Did the ISRO Chief violate the Constitution by Publicly Praying to a Hindu Deity ?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

I usually make it a point to not write a rejoinder to pieces that I read and disagree with, even the most provocative ones, simply because the focus shifts, from and at the expense of the issue, to the people on either sides of the debate. And once this happens, ad hominem attacks are usually the norm, with exceptions being truly exceptional. But once in a while, you come across a piece that you have to, nay you need to respond to for multiple reasons. In this case, the piece that I need to respond to, more so after the exchange on Twitter, is titled “Jai Vigyan?” which was published on November 7, 2013 on Newsyaps.com,

Before I proceed with the stated purpose of this exercise, let me first begin with a few disclosures and disclaimers. I know the author of the piece personally. He is one of the most knowledgeable people I have known and the word “achiever” describes him well. He, of all the people, knows that I have always wished him well the way an elder sibling does for a younger one. Therefore, I can confidently say that malafides cannot be imputed to my views on his column. Further, at all points, I shall try my best to restrict my comments to the contents of the column alone, to ensure that the debate progresses on civil lines. With these disclaimers, I proceed to the object of this post.

Here are a few “gems” from the article “Jai Vigyan”:

“ISRO has now made India only the fourth participant worldwide in humanity’s quest to understand Mars, and the Rs.450 crore spent is a small price for the manifestation of a nation’s spirit of adventure and thirst for knowledge.

And yet, shortly before the launch of one of the most complex scientific projects undertaken by humanity, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan thought it necessary to take miniature replicas of the rocket and the Mars orbiter spacecraft to the feet of a deity and conference with supernatural forces. The chairman engaged in pooja at the Tirumala shrine at Tirupathi ahead of the historic moment of launch and asked for “a little divine intervention.

How is a sneeze or two while leaving the house supposed to influence your performance at an exam? Can the position of constellations thousands of trillions of kilometres away somehow determine the state of one’s marriage? And are the ISRO Chairman’s actions any different from these?

…Moreover, such irrational behaviour from the head of the Indian government’s primary space agency is unbelievably senseless.

….When the agency which is supposed to be a temple of science and uphold the search for truth and new knowledge, is worshiping a Hindu deity in such a public manner, are we making any progress at all? We should all be thankful that a black cat did not cross the scientist’s path; otherwise the mission could very well have been postponed in want of a more auspicious mahurat and a poojan for Mangaladevata.

This also goes on to show how we have grown used to this strange form of cognitive dissonance which allows such an epidemic of mystical belief to remain. Most of us have our own quirks and idiosyncrasies that we give in to, sometimes even subconsciously in the course of our daily lives. Sachin Tendulkar can very well choose to put his left pad on first, and if it makes you feel any better, there’s no one stopping you from downing a spoonful of yoghurt. But Radhakrishnan’s actions are an endorsement of these myths and home-grown forms of witchcraft and sorcery by a state agency, and violates article 51A(h) of the constitution in letter and spirit. While we undertake journeys into uncharted orbits and into the vast unknown, let’s try not to get a driver who’s intoxicated on the opiate of the masses.

The central point the short piece makes is as follows:

1. ISRO is a temple of science where there is no place for superstition;

2. On the eve of the launch of “Mangalyaan”, the ISRO Chief Dr.K.Radhakrishnan had no business paying a visit to the Tirumala Shrine to pray for the success of the mission;

3. “Worshipping a Hindu deity in a public manner” in connection with the Mangalyaan launch amounts to “endorsement of ..myths and home-grown forms of witchcraft and sorcery by a state agency” which militates against the stated goals and ethos of ISRO. Not just that, this act of faith of the ISRO Chief is in the same league as people putting stock in the perceived evil effects of a “sneeze” before leaving the house; AND

4. This very “public act of worshipping a Hindu deity” by the ISRO Chief violates Article 51A(h) of the Constitution, which casts a duty on every citizen of India to “develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform”.

The unexplained leaps of logic based on generous dollops of factual assumption, the sheer unreasonableness of the proposition, the unreasoned jump to the flawed legal conclusion, the subliminal sanctimony, and the air of condescension towards the practice of the Hindu faith by a public official, are, I am sorry to say, shocking, disappointing and offensive notwithstanding the polished tone of the article.

