Friday, December 8
India’s G-20 Presidency: R20 and FoRB

India’s G-20 Presidency: R20 and FoRB


Fourth in the series of articles in this column on India’s presidency of G-20, it discusses the G-20 Religion Forum, or R20 which contributes as a potent and dynamic source of solutions to some of the problems in the world. Along with that, we talk about another complementary socio-cultural global principle called Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). The preceding articles on G-20 were ‘resetting the global ethic’, ‘a unique Indian perspective’ and ‘advocating a balance’.

A day after taking over the presidency of G-20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked, “Can we catalyse a fundamental mindset shift to benefit humanity as a whole”? He then called upon the world leaders to “join together to make India’s G-20 presidency, a presidency of healing, harmony and hope”. If one may pontificate on the operationalisation of these powerful emotional words, healing would entail extending compassion and comfort, harmony would pre-suppose; feelings and actions of togetherness, fellowship, accommodation, co-existence, tolerance and mutual respect etc; hope would involve focussing on global goods like innate goodness of human beings across the world, to be able to stand by each other manifesting plurilateral solidarity and recognising wo(man)’s capacity for justice and at the same time, their inclination for injustice etc.

In sum, the actualisation of these three aspirational ideals named by the Prime Minister can be secured, in terms of organising principle, that is, promoting the concept of pluralism in all aspects of life – technology, ideology, economy, language, religion, race and so on. Many scholars in India and Indologists from abroad have appreciated and advocated Indian concept and practice of pluralism.

The External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar writes in “The Indian Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World”, India has a long tradition of diversity and co-existence. Its intrinsic pluralism helps reconcile conflicting ideas and contesting collectives. He adds that India’s multi-faith society is an enormous contribution to global stability. In fact, “that is what acts as a firewall preventing the spread of fundamentalism and radicalism from India’s West to the East. Indeed, Indian pluralism is an inherent cultural attribute”.

While many other aspects of pluralism are often discussed, the role of religions in society and even in politics, is anot. On the contrary, religion is pushed to the periphery of governance; in the so-called developed democracies of the West, by separating the church from the state, and in the largest democracy of the world, India, through a cluttered concept of secularism, which among other things, formally derecognises religion as a social or political category. In reality, however, religion is playing a big role across the world, often in a malevolent manner manifesting in radicalism, fundamentalism, majoritarianism leading to religious hatred, persecution and violence. This has to change. India needs to initiate that change at home and abroad during its G-20 presidency.

Restoring the role of religion in global discourse and governance can involve a two-fold complementary strategy. First, allowing a thorough and widespread discourse on the essence of religion that contributes to integral humanism, not fissiparous sectarianisms. Only such aspects of religion should be allowed to be discussed in public domain as they are commensurate with the constitution of any country. Religion could inform the public discourse as well as the policy-making in any country that enhances the constitution of that country not undermines it. It should support the constitution not supplant it.

The second strategy consists of fully respecting FoRB which is being treated as a human right for individuals across the world. Since it is fairly a new concept in some parts of the world, a small elaboration is in order. In international law, FoRB is a fundamental human right to protect and preserve human dignity. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights stipulates, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change their religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. This right is endorsed by many countries by their national laws.

For example, in India, this right is guaranteed in Article 25 of the Constitution, “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”. This Article is however tempered by Clauses and Sub-Clauses. To note, the Clause 1 adds a rider to this freedom, “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.

However, FoRB means freedom of religion as defined by and belief as held by individuals, either alone or in relation to a community. An individual’s understanding of religion may conflict with the constitutional principles, or indeed, with other person’s definition. In such case, the individuals’ practice and profession of their religion would remain confined to their private domain. Likewise, freedom of belief may include agnosticism, atheism and any other religious cultural practices and attitudes. Again such beliefs could be allowed as long as they do not challenge the constitutional principles of freedom, equality and justice etc.

Scholars and political actors have commented on the role and significance of religion under G-20 Religion Forum (R20). They argue that global issues like health, economy, climate and technology have been the global concerns, so have the burning issues like hatred, disharmony, violence and war etc. But the role of religion and culture in eliminating the latter problems has not been fully appreciated. Indonesia, which preceded India as G-20 President, had made a notable beginning by bringing in religious leadership into active discourse. The two organisations taking the lead were Nahdlatl Ulama (NU) of Indonesia and the Muslim worldly of Saudi Arabia.

Indian political and religious leadership maintain that India has the oldest religion of the world, the sanatana dharma which is timeless without a beginning and an end; many a person argues that many other religions have emerged from it. Arif Mohammad Khan, a scholar of culture and religion, present Governor of Kerala, never tires of citing sanatana dharma as the eternal religion of humanism that encompasses everyone in India and the world. In a similar vein, Mark Tully, a veteran BBC journalist spending decades in India quotes a Christian scholar Ninian Smart who wrote “World Religions: A Dialogue”. Smart wrote a dialogue between a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, and a Buddhist. In the end, Smart says to the Hindu, “You have half persuaded me to look upon doctrines in a more Hindu way. But I give notice that however Hindu I may be, I shall remain a Hindu Christian”. That is the spirit of accommodation with other faiths and respect FoRB.

At any rate, FoRB in a pluralist society and politics is essential to reinforce the role of religion in public life that mitigates hatred, divisiveness, religious violence and other tragic and evil consequences associated with it. (INFA)

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