How CORAB instantiates the treatment of Hindus in British religion and faith policy

Prakash Shah

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It is unlikely that CORAB will generate anything by way of new knowledge. In fact, we are justified in not treating it as a document offering knowledge at all. Members of the Commission must have had to accept constraints prior to joining such an effort. They have different backgrounds and religions and would not ordinarily agree even on fundamental issues and problems of religion and public life. Some suppression of their individual positions must be necessary in order to come up with a common document. In that light, what framework would supply the boundaries and constraints under which a common position could be articulated?

An attitude of liberal toleration would be implicitly expected of Commission members. Such an attitude depends on the acceptance of truth claims made within a Protestant Christian framework, which supplies the conditions without which liberal toleration would be unintelligible. The Protestant theological framework has prevailed in terms of supplying key ideas within political and legal theory today, making it impossible to think of problems in a plural society outside of that framework. That is not necessarily because of its cognitive persuasiveness, but because of its sheer spread through the Western culture. Thus, even a notion as basic as ‘public life’ depends on Protestant theological notions of public and private. The freedom of thought, conscience and religion is another such important normative idea. Since many members of CORAB do not share a Western cultural background, their attempt to cohere to this stance is dissimulative.

“The Protestant theological framework has prevailed in terms of supplying key ideas within political and legal theory today, making it impossible to think of problems in a plural society outside of that framework.”

The normative nature of this secularised theological framework also provides the terms by which the inferiorisation of other human cultures, including those who follow the Indian traditions, is inflected. CORAB’s treatment of Hindus instantiates this. While we find Hindus mentioned several times through the report, this group is generally referred to alongside other groups. So Hindus only get a mention when the writers want to illustrate some general point, but this tells us nothing specific about the connection between Hindus and public life in Britain. Not only does the presence of Hindus seem marginal; from the CORAB report we cannot say whether the Hindu presence has any implications at all for British public life. Had Hindus not been mentioned the content of the report could have remained otherwise undisturbed. To this extent Hindus serve only an ornamental role.

True that Hindus are barely 1.5 per cent of the population of England and Wales, being fewer elsewhere in the UK. But then Sikhs and Jews are even fewer in number but they get treated differently. Like Hindus, they are mentioned alongside other groups, sometimes alongside Hindus, but the report does carry references to Sikh and Jewish traditions as being of specific relevance to the issues discussed. However, even with Sikhs, the mentions are only of some commonplaces such as langar, and then only because of compliance with some pre-established idea of the good.

The CORAB exercise was set up by the Woolf Institute, whose mission is to examine relations only between Jews, Christians and Muslims, the followers of Semitic religions. This core concern is reflected in the composition of CORAB’s steering committee. Religious matching appears necessary but only in so far as the Semitic religions are concerned. Such profiling begs the question whether CORAB should interest other groups at all. It is unsurprisingly read as, at the outset, concerned with the Semitic religions, with others being of rather marginal interest or relevance.

Hindus complain in vain, however, because the CORAB report is not the first instance where they receive such treatment. They are peripheral even in in-depth academic exercises exploring the policy consequences of religious plurality. The £12 million funding for the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme (2007-2013) supported no serious work on Hindus. The EU Commission-funded RELIGARE project, which focused on religious diversity and secular legal systems, and of which I was a part, shows similar features. Hindus are basically uninteresting and irrelevant for the study of questions about religion and society or secular legal systems.

For some Hindu organizations, CORAB epitomised an anti-Hindu stance given the presence of Lord Harries on its Steering Group. They were already in the throes of the legislation potentially making caste discrimination unlawful via the Equality Act 2010. In the same year as the setting up of CORAB, the legislation had been reinforced obliging the government to implement the caste discrimination clause, whereas its original form gave the government the power to implement, which also meant the discretion to decide whether to do so. Lord Harries was a protagonist in the original introduction of the clause in 2010 and in its reinforcement in 2013. For this reason, together with several Hindu organizations, I advocated a boycott of CORAB. Although two Hindu organisations are mentioned in the report’s Appendix B, what specific evidence they proffered is not evident.

“from the CORAB report we cannot say whether the Hindu presence has any implications at all for British public life.”

