A reductive reading of Santhara – Shiv Visvanathan

Santhara of Muni Jasraj (28 February 2013)

Shiv Visvanathan“The court has held that extinguishing life, sacrificing it or effacing it cannot be considered as acts of dignity. A right to die cannot be a part of a right to life. In constructing such a judgment, the court’s ethno-centricity becomes obvious. It enshrines a piece of Christian theology and Anglo-Saxon law in its response to the logic of Santhara. Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way.” – Prof Shiv Visvanathan

Charles Dickens: "If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, "the law is a ass — a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience." Courts, as institutions of interpretation, intrigue citizens, and often awe them. The dignity of their ritual, the imprimatur of the official, the detailed litany of textual interpretations before a judgment is arrived at, are often impressive. Judgments often have the moral gravitas and the narrative power of a novel. Yet, a badly done judgment, even if it appeals to the secular mind, lacks conviction. One felt that about the judgments around nuclear energy; equally, one senses these limits in the judicial reading of Santhara.

I refer to the Rajasthan High Court’s verdict against Santhara, or the centuries-old Jain practice of voluntarily starving to death. On August 10, 2015, the court’s Jaipur Bench ruled on a public-interest litigation (PIL) filed in May 2006 against the practice. It held that Santhara would henceforth be treated as “suicide” and accordingly made punishable under the relevant sections—Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and Section 306 (abetment of suicide)—of the Indian Penal Code. It made its absolute rejection of the Jain philosophy underlying the practice unequivocally clear. An appeal challenging the order has now been filed in the Supreme Court.

A way of life

The word Santhara means a way of life and encompasses a way of dying as well. In Jainism, the body is seen as a temporary residence for the soul which is reborn. One must remember that a word can embrace a multiplicity of worlds and meanings. As a result, translation is one of the most difficult of acts. It demands a delicacy of understanding about words which, in their consequences, can be lethal. Equivalences are welcome when we seek unity but we need a unity that can sustain the multiple senses of difference.

The critical word here is suicide. One is almost tempted to be facetious. I remember that moment of epiphany in the film Sholay when actor Dharmendra, as the character Veeru, standing up on a water tower, tells Basanti (played by Hema Malini) that he will commit suicide. An old man in the crowd asks: “what is suicide?” The answer is profoundly wise. It says when Englishmen kill themselves, the act is called ‘suicide’.

I was struck by this scene as I read the High Court judgment on suicide in the case of Nikhil Soni vs. Union of India. There was an element of irony to it. The scene in Sholay is straight from the 1969 classic, The Secret of Santa Vittoria and yet, in the very moment of mimicry, the movie emphasises the essential drama of difference. The court judgment, while playing with the cultures of difference, eventually succumbs to a reductive act which is textually disappointing.

There are critical nuggets of information in the initial pages. It claims that the Jain attitude to the body is different from the Christian attitude to the body and that Santhara is a ritual farewell to the body; it is an act of non-violence performed as an ethical act. The court hints that for the petitioners, Santhara cannot be suicide. The etymology and the cosmologies are radically different.

The English word ‘suicide’ means a deliberate killing of oneself. The Etymology Dictionary cites W. E. H. Lecky, in a History of European Morals where he writes of the stigma attached to suicide. He claims that even in 1749, “a suicide named Portier was dragged through the streets of Paris with his face to the ground, hung from the gallows by his feet and then thrown into the sewers.” Right from its origins up to the French Revolution, suicide was a mark of stigma of criminality and pollution.

Different narrative

Santhara encapsulates a different narrative. It is a ritual act of purification, done in consultation with a guru, and follows the most detailed of procedures. It cannot be an impulsive act or an egoistic one. It bears the imprimatur of theology and the approval of society.

As India became colonised, many Indian rituals came under the critical Anglo-Saxon lens, and translation and interpretation became a critical part of legal exegesis. Is Santhara a giving up of life or of taking death in one’s stride? For a culture that believes in rebirth, is Santhara philosophically or ethically suicide? The frame widens as the drama becomes sociological because then there will have to be a differentiation made between sati, suicide and Santara.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Suicide, a groundbreaking book in the field of sociology, basically made a differentiation between three forms of suicide—the anomique [anomie], the egoistic and the altruistic genres of suicide (based on the personalities of people). Anomie is a state of normlessness of rootlessness where an individual commits suicide because nothing binds him. It is associated with social disorganisation and imbalance and Durkheim has tried to illustrate this by giving examples from economic life. Egoistic suicide occurs when the individual feels full of himself. These are suicides committed by persons who are self-centred and to whom self-regard is the highest regard. In altruistic suicide, a person sacrifices himself. It is a form of sacrifice in which a person puts an end to his life by some heroic means in order to promote or further the interest of the cause or idea dear to him. In a sociological sense, altruistic suicide comes closest to Santhara. It is a ritual of giving up the body in times of old age, famine or catastrophe or when an individual feels the need to be closer to cosmic cycles.

As one looks at the colonial interpretation, the critique of sati, where a woman sacrifices herself for her husband, brought condemnation. Santhara was read in a different way as an act of non-violence tuned to the deepest norms of Jain culture.

Prof Shekhar HattangadiLanguage and interpretation

Experts cited indicate that it adds a dignity to dying, where death is in continuum with rebirth. Shekhar Hattangadi, a Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law, has sought to outline some of these conflicts in his award-winning documentary, Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism? But one cannot reduce it to an encounter with colonialism. To place it in the alleged opposition of religion and secularism fails to read it as a failure of language. There is a flatness, a narrowness to the English language which even the presence of James Joyce, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare could not contain. For example, the word ‘corruption’ lacks the multiple senses and the flair of society which invents words like upari, dakshina, seva for a bribe. Santhara is a multivalent term which cannot be reduced to the dreariness of suicide as closure or a termination. The English term cannot comprehend Santhara in terms of being a ritual exit and a rite of passage to a different world. Santhara, performed correctly, is ritual non-violence. In fact, I would feel that the court’s judgment misinterprets both the word and world.

There are doubts about Santhara. Many people have pointed to the coercive, even aspirational aspects of the practice. Witnesses claim that families whose reputations are at stake often refuse to let a person change his mind. There is an aspirational aspect as families of the individual who wishes to observe Santhara get respect and status, so they often tend to advertise the act. Here, Santara is often presented as sati. Its voluntariness is forgotten.

The court had to make a differentiation between Santhara and euthanasia, sati and suicide. It has made brief and superficial attempts to do so. And in this abortive act of comparative sociology, the ritual dignity of Santara has been lost. In the confusion between the literal and the symbol, between a construction of fact and celebration, the meaning is lost.

