Saturday, January 06, 2007

On being secular...

This post in the Brittanica Blog discusses the controversy surrounding the Italian law laid down by Benito Mussolini in 1924, and still in effect today, that every school, classroom, hospital, court of law in the country must display a crucifix of Christ. The law has been challenged several times and there have been several disputes, but it has stayed.

On the other hand The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in primary and secondary schools. France had begun to view faith as a matter for each individual citizen rather than for a nation as a whole As a result of this history, religious manifestations are considered undesirable in government-operated schools; primary and secondary schools are supposed to be neutral spaces where children can learn away from political or religious pressures, controversies and quarrels. Because of this neutrality requirement, students are normally prohibited from conducting religious proselytising on the premises.

Both these countries profess to be secular. So does India ,for that matter.

Whereas Italy did not see any inconsistency in the display of the crucifix and in its secular ideals, France felt that to be secular, ostentatious display of any religious symbol was undesirable. To them, secularism meant neutrality.

India , of course, claims to believe that secularism means that all religions must co-exist and that the Govt policy must encourage all religions in equal measure. Religion is so much a part of our lives here and permeates every other activity- business, sports, music- that we take it for granted. For other cultures, such ostentatious display of religious beliefs can be quite strange.

While on a recent visit to a consulting firm in Chennai along with some European colleagues I noticed that the persons sitting across the table were all in black attire, their faces unshaven, and sporting large, colourful marks on the foreheads. They were all set to leave for their annual Sabarimala pilgrimage. My colleagues, of course, were far too diplomatic to express any curiosity, but I wondered what they made out of the whole thing.

I guess, as in everything else, one size will not fit all, and each country will have to choose the appropriate doctrine or brand of secularism that it feels is the best suited. And, then deal with the conflicts.

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