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Financial Inclusion – Modi’s tryst with India

Financial Inclusion – Modi’s tryst with India

In his second term in office, Prime Minister Modi has talked about making India a US$ 5 trillion economy by 2024-20251. This has not only generated a lot of debate in India and but also has focused world attention on the Indian economy.

Many may think that this might be a tall order for a country that till recently was home to the largest number of utterly poor in the world. But the truth is that India may be closer to this target than we may realize.

While all sectors of the economy have to grow rapidly, the financial services sector has a key role to play to reach the mark. By stepping up its inclusive program that provides equal access to loans and other financial services to all sections of society, it can create a multiplier effect.

The obvious link here is that when a larger number of people borrow, especially the poor, increased economic activity follows leading to growth in sustainable means of income for broader sections of society. This, then helps rupture the “vicious cycle” of poverty.

Public policy planners, to their credit, have long been aware of the direct relationship between financial inclusion and swift economic growth. In fact, in 2005, Dr. YV Reddy, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had talked about financial inclusion in his annual policy statement2. In 2008, the Dr. Rangarajan Committee on financial inclusion3 recommended a national mission to facilitate required policy changes.

Despite all this, India’s progress had obviously been slow in the past. But the economic fortunes of the poor have changed for the better – quickly and noticeably – only in the last decade. A report published in the Times of India (TOI) in January 2019 quoting World Data Lab showed the steep fall in poverty in India and estimated the current ‘extreme poor’ to be around 50 million.4 [According to the World Bank, ‘extreme poor’ are those who make less than $1.9 per day.]

It is important to see the declining poverty levels in the context of the massive digital revolution that is taking place in India in parallel. Contrary to what the electronic and print media in India may have you believe, the digital revolution on multiple fronts has aided and catalyzed the financial inclusion programs of the government.

As of December 2018, 1.23 billion people had Aadhar digital biometric identity cards5 and over 1.21 billion had mobile phones.6 Also, as of 2017, 80% of adults had a bank account .7 Bulk of the new accounts were opened with the aid of Aadhar identity cards.  

Further, the country has also seen steep rise in mobile payment transactions. According to the data released by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) 8 transactions via the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), the country’s flagship payments platform, grew 25% and crossed Rs.1 trillion in value in December 2018.

However, millions continue to live in poverty. India has a low credit access with only 154 loans per 1000 adults7. This may be attributed to the reluctance of lenders to lend to people whose credit worthiness cannot be reasonably assessed. Unlike the US, India does not have robust credit reporting agencies with depth of data that can help lenders in approving loans. This remains a major challenge for credit expansion.

The good news, however, is that the confluence of mobile penetration, establishment of a biometric identity and the emergence of disruptive credit risk solutions that facilitate the identification and assessment of borrower risk may set the scene for massive credit inclusion process. Consequently, India’s efforts to eliminate poverty may have reached a tipping point.

Many fintechs around the world and in India are now using a consumer’s digital identity to predict loan repayment behavior. In a report published in September 2018, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) of the US has reported9 that a predictive “model that uses only the digital footprint variables equals or exceeds the information content of the credit bureau score”.

In other words, lenders in India will now be able to assess credit risk of borrowers by using their digital identity. This also simultaneously obviates the need to build credit bureaus using traditional data – an expensive and time consuming effort in any case.

The purpose of this piece is not to speculate if India will reach the US$ 5 trillion mark by 2024-25, but to rather assess its preparedness in setting in motion a host of services and programs that will benefit the largest number of poor.  As is obvious, lifting millions of people out of poverty is a multi-pronged, multi-mission driven exercise where the happy meeting of cutting-edge technology and robust political will to execute the mission are necessary and imperative conditions.

India has adequately demonstrated its capability to execute complex projects on time and within budget. This augers well for the extreme poor. If they rise up above poverty, so will India, economically speaking, and crossing the US$ 5 trillion mark may just be one of the milestones.

Modi’s achievements in this regard, as substantiated by data from multiple sources, are substantial and suggest that it is broad-based and truly inclusive. This is in stark contrast to the efforts of the earlier government led by Dr Manmohan Singh who claimed at the National Development Council that “the first claim on the country’s resources for development”10 were reserved exclusively for a particular religious community.