Santhara PetitionA narrow view

The court—after its abbreviated move through philosophy, ethics, language and law—has reduced the whole to one narrow issue, namely the test of essentiality. It asks where Santhara is an essential tenet of Jainism and declares that it is not. Such a litmus test might work in textbook chemistry but it fails to work in the contextuality and polysemy of culture. The court could have been strict about aberrations or deviations from Santhara but to reduce the ritual act to suicide amounts to an exhibition of illiteracy. The court seems more worried about the debates on euthanasia and sati than about looking at Santhara as a cultural practice with its own repertoire of meanings.

The court claims that some rights can encompass their opposite. The freedom of speech does not compel one to speak. Yet, a right to life does not include the right to die under certain circumstances. Ethics and religion lose out to the wooden definitions of Santhara, which, as a ritual, has qualities of a controlled experiment. The court has held that extinguishing life, sacrificing it or effacing it cannot be considered as acts of dignity. A right to die cannot be a part of a right to life. In constructing such a judgment, the court’s ethno-centricity becomes obvious. It enshrines a piece of Christian theology and Anglo-Saxon law in its response to the logic of Santhara. Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way. In creating such a standardised theology, the fact of justice becomes secondary. This has wider implications because words in one culture cannot lose their meaning in translation. Language and justice die or are diminished when language is deprived of its right to polysemy and to a multiplicity of meaning. When language is rendered captive, justice loses out in the long run.

The aridity of a reductive secularism often comes out in displays of language. In fact, translation becomes a test of justice. This is the epic tragedy of the Santhara judgment. It conveys the fact that nation states that can inflict and adjudicate death, often feel lost in the complexity of the phenomenon. – The Hindu, 24 August 2015

» Prof Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist who teaches at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy in Sonipat, Haryana.

Jains

Members of the Jain community staging a demonstration in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s offic,e in protest against the Rajasthan High Court judgment on ‘Santhara’, in Belagavi on Monday.

Jains

The flawed reasoning in the Santhara ban – Suhrith Parthasarathy

Rajastan High Court Jaipur

Suhrith Parthasarathy“The Jaina practitioners contend that Santhara is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. These arguments were brushed aside by the Rajasthan High Court. It simply found, based on an incorrect reading of Gian Kaur, that there is no dignity whatsoever in the act of fasting, and that therefore, there exists no freedom to practise Santhara as an extension of one’s right to life under Article 21.” – Suhrith Parthasarathy

The Rajasthan High Court, in a judgment on the August 10, 2015, declared the Jain practice of Santhara, which involves a voluntary fast-unto-death, an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This decision in Nikhil Soni v. Union of India, is likely to have far-reaching consequences, not only amongst the Jain community in Rajasthan but also across the country. Unfortunately, it conflates several important issues of constitutional law, and symbolises the confusion over the fundamental guarantee of religious freedom in our constitutional jurisprudence.

The court’s judgment is superficially reasoned, misconstrues findings of the Supreme Court, and, most significantly, ignores vital considerations that go to the root of a person’s right to ethical independence.

It is undeniable that Indian secularism—a form quite distinct from western conceptions of the term—envisages the intervention of the state in matters of religion, where general social welfare or substantial civil liberties are at stake. But, what our Constitution, properly interpreted, does not permit is the bestowal of any specific discretion on the courts to tell us which of our beliefs and practices are essential to the following of a religion. By directing the State government to move towards abolishing the practice of Santhara, and by holding that the practice is tantamount to an attempt to commit suicide, punishable under Section 309 of the IPC, the High Court in Nikhil Soni has created a damaging precedent, which requires immediate re-examination.

Santhara, which is increasingly widely practised by Jains in India, is a voluntary tradition of fasting till death, that Jains believe will help them attain ultimate salvation. As pointed out in The Hindu ( “Santhara in the eyes of the law”, August 15) by Shekhar Hattangadi, Santhara is embedded in deeply philosophical beliefs. The practice is premised on a foundational idea that the act of fasting, as an exercise of bodily autonomy, allows a believer to attain a state of utter transcendence. However, the court has now found that such matters of integrity, of choosing how one wants to lead life, do not enjoy any constitutional protection, and that voluntary fasting is nothing but a performance in self-destruction. By any reasonable construction, fasting ought to be considered indistinguishable from an act specifically aimed at ending one’s own life.

Effectively, the judgment in Nikhil Soni is predicated on two primary grounds. First, that the guarantee of a right to life does not include within its ambit a promise of a right to die, and therefore, that the practice of Santhara is not protected by Article 21. Second, that Santhara, as a religious practice, is not an essential part of Jainism, and is hence not protected by Article 25, which guarantees a person’s right to religious freedom and conscience. While on the first ground, the court’s reasoning is difficult to accept, on the second ground, the court’s finding is premised on a wrongly considered doctrine, carved by the Supreme Court in its earliest rulings on the right to freedom of religion.

As the Rajasthan High Court correctly recognises in Nikhil Soni, Section 309, which criminalises the attempt to commit suicide, has been found to be constitutionally valid by the Supreme Court, in 1996, in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. However, the Supreme Court was concerned here primarily with the unnatural extinguishment of life. To die through an act of suicide, the court held, is not an extension, or a recognised corollary, of one’s right to life under Article 21. But contrary to what the High Court holds in Nikhil Soni, as a recent intervention petition filed by the Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy points out, the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur explicitly recognises that a person’s right to life also partakes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity. “…This may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out,” the court wrote, in Gian Kaur. “But the “right to die” with dignity at the end of life is not to be confused or equated with the “right to die” an unnatural death curtailing the natural span of life.”

Taraben Chovatia, 78 years old, had renounced food in 2008, as part of Santhara.A dignified choice

The Jaina practitioners contend that Santhara is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. These arguments were brushed aside by the Rajasthan High Court. It simply found, based on an incorrect reading of Gian Kaur, that there is no dignity whatsoever in the act of fasting, and that therefore, there exists no freedom to practise Santhara as an extension of one’s right to life under Article 21. But, perhaps, even more damagingly, the court in Nikhil Soni also rejected arguments that sought to locate such liberty in Article 25. Here, though, the folly in its reasoning wasn’t as much a product of its own making, as it was a consequence of a vague doctrine established by the Supreme Court.

