Culture

Hijab: Choice or Rule – An Indian Viewpoint

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The Hijab: To wear, or not to wear, that is the question.

The question was answered by two Honourable Judges of the Supreme Court but, at the end of the day on October 13, there were two Opinions, but no Answer. As a result, Ms Aishat Shifa and Ms Tehrina Begum, born and raised in a small town called Kundapura, district Udupi, Karanataka, are unable to resume their studies in Government Pre-University College, Kundapura.

Both students were in the second year. Since the day they had joined the college in the previous year, they had worn the hijab — a scarf that covered the head and neck but left the face visible. The hijab was worn in addition to the prescribed uniform.

On February 3, 2022, they were stopped at the gate and told that they would have to remove the hijab before entering the college. They refused, they were denied entry, and that is where the matter stands eight months later.

Hijab is no different

A woman wearing the hijab causes no offence to anybody. It is not against public order, decency, morality or health. Irrespective of the religious significance, a woman wearing the hijab is not very different from women in India who cover their head with the pallu of their sari or a duppatta. Men wear turbans. Sikh men cover their heads with a pagari. Many states of India have distinctive headgear worn on special occasions (e.g. the Mysuru peta).

What is the central issue of the controversy? Amidst the screaming headlines, the cacophony on television, the flood of comments, trolls and memes in the social media and the lofty pronouncements of worthy leaders, the central issue has been lost. In my view, the issue boils down to one word: CHOICE.

Fascinating Fencing

There are two approaches to the question of ‘choice’ concerning wearing of the hijab. I may illustrate the two approaches by quoting from the opinions of the two honourable judges, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia:

Justice Gupta: “The practice of wearing of hijab may be a ‘religious practice’ or an ‘essential religious practice’ or it may be social conduct for the women of Islamic faith…The religious belief cannot be carried to a secular school maintained out of state funds.”

Justice Dhulia: “Whether wearing hijab is an essential religious practice or not is not essential for the determination of this dispute. If the belief is sincere, and it harms no one else, there can be no justifiable reasons for banning hijab in a classroom.”

Justice Gupta: “… the decision of the state government mandating the College Development Committee to ensure the students wear the uniform as prescribed does not violate the freedom guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a), rather reinforces the right to equality under Article 14.”

Justice Dhulia: “Asking a pre-university schoolgirl to take off her hijab at her school gate is an invasion of her privacy and dignity. It is clearly violative of the Fundamental Right given to her under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.”

Justice Gupta: “Therefore, the Preambular goal of justice, liberty, equality or fraternity would be better served by removing any religious differences, inequalities, and treating students alike before they attain the age of adulthood.”

Justice Dhulia: “This is the time to foster in them sensitivity, empathy and understanding towards different religions, languages and cultures. This is the time when they should learn not to be alarmed by our diversity but to rejoice and celebrate this diversity.”

Justice Gupta: “If they choose not to attend classes due to the uniform that has been prescribed, it is a voluntary act of such students and cannot be said to be in violation of Article 29 by the state.”

Justice Dhulia: “If she wants to wear hijab even inside her classroom, she cannot be stopped, if it is worn as a matter of her choice, as it may be the only way her conservative family will permit her to go to school, and in those cases, her hijab is her ticket to education.”

Choice or Rule

Some commentators have complained that when there is a movement for shedding the hijab in conservative Iran, it is surprising that a section of the Muslim community should defend the right of girls to wear the hijab in classrooms in modern India. The criticism is completely misplaced. On a closer look, the controversy is the same in both Iran and India: it is about ‘choice’. It is like the controversy in America over the woman’s choice of abortion.

The controversy is between ‘Choice’ and ‘Rule’. ‘Choice’ represents freedom, dignity, privacy and diversity. ‘Rule’ is often a product of majoritarianism, intolerance and drive for uniformity.

 ‘Choice’ will yield to ‘Rule’ in certain situations that attract the grounds contained in Article 19(2) or Article 25(1) of the Constitution — public order, decency, morality and health — and in certain other provisions of Part III of the Constitution (fundamental rights). Absent such grounds, ‘Choice’ must prevail.

Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia upheld ‘Choice’ because the hijab may be the girls’ only ticket to education. Justice Hemant Gupta upheld the ‘Rule’ although the state showed no compelling necessity.

