Swami Agnivesh & Rev. Valson Thampu

The Lashkar-e-Jabbar's diktat banishing Kashmiri Muslim women behind purdas needs to be resisted at all cost. It is yet another illustration of the archaic mindset that drives all fundamentalist projects, irrespective of the religious mask it wears. As is well known, a psychology of regression drives religious fundamentalism. Irrelevant to the challenges of the present and blind to the opportunities of the future, fundamentalists equate the essence of a religion with the trappings of its past and go about imposing their version of the religion concerned upon those who cannot resist their will. Since the whole project is patently irrational, it has to be implemented with brute and vulgar force. Often, fundamentalist fury is directed as much against one's own people as it is against the supposed enemies of one's faith.

The imposition of a dress code on women as a sign of refurbishing the identity of a particular religious community raises certain fundamental issues that need to be examined.

The first issue is that of gender discrimination. It is a feature common to most religions that their womenfolk are subjected to prescriptions and restrictions from which the men exempt themselves. Hindu women, for instance, fast for the welfare of their husbands; but Hindu husbands do nothing of the sort for the wellbeing of their wives. If the burqa is such a crucial part of Islam, surely the men not less the women should be obliged to wear it. Indeed the best way to motivate women to wear the burqa with a sense of pride is for men to take to burqas themselves. It was by emulating the example of men, for instance, that women learned to smoke and drink.

The second issue pertains to the legitimacy of coercion in matters of faith. While it is true that religion all through history has resorted to violence, the fact remains that coercion of every kind is incompatible with spirituality. Religions are the embodiments of divine love. Love abhors the use of force. When, in rare situations the use of force becomes absolutely necessary, the wisdom of love ensures that it is used only and absolutely for the good of those who are its objects. Such coercion as the way of love would allow, in other words, is untainted by injustice. Gender-based discrimination is quintessential injustice.

The use of force, condemnable as it is in religion, is all the more repugnant when coercion is employed in promoting or perpetuating trivialities that have no spiritual significance whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the crude readiness to deploy violence in the service of the trivial is a patent sign of the indifference to what is essential. The terrorists of religious trivialities, that is to say, are perforce alien and indifferent to the essence of their faith. Truth to tell, it is lack of spiritual understanding that deceives people into thinking that by resorting to violence they can advance the cause of their religion. There is no way anyone can combine spiritual sensitivity with coercion, especially coercion vitiated by gender-discrimination. It is an encouraging sign, hence, that several Muslim groups, including the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, have condemned this outbreak of crude fundamentalist zeal in Kashmir.

The third basic issue here is that of the gross misunderstanding of religion itself. The Vedas say: Na lingam dharma kaaranam (no external symbol can be the basis of true religion). The Bible condemns the preoccupation with the 'form of religion' and the indifference it indicates to 'the power of spirituality'. It is a sign of the advancing decay of our religiosity that people now see religions only in terms of their superficialities: a colour, a costume, the food a person eats or does not eat, and so on. Those who are clad in saffron or, what is worse still, those who daub this colour on their flag, are Hindus even if they are strangers to the spirit and ethos of the Vedic faith. Those who wear white cassocks are super Christians, even if the cassock is purely Arabic in origin and the individuals who wear it could be indifferent to the spirituality of the Bible.

The irony, of course, is that the eagerness to impose religious labels and trappings on one's co-religionists displaces one's duty to understand one's faith. Islam represents compassion, equity, and social justice, which helped this religion to reach out to the oppressed people. Now, in the name of religious resurgence, this egalitarian and compassionate faith is being degraded into an alibi for oppression. Consider the tell-tale instance of Atiqa Akhtar from Qamarwari who stumbled over her own burqa and fell while getting off a bus near Lal Chowk, and sustained head injuries. Several women who are wearing burqas for the first time in their lives are, reportedly, finding it difficult to walk on the streets. A sane principle in respect of all religious prescriptions is, "do not impose on others what you do not want imposed on yourself". Only those who wear burqas and are experientially convinced of its spiritual blessings have the moral right even to recommend its use to others. Burqas, in other words, should be made mandatory for those who are itching to impose it on their womenfolk.

Finally, the switch over to burqa cannot be free from commercial considerations. Imagine the quantity of cloth required for burqas to be made for all the Muslim women in Kashmir! It is a multi-crore business. In spite of the threat of violence, only 80% of the women have been able to acquire burqas. The rest are, reportedly, moving about with their heads covered with scarves. This is a matter of infinite pathos, considering the poverty in which majority of the people languish in this conflict-ruined state. The poor people are made to bleed in all sorts of ways by all kinds of people. Those who are so persuaded that burqa is of the essence of Islam must authenticate their zeal by supplying burqas free of cost. It is lamentably cheap to prove one's religious fervour at the expense of those who cannot resist one's fundamentalist dispositions.

India, thank God, is not a theistic state but a liberal, secular democracy. The fundamentalist project to impose religious trivialities on people who are protected by the law of the land needs to be seen not as a religious issue but as an assault on the Indian Constitution and our pluralistic and secular ethos. The State as well as all right-thinking people must resist the eruptions of fundamentalist frenzy of all hues. At any rate, the burqa, more than any other supposedly religious symbol is a symbol of privacy, and cannot be a matter of public imposition. You cannot construct in public the prison of privacy for your women when in public they have objections to it. While an individual or a group of people may decide to compromise their freedom voluntarily, no one has the right to impose any restrictions on others arbitrarily in the name of religion. We urge our Muslim brothers to raise their voice against this and all other archaic and irrational projects that can only discredit their great faith.