Cocktail of Religion and State

Sankara Narayanan

According to the media reports including The Hindu and  The Times of India, special 'yahams' were performed on June 01 2015 at various Hindu temples in the Cauvery delta districts under the auspices of the Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu state, for invoking the blessings of the Almighty for the timely onset of North-East monsoon.

The 'yahams' were in glory of Sri Ganapathy, Lord Varuna (rain god), and Lord Anjaneya to propitiate gods for a good monsoon and adequate flow in the river. Various river basin and canal divisions of PWD (Cauvery delta districts) organised the pujas at the state's cost. Senior officials participated in the special abisheks and pujas.

All these pujas, yahams and abhisheks were conducted on June 01 2015 in accordance with a 'confidential' circular issued by S Asokan, Chief Engineer (irrigation) to all the Executive Engineers in May 2015 so that the state would get more rains and the Metur dam would have more water. Further, the officer also wanted to know the status of the performance of the pujas.

In normal times itself, the cocktail of politics and Hindu faith has been the norm of Jaya's government. Every person from her party willing to contest the election for state legislature or Parliament has to enclose a copy of one's horoscope along with the application to the party. Only after an astrological scrutiny, they will be considered for distribution of ticket.

It went to ridiculous levels after she was convicted for corrupt practices by a Karnataka state trial court in Oct 2014. Ministers, MPs, MLAs, party functionaries and state officials had broken whatever little barrier existed between the party, state, bureaucracy and religion. State officials openly organised and a few of them actively participated in the dramas like mass tonsuring, carrying fire pots, walking on the fire bed, piercing tongue and skin with needles, rolling around the temples, eating prasad served on the floor etc in appeasing the Gods and Goddesses to save Amma from the clutches of law.

A public interest litigation petition was filed in the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai seeking a direction to the state government to initiate punitive action against the PWD chief engineer for issuing a circular last month asking his subordinates to perform special prayers in temples for a good monsoon this year.

The petitioner, N Ilango, an office-hearer of Madurai bench of Madras High Court Bar Association, accused the chief engineer of having failed to perform the fundamental duties cast upon every citizen, under Article 51A(h) of the Constitution, to develop scientific temper, humanism, spirit of enquiry and reform.

In his strongly worded affidavit filed along with the petition, the advocate said: "The act of the chief engineer is not only a mockery but also idiotic. He, a postgraduate in engineering, has gone to the level of directing his subordinates to perform puja for getting rain... Definitely, this method would not have found place in his BE or ME syllabus."

The petitioner also stated that the State government had issued communication to all officials way back in 1968 itself directing them to remove pictures and idols of Gods and Goddesses from government offices. It was followed by a Government Order passed in 1993 directing Collectors and other Heads of Departments not to allow construction of religious structures within their office campuses. Further, as early as in 2010, a Division Bench of HC directed the government to make sure that the 1993 GO was implemented in letter and spirit.

Despite these orders, government officials were continuing to indulge in religious activities, such as conducting special pujas seeking rainfall, the petitioner contended and urged the court to order initiation of disciplinary procee-dings against the chief engineer.

When the matter came up for hearing, the division bench of justices S Manikumar and G Chockalingam said the circular was stated as a confidential one and wanted the petitioner to explain how he had got it. Getting copy of any govt letter—ordinary or extraordinary—is a child's play. Don't the judges know about it?

The court's reaction is surprising especially in the era of Right to Information and transparency in governance. It should have been made available in the public domain. Instead of questioning the chief engineer why such a secret letter for conducting the special puja, the judges in all their wisdom questioned the petitioner how he had got a copy of that letter. They must be reminded of the decision of the apex court in the PIL by Prashant Bhushan against a former CBI Director. The apex court had ultimately accepted Bhushan's right to protect the whistle blower.

Before adjourning the matter to June 30, the court should have simply questioned the state govt whether one such stupid letter was issued and if so what was the necessity to keep it a closely guarded secret. Why was it not made known to the public? Why did the state govt disregard its own directives issued in 1968 and 1993? Why was the direction of HC issued in 2010 disobeyed? Is conducting puja for rains is like an issue involving the troop movement or the travel plans of the CM or PM under Z-category security? Can the state violate the secular credentials enshrined in the constitution by openly converting the state into a Hindu religious mutt?

Vol. 48, No. 3, July 26 - Aug 1, 2015