Plainly read, Article 25 guarantees to all persons an equal entitlement to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise and propagate religion. The right is subject only to public order, morality, and health, and other recognised fundamental rights. However, as the debates in the Constituent Assembly demonstrate, these community exceptions were included purely to ensure that the guarantee of religious freedom did not come in the way of the state’s ability to correct age-old social inequities. It wasn’t the Assembly’s intention to allow organs of state any substantial latitude in determining which religious practices deserved constitutional protection. But, in practice, perhaps out of an anxiety to ensure that the state is not constrained in passing legislation to remedy social evils, the Supreme Court has interpreted Article 25 in a manner that has greatly restricted the scope of religious liberty.

Interpreting religious practices

The court’s constriction of this freedom has been achieved by invoking a rather curious principle: that Article 25 protects only those exercises that are considered “essential religious practices.” Through the 1960s, this doctrine, which was first envisaged in the Shirur Mutt case, decided in 1954, ingrained itself as an integral part of India’s constitutional theory. The court, on a case-by-case basis, often examined individual religious canons to determine what constituted an essential religious practice. Significantly, the court began to examine whether a particular exercise was indispensable to the proper practice of a religion.

This interpretation has allowed the court authority to determine for the people what their religious beliefs and practices, through a correct reading of their religious texts and customs, ought to comprise. Invariably, the determination of what constitutes an essential religious practice, therefore, amounts to a very particular form of moral judgment—a form of cultural paternalism that is quite antithetical to a liberal democracy.

It is this authority, which the High Court in Nikhil Soni, has invoked to rule that the criminalisation of Santhara would not breach a Jain’s right to religious freedom. “We do not find that in any of the scriptures, preachings, articles or the practices followed by the Jain ascetics, the Santhara … has been treated as an essential religious practice, nor is necessarily required for the pursuit of immortality or moksha,” the judgment states. This analysis, as is evident, does not consider whether a person indulging in Santhara performs the act out of an intrinsic belief that the practice flows from his religion, but rather adopts an almost-avowedly paternalistic outlook. It tells followers of Jainism that under a purportedly proper interpretation of their religious texts, Santhara is simply not an essential practice. As a result, the question of whether a Jain’s right to religious freedom is violated by prohibiting Santhara is examined in a wholly unsatisfactory manner.

If, and when, the Supreme Court sits on appeal over the judgment in Nikhil Soni, it must ask the right questions: of whether any social inequities arise out of the practice, of whether any other right of its practitioners are violated through Santhara, of whether the rights of any other person are infracted when a person goes on fast. In so doing, the court must also reconsider its now age-old doctrine of essential practice, which has caused a substantial weakening of the state of religious freedom in India.The Hindu, 24 August 2015

» Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court.

Santhara Petition

Santhara in the eyes of the law – Shekhar Hattangadi

Prof Shekhar Hattangadi“The systematic codification of Indian criminal law … began soon after the colonialists survived the blood-soaked Mutiny of 1857 and formally established the British Raj. The IPC, which forms the bulwark of our criminal jurisprudence, bears an 1860 vintage … and was drafted by Lord Thomas Macaulay who was known to be a devout Christian. Inevitably, … the wily administrator put forth a code that not only set a low threshold of culpability for political dissent and for spreading disaffection against the government … but which also reflected his own deeply held convictions about right-and-wrong, and good-and-evil.” – Prof Shekhar Hattangadi

Jain Hand : The word inside the Dharma Chakra reads That conflicting religious philosophies often propel nations into war has long been a truism of history. But when Samuel P. Huntington gave the oft-used “clash of civilizations” phrase a foreboding—ven menacing—contemporary context during a 1992 lecture in the aftermath of the Gulf War, it’s unlikely that the American political scientist was thinking of an emaciated Jain muni peacefully awaiting death on a bed of dry grass after weeks of starvation.

Although it may seem far from obvious, Huntington’s thesis—that differences in religion and culture would spawn conflict in the post-Cold War world—lies at the root of the angst that has gripped the Jain community following the Rajasthan High Court’s verdict against Santhara. Earlier [Monday, 10 Aug], the court’s Jaipur Bench ruled on a public-interest litigation (PIL) filed in May 2006 against the centuries-old Jain practice of starving to death. It held that Santhara would henceforth be treated as “suicide” and accordingly made punishable under the relevant sections—Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and Section 306 (abetment of suicide)—of the Indian Penal Code. In the use of harsher language in its directive to the State—that the latter shall “stop and abolish” the practice “in any form” and register any complaint against it “as a criminal case”—the court made its absolute rejection of the Jain philosophy underlying the practice unequivocally clear. It also unwittingly bared the cultural divide between disparate end-of-life concepts.

During the five-year-long research for my documentary film on this controversy—Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism?—I met several members of the Jain clergy and other lay adherents of the faith as well as scholars who had studied the philosophy of Jainism through its scriptures and rituals. Without an exception, they were all at pains to point out the fallacy of characterizing Santhara as a form of suicide. True, both acts culminate in the self-extinguishment of a human life, but the motivations of the actors are poles apart. Whereas suicide is an act of extreme desperation fuelled by anguish and hopelessness, a Santhara practitioner relinquishing food and drink voluntarily by this method has arrived at that decision after calm and unruffled introspection, with an intent to cleanse oneself of karmic encumbrances and thus attain the highest state of transcendental well-being. Santhara, for him, is therefore simply an act of spiritual purification premised on an exercise of individual autonomy.

Admittedly, dietary abstinence as religious ritual isn’t unique to Jainism. There’s Ramzan among Muslims, Lent among Christians, fasting during Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av among Jews, and a host of astronomy- and astrology-related fasts among Hindus. But none of the others takes fasting to the point of starvation and ultimately death as does Santhara. Since any kind of eating or drinking would result in a disruption (however minimal) of and add a burden (however small) to the natural ecology around them, orthodox Jains consider zero-consumption—i.e. starvation unto death a la Santhara—to be the high-point among the Jain traditions of austerity and self-denial, and therefore the truest real-world act of ahimsa or non-violence, the fundamental tenet of Jainism.

Disregard, for a moment, the radical extremism of the act itself. And contrast its broader theological rationale—which is more or less common to Eastern religions, and which resonates nicely with the basic theory of karma that underlies the beliefs and practices of most Indian religions—with the ecclesiastical values prevalent in the cultures that brought us the forms of governance we presently live with. A conspiracy of history, circumstance and expedient decision-making has resulted in our law-making and law-administering bodies being structured on the Westminster model of our colonial rulers, not to mention our judicial machinery and its key statutes—notably, criminal laws—remaining largely untouched since the time they were first designed by the British and written with their colonial feather-pens. Even the bulk of our Constitution, mulled over for all of three years on the cusp of Independence by worthy home-grown sons and daughters representing a cross-section of our population, was derived from the Government of India Act, 1935 and arguably its most important articles (i.e. those enshrining our Fundamental Rights) were inspired by the American Constitution.