Let the larger Bench of the Supreme Court lay down the law. Meanwhile, each one of you must decide whether you stand with ‘Choice’ or ‘Rule’.

Time Now That Hindu Religion Should be Defended

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2 mins read

Millions of Hindus who lived in the past and who live at present time have been believing that philosophy and way of life enunciated by Hindu religion and enriched by Vedas , Upanishad and Bhagawad Gita and thoughts lucidly explained by great Hindu scholars like Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and others can never become extinct in the world and therefore, there is no need for defending Hinduism at any time. This belief has brought great qualities of tolerance amongst Hindus towards other religions. In such scenario, practitioners of Hindu religion have never attempted to convert those belonging to other religions to Hinduism. Of course, this is as it should be.

With the entry of Moghul rule in India several centuries back, a large number of Hindus were systematically and forcefully converted to Islam and the rest of the Hindus never protested and not even took serious note of it. In the same way, when Europeans entered India and started ruling the country, millions of Hindus were systematically and cunningly converted into Christianity and again, the Hindus, by and large, never protested in any visible manner.

With Islam and Christianity firmly entrenched in India now and with their growing population, India, which has been considered as a Hindu country, has now become a secular country. Again, Hindus in India do not seem to be particularly concerned about this.

However, in recent years, one can clearly see that there has been an aggressive campaign to convert Hindus to other religions by fair or foul methods, which are too visible and cannot be ignored anymore.

While such conversion attempts are continuing with no significant protest from a large section of Hindus , what one cannot miss is the hate campaign against Hindu religion that has been launched in recent years.

Such hate campaign against Hindu religion continues to remain strong and at disturbing level particularly in Tamil Nadu, amongst all other states in the country.

While the hate campaign has been there in Tamil Nadu for more than seven decades now, in the last eighteen months, after the new government assuming power in Tamil Nadu, the hate campaign is now continued with high level of intensity, focus and perhaps, with silent and tacid support from the political party presently ruling in Tamil Nadu.

The ongoing hate campaign is so vigorous that some hate campaigners with little knowledge of Hindu ethos have started questioning the existence of Hindu religion itself. They are saying in a notorious manner that there have been no Hindu religion in the distant past. Several misinterpretations are given to confuse and fool the gullible people.

What is very unfortunate is that the print and visual media in India, which are all the time looking for sensational and so-called breaking news, without examining whether the news and events are absurd and newsworthy, give huge publicity to hate campaigners and organize counterproductive debates. As a result, the Hindu hate campaigners in Tamil Nadu have a field day with the media giving huge publicity to their baseless observations bordering on absurdity and in the process, even providing undeserved publicity to the motivated Hindu hate campaigners.

As the situation in Tamil Nadu has become now so serious that can erode the future base of Hindu religion in Tamil Nadu, there seem to be no alternative other than defending Hindu religion and Hindu way of life with high level of determination by Hindus in the state.

The Hindu hate campaigners in Tamil Nadu have temerity and arrogance to say that Thiruvalluvar, the great philosopher poet, was not Hindu and even removing sacred ash from the forehead of Vallalar, one of the greatest Hindu philosophers known to mankind. There have been huge interference in the affairs of Hindu temples by the present Tamil Nadu government, upsetting the rhythm in the Hindu rituals and with the government going to the extent of misusing the property and other possessions of Hindu temples as per their whims and fancies.

The essence of this article is to stress the fact that the Hindu religion now has to be defended, even as those belonging to Hindu religion should not attempt to convert people belonging to other religions to Hinduism.

The hate campaigners against Hindu religion obviously think that Hindus would not react even to the extreme level of hate campaign. This confidence of Hindu hatemongers need to be punctured effectively.

Without Culture, Freedom Is Impossible

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6 mins read

In 2002, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro Ruz visited the country’s National Ballet School to inaugurate the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival. Founded in 1948 by the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (1920–2019), the school struggled financially until the Cuban Revolution decided that ballet – like other art forms – must be available to everyone and so must be socially financed. At the school in 2002, Castro remembered that the first festival, held in 1960, ‘asserted Cuba’s cultural vocation, identity, and nationality, even under the most adverse circumstances, when major dangers and threats loomed over the country’.