It is indeed debatable if India, in its tryst with destiny, ever managed to redeem its pledge, as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru dreamt at that midnight hour in 1947. Definitely data suggests that even after almost six decades, the redemption of the pledge in terms of poverty eradication, was not even substantial.  But given the track record of the last five years, Modi’s tryst with India is taking it places and the poorest of poor are joining the bandwagon in their millions. And Modi has the backing of the state-of-art technology. Of course, the claim on the country’s resources for development will be inclusive and for all, not the exclusive right of a select few.

References
1.Goal to make India $5 trillion economy by 2024 challenging, but possible, says PM Modi
https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/goal-to-make-india-5-trillion-economy-by-2024-challenging-but-possible-says-pm-modi/story/356407.html
2.Annual Policy Statement for the Year 2005-06 by Dr. Y. Venugopal Reddy, Governor, Reserve Bank of India
https://rbi.org.in/scripts/BS_ViewMonetaryCreditPolicy.aspx?Id=2217#1
3.Rangarajan Committee submits report on financial inclusion
http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/rangarajan-committee-submits-report-on-financial-inclusion/257905/
4.New data may show big cut in number of poor
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/67705787.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
5.Number of Aadhar Card holders in India
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aadhaar
6.Number of Mobile phones in use by country
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_mobile_phones_in_use
7.Strategy for New India @ 75 – NITI Aayog
https://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/Strategy_for_New_India.pdf
8.UPI transactions rise 25%, cross Rs 1 trillion mark in December
https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/upi-transactions-rise-25-cross-rs-1-trillion-mark-in-december-119010100767_1.html
9.On the Rise of the FinTechs—Credit Scoring using Digital Footprints
https://www.fdic.gov/bank/analytical/cfr/2018/wp2018/workingpapers-2018.html
19.Minorities must have first claim on resources: PM Manmohan Singh
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/minorities-must-have-first-claim-on-resources-pm/articleshow/754218.cms

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Posted by on July 18, 2019 in India, Indian Economy, Modi

 

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2019 Elections – Is Tamil Nadu becoming the next Kashmir?

Will Modi & Amit Shah clean up internal security mess?

The results of the 2019 general elections came as a surprise to no one. But what really surprised many was the scale of Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory. The BJP won 303 seats, while its allies took another 50 seats giving it a commanding majority to form the government on its own. The key factors for the victory have been a scam-free five years where the government had single mindedly focused on executing numerous poverty alleviation and infrastructure developmental programs. The benefits that flowed were there for all to see and there was no going back.

The 2019 general election has thrown up some key facets of an emerging political ecosystem in India. This is refreshing as well as disturbing. It is refreshing because the mandate points to the yearning of the people for a strong central government.

It is also simultaneously disturbing because this election witnessed an unprecedented political violence that resulted in the death of many political workers. The violence has continued in some states even after the elections.

In his victory speech Prime Minister Modi talked about the decimation of fake political ideologies and the emergence of a fresh mindset in the people of India. The yearning for a strong and stable federal government was too loud and clear. In India’s context, that was antithetical to most political parties who for decades believed in dividing to conquer and by definition a weak central government.

The defeat, as expected, has resulted in the disarray of the opposition parties. But the spike in political violence and secessionist rhetoric in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu is worrisome. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s open defiance of the Central government and the scuttling of local political freedom by arresting supporters of the BJP in the state is a case in point.

Given the known proclivity of many of these political parties to fringe and extremist entities that are inimical to the Indian union, it is not difficult to see how easily the 2019 election drubbing could transmogrifying into violence against the party workers of the BJP.

As Prime Minister Modi settles down in his second term in office, this emerging threat to internal stability stemming from the country’s political opposition will undoubtedly be dominating his attention.

It is true that the Kashmir and Maoists problems have already been dealt with firmly by the Modi government in the last five years. The security forces have gradually but surely gained the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before these terrorists will be wiped out and peace restored.

However, for the security establishment, it appears to be a game of whack-a-mole. Just as terror is wiped out in one area, it springs its ugly head elsewhere. But this time the concoction may be deadlier since it is the enemy within.