Thomas Babington MacaulayThe concept of suicide associated with religion is a repugnant one for the mainstream Anglo-Saxon West, whose Judeo-Christian beliefs would denounce such an act as antithetical to the moral and ethical principles espoused by Christianity. The systematic codification of Indian criminal law as we know it today began soon after the colonialists survived the blood-soaked Mutiny of 1857 and formally established the British Raj. The IPC, which forms the bulwark of our criminal jurisprudence, bears an 1860 vintage (it came into force two years later) and was drafted by Lord Thomas Macaulay who was known to be a devout Christian. Inevitably, it would appear, the wily administrator put forth a code that not only set a low threshold of culpability for political dissent and for spreading disaffection against the government—which was tacitly welcomed by successive regimes well into the post-Independence era, and which is why it’s still so easy to slap “sedition” cases against innocuous cartoonists—but which also reflected his own deeply held convictions about right-and-wrong, and good-and-evil.

The Crown couldn’t have found a more faithful and capable servant. As a public policy maker, Macaulay had telescoped his personal beliefs into an official document that upheld the “civilizing mission” of his masters while taking care of the everyday chore of maintaining law and order among the unruly “natives” as well as the tricky task of subverting their pagan values. The IPC accomplished the first, and Macaulay’s introduction of English as a medium of instruction in schools and colleges contributed to the second. It paved the way for Christian missionaries to press forward with their conversions mainly among the needy, and with their “convent education” among the aspiring middle-classes. From this large-scale acculturation emerged a new generation of brown sahibs and babus eminently qualified to maintain the institutions of the Raj.

But it also set the ball rolling for a fundamental and deep-seated—albeit seldom articulated—discordance between the Western ideologies that created those institutions and devised their operating norms and procedures, and the Eastern philosophies that shaped the world-view of the people those institutions were meant to serve. Compare, for instance, the singularly focused zeal of a proselytizing religion like Christianity with the Jain tenet of anekantavada (non-absolutism or openness to differing—and even contrasting—opinions and beliefs) or with the inclusive live-and-let-live approach of Hinduism, and you begin to empathize with Rudyard Kipling’s twain-shall-never-meet conundrum.

And the Santhara case serves to emphasize the seemingly irreconcilable difference in perspective on the specific issue of “suicide.” In contrast to a Christian believer who looks upon the human body as a God-given “temple of the human soul” and therefore beyond the realm of willful and deliberate destruction by any human being, a devout Jain views that same body as a “prison of the human soul,” the fulfillment of whose needs corresponds to the accumulation of bad karma.

This basic contradiction between a statute founded largely on a Christian-inspired bioethic and the essentially Eastern variant of the idea of spiritual advancement through abstinence and renunciation rears its head whenever an ancient religious practice like Santhara collides with contemporary law. The conflict becomes particularly glaring in a faith-based society like ours whose polity has embraced norms of governance and administration that are transplants from an alien soil.

What, according to me, remains a significant take-away from the court proceedings in the Santhara case is not so much the petitioner’s—and consequently, though not expressly, the court’s—characterization of the death-ritual as suicide simpliciter masquerading as a religious practice wrapped in the mantle of hoary tradition. That approach could arguably be critiqued as a narrow, unkind and mechanical application of the law. More telling however is the fact, recorded for posterity in the judgment, that the pro-Santhara counsel, seeking to establish the scriptural validity of the practice, recited slokas “to the amusement of the general public sitting in the Court.” Is the recitation of a sloka in an Indian courtroom during the hearing of a case involving the legality of an ancient rite or ritual such an incongruous act that it should invite mirth and derision? Could there be a more vivid illustration of the incompatibility between traditional religion and modern governance?

Which raises the question:

Are countries such as those in Europe, which enforce a strict separation between religion and governance and which discourage public displays of religious festivity, faring any better?

Having painstakingly achieved that ideal—the Church-State divide—through centuries of struggle, these countries are apt to look askance particularly at the Indian nation-state where an avowedly “secular” (the word figures in the Preamble to our Constitution) government regulates religious institutions, subsidizes Haj trips and deploys state resources to safeguard Amarnath Yatra pilgrims.

But times might be changing. Although the conventional idea of secularism in western democracies largely keeps religion out of governance, the influx of immigrants of various faiths into these countries in recent times and their assertive—even militant—stance with regard to their rights of religious practice has made these countries confront the problem anew. The spiky issues of burqa-wearing in France and of circumcision in Germany manifest the same law-religion conflict with which we are grappling here. The unease over Santhara may well be part of a global discontent. – The Hindu, 15 August 2015

» Prof Shekhar Hattangadi is a Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law and an award-winning documentary film maker.

Santhara

Sarathi Baba no match for Asaram Bapu, worth less than Rs 13 crore – Rakesh Dixit

Sarathi Baba

Anti Sarathi Baba demonstration in Odisha

Sarathi Baba Arrested“Sources said that decision to arrest godman, who used to attract followers by performing magic tricks, was taken after his intensive grilling and proof about his huge wealth and sexual exploitation of women. The Crime Branch team found evidence of blackmailing of young women with their nude photos taken by cameras hidden in bathrooms of the lodge inside the ashram.” – Rakesh Dixit

After days of violent agitations against him, self-styled godman Sarathi Baba alias Santosh Raula was on Saturday, [August 8th] arrested by state Crime Branch which has decided to take him on five-day remand. 

Crime Branch ADG B. K. Sharma said that 47-year-old Sarathi, who made it big as a godman in the last 10 years, was arrested under sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 420 (cheating) 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document), 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 506 (criminal intimidation), 379 (theft) of the Indian Penal Code and the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. 

Sarathi, whose shenanigans became a matter of public debate after local TV channels ran reports about his stay at a posh Hyderabad hotel last month along with a young medicine student, was arrested following initial questioning at the Crime Branch headquarters in Cuttack, where he was brought from his ashram at Barimula in Kendrapara early on Saturday, [August 8th]. 

Sharma said a special team of Crime Branch led by an Additional SP had been to the Barimula ashram and submitted a report after investigation. 

“Based on the report, the Crime Branch registered a case (No-17) at the CID police station,” said Sharma. 

He said the Crime Branch team had seized important documents, bank documents, gold, silver and cash from the ashram. 