Ballet, like so many cultural forms, had been stolen from popular participation and enjoyment. The Cuban Revolution wanted to return this artistic practice to the people as part of its determination to advance human dignity. To build a revolution in a country assaulted by colonial barbarism, the new revolutionary process had to both establish the country’s sovereignty and build the dignity of each of its people. This dual task is the work of national liberation. ‘Without culture’, Castro said, ‘freedom is not possible’. 

In many languages, the word ‘culture’ has at least two meanings. In bourgeois society, culture has come to mean both refinement and the high arts. A property of the dominant classes, this culture is inherited through the transmission of manners and higher education. The second meaning of culture is the way of life, including beliefs and practices, of a people who are part of a community (from a tribe to a nation). The Cuban Revolution’s democratisation of ballet and classical music, for instance, was part of its attempt to socialise all forms of human life, from the economic to the cultural. Furthermore, the revolutionary processes attempted to protect the cultural heritage of the Cuban people from the pernicious influence of the culture of colonialism. To be precise, to ‘protect’ did not mean to reject the entirety of the coloniser’s culture, since that would enforce a parochial life on a people who must have access to all forms of culture. Cuba’s Revolution adopted baseball, for instance, despite its roots in the United States, the very country that has sought to suffocate Cuba for six decades.

A socialist approach to culture, therefore, requires four aspects: the democratisation of forms of high culture, the protection of the cultural heritage of formerly colonised peoples, the advancement of the basic elements of cultural literacy, and the domestication of cultural forms that come from the colonising power. 

In July 2022, I delivered a lecture at Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, a major institution in Havana’s cultural life and a heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico, that centred on ten theses on Marxism and decolonisation. A few days later, Casa’s director, Abel Prieto, also a former minister of culture, convened a seminar there to discuss some of these themes, principally how Cuban society had to both defend itself from the onrush of imperialist cultural forms and from the pernicious inheritance of racism and patriarchy. This discussion provoked a series of reflections on the process of the National Programme Against Racism and Racial Discrimination announced by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in November 2019 and on the process that led to the 2022 Family Code referendum (which will come to a popular vote on 25 September) – two dynamics that have the capacity to transform Cuban society in an anti-colonial direction.

Dossier no. 56 (September 2022) from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Casa de las Américas, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, contains an expanded version of that lecture with a foreword by Abel Prieto. To give you a taste of it, here is thesis nine on the Battle of Emotions: 

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.

One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’. The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.

A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.

From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.

It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.

In the early years after 1959, Cuba convulsed with such surges of creativity and experimentation. Nicolás Guillén (1902–1969), a great revolutionary poet who had been imprisoned during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, captured the harshness of life and the great desire for the revolutionary process to emancipate the Cuban people from the wretchedness of hunger and social hierarchies. His poem ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’) from 1964 tells us that the new culture of the revolution was elemental – the feeling that one did not have to bow one’s shoulders before a superior, to say to workers in offices that they too are comrades and not ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, to walk as a Black man into a hotel without being told to stop at the door. His great anti-colonial poem alerts us to culture’s material foundations:

I have, let’s see,
I’ve learned to read,
to count.
I’ve learned to write,
and to think,
and to laugh.
I have, yes, I have
a place to work
and earn
what I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I have to have.

At the close of his foreword to the dossier, Abel Prieto writes, ‘we must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct’. Reflect on that for a moment: anti-colonialism is not just the ending of formal colonial rule, but a deeper process, one that must become ingrained at the instinctual level so that we can build the capacity to solve our basic needs (such as transcending hunger and illiteracy, for instance) and build our alertness to the need for cultures that emancipate us and do not bind us to the flashy world of unaffordable commodities.

Source: The Tri Continental.Org

The Role of Religion in Our Society

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5 mins read

We are agricultural societies that have industrialized within one or two generations…If you look at Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore – there’s been one remarkable phenomenon – the rise of religion…there is a quest for some higher explanations about man’s purpose. About why we are here. This is associated with periods of great stress in society. ~ Lee Kuan Yew

We live in the Anthropocene –  an era of profound social disturbance caused by man-made and natural disasters.  Both Mother Nature and Father Time are punishing us.  Never in the annals of human history have we given ourselves deadlines to avert disaster.  Yet, we believe that we’ll find some way to get out of the  mess. This could well be our natural inclination toward religion – in our faith and belief.

