July 29, 2016

The Kanwaria Yatras: In India We've come to accept that public piety can trump civic rights (Anjali Modi)

scroll.in, August 17, 2015

Sacred vs secular
Why do Indians tolerate religious rituals on our streets but frown on protest demonstrations?
It's baffling: We've come to accept that public piety can trump civic rights.

Image credit: IANS

by Anjali Mody

The Kanwaria Yatra, the annual pilgrimage that Shiva-bhaktas make on foot to Haridwar to collect holy water from the Ganga, has turned into a spectacle of men in orange shorts and tee-shirts, on trucks and tempos, slowing down traffic on New Delhi's highways and arterial roads. Those stuck in their cars seethe and mutter and tweet about being discommoded by the rather impious-looking Kanwarias. But there is something oddly hypocritical about this complaining. For the rest of the year New Delhi, like most other Indian cities, appears to have little problem with the appropriation of public spaces by the pious.

There is practically not a day of the week when adherents of one or another religion are not in occupation of pavements or entire streets somewhere or other in our cities, disrupting other people’s lives. If on Tuesdays for Hanuman, on Thursday it’s the bhaktas of Shirdi Saibaba, and on Friday it’s the weekly namaz. This is apart from streets being taken over for, among other things, chariot festivals, Sikh nagar kirtans, Durga puja celebrations, moharram tazias, and saints feast-day processions.

Religion it seems has the first claim on public spaces in India, but the secular rights of citizens – for example, to unimpeded and safe pavements – comes much further down the list. In Indian cities, the democratic right to hold a protest demonstration is always contested. A curfew order is permanently in place, for example, in New Delhi along routes leading to parliament. When demonstrations are allowed, they are policed by baton-wielding cops. But the pious of all faiths are given free range over city streets and public spaces and deferentially protected by the same police force.

Which category of citizens?

In Mumbai, the High Court responded to a rare legal challenge to the annual disruption caused by the Ganesh festival by issuing orders against granting permission for pandals that inconvenience the general citizenry. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, confirming that the state rates religious rights higher than civic rights, challenged the order saying that it would cause “great hardships and inconvenience to the mandals as well as organisations which will result into great hardship to the community at large”. The High Court, shot back: “Our orders, simply state that the discretionary powers granted to municipal commissioners for erection of pandals shall not be exercised if it causes hindrance to traffic and pedestrians. We fail to understand which category of citizens will suffer if our orders are implemented.”

The Bombay High Court’s orders are an affirmation of the universal claim over public spaces like pavements and roads. This should be the norm in any reasonable society. But the truth is that there are just not enough people who feel it should be so. This is why the appropriation of public spaces in the name of religion is a constant process.

A fine example is the still-growing temple on the wide pavement outside a building called “Secular House” in New Delhi. Behind its statues of various Hindu deities, the temple has a massive portrait of Shashi Bhushan, the Gandhian Socialist founder of the Institute of Socialist Education for which Secular House was intended. It is in the natural order of things for our country that a man whose life was dedicated to secular education and who once defeated the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Balraj Madhok, in a parliamentary election is now a deity in a temple that is squatting on a public pathway, forcing pedestrians on to the road and obstructing drivers’ view of on-coming traffic.

The temple is a permanent celebration of the triumph of public piety over civic rights. There are temples, like this one (minus the portrait of a secular saint), and chapels and mosques around the country whose adherents' unshakeable faith sees off even the Supreme Court, which in 2013 affirmed that the “public road is not anyone’s property. Each citizen has a right to use the road and that right cannot be interfered with or impeded by constructing a temple, mosque, church or gurdwara or by installing the statue of a public figure.” This was just a few years after it had passed an order stating: "Henceforth no unauthorised construction shall be carried out or permitted in the name of Temple, Church, Mosque or Gurdwara etc. on public streets, public parks or other public places etc." and exhorted state governments to deal with existing illegal structures expeditiously.