Significantly, two swords were seized from the ashram following which section 25 of the Arms Act has been slapped. He has also been charged under Section 7 of Religious Institutions (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1988. 

The seizures from the ashram included bank and property documents, 15 kg of silver, 54.1 grams of gold, cash worth Rs 2.28 lakh and 55 kg of metal coins with pictures of the godman. Crime Branch has asked for seizure of the godman’s bank accounts. 

Sources said that decision to arrest godman, who used to attract followers by performing magic tricks, was taken after his intensive grilling and proof about his huge wealth and sexual exploitation of women. 

The Crime Branch team found evidence of blackmailing of young women with their nude photos taken by cameras hidden in bathrooms of the lodge inside the ashram. 

While three bank accounts worth Rs 30 lakh of the godman, who hails from Ganjam, were seized, the sleuths also got hold of his passport. 

The godman, who is alleged to have bought a flat worth Rs 55 lakh in Bhubaneswar, also had dealings with people involved in the chit fund scam. 

The arrest followed violent protests against the godman in different parts of the state, including Kendrapara in which at least 100 people have been injured and over two dozen arrested so far. 

While Kendrapara superintendent of police Satish Gajbhiye was shifted immediately following allegations of high-handedness, the lawyers’ association has announced a state-wide bandh on August 10 against police atrocities in Kendrapara. – Mail Online India,  8 August 2015

Cash CollectionsSarathi Baba’s finances under Crime Branch radar – Rakesh Dixit

The Odisha Crime Branch is focusing on financial transactions of self-styled godman Sarathi Baba also known as Santosh Raula who was interrogated for the third day on Tuesday with three separate teams of sleuths checking as many as 18 bank accounts of the spiritual guru and his trust.

Sources said so far the Crime Branch has come across proof of deposits worth over Rs 2.5 crore in the seized bank accounts most of which are in Kendrapara. It has also gathered proof of 11 plots belonging to the Baba and his trust. He also owns a house worth Rs 55 lakh in Bhubaneswar.

Crime Branch teams checked records pertaining to the 47-year-old godman in the income tax office and the sub-registrar’s office in Kendrapara. Additional director general of police of Crime Branch, B.K. Sharma, said that the godman will be produced in the court of sub-divisional judicial magistrate (SDJM), Cuttack, on Wednesday at the end of his three-day remand period. The court will be requested to extend his remand by another five days.

Thirteen associates of the godman were also questioned by the Crime Branch. One of them, Khaga, had been accused of blackmail by the girl who had accompanied Sarathi to Hyderabad last month. They had stayed at a posh hotel in the southern city. The sleuths had also recorded the statement of the girl on Monday.

“We have found plots in the name of the godman at prime locations in Puri, Bhubaneswar and Khordha, two houses in Bhubaneswar and one in Kendrapara town,” said a senior Crime Branch official.

Sources said during the search operation at the godman’s ashram in Kendrapara, the sleuths came to know that a woman was staying in one of the rooms for a long time. They also checked the visitors’ register and conducted the measurement of 2.5 acres of the land on which the ashram has been built.

Meanwhile, Congress and BJP, the two major opposition parties of the state, stepped up their agitation demanding suspension and arrest of former Kendrapara SP Satish Gajbhiye who was transferred following the alleged excesses committed by him during the protests against the godman on August 7.

State BJP president KV Singh Deo said his party would be satisfied with nothing less than the arrest of the police officer who had crossed all limits of decency. “If necessary, pressure would be put on the Centre for acting against him,” said Singh Deo adding that Union Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan had also criticised the SP. – India Today, 12 August 2015

Sarathi Temple BarimulaGopis queued up for Sarathi Baba’s ‘gupt seva’ after 11 pm – Akshaya Kumar Sahoo

The crime branch of Odisha police has claimed to have unearthed startling facts from controversial godman Srimad Sarathi Baba alias Santosh Raul with regard to his alleged immoral activities as well as accumulation of huge assets by deceitful means.

The godman, who was arrested on Saturday, claimed himself as incarnation of Lord Krishna and wanted his devotees, mainly women followers, to love him as gopis.

In the line of the rituals of Puri’s Jagannath temple, Sarathi Baba’s ashram too designed some rituals, like Anant Sayan or deep sleep on a specially designed cot fitted with a wooden seven-hood snake decorated with gold and silver ornaments.

After the devotees leave the ashram at around 11 pm, Sarathi Baba would recline in his restroom and asked his confidants to let in the women devotees who desired to perform the Gupta Seva or secret ritual. These women were gifted with designer dresses, sarees and gold and silver ornaments, sources in the CB said.

In fact, the CB has seized a huge cache of clothes and ornaments during the raid on the ashram in Barimula in Kendrapara district. On Tuesday, the crime branch officials questioned Sarathi Baba mainly on his financial transactions and land deals. The cyber cell of the crime branch also examined the income tax documents of Sarathi Baba.

The CB officials said they would move the court seeking to take Sarathi Baba on remand of five more days for further questioning. – Deccan Chronicle, 12 August 2015

Odisha Tourism Dept promoting Sarathi BabaBJD leaders have close links with arrested godman Sarathi Baba: BJP – PTI

Accusing ruling BJD leaders in Odisha of having close links with arrested self-styled godman Sarathi Baba, the BJP on Tuesday sought to know why no action was taken against a former Kendrapara SP for police excesses on demonstrators who demanded Baba’s arrest. 

“BJD government in Odisha is in the dock over the so-called Baba’s activities. Handling of the episode showed the ruling party and its leaders had close links with the self- styled godman,” BJP’s All-India general secretary P. Muralidhar Rao said. Though it was the state government’s responsibility to ensure quick investigation into Sarathi episode, the manner in which the controversial issue was handled clearly showed the state government was trying to hide and suppress facts.

People across the state had turned restless over the whole issue particularly because of the state government’s approach towards dealing with the episode which also exposed criminalisation of administration, Rao claimed. Accusing the state government of trying to protect former Kendrapara Satish Gajbhiye, the BJP leader said the IPS officer was only shifted from the district following a public outcry amid allegation of police excesses on demonstrators who agitated demanding arrest of Sarathi.

However, no action has been taken against the police officer despite agitation by people, including lawyers community, across the state, he said. He said the party would intensify the agitation if strong action was not taken against the ex-SP of Kendrapara.  – DNA, 11 August 2015

» Rakesh Dixit is the current bureau chief for Hindustan Times in Bhopal.