Religion is fundamentally a matter of faith and belief which, although not mutually exclusive, represent two different aspects of one’s religious persuasion. While faith represents trust or dependence in one sense, it also represents “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”. Belief on the other hand is defined as  “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists – a religious conviction – trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something”. In other words, faith and belief supplement each other, often confusing the literati until explained with clarity by someone (other than the writer) who might be more erudite in the scriptures of the various religions that exist in the world today.

What is even more interesting is the definition of the word “religion”.  Yuval Noah Harari in his much acclaimed and celebrated historical work “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” defines religion as “ a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order”.  Harari distinguishes his statement by saying that religion differs from a sport – say professional football – on the point that whereas human beings invented the structure, rules and conduct involving football, religion is not the product of human whims or agreements. He goes on to explain that “FIFA may any moment enlarge the size of the goal or suspend the offside rule”.

It is reported that approximately 85% of the world identifies with a religion. The most popular religion is Christianity, followed by an estimated 2.38 billion people worldwide. Islam, which is practiced by more than 1.91 billion people, is second. However, population researchers predict that Islam will have nearly caught up to Christianity by 2050.

So, what caused the popularity of religion in society?  Samuel Huntington, University Professor at Harvard University in his ground-breaking book “The Clash of Civilizations and  Remaking the World Order offers an explanation, “ The most obvious, most salient, and most powerful cause of the global resurgence is precisely what was supposed to cause the death of religion: the processes of social, economic, and cultural modernization that swept across the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Long-standing sources of identity and systems of authority are disrupted. People move from the countryside to the city, become separated from their roots, and take new jobs or no jobs. They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships.  They need new sources of identity, new forms of a stable community and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion…meets these needs”.

In other words, religion gives us a sense of identity and direction in a world in which we are struggling to survive amidst the machinations of greed, ambition, self-interest, and downright evil.  The growing social dimension of religion may have emerged as a result of the transition of society from the agricultural revolution   (which was accompanied by a religious revolution) to the industrial revolution and onwards to the knowledge revolution, which could have prompted Jean Paul Sartre to say, “Hell is other people”.

Here’s my take.

Any religion or philosophy of life (such as Buddhism) must be based on the pursuit of a good life. Michael Sandel – also a Harvard professor – put it best when he said “the common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, and the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life”.  Our lives must be shared with one another, and to successfully accomplish this goal, there must be a fusion or extension of the holy scriptures ( The Holy Bible; The Holy Quran; or The Bhagavat Geeta, to name a few) to the wisdom of our generations, while preserving our beliefs and faiths. As the father of existentialism – Soren Kierkegaard – a devout Christian of Danish origin said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.  Kierkegaard brought a potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom – what he called “the leap of faith”.

Study.Com carries an interesting piece about the leap of faith: “the definition of a leap of faith is a person having trust in something despite the lack of logic, reason, and rationality. They leap, figuratively, to interact or explore this thing. The phrase is significant to understanding the stages of human existence, which comprise a transition from one stage to another through this leap.

When someone believes in God, this would require a leap of faith for Kierkegaard. It disregards any logic and reason because there is no proof that this exists. In moments of despair, confusion, or other feelings of uncertainty and doubt, faith in God is done out of volition. When a person has faith in God, there is nothing that can measure it. It is an intangible phenomenon. For example, there are no predictable stages in life, changes, or movements and actions that a person must go through to garner this conclusion that they have faith”.

There is no scientific evidence that God exists. But we humans believe and indeed know of the existence of things that are scientifically inexplicable.  Take consciousness for example. Each of us knows we have consciousness or awareness, but we cannot scientifically prove it, nor can we ascribe a reason for its existence.  It is this consciousness that enables us to gain knowledge and wisdom through communal endeavours.  We advance our global communities through our consciousness.  At the same time, we also destroy ourselves through our consciousness.

As Deepak Chopra says: “Consciousness is that thing in you that is reading and understanding these words right now. It is the awareness that has made you sentient to every thought, sensation, and feeling your entire life. It is the continuity of your life that has stayed the same while all of the details of your life change. Consciousness is your essential nature, your true self that is the silent basis of all your thoughts and actions”

Consciousness, when blended with the communal nature that religion infuses in us will ultimately help us in conquering natural and man-made disasters while humanism (belief in oneself and no other) alone will not take us through the serious business of existing on this planet.  One may well argue that if we are impelled to act in consonance with our consciousness, we may hear God speak.