Giles Fraser asks whether religious leaders should have the same freedom of political expression as non-religious leaders (So is it one rule for the Hindus and another for the Muslims?, 16 May). This is an important question. Maybe one lawyer got the law wrong. Maybe in the cases Fraser details, there was “one rule for Hindus and another for Muslims”.
Fraser is free to generalise from this significant anomaly to all matters of religion and politics, but the can of worms thus opened might be bigger than he thinks. Should religious leaders have seats in parliament, where they can inhibit changes in the law, claiming special insight into suffering? Should they have privileged access to some schools, curricula and children? Should one person be both head of state and head of a particular religious group? Should prime ministers have any role in appointing leaders in that religious group?
The reverend ex-canon Fraser raises these and other important questions, and indicates that he has privileged access to the law on such matters. It would be inopportune for me to ask whether one religious leader should have an apparently perpetual column in the UK’s leading liberal newspaper.
• “So is it one rule for Hindus and another for Muslims?” No. It is one rule for the establishment and another for outsiders. Many immigrant communities hold to conservative social structures to survive in a hostile host community. This has made their leaders susceptible to being manipulated in the way alleged in the Tower Hamlets case. But many of the practices that Lutfur Rahman is accused of were learned by his party activists when they supported Labour’s ousting of the Liberal/SDP council of the 1980s.
As has been shown by the cases of Labour ballot fraud in Birmingham, this use of communal leaders to deliver votes can tip over into criminality. The same happened in Hackney in 1999 when a Tory/Liberal Democrat electoral scam in the orthodox Jewish community was revealed.
In the cases where the perpetrators of this misconduct are MPs from the main parties, the foot soldiers wind up in prison but there is no condemnation of the party or its elected representatives.
So when Tories flatter Hindu clerics barely a breath of concern is expressed, but Tower Hamlets First is hauled over the coals for its obsequiousness to Muslim clerics. It isn’t the religion that causes the difference, it’s the politics.
• Giles Fraser rightly highlights the president of the Hindu Forum of Britain, Trupti Patel, arguing that only a Conservative government will defend the caste system in the UK but, unsurprisingly, goes wrong in his comparison with imams supporting the disgraced former mayor of Tower Hamlets.
The principled position is to argue that political parties and local and national governments must refrain from granting privileges on the grounds of religion. Politicians, and indeed the wider public, should be reminded that back in 1936 the leader of the “untouchables” in India, BR Ambedkar, in his 1936 book Annihilation of Caste, thought that “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors”. In her introduction to the 2014 edition of Ambedkar’s classic work, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy argues that “for a writer to have to use terms like ‘untouchable’, ‘schedule caste’, ‘backward class’, and ‘other backward classes’ to describe fellow human beings is like living in a chamber of horrors”. So legislation that seeks to prevent such typology and attendant discriminatory practices in the UK is absolutely necessary.
University of Sussex
• Giles Fraser is correct to point out the double standard regarding Hindu endorsement of David Cameron and by 101 imams for Lutfur Rahman, the former directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in London. Yet, as Fraser also states, “there were other reasons that Rahman’s election was dodgy: vote-rigging, corruption etc”. Such mayors, as I showed in The State and Local Government (Manifesto Press, 2011), also remove the working class from this layer of local democracy; are the optimal internal management arrangement for privatised local government services; create an arena focused on personalities, not policies; have not increased turnout; and have an undemocratic voting system.
When Tories flatter Hindu clerics barely a breath of concern is expressedNik Wood
The left have also praised previous decisions by the archaic electoral court, which should be replaced with a quicker, simpler mechanism (including, as Unite argues, a right of appeal). Power in Tower Hamlets – even before the imposition of commissioners – was too concentrated in the hands of one person. US-style directly elected mayors, which the Tory government now wishes to impose on combined authorities, should therefore be replaced with the committee system to give all councillors the right to make policy again.
Dr Peter Latham
• Why is George Osborne so keen on city mayors that he increases the risk of bribery before allowing any hint of devolution of political power? Mayors are easier to bribe than city councils; the US and other examples tell us they are more prone to graft and corruption – and yet Osborne clearly wants to encourage this. What possible reason can he have for such an attack on democracy?
New Milton, Hampshire
• It is not difficult to understand why Trupti Patel’s letter to the Hindus did not violate the law of spiritual influence, but imams’ letter to the Muslims, which resulted in the mayor of Tower Hamlet’s dismissal, did.
The Hindu Forum of Britain is not a religious organisation – the word “Hindu” is used in a geographical, not religious sense, implying that any one from India or of Indian origin can join the organisation. The forum currently has more than 100 Indian organisations – and not all of them are Hindu – under its umbrella.
Hence, any “religious” instruction issued by Patel in favour of voting for the Tories would have carried no religious weight for voters whatsoever. Imams, by contrast, are religious figures. Not only are they entitled to issue edicts; their words are taken quite seriously by the faithful, especially when the contest is between a Muslim and a non-Muslim.