Sarathi Ashram Barimula

Anti Sarathi Baba Demonstration

Asaram’s shady 10,000 crore rupee empire – Uday Mahurkar

Asaram Bapu

Narayan Sai“As Asaram and Sai cool their heels in Jodhpur and Surat jails, … the Gujarat Police allege they have unearthed a string of highly lucrative illicit business ventures, all piggybacking on the unquestioning faith of millions. … On paper, the total comes to a mind-boggling Rs 4,500 crore. But investigators say the worth of Asaram’s shady empire will cross the Rs 10,000-crore mark if the land and real estate are valued at market rates instead of the old circle rates used by the police to value them.” –  Uday Mahurkar

A murky money-lending nexus, shady land deals and clandestine conspiracies to buy police officers. Transactions in a range of financial instruments worth hundreds of crores. Investments in little-known American companies. Suspect foreign currency transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Allegations of rape and witness intimidation, it seems, are not the only crimes self-styled holy man Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai are in the dock for. 

As Asaram and Sai cool their heels in Jodhpur and Surat jails, and a trial court is set to begin hearing the rape case against Asaram, the Gujarat Police allege they have unearthed a string of highly lucrative illicit business ventures, all piggybacking on the unquestioning faith of millions. 

And the details—contained in reams of documents police say they seized from an ashram aide’s apartment—read like the laundry list of a small-town businessman who has come into enormous wealth: Benami property deals and financial transactions—many of them allegedly in cash—adding up to more than Rs 2,200 crore.  

Cash loans totalling 1,635 crore given to more than 500 beneficiaries in exchange for equally fat interest rates.

Rs 156 crore invested in shares of two obscure US companies suspected to be in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). 

Rs 8 crore allegedly earmarked to bribe police, judicial and medical officers linked to the rape probes against Asaram and Sai.

On paper, the total comes to a mind-boggling Rs 4,500 crore. But investigators say the worth of Asaram’s shady empire will cross the Rs 10,000-crore mark if the land and real estate are valued at market rates instead of the old circle rates used by the police to value them. 

Sai’s counsel, however, rubbishes the allegations. 

“Narayan Sai and the others have been falsely implicated in the case,” Kalpesh Desai, the defence counsel in the bribery case, said, referring to the financial wrongdoing alleged by the police following seizure of what they call “highly incriminating documents”. 

Asaram BapuIt all started in 2013, not long after Asaram was arrested in Indore in a rape case. Surat police were in the middle of a nationwide manhunt for Narayan Sai, who had disappeared after being accused of rape by a former devotee. 

While he was eventually nabbed in December that year, on October 26, a police team had raided an apartment in Ahmedabad’s plush CG Road following a tip-off. It was owned by a builder and long-time Asaram devotee Prahlad Kishenlal Sewani

Unwittingly, the police had chanced upon a treasure trove of documents—hastily stashed away in 42 large sacks, hard disks and computers. 

Surat Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana and a team of officers spent months collating and deciphering the information. 

Once collated, they literally blew the lid off a suspected network of deceit and crime centred around Asaram and his network of ashrams.  

Asthana wrote early in 2014 in his covering letter forwarding the case for further scrutiny by the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department: “The documents and data show large-scale tax evasion and malpractices by Asaram and Narayan Sai and also (names) a large number of traders, businessmen and real estate dealers.

“They used black money thus generated for professional and personal gains.

“Since the matter has national and international ramifications, it should be thoroughly investigated under the Income Tax Act.”

Asthana’s cover letter was followed by seven volumes of documents adding up to 900 pages. But 18 months on, income tax authorities seem to have little to show as progress. 

Asaram Under The ScannerBenjamin Chettiar, assistant commissioner of income tax, who is investigating the details found, however, insists the probe is on track. 

“We have made progress in the case and the order for attachments has been issued. The results will be in public domain soon,” he said. 

However, investigations by India Today, based on information gleaned from the seized documents, reveal the seemingly dark underbelly of the empire Asaram and his son built over four decades. 

For starters, the money-lending operation, seen to be funded almost exclusively through devotee donations and profits from the sale of ashram merchandise, was run on the scale of a mid-sized banking setup. 

Besides the money lending operations, the seized documents reveal scores of evidently dubious land deals. 

Real estate is shown to have been acquired at several locations in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh as well as several central and north Indian states. 

Much of the land owned by Asaram’s ashrams are illegal, alleges Surat Police Assistant Commissioner Mukesh Patel, who is leading the probe into the rape case against Narayan Sai. 

“They were acquired by enticing devotees with improper documents and through encroachments,” he says. 

Asaram, according to investigators, controls his empire through 400-odd trusts. Investigators and the documents seized from Sewani’s apartment indicate huge amounts of money came into the ashrams’ coffers also from the sale of merchandise and farming on land acquired or often usurped by the ashram. 

A lot of this money, earned by legitimate means, was meant to be reinvested in ashrams or in the welfare of devotees and residents. 

But investigators allege that large sums of money were instead used to fund dubious land deals and a massive money-lending racket in which cash was loaned at exorbitant interest rates. Insiders also allege that ashram authorities manipulated records to avoid paying taxes. 

“For him, every activity was a money-making activity—be it bhandaras, relief work during natural calamities, or even gau seva (cow welfare). In fact, the figure of Rs 1,650 crore (extended in loans) seems small; I wouldn’t have been surprised had it been even Rs 5,000 crore,” says Rahul Sachan, a key Asaram aide until he parted ways with the ‘guru’ a decade ago and who is now a witness in the Asaram rape case. 

Although still under the scanner, Prahlad Sewani insists he was not personally involved in the shady dealings. 

The builder has told police that he had merely handed over the keys to his flat following “urgent summons” from Asaram’s ashram in Motera, when Narayan Sai was on the run. 

Sewani claims a circle of Asaram’s closest followers, fearing a large-scale crackdown, moved the documents, hard disks and computer CPU to his CG Road apartment. 

Seizure of the documents during the raid also prompted a frenetic response, with ashram functionaries allegedly attempting to bribe police officers involved in the investigations. 

Income tax officials tracking Asaram’s wealth say the probe has been somewhat stymied by the unexplained disappearance of Kaushik Popatlal Wani

Acknowledged as the brains behind Asaram’s rapidly expanding financial empire, the 45-year-old from Nagpur, who has spent most of his adult life alongside Asaram, went missing in November 2013Mail Online India,  8 August 2015

» Uday Mahurkar is a senior journalist with India Today. 

