By Namita Bhandare
By some uncanny coincidence, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to confer minister of state (MoS) status on five godmen, one of whom goes by the name, ‘Computer Baba’ (apparently he has a memory ‘like a computer’), comes days after Netflix began streaming Wild Wild Country, the true story of the misadventures of ‘Bhagwan’ Rajneesh in Oregon, USA.
You’d be forgiven for believing it’s fiction. A charismatic godman, flowing beard and all, sells his koolaid philosophy of free sex and conspicuous consumption (one of his wristwatches cost a million bucks – that’s dollars, not rupees) that finds a market among westerners but is greeted with somewhat less enthusiasm in Pune where the ashram is based.
High on hubris, the Rajneeshis resolve to build their own Shangri La, choosing a tract of 64,000+ acres in Oregon, California. You know right then that the red-robed Rajneeshis are doomed to clash with the local god-fearing Christians. Add to this, some hard-to-miss bigotry (one state official describes Rajneesh as an Ayatollah Khomeini) and you pretty much know the ending; no spoiler alerts here.
India’s fascination with godmen is probably as old as its history and past regimes have flaunted their own Rasputins: Dhirendra Bhramachari for Indira Gandhi and Chandra Swami for Narasimha Rao.
Nearly 18 years after Rao’s death, we’ve moved past those days when shadowy figures lurked in the corridors of power peddling their shady dealings. Today, we have a range of godmen from Asaram, currently in jail on rape charges, to Baba Ram Rahim, also in jail after a rape conviction.
Some like Baba Ramdev, “the penniless yogi who controls a billion-dollar corporation” have built empires and others like Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have social solutions to current problems: Muslims should gift the land in Ayodhya for the building of a Ram temple, he says.
Yet, Chouhan’s decision to confer MoS status on five unelected godmen in an election year is unprecedented. And worrying for two immediate reasons.
The first is the ethical breach. It has been reported that these godmen had planned to launch a Narmada Ghotala Yatra on April 1 to highlight a slew of ills from Chouhan’s apparent failure to stop cow slaughter to alleged corruption in the planting of saplings along the Narmada river.
With Chouhan’s announcement that planned agitation has miraculously vanished. “We are sadhus and don’t need any status,” said a grateful Computer Baba. “But a warrior needs certain resources to fight in a war. Hence, the facilities as MoS will help us.”
The entitlements the famous five will receive are yet to be spelt out, but MoS are generally entitled to government vehicles, house rent, and a monthly salary or, to put it more respectfully, an ‘honorarium’. All this comes out of the state exchequer.
The second reason is more worrying, and that is the far-reaching implications of the appointment on the secular character of our Constitution.
Even though the word was brought into the Constitution only with the 42nd Amendment, there is still ambiguity about what constitutes secularism and what it means.
In recent times, as women themselves question discriminatory practices, the questions have included whether a truly secular state can allow different religions to hold different personal laws.
In a secular state, should religion be a purely personal and private matter, removed from issues of governance?
What are the implications on majoritarian rule when Hindu godmen receive official benediction?
At a time when sickular is the word used to denigrate a liberal mindset, what does this promotion of sadhus and sants mean to the social fabric of this country?
Unfortunately, nowhere does our Constitution specifically mandate a separation of state from religion, leading to this sort of ambiguity.
Some ministers of this government along with members of the BJP’s parent body, the RSS, have made no secret of their desire to change the Constitution. In December, a junior minister Anantkumar Hegde declared: “We are here to change the Constitution” – a statement that the ruling government sought to distance itself from.
After Yogi Adityanath – also a man in saffron — was appointed Uttar Pradesh chief minister, eminent jurist Fali Nariman asked if it was the “beginning of a Hindu state”.
That question is no longer merely rhetorical. If state governments can confer ministerial status to godmen and holy men, how long before we have an official priestly council directing governance?
How long before the word ‘secular’ itself is junked?
@NamitaBhandare writes on social issues
By Namita Bhandare