When an Indian pilgrimage becomes a vote bank

February 14, 2008

Y.S. Reddy comforts boat disaster victim in Andhra Pradesh, 19. Jan 2007/stringerFor an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.

This kind of subsidy is not new. The central government has for years offered subsidies to Muslims wanting to join the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. New Delhi even has a special haj air terminal for Muslims, who account for about 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population. Tens of thousands travel every year from India.

But the latest announcement has sparked debate in India over whether it further eats into the country’s secular ideals.

“The government has undermined Indian secularism once again,” said one India’s leading newspapers, the Times of India. The Indian constitution says there should be no discrimination on religious grounds. It is broadly intepreted to mean that none of India’s religious groups, whether majority Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs, should ever dominate. That secular identity was the pride of many of the country’s founders 60 years ago after independence.

The hajThe debate is now focused on what kind of secularism should exist. Should there be the kind of separation of church and state as in France, where the idea that religion should be kept out of public life is strong? Or should India make compromises by appeasing minority faiths to ensure religious harmony?

The original argument for subsidies for Muslims, who are among the poorest members of Indian society, was that it helped them go on the haj many could not otherwise afford. It’s still controversial, though, and even one of India’s school text books has a chapter titled “Should a secular state provide subsidies for the Haj pilgrimage?”

But critics say the latest move over Christians was a cheap populist trick ahead of state elections this year. While Christians account for only 2 percent of Andhra Pradesh’s population, that’s still 1.2 million people.

Subsidies like this have long been criticised by India’s main Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party has asked why Hindus, who account for about 80 percent of the population, don’t get subsidies to visit Hindu temples. For the BJP, the current secularism in India is another word for “appeasement of minorities”.

Indians vote in Uttar Pradesh, 18 April 2007/stringerDefenders of the move argue that India’s secularism is much more loosely fitting, as highlighted by the controversy last month when the French government awarded an exiled Muslim woman writer in India with the Simone de Beauvoir Prize. That prize met with silent disapproval from the Indian government, worried the award could incite Muslim groups. It showed how the Indian government is reluctant to speak publicly of lofty secular ideals — ideas the French loudly defend — if it means upsetting a religious group.

The debate this time round has also come down to politics and electoral votes. As the Times of India‘s Ronojoy Sen pointed out, those opposing the subsidies to Christians should also oppose the haj subsidy. But no political party, even the BJP, has ended that.

With 13 percent of India’s population, that’s a lot of Muslim votes to lose. Especially in an election year.




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