ASARAM INC

Asaram Bapu's Empire

 

 

Wendy’s Revenge: Plagiarism charge against Rajiv Malhotra is a red herring – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan“This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.” – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajiv MalhotraThere has been a lot of commotion over on social media lately about the books written by Indian American author Rajiv Malhotra, who has single-handedly stood up to forces in US academia who paint, according to him, a negative, motivated, and false picture of Hinduism. This is not a purely abstract issue, as it impinges on soft power, positioning, and the marketing of India to the world, something that previous governments paid scarcely any attention to, but the current one does.

To put it simply, the issue is as follows: one Richard Fox Young, apparently an employee of a Christian seminary in Princeton, NJ, where Malhotra also resides, has gone on the warpath against Malhotra, accusing him of plagiarism, based on some material that was allegedly quoted without explicit attribution in his books Indra’s Net and Breaking India. Young’s crusade against Malhotra is not new: I personally have had to block Young on Twitter because he bombarded me when I supported Malhotra.

Richard Fox YoungNow, a disclaimer is in order: I have known Rajiv Malhotra for some years, and we have corresponded on occasion, although we have never met. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I am broadly in sync with him; and I have had no financial dealings whatsoever with him or any entities with links to him. There are friends of mine who disagree with him on style or substance, but when it comes to an external attack, we all stand with Rajiv.

On taking a brief look at the whole imbroglio, I see an old game being rehashed: certain anti-India and anti-Hindu forces are at play, and have been, in academia and elsewhere, for some years. There is a certain #DeepState at play, which I alluded to a few months ago in when I suggested that India has been deemed a part of a new #AxisOfEvil. I see no reason to change that view, as the same dramatis personae are at work here too: pals of the USCIRF – Cold Warriors of religion, focused on conversions.

I wrote about this clash of civilisations in “Fear of Engineering” in 2002, including the fact of Rajiv Malhotra, Sankrant Sanu, et al standing up to entrenched antipathy towards Hindus in American academia, led by ‘den mother’ Wendy Doniger Flaherty and “Wendy’s Children”, as Malhotra dubbed her acolytes. What was a somewhat obscure tiff in American academia then has now become quite an issue in India now.

Prof Wendy DonigerThere is an even greater link. This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.

This is a pretty good tactic, and is an old one. The RISA group of mostly American religious academics who act as gatekeepers for Western Indology has consistently excluded those other than their own through the spurious argument of ‘scholarship’. This is defined as having been a PhD candidate under one of them: a clear case of intellectual incest. Indeed, Wendy has spawned—in nice counterpoint to Romila Thapar in India—an entire generation of Hindu-hating ‘scholars’, both Indian and Western.

Prof Michel DaninoThey have sought to denigrate the ‘insider’ perspective of Hinduism, as experienced by practicing Hindus or sympathetic scholars, and lionised an ‘outsider’ perspective (the words ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ are used to refer to these points of view) of hostile anthropologists (or colonial administrators in British Raj days). For instance, they have kept out scholars like Michel Danino, quite possibly the foremost authority on the Sarasvati river and thereby the best debunker of the entire ‘Aryan Invasion Fairytale’. This is not surprising: let us remember Galileo Galilei, who was almost burnt at the stake for upsetting the carefully built-up sinecures of insiders who had made their careers out of heliocentrism.

But that RISA citadel is under attack, as Hindus, both scholars and lay people, have begun to question them, turning the microscope back on them, and asserting that the western world-view is not universal (which Malhotra has done explicitly, by treating the West as anthropological specimens to be viewed through the lens of Hindu philosophical systems).

No, the western view is true for all people and for all time. An example is in the concept of ‘intellectual property rights’. The traditional knowledge and intellectual property of Hindus, freely given by pundits, have been quietly expropriated by western scholars (‘embrace-extend-exterminate’, the famous Microsoft strategy), who then turn around and assert that it is their property (the U-turn Hypothesis), for which they hold IPR. Westerners zealously guard their IPRs with patents and copyrights and so on. We remember the neem and turmeric patents. The tactic is also subtler: the appropriation of yoga into ‘Christian yoga’; the demonisation of coconut oil by cleverly comparing hydrogenated coconut oil to extra-virgin olive and saffola oil; and so forth.

BrahmaguptaHindus have a different, yet internally consistent, view of knowledge. They have traditionally created knowledge and simply put it in the public domain for anyone to use, without even signing their work. Is that wrong? Does this mean that Hindus were not innovative? Far from it. We don’t know who invented the decimal system (it was possibly Brahmagupta), but did it benefit society? Yes, it did, although it may not have benefited Brahmagupta personally through royalties, and indeed he may not have cared about the money, anyway.

In the West, too, the rise of Unix/Linux and open-source software has made it clear that ‘copyleft’ or freely opening up intellectual property, is not the end of civilisation as we know it; on the contrary, it can lead to very fine products and benefit society. Indeed, as opposed to Microsoft’s IPR-heavy Windows, 98 percent of us now carry mobile devices based on the open-source philosophy of Unix/Linux, GNU and the Free Software Foundation. So it’s clear that an alternative point of view may well be as valid as the conventional wisdom. Creative Commons is another example.

Staying with IPR for a moment, let us consider the basis of the attack on Malhotra: that he has plagiarised. Insofar as I can tell, what he is accused of is acceptable under the definition of ‘fair use’ in the US Copyright Act 1976, 17 USC Section 107, and under ‘fair dealing’ in the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, Section 52. If you peruse these provisions, you will find that the quoting of copyright materials for ‘research’ is allowed without hindrance, as it is for teaching as well, so long as it is not used for monetary benefit to the user.

Thus, there is little basis in fact for the allegation, a priori, and I suspect that if Malhotra sues, he will win. However, it is an excellent tactic, known as “throwing some mud and seeing how much will stick”. The objective is not to penalise the alleged plagiarism, but to create the impression that Malhotra is intellectually dishonest, the equivalent of accusing him of a felony, which will remain as a stain even if he is exonerated. That is the objective of Wendy’s Revenge: hopefully, it will cause him to self-censor.

Sister AnitaThis technique has been used to devastating effect in the past. One example is the Nun Rape Syndrome. In 1998, there was a big hoo-ha over an alleged rape of four Catholic nuns in Jhabua, in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, and Hindu groups were immediately accused. To be honest, it’s not clear why the rape of a nun is more heinous than the rape of any lay woman: it’s, alas, pretty routine, just ask Sisters Anita and Jesmi. Anyway it turned out that the rapists were themselves Christians. The story then disappeared, but there were no apologies for libel against Hindus.