CORAB does not enter into any of this background, preferring to retain a legitimate by co-opting Lord Bhikhu Parekh and Shaunaka Rishi Das as Hindu members. The report’s short discussion of caste (para. 8.21) falsely (and without source) claims, “Influential sections of some faith communities, however, maintain that more research and consultation is still required before the law on caste discrimination is put into effect.” Research and consultation will not solve any problems at this stage because the certainty regarding the oppressive Indian caste system is pre-theoretical and, furthermore, underpinned by claims about the immoral nature of Indian religion made by Christian theologians over centuries. Since the existence of the oppressive caste system is presupposed and secularised by the social sciences, only research that uncovers the layers of theological writings on Indian society, culture and religion, and how their ‘facts’ are now embedded in the social sciences, can dislodge that presupposition. To the same degree, consultations are basically useless, as no decision maker possesses a theoretically grounded way of deciding which claims about the caste system are true or false and, by default, they have to adopt some secularised version of the theologically framed account of the Indian caste system. Ultimately, any decision to implement the caste legislation is not likely to rest on the intellectual case but by assessments of how Hindus will vote and how much money from Hindu donors flows into political party coffers.

Some three years ago the National Secular Society (NSS) began talking about the influence of some “wealthy Hindu businessmen” as responsible for blocking the legislation. This seems covered up by CORAB’s prophylactic reference to “influential sections of some faith communities”, safeguarding it from accusations that it targets Hindus. Of course neither the NSS, nor the invertebrate Sunday Times which piggy-backed on the phrase, provides the identity of those allegedly blocking the legislation. Sikhs, like Lord Indarjit Singh, remain under the erroneous impression that their Gurus constituted Sikhism as an anti-caste movement that will protect them against caste based litigation. Muslims likewise fool themselves that the caste measure would attack Hindus and are thus presumably satisfied that a false religion gets its just deserts. The phrase “influential sections” also covers up the role of the churches in promoting the legislation on caste with identifiable church-backed Dalit organisations claiming victimhood at their behest. We are to believe that the string pullers like Lord Harries are powerless subalterns.

The caste legislation is thus publicly portrayed, media organizations largely following in tow, as a conflict between upper and lower caste Indians, with the churches standing aloft helping the underdogs. A narrative to discredit opposition to the law is confirmed by Prof. David Mosse of SOAS, part of the EHRC team of academics commissioned to justify the caste law. He casts opposers like me as Hindu nationalists. By doing that he suggests we have no serious arguments why such legislation should not be implemented. Speaking at the King’s India Institute on 29 November 2016, Mosse also impliedly confirmed that the endgame behind the UK legislation is securing the extension of caste based quotas in education and government jobs to Christians in India, which explains why Christian lobbyists from Lord Harries downwards have taken such a keen interest in the caste law.

CORAB and other projects, academic or otherwise, mostly disregard Hindus except as ornamental heathens. Like ideas of the caste system, understanding of the Indian traditions has not broken away from the Christian theological certainties in which it was originally formed and which also supplied us with concepts such as ‘Hinduism’ alleged to refer to real world religions. Scholars continue to believe in the universality of religion, a belief that Balagangadhara has shown to be grounded in Christian theology. To the extent that there are departments, mainly of religion, or exceptional institutions such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Indian traditions are researched and taught as vulgar versions of Christianity. This is symptomatic of a deep crisis in knowledge of Asian traditions as whole, a problem which one may not expect a parochial report like CORAB to address, even though that failure completely undermines its utility.

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Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law at the Department of Law, Queen Mary, University of London, where he is also the Director of GLOCUL: Centre for Culture and Law. He specialises in legal pluralism, religion and law, ethnic minorities and diasporas in law, immigration, refugee and nationality law, and comparative law. His major publications include: Legal Practice and Cultural Diversity (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, joint editor); Law and Ethnic Plurality: Socio-Legal Perspectives(Leiden and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2007, sole editor); and Legal Pluralism in Conflict: Coping with Cultural Diversity in Law (London: Glass House, 2005, author).

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Citation

To cite this article, please use the following: Shah, Prakash. (2017) ‘How CORAB instantiates the treatment of Hindus in British religion and faith policy’Public Spirit (January, 2017: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/?p=4607&preview=true)

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