There are quite a few questions that need to be asked and answered:

1. What exactly does the column refer to when it speaks of “myths and home-grown forms of witchcraft and sorcery”? Can the worship of a Hindu deity be equated with witchcraft and sorcery?

2. Does a public official commit hara-kiri by praying for the success of his team’s efforts and for the nation’s aspirations? Is a public official precluded from praying in connection with his official duties? If Dr.Kalam had paid a visit to a Dargah after the failure of a mission to draw strength from the object of his faith, or to thank for the success of his team’s efforts, would that have amounted to endorsement of ..myths and home-grown forms of witchcraft and sorcery by a state agency”?

3. When the head of a State agency seeks the aid of Providence in successfully performing his official duties, is he praying in “representative capacity” on behalf of the State agency, or is it a personal act of faith performed in public by a public official to which none has the right or business to interfere with or object to?

4. How is the Constitution violated by the ISRO Chief’s act of “worshipping a Hindu deity in a public manner”? Does Article 51A(h) bar public officials from seeking Divine help?

If the object of the column was to provide impetus to progressive values and thinking, I don’t think this lofty cause is better served by taking an evidently disdainful, elitist and Macaulite approach to the practice of the Hindu faith. I would have probably agreed with the spirit of the column if the ISRO Chief had screamed “Jai Shri Ram” or “Allahu Akbar” at a press conference on the eve of, or after the launch of the Mangalyaan. I would have empathized with the essence of the column if the ISRO Chief had consulted astrologers to ascertain the auspicious time for the launch, or had stalled it citing “Rahu Kaalam” or “Yama Gandam”, or had forced one of his woman employees to marry a goat to appease “mangaldevta”, or had spent ISRO’s money in feeding a thousand elephants or donating “chaddars” to a Dargah in Ajmer or Nagaur. He clearly did none of these. Then what is so wrong about his personal act of faith? That it was captured on camera? I am hoping there is a better argument to pin down the ISRO Chief.

The column goes on to callously and fecklessly accuse the ISRO Chief of violating Article 51A(h) of the Constitution. This allegation is levelled peremptorily without any discussion on the nuances of the provision or its interplay with other important parts of the Constitution, such as the provisions dealing with freedom of conscience and religion. It would help to take a look at Article 25(1) of the Constitution which recognizes the freedom of conscience/religion of “all persons” without exception, not just private citizens, subject to restrictions on grounds of public order, morality, health and other provisions under Part III of the Constitution.

Before jumping to the conclusion that the ISRO Chief has indeed violated Article 51A(h), the column ought to have discussed the scope of his rights under Article 25(1), and whether the exercise of such rights were in transgression of the duty cast by Article 51A(h). One of the fundamental canons of legal interpretation is that no proposed interpretation of a provision or a statute must be unreasonable or militate against common sense. Is it reasonable to conclude that the ISRO Chief’s personal act of faith falls outside the scope of his rights under Article 25(1), and is violative of Article 51A(h) merely because he is the head of a State agency? Unless someone is arguing for the sake of arguing, no reasonable person can answer in the affirmative.

What is disappointing is that the column does not even attempt to draw a distinction between religion and superstition (although both are based on faith), nor does it deal in subtleties such as the distinction between religion and faith in the super-natural. On the contrary, the column’s approach is rabidly binary and reductionist, not to mention superficial, which is evident from the author’s position on Twitter that the ISRO Chief’s act of worship is inconsistent with ISRO’s stated goals i.e. the practice of science. Anyone who is conversant with the history of physics should know that it is replete with examples of great physicists who have publicly professed their faith in the super-natural.

And what is truly offensive is the use of the words “witchcraft and sorcery” in connection with the practice of the Hindu faith, which is as bad as Steven Spielberg’s grotesque portrayal of Kali worship in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Instead of addressing, with a certain degree of intellectual honesty, the truly burning issues which afflict the Hindu society, intentionally or otherwise the piece panders to and encourages negative Western stereotypes of Hindus and Hinduism. It is one thing to advocate progressive values, and yet another to take the insufferable tone of sanctimony towards one’s own people. This tendency has reached nauseating levels and it is time we spoke out against it, lest we perpetuate our reputation of being soft and silent human doormats.