The same thing happened in West Bengal recently. An elderly nun was allegedly raped, and since the BJP is running the government of India, blame was immediately directed at Hindu organisations. Then it turned out that the rapists were Muslims, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and the nun was also spirited away. Once again, the story was swept under the carpet, but no apologies.

Dr. Atanu DeyInterestingly, Indian ‘sepoys’, the brainwashed or the mendacious, are in the forefront of the attacks. I have read several of them, and also devastating counters by Malhotra and Danino as well as an excellent piece by Atanu Dey showing up their hypocrisy.

Sadly, I also found the usual champions of ‘Freedom of Speech’—including a bunch that went to a big conference in Singapore just weeks ago on this topic—strangely silent. But that is par for the course. They shouted from the rooftops about M.F. Husain’s FoS, but were quiet about Tasleema Nasrin’s FoS, even when she was manhandled by some people. They went on and on about Perumal Murugan’s FoS, but were deafeningly silent about Joe D’Cruz’s FoS. The sepoys obviously know what to think and where their selective outrage must be directed: their handlers must be telling them regularly.

Madhu KishwarThus the entire arsenal of the #DeepState has been brought out, including the sleeper cells. The fact that the allegations are baseless will not matter, and the nasties will succeed in their objective of shutting down Rajiv Malhotra unless all of us who support our civilisation are vocal in our resistance. To start with, you could sign the petition that is circulating online here. But that isn’t enough: do get active in fighting back. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the withering assault on Hindu civilisation. – Firstpost, 19 July 2015

See also

Kurdish Muslims abandoning Islam for ancient Zoroastrianism – Ala Latif

Faravahar, Atashkadeh, Yazd

Ala Latif“Committing to Zoroastrianism would mean abandoning Islam. But even those who want to take on the Zoroastrian “belt” are staying well away from denigrating any other belief system. This may be one reason why, so far, Islamic clergy and Islamic politicians haven’t criticised the Zoroastrians openly.” – Ala Latif

ZoroasterOne of the smallest and oldest religions in the world is experiencing a revival in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The religion has deep Kurdish roots—it was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives. However this century it is estimated that there are only around 190,000 believers in the world—as Islam became the dominant religion in the region during the 7th century, Zoroastrianism more or less disappeared.

Until—quite possibly—now. For the first time in over a thousand years, locals in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province conducted an ancient ceremony on May 1, whereby followers put on a special belt that signifies they are ready to serve the religion and observe its tenets. It would be akin to a baptism in the Christian faith.

The newly pledged Zoroastrians have said that they will organise similar ceremonies elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have also asked permission to build up to 12 [fire] temples inside the region, which has its own borders, military and parliament. Zoroastrians are also visiting government departments in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have asked that Zoroastrianism be acknowledged as a religion officially. They even have their own anthem and many locals are attending Zoroastrian events and responding to Zoroastrian organisations and pages on social media.

Although as yet there are no official numbers as to how many Kurdish locals are actually turning to this religion, there is certainly a lot of discussion about it. And those who are already Zoroastrians believe that as soon as locals learn more about the religion, their numbers will increase. They also seem to be selling the idea of Zoroastrianism by saying that it is somehow “more Kurdish” then other religions—certainly an attractive idea in an area where many locals care more about their ethnic identity than religious divisions.

Kurdish ZoroastrianAs one believer, Dara Aziz, told Niqash: “I really hope our temples will open soon so that we can return to our authentic religion”.

“This religion will restore the real culture and religion of the Kurdish people,” says Luqman al-Haj Karim, a senior representative of Zoroastrianism and head of the Zoroastrian organisation, Zand, who believes that his belief system is more “Kurdish” than most. “The revival is a part of a cultural revolution, that gives people new ways to explore peace of mind, harmony and love,” he insists.

In fact, Zoroastrians believe that the forces of good and evil are continually struggling in the world—this is why many locals also suspect that this religious revival has more to do with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, as well as deepening sectarian and ethnic divides in Iraq, than any needs expressed by locals for something to believe in.

“The people of Kurdistan no longer know which Islamic movement, which doctrine or which fatwa, they should be believing in,” Mariwan Naqshbandi, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, told Niqash. He says that the interest in Zoroastrianism is a symptom of the disagreements within Islam and religious instability in the Iraqi Kurdish region, as well as in the country as a whole.

“For many more liberal or more nationalist Kurds, the mottos used by the Zoroastrians seem moderate and realistic,” Naqshbandi explains. “There are many people here who are very angry with the Islamic State group and it’s inhumanity.”

Naqshbandi also confirmed that his Ministry would help the Zoroastrians achieve their goals. The right to freedom of religion and worship was enshrined in Kurdish law and Naqshbandi said that the Zoroastrians would be represented in his offices.

Mumbai Parsi Temple: Jashan ceremony held in the Banaji Atash Behram on April 9th, 2011.

Zoroastrian leader al-Karim isn’t so sure whether it is the Islamic State, or IS, group’s extremism that is changing how locals think about religion. “The people of Kurdistan are suffering from a collapsing culture that actually hinders change,” he argues. “It’s illogical to connect Zoroastrianism with the IS group. We are simply encouraging a new way of thinking about how to live a better life, the way that Zoroaster told us to.”

On local social media there has been much discussion on this subject. One of the most prevalent questions is this: Will the Kurdish abandon Islam altogether in favour of other beliefs?

“We don’t want to be a substitute for any other religion,” al-Karim replies. “We simply want to respond to society’s needs.”

However, even if al-Karim doesn’t admit it, it is clear to everyone else. Committing to Zoroastrianism would mean abandoning Islam. But even those who want to take on the Zoroastrian “belt” are staying well away from denigrating any other belief system. This may be one reason why, so far, Islamic clergy and Islamic politicians haven’t criticised the Zoroastrians openly.

As one local politician, Haji Karwan, an MP for the Islamic Union in Iraqi Kurdistan, tells Niqash, he doesn’t think that so many people have actually converted to Zoroastrianism anyway. He also thinks that those promoting the religion are few and far between. “But of course, people are free to choose whatever religion they want to practise,” Karwan told Niqash. “Islam says there’s no compulsion in religion.”

On the other hand, Karwan disagrees with the idea that any religion—let alone Zoroastrianism—is specifically “Kurdish” in nature. Religion came to humanity as a whole, not to any one specific ethnic group, he argues. – Niqash, 28 May 2015

» Ala Latif is a journalist and editor in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurds

Zoroastrian Kurds celebrate Newroz at Mitanni

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