Kerala is the other southern state that is expected to keep PM Modi’s team busy. The surge of radicalization in this state as seen by increasing numbers of ISIS recruits as well as political killings in the recent past show that the state may already be on a slippery slope. The communist government’s opposition to traditional Hindu beliefs in the customs of Ayyappa Temple was after all not a surprise. That the massive protests, mainly by women, may have settled the issue for the time being is beside the point.

The rise of jihadi and extremist elements in Tamil Nadu has not truly attracted the media scrutiny it deserves.  For many years now, the security establishment both at the center and state have been aware of the presence of extremist’s cells all over the state. 

From radical Muslim groups to groups owing allegiance to the banned LTTE, the state is witness to a wide spectrum of terror groups that are openly espousing their poisonous ideologies. That elements from Tamil Nadu had a link to the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka is no surprise. The political ecosystem that evolved over the decades in Tamil Nadu is probably responsible for the birth, growth and sustenance of these anti-national groups.

 For too long the major political parties of the state – the AIADMK and the DMK have openly supported these groups in return for electoral gains. Even during the 2019 general elections, many politicians were seen sharing the stage at political rallies with these groups.

The state governments in these states seem to be either inept or unwilling to enforce the law. Hence all eyes are on the Central government to restore order.  PM Modi, as would be expected, appears to be fully aware of the grave internal security situation.

In this context the appointment of Amit Shah as the union home minister is seen as the right man for the right job. Given his no-nonsense attitude, pundits expect him to clean up the mess with an iron hand before it is too late.

That these three states will be closely watched by Amit Shahs is a given.  One option that will definitely not be on the table is the dismissal of the state governments in West Bengal and Kerala under section 356 of the Indian constitution. The unintended consequence would be a sympathy wave in favor of the dismissed governments.

A wholescale scrutiny and review of center – state relationship as well as reforming the civil and police machinery will be an urgent task. Senior retired civil servants have revealed in private discussions that Modi has already prepared a masterplan for a largescale revamp of the ‘steel-frame’ and civilian administrative structure. These retired bureaucrats believe Modi was waiting for his return to office to execute on the plan. Given Modi’s penchant for working on a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis, his team is expected to swiftly implement many of the recommended reforms without any publicity.

There is an urgent need to tone up the internal security of the country, particularly in these three states. The bridge to violence and extremism and hence chaos is not far away and the central government must step in quickly.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

Modi breaks the backbone of terror deep inside Pakistan

Modi breaks the backbone of terror deep inside Pakistan

The Indian Air Force (IAF) strike in the early hours of 26th February 2019 on terror training bases deep inside Pakistan that killed over 350 terrorists has made us all speechless.

It has certainly made the Pakistanis speechless because not even in their wildest dreams did they imagine India would attempt this. The continuous stream of rattled mumblings – from the official spokesperson and their defense minister- all point to a stunned and confused Pakistani establishment.

For almost three decades now, they have been bluffing the world about their nuclear capabilities and by inference, held out a nuclear blackmail on India. The IAF just shattered this self-created glass firewall that Pakistan was touting as an unbreachable threshold. That blackmail is in tatters in the cratered remains of Balakot in Mansera district in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa province of Pakistan.

For most Indians, the IAF precision strike executed with flawless perfection was too real to even comprehend initially. Like the Pakistanis, they too were expecting the Indian armed forces to conduct a surgical strike where a small special forces team would embark on a stealth mission to neutralize the terrorists. But the air strike was a different ball game altogether. No one expected the scale and dramatic results that looked too easy and perfect. But that betrayed the power and sophistication of a deadly air force that is arguably one of the best in the world.

Even as media reports flooded in with all the exhilarating details, some larger issues embedded in the air strike are worth noting.

It is not that India’s armed forces suddenly turned pro. The fact is that they were always a potent force to recon with, even before India got its Independence from Britain in 1947. No one doubted its capabilities. The fact that they have armed themselves to the teeth over the last decade only adds sheen to the valor and dignity of the forces.

As many have already pointed out, the deployment of the air force for the first time to neutralize terror camps deep inside Pakistan is a welcome change in the mindset of the mandarins in Delhi. Simultaneously, and more importantly, India seems to have called the nuclear bluff of Pakistan.

In many ways, India has de facto expounded a new doctrine in taking on cross border terrorism set against a nuclear blackmail. This will be hotly discussed and reviewed by military institutes the world over for some time to come.

