Three weeks have passed since the filing of chargesheet in the Kathua gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu.
Meanwhile, media houses have played up stories of brutal sexual assaults prominently. Just last week, two more horrifying cases of rape and murder were reported from Jharkhand. Both involved minor victims being set on fire after the rapes.
In these three weeks, reams of newsprint, countless digital space and thousands of hours of TV time have been used to express outrage at the culture of rape in India.
A substantial amount of news space on the Kathua case has also been dominated by the politicisation of the matter, which eventually led to the Supreme Court rejecting the demand of BJP-linked groups for a CBI probe, and ruling that the case cannot be heard in J&K, but in Pathankot in Punjab.
Despite intense and enduring national and international focus on the Kathua case and violence against women, there is a particular set of people who have remained silent throughout. These are the so-called godmen (and women) belonging to all religions.
Their silence has been so ear-shattering that it begs the question: What is the role of religion in a country like ours? Besides upholding their particular religion and spreading its teachings, aren’t practitioners of religion (priests, saints, clerics, godmen/godwomen etc) expected to be custodians of basic human values of equality and dignity?
In an electoral democracy like India, non-religious institutions like a free and fair press, civil society and to some extent the judiciary, have traditionally been the keepers of public morality and collective conscience.
While the latter three have often been found in the forefront of struggles for an equal and just polity - be it the issue of manual scavenging, women’s rights, or freedom of expression - the religious set or sector as it were, comprising millions of monks, priests, ascetics, maulvis, imams, padris, saints etc, is often found tongue-tied on issues such as caste-based atrocities, gender-based violence, patriarchy and communal bigotry.
Their silence is indefensible because by remaining quiet these "baba log" as well as members of the fatwa brigade (of all persuasions and beliefs) send out a ringing and loud message of approval.
And, it isn’t that religious leaders don’t speak out. They are an articulate set of people who weigh on a host of other topics such as population explosion, terrorism, divorce laws, cow-slaughter, beef-eating, "love jihad", girls doing yoga, whether girls should wear jeans, secularism, role of women in society, eating chowmein, influence of western culture, mobile usage by girls, Pakistan, whether Padmavati was assaulted by Allauddin Khilji, and whether Babur destroyed a Ram temple to build a mosque, to name a few.
These holy men and women of piety, who command the devotion of millions belonging to every cross-section of our polity, are perhaps the largest set of influencers in India. And they are not limited by technology either as they have been long present in every village and neighbourhood of the country.
On a daily basis, we allow them to guide us owing to their almost irreplaceable position as interface between god and godliness, and us. And yet, these influencers — from an ordinary pandit or a maulvi with a handful of followers of him or his place of worship — to the largest temples, mosques, ashrams and madrasas, choose to sit silent on issues that directly affect the overall development of Indian society.
Why is it that we don’t hear them or see them say or do anything substantial about malnutrition, child marriage, caste-based violence, male preference, or, the culture of violence against women, which at present is dominating the public discourse in the country?
Sri Sri Ravishankar, the kohl-eyed guru who involves himself in politically loaded causes as grand and as intractable as the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi dispute and farmer suicides, is nowhere to been seen in the national discourse in the wake of the Kathua gang rape and murder and other rapes since then. What will make him question the culture of rape in India with the same vigour that he shows for other issues?
Also silent, for example, is Swaroopanand Saraswati of Dwarka who is often in the news for his opposition to the RSS and the BJP. He recently made comments to the effect that the RSS and the BJP are damaging Hindu religion, but he too has hardly ever spoken against well-entrenched evils such as discrimination based on birth and gender in India.
Another leading Hindu saint who has not broken her silence is Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as the "hugging saint".
Like many others of her ilk, she regularly donates to disaster-relief, and other philanthropic causes but, despite her national reach and acceptance, she has not been able to utter a single word in public denouncing the toxic masculinity that underlies the culture of violence against women.
These are just a few examples and the point of naming the above few is to not shame them but to light up the darkness that marks the silence of religious leaders on such contentious issues.
The commonly sighted reason for this silence is that they are beings immersed in religion and spirituality, and not politics, and worldly affairs. This is a specious excuse because it is such men and women who make religion, who control it and "work" it. People run religions and, therefore, like any other institution or enterprise, the way religion is being run, indeed needs to be interrogated and reviewed.
This becomes even more imperative given that it is well-known that religion and state have become ever more entangled in a unholy nexus since neo-liberalisation.
This unity of selective silence becomes louder and hard to ignore when godmen and godwomen are regularly seen using their spiritual and religious clout to legitimise people in power as well as agendas of governments.
It’s not as if religious bodies don’t resort to interventions in public issues. In September 2017, in the wake of the deadly riots that followed the arrest of north Indian godman, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the All India Akhara Parishad, an umbrella organisation of Shaivaite and Vaishnavite monastic orders issued a list of 14 godmen (and women) who it considered as "fake".
The step was welcomed as it sought to warn people against getting exploited in the name of religion and faith. But, here too, the Akhara Parishad can be rightly criticised for only picking on those they consider "illegimate saints" like Ram Rahim and Radhe Maa. The main reason for this lack of legitimacy is that often such saints are not part of the Hindu religious mainstream that is controlled by Brahmins.
Bodies like the Akhara Parishad and the bigger monasteries, sects (for example: the Swaminarayan sect) seldom if ever issue diktats on issues that relate to governance. Even after the horrific gang rape and murder of an eight-year old girl in Kathua none of the leading religious leaders and gurus made their disapproval known in public.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (linked to the RSS), its cadre of saints, never misses an opportunity to rally around issues of communal nature, but never around issues like malnutrition, and rape in the same way.
At most what we get is a whimpering criticism instead of the fiery speeches that "VHP saints" are known to make. It’s hard to believe that these "men of wisdom" do not realise the import of their silence.
Marx has been wrongly criticised for comparing religion with opium. Even if religion was to be oxygen of the masses, we, as its consumers and receivers, ought to periodically review the quality and content of that oxygen (religion), and check whether the right people are delivering it in a safe and hygienic way.
The silence of the "babas" points to a deeper malaise in religion.