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Irrational India

The controversial religious leader, Rampal Singh Jatin, who now calls himself simply Rampal, was taken into custody last week after a siege of his ashram in Hisar district of Haryana. Mr Rampal had been evading a required appearance in a contempt of court case before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which had ordered the Haryana police to produce him before the bench by November 21. This followed a long standoff in which several members of Mr Rampal’s organisation died. Afterwards the Haryana Police produced weapons – although many of those were airguns – from Mr Rampal’s ashram. Since then, several discussions have appeared in the media of Mr Rampal’s apparent excesses, such as the expense of his ashram. But such lawlessness is in many ways a natural consequence, if obscurantist irrationality is allowed to grow.

Mr Rampal, in spite of his attempt to evade the notice of the court, is by no means unusual for Indian religious leaders. Like many other such, he is a former engineer – indeed, till 2000 he was formally a junior engineer with the state irrigation department. Nor is his lifestyle notably lavish by the high standards set by many Indian “godmen”. Given Mr Rampal set up shop as a spiritual advisor in 2000, he had an enviable rate of return when growing his business. His ashram now covers 12 acres, he has a fleet of luxury cars, and unlike many others in the private corporate sector, he is not heavily in debt to the banks. Still here, again, it is possible to find many others in his sector who have seen similar high returns. Clearly, Mr Rampal’s is a high-risk, high-reward industry.

Mr Rampal has, by one estimate, 250,000 followers in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana. There could be many reasons for his popularity. One is perhaps that he is notably anti-caste – like the immensely more powerful organisation known as the Dera Sacha Sauda, Mr Rampal’s ashram benefited from the persistence of caste divides in other, more orthodox, streams of religion. The Dera Sacha Sauda has also indulged in public violence, as the followers of Mr Rampal did in 2006 – the occasion for which Mr Rampal has been booked for murder, although he has been refusing to appear. In both cases, the violence was born out of clashes with more traditional religious groups.

Overall, the question of religious obscurantism is something that India has shied away from far too long. This pervades every stratum of society; it affects even those who enjoy high positions in the government. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had no patience for such. But his successors – and descendants – were grievously culpable. Indira Gandhi was known for her patronage of spiritualists of dubious virtue. And her son Rajiv kicked off the 1989 election campaign by seeking the blessing of Devraha Baba, who lived on a high platform by the Yamuna and blessed people by touching their heads with his foot.

Sadly, it does not appear that obscurantism and irrationality are reducing in salience. Indeed, if anything, it is increasing. And the indications are that it will only gather strength under the new government, which seems to have empowered the most regressive of forces. At the ongoing World Hindu Congress, the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – a sister organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – declared that, 800 years after the defeat of Prithviraj Chouhan, “Hindus” have finally “reclaimed Delhi”. As evidence of how previous governments were different, the leader – Ashok Singhal – pointed to various occasions in the past when religious beliefs had not been elevated above the law and rationality. It seems the descent of India into a stew of irrationality, if such voices are given more legitimacy, will be swift.

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