More importantly, it has opened a window into the mind of Narendra Modi, a Prime Minister, the like of which India has not seen in seven decades. If anyone would have followed his speeches – even before he was elected to the high office in India – it would have been evident that he was determined to corral and defang Pakistan from day one. Hence it would indeed be juvenile to see the air strike as just a fallout and response to the killing of 40 soldiers in Pulwama on 14th of February 2019.

India’s armed forces have long warned the political leadership that it should adopt a punitive and proactive military strategy against Pakistan. But time and again this advice had fallen on the deaf ears, resulting in the deaths of thousands in the last two decades.

For decades the political leadership did not dare to confront the neighbor’s use of terror as a state policy head on. This pusillanimity in effect reduced the armed forces to being just a beat cop chasing the terrorists. In retrospect, India had voluntarily succumbed to the blackmail even without putting up a fight.

But Modi changed all this. In a very deliberate and studied evolution, he appears to have worked very hard, quietly and off the radar to evolve a strategy that will neuter Pakistan, and in effect also clear the biggest stumbling block in India’s road to rapid development.

Given Modi’s thoroughness and penchant for perfect execution, he must have indeed been at work for a very long time. He needed to have the right logistics in place so the right preparation can meet the right opportunity. From arming the forces with best he can get to the top in class satellite systems to keep a hawk’s eye on Pakistan, the task seemed to be done. He was only waiting for the right opportunity. The surgical strike carried out in September 2016 was but his first laboratory tests of the doctrine he had put together in his mind.

But then more needed to be done to prime the forces and logistics. The Armed forces must have been busy planning and exercising on the operational plans since then. The killing of the 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans provided the right opportunity for India. Diplomatically, the killing provided the right narrative to take on Pakistan.

The mission, for its sheer daredevilry and perfection in penetrating the defenses of a nuclear power and obliterating over 350 terrorists gives one the goosebumps. The ease with which the IAF befuddled the enemy’s radars and air defense systems to deploy a formation of at least 12 fighter jets to carry out its deadly mission and safely return to base in just 21 minutes will be discussed endlessly by military strategists all over the world.

But then, one must realize that an extremely capable force worked in perfect unison with Modi the strategist par excellence, who was willing to take risks to wipe out terror from South Asia. It certainly appears that India has broken its backbone, although the vestiges may linger on for more time to come.

This operation indeed is a cause for celebration for every Indian. It is indeed the beginning of the unraveling of a rouge nation that has with gay abandon used terror as a state policy. For Pakistan, the writing on the wall is clear. It will face more audacious strikes from India in the coming days. It is difficult to see how Pakistan as a country, in its current geographical bounds will last beyond a few years at best.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2019 in Indian Army

 

India’s RBI gets a new Governor

India’s RBI gets a new Governor

 The recent resignation of the Governor of the RBI, Urjit Patel due to “personal reasons”,as expected, has generated lot of discussion. The RBI was in the news recently for its apparent tussle with the government of India (GOI) on several issues including deployment of the central bank’s reserves.  The media had a field day speculating on the reasons for his departure.  Even the opposition parties cried foul.  Whether Patel resigned because he felt stifled, or had other reasons, will only be known if and when he chooses to publish his side of the story in his memoir.

 Reactions to the departure of the governor have been on expected lines. Many predicted the decimation of the stock markets and loss of confidence in the strength and resilience of the Indian economy. The stock market did fall during that time; however, it is unclear if the markets fell because of the exit polls on elections to key states indicating political instability or due to the departure of the governor. Beyond that, the banking and financial system in India remains on course. As regards confidence in the overall resilience of the Indian economy, there are no reports to suggests otherwise.

Is it true, as many in the media claim, that the RBI governor felt stifled by the government’s attempt to grab the bank’s turf? Or did he pick the wrong battles with the government? Should Patel have exercised discretion as the better part of valor and lived to fight another day? It would be interesting to look at some available pointers that may shed some light.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2018 in Banking, Economics, India, Indian Economy

 

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Government of India VS RBI

Government of India VS RBI

As a former officer of the Reserve Bank of India, I was shocked to read the recent remarks of Viral Acharya, Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. There are probably no parallels or precedents to such public remarks that tantamount to threatening the government of India by a ranking leader of the Bank.