Randhir Singh Bains
Gants Hill, Essex
• Giles Fraser is somewhat dismissive of the absolute centrality of probity and incorruptibility to the smooth and honest functioning of societies. As new writings by Sarah Chayes and others have pointed out, much of the prevailing instability in world affairs – such as the misery of migrants in the Mediterranean and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – can be attributed to the alienation caused by corruption in parts of Africa and Asia. Vote-rigging and corruption are not just “dodgy”, to use Fraser’s term. They are at the root of governmental evil.
By Satyanarayana Dasa: Many times I read that religion and politics should be kept separate. They should not be mixed. Here in India it is a common feeling of the educated gentry. Usually such people are afraid that if politicians subscribe to a particular religion, they will oppress followers of other religions. There have been examples of such oppression and atrocities in the past where a ruling party crushed or ostracized members of a religion not followed by them.
By Satyanarayana Dasa
Many times I read that religion and politics should be kept separate. They should not be mixed. Here in India it is a common feeling of the educated gentry. Usually such people are afraid that if politicians subscribe to a particular religion, they will oppress followers of other religions. There have been examples of such oppression and atrocities in the past where a ruling party crushed or ostracized members of a religion not followed by them. There are also some states that are religious and do not favor citizens practicing other religions. This is understood to be the chief cause of fear in the minds of people who support keeping religion and politics separate.
Is it an absolute principle? I think not so. The purpose of politics is to do welfare to people. Every politician who contests elections promises to do welfare, whatever it may be. It is on the basis of such a promise that politicians are elected. The purpose of religion, called dharma (ethics, morality, religious duty), is not different from that of politics. Politics is called rajaniti, the code of conduct followed by a ruler or ruling class. Rajaniti is always a part of dharma-shastra such as Manu-smriti or Yajnavalkya-smriti. Dharma-shastra are the books written by sages of India which delineate the duties of citizens according to various classes (varnas), such as educators, rulers, etc. No description of dharma-shastra is complete without laying down the principles for the rulers. Dharma is meant to give ultimate welfare to society and politics is but a part of it. Therefore, traditionally in India, dharma was never separated from politics. The rulers of India, the kings, were followers of dharma. In their student life they were trained in dharma. We do not find descriptions of atheistic kings in the history of India before it became a republic state.
Avataras came as politicians
A rare exception is King Vena, but he was rejected by the people. His story is described in the Bhagavata Purana. Vena proclaimed himself to be God and prohibited worship of any other god or the performance of yajna (sacrifice) to propitiate any other deity. He was advised by the sages to revoke this law, and when he refused to accept their advice, the sages chanted mantras that killed him. This shows that an atheistic king or a king who hindered the religious life of people was not acceptable. Apart from that, Vena was not such a bad king. There were no thieves or robbers in his kingdom.
We also read that the two main avataras, Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, who appeared as human beings, belonged to the ruling class and were therefore politicians, although the main purpose of their descent on earth was to establish dharma. In fact, Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita that He comes to establish dharma in every yuga. And establishing dharma is not possible without taking charge of the kingdom, which means being involved in politics. The whole battle of Mahabharata was fought to establish Yudhisthira, who was known as Dharma-raja (the king of dharma), as the emperor of India.
Politicians are not trained in dharma
Thus dharma and politics go hand-in-hand. One of the major reasons that there is so much corruption in politics at present is that politicians are not trained in dharma, especially in rajaniti, or the duties of a politician. Politics without dharma is bound to breed corruption sooner or later because of human afflictions like selfishness, greed and other impurities. In India some politicians have contested elections from prison, and there are many who have criminal cases against them. To avoid adharma in politics, there must be some basic requirement of character for a leader of society.
Similarly, without politics it is almost impossible for people to be dharmic. The role of religion is to make one righteous and loving, and politics means caring for people and their welfare. When religion and politics don’t coexist, politicians are corrupt and religious leaders struggle to teach dharma to society.
Need of the time
A religious person who is righteous and loving will definitely care for the welfare of the whole population and hence become a true politician. True politicians can only be righteous and loving. They cannot be anything but religious.
The problem arises when religious leaders restrict the freedom of people to follow their dharma. If such religious leaders gain political power, they ostracize members of other religions. This should not happen. When leaders allow religion to become all encompassing with full freedom to pray and worship in any manner as long as it does not interfere with others, it will bring righteousness and peace to people and will be suitable for any society. Then there will be no cause to fear such leaders. Indeed, such leaders are the need of the time.
Today both religion and politics need a change. Religionists should be tolerant to allow freedom to everyone to follow the religion of their choice. And politicians should be trained in the basic principles of dharma. If leaders are righteous and spiritual, the whole society can flourish and be uplifted.