the opposition cried foul on Tarun Sagar’s speech, it was about what he said more than the fact that he was allowed in. At the end of the day, every single political party is a devoted boot-licker of religion and religious leaders. So don’t be counting on the police or the local MLA to help you out should you find yourself faced with an army of religious zombies clutching FIRs.

But it’s infuriating, and saddening. When did India become the place where religious leaders give speeches that politicians say cannot be criticised? Where a whole area in Mumbai has to restrict its diet because of one religious festival? Where the game Pokemon Go is slapped with blasphemy and hurting religious sentiments because it features virtual eggs at virtual places of worship? Because yes, that happened, hitting world headlines. Just remember, Hindu nationalists, that just because the world shakes our hand and invites us to parties and signs deals with us, doesn’t mean it isn’t pointing at us and laughing.

We’ve hit a whole new level of religious crazy. It’s not elevated, it’s not sacred, it’s not spiritually evolved, it’s not worthy of reverence and respect—it’s just flat-out crazy. And our leaders are too invested, too calculating, too venal, and too irresponsible, to call it out. As a nation we seem to be pivoting away from rationality and problem-solving, towards the anti-intellectual path of docility and problem-avoidance. Why are courts even admitting complaints like the Pokemon Go case? Aren’t we supposed to be interpreting law to expand rather than constrain freedom, and promote rather than undermine scientific temper?

But that principle seems like a long time ago, before religion became a pillar of state policy—unofficial, unsaid, but fully expressed. To sow religion in politics is to reap low-hanging fruit. it’s just too tempting for politicians to ignore.

Meanwhile, all the unctuous hypocrisy about respecting all religions is plain damaging. I don’t, particularly—religions strike me as overhyped spiritual-political pacifiers, administered by spiritual-political pacifier salespeople. I have no beef with them either, as long as they don’t try to impose themselves on me, and stay within regulated noise limits. But until Indians can not just criticise but lampoon religion, make comedy out of religious leaders, write or film factual and analytical work on religions and their leaders, respect people instead of religions, and develop a healthy skepticism of ‘stature’ and holiness, we will be at the mercy of whichever soft-headed bigot or autocrat manages to gain power.

Keep religion out of politics, for (as they say) god’s sake.
Mitali Saran is a Delhi based writer. Email:

Twitter: @mitalisaran