The RBI, India’s Central Bank is a venerable institution that effuses dignity and reverence in the world of banking and finance, not only in India, but the world over. Its rather quaintly abstruse and almost self-effacing communication style – be it in its official communiqués or while interacting with the public at large – speaks of its tradition and élan that is generally matchless. This quiet dignity actually conveys so much more than what it actually says and adds an aura of enigma to it. For example, even a passing nod from the RBI Governor at a meeting of CEOs of banks can set tongues wagging.

Like most other Central banks, its presence is felt, rather than heard. Insiders are aware that RBI’s reticence and an unwillingness to hog the spotlight is also a calculated strategy to create space for itself.  It provides enough room to maneuver, change course if needed, and fight its battle with the government quietly and behind closed doors. That has only earned it respect and reverence.

Given this grand setting, it was upsetting to read the speech of Viral Acharya. It is very amateurish indeed and only betrays a lack of experience in a managing a large banking bureaucracy. He is certainly oblivious of the ethos and dignified traditions of a great institution that he represents. That the Deputy Governor chose to attack the central government in a public lecture has not only raised eyebrows, but also raised questions of why the government has not acted on this. His continuing in office has become untenable.

 
 

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Misery Seeks Company – China Courts India to fight US Trade War

Misery Seeks Company – China Courts India to fight US Trade War

US sanctions against China seems to be having its intended effect. As pressure mounts, China’s change of stance is becoming more evident. According to recent reports President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are likely to meet at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in November in an effort to work out a solution. But the meeting of the two leaders may not produce any dramatic resolution, given the tough stand of both the countries.

That the Chinese economy is bearing the brunt is in no doubt. Ford reported that its September sales in China fell 43% compared to same period last year. This comes in the midst of a big slump in Chinese auto sales. The IMF, for its part, has already signaled the slowdown of the Chinese economy and put its GDP growth estimates for 2019 at 6.2%. Despite all the bad news on the economic front, Chinese leadership continues to put up a brave face.

The US appears to have its strategy cut out. Vice President Pence, in a hard hitting speech at the Hudson Institute, unequivocally charged China with interfering in US elections and warned of consequences. In its 2018 National Defense Strategy paper, the US has clearly identified the two ‘revisionists powers – China and Russia’ as main threats.  The paper goes on to further recognize ‘China’s military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics in its efforts to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to its advantage’ and perceives it as a long term threat to US interests.

The series of events leading up to the new set of tariffs on Chinese imports as well as the subsequent pronouncements should leave no room for doubt about US intentions. If anything, it is clear that the US will not stop with just the trade war. It is only part of an overarching strategy to contain Chinese influence globally.

China’s strategy, on the other hand, seems ambiguous and is banking on flat defiance of the US as a measure of projecting its power. It has unleashed a massive propaganda campaign, particularly in the US media, in a determined bid to win friends. Not surprisingly, many pundits have opined on how the trade war with China is unsustainable and could hurt the US too. But all this may not really alter the situation on the ground which is firmly in favor of the US

On the international scene, China has used its influence to marshal its friends and allies in an attempt to build a coalition to portray the US as the chief villain of the world. In this context, it is indeed interesting to see that China has reached out to India, pontificating on the requirements of ‘a stable environment that will facilitate the growth of the two key economies’. In its attempt to win India to its side in its trade war with the US, it has called for the two countries to join together to bring about a ‘more just and reasonable international order’.

China’s change in tone and tenor – evident in its statements and diplomatic outreach – is only symptomatic of the severe stress on its economy and political leadership. There are also indications of a lack of cohesion amongst its leadership in responding to the US.

Many in India recall the often rancid and undiplomatic statements emanating from its foreign office during the Dokhlam crisis. But the very same establishment has now unleashed the equivalent of a diplomatic charm offensive. This only highlights the fact that the country is up against the wall in its bid to untangle itself from the costly trade war.

But India is no China in every sense of the word. Its economy is a not as big, nor is it as lopsided and heavily dependent on exports to the US for its survival. Secondly and most importantly, India is a plural democracy in the truest sense of the term and is in no danger of a systemic collapse if and when sanctions are imposed.

