Edit/Op-Ed

Is Bhoomi Puja by state a Secular Act?

Ram Puniyani

It is a common sight to see the statues, photos and symbols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in different Government owned public places like police station and other buildings. Similarly state run buses also have the photos of Hindu Gods and Godesses. We have stopped thinking whether it is right. It is a common observation that most of the time Hindu rituals are performed while the construction of state projects, buildings etc are undertaken. The practice has become a sort of routine to which not many people give a thought. We remember that after independence serious scholars criticized the government for not being secular enough. Around that time when Pundit Nehru was the Prime Minister, the Central Cabinet not only turned down the proposal of building Somanth temple with state money but Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President was also advised not to inaugurate the temple in his capacity as the President of India. The visits of public functionaries to the holy places were a strictly private matter, away form the glare of media.

Rahul Gandhi during the foundation stone laying ceremony in Amethi in 2008 (Courtesy: Reuters)

Times seem to have been changing. The politicians are competing with each other to seek the divine blessing through different well advertised visits, the inaugural ceremonies of state sponsored buildings have the Brahmin priest supervising laying of the foundation stone and undertaking a bhoomi puja (Worship of Earth) and doing his best to get the approval of the supernatural powers though the chanting of Mantras. In this scenario, the move by Rajesh Solanki, a dalit activist from Gujarat to file a Public Interest Litigation against the bhoomi pujan and chanting of mantras performed at the time of foundation stone laying ceremony for the new building for the High court, came as a move to set the things on secular grounds. The function was performed in the presence of the Governor of the State of Gujarat and the Chief Justice of the State amongst others. Solanki’s plea was that a secular state should not perform the religious rituals. Such an act of worship violates the basic principles of the Indian Constitution, which is secular and lays the boundaries between the state and the religion. Solanki argued that the puja and chanting of mantras by Brahmin priests would make the judiciary loose its secular credentials.

Rather than upholding his rational and secular plea, the court went on to dismiss the petition and also fined the petitioner Rs 20000, doubting his bona fides. The judges went onto say that the Bhoomi puja is meant to seek the pardon of the Earth to graciously bear the burden of the damage to make the construction, to make the construction successful. And since this is for the welfare of all it fits into the Hindu values of Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam (All beings on the planet are one family) and Sarvajan Sukhino Bhavantu (For the good of all).

There is a lot of mix up in different arguments being put forward. To begin with to regard that for making a construction the Earth has to be worshipped is a purely Hindu concept. The people from other religions will do different things to start their construction work, like sprinkling Holy water by Christian priest for example. The atheists will be more concerned about the preservation of ecological balance and to see that the geological and architectural aspects have been fully taken care of. The legal defense of the practices of one religion for state function is nothing short of violating the basic principles of Indian Constitution, which ensures that state keep its distance from all religions and then treats them all on the equal ground, reaffirmed in S. R. Bommai case. Secularism, as understood in S.R. Bommai is that (1) the state has no religion (2) the state stands aloof from religion and (3) the state does not promote or identify with any religion.

Several Religious Heads at the foundation stone-laying ceremony for an 'all faith complex' in Srinagar in 2004 (Reuters)

It is true that moral values of many religions can be accepted by the society at large, like Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam (Hinduism), or ‘all men are brother’ (Islam) or ‘Love thy neighbor’ (Christianity) but as far as rituals are concerned it is a different cup of tea. The core of religions is not rituals but moral values. In popular perception and practices it is the rituals which are identified with the religion. This is a matter of social understudying and different streams will go by different opinion on this. The core point is that the saints of the genre of Kabir, Nizamuddin Auliya, and Gandhi harped on the moral aspects of the religions. As far as practice of religion is concerned people have no restriction in following their social and personal practices, which are so diverse between different religions and even within the same religion as different sects follow different religious practices.

Such a judgment goes totally against the Article 51 (A) of the Constitution also, which directs us to promote the rational thought in the society. The promotion of rituals of one particular faith by the State is against the spirit of our Constitution. Again in many instances there is just a thin borderline between faith and blind faith. Blind faith will push the society in the retrograde direction. Today we know that unless the location for a construction is selected properly, geological and construction aspects are taken care of scientifically, accidents do happen. That’s why state has developed many a norms of construction which are necessary to be cleared and we have witnessed that violation of such norms have led to accidents. Our courts have to promote these aspects of Constitution rather than to prove in a convoluted way that practices of one religion should be accepted as the state practices. Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi had gone on to state that “In India, for whose fashioning I have worked all my life, every man enjoys equality of status, whatever his religion is. The state is bound to be wholly Secular” (Harijan August 31, 1947) and, “religion is not the test of nationality but is a personal matter between man and God, (ibid pg 90), and,” religion is a personal affair of each Individual, it must not be mixed up with politics or national Affairs”(ibid pg 90).

Last few decades identification of Hindu religious practices has been accepted as the state norms and this needs to be given a rethinking.

Ram Puniyani is a Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and also works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.

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