It is worth pointing out here that following the Pokhran II nuclear explosions in 1998, many countries including China, Japan and Canada condemned India. China, for its part, was at the forefront, demanding international actions against India. But now that the tables have turned, China has suddenly discovered the virtues of ‘regional economic stability and growth’ by working together.

When the US did impose sanctions on India in May 1998 following Pokhran II, the country did not implode. The fact was that its citizens rallied together in support of the democratically elected government. But in China’s case, their leadership is acutely aware that prolonged sanctions could trigger internal unrest and rebellion that could easily threaten its structural integrity as a nation state.

Unlike China, India’s relationship with the US is on an entirely different footing. It has no overt or covert aspirations to unseat the US as the world’s superpower, nor does it have a confrontationist approach to it. But it is indeed true that, like China, India probably has a boat load of differences with the US, on issues ranging from trade to political and world view. But that is par for the course betwixt democracies.

But at the end of the day, despite the differences, the US and India, as history bears witness, have resorted to bilateral discussions to resolve these issues. Unlike China, there is no public record of India threatening or confronting the US.

Being an authoritarian set up, China lacks that fundamental connect with the US or India. At a time when it is in serious trouble with the US, it cannot pretend a have a comradery with India since the latter too is ‘impacted by Trump’s unpredictable trade policies’.

Definitely, China is expending its diplomatic resources in creating a mirage of a synergy with India out of a non-existent common cause.  The ground reality is that the leadership in India and the US are aware of the phoniness of this outreach by China.

In fact India must – and there is ample evidence to think it has – see the speciousness of this argument. It cannot join hands with China to make a common cause. India’s world view and priorities are different and dictated by New Delhi, not Beijing.

Misery loves company and China’s outreach to India is definitely a case in point.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2018 in China, Donald Trump, Economics, Foreign Policy, Trade, US

 

Sabarimala Case – An Agonizing Verdict

Sabarimala Case – An Agonizing Verdict

In a recent judgement, the Supreme Court of India had in a 4-1 majority judgement decided to remove the ban on entry of women aged 10 – 50 into the famed Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in South India. The case had generated a lot of interest – during the hearings as well as post judgement – all around the world. It is indeed a significant judgement since with the stroke of their pens, four judges reversed a practice that has been going on at the temple since time immemorial.

The four judges have averred that the practice “significantly denudes women of their right to worship”. Justice Chandrachud termed the custom as a form of “untouchability” which cannot be allowed under the Constitution of India.1

Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone lady member of the bench, has attracted a lot of attention and admiration. As member of this five judge bench, she wrote her dissenting judgement. She has provided some profound reasoning for her dissent that certainly deserves examination. Former Supreme Court of India judge Markandey Katju has complimented her for “the balance and restraint required of a judge of a superior court”.2

Judge Malhotra has pointed out that that “the petitioners were not directly affected and were not devotees” themselves and hence she found it “odd that the court was deciding on the entry of women into the temple at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this faith”. This is an important observation, and has not missed the attention of millions of Hindus in the country.

She has further strongly argued for “heterogeneity in religion that allows diverse forms of worship, even if it were irrational”. Very pointedly she states that “in a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.”

Continuing her telling observations, Malhotra has said that permitting such public interest litigations (PILs) “in religious matters would open the floodgates to interlopers who are not followers of that faith, to question its beliefs and practices” since it would be a matter of grave concern, especially for minority communities. She has firmly concluded that the said writ petition “does not deserve to be entertained and the grievances raised are non-justiciable”.

But the majority judges thought otherwise. Their reasoning for the majority judgement seems to be a reiteration that the practice of forbidding women in the said age group was “a form of untouchability which cannot be allowed under the Constitution.” But many legal experts have already argued that this case cannot be viewed through the limited vision lens of gender equality and a broader view of Hindu religious practices was imperative in judging the case.

It is not that these points of law were not brought before the court during the hearings. In fact J Sai Deepak, who appeared before the Supreme Court in this case on behalf of the intervener organization People for Dharma, too had presented succinct arguments. For example, he had argued that “Lord Ayyappa has rights under articles 21, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India, and his right to remain a naisthika bramhachari – or a perpetual celibate – falls under Article 25 and hence, women’s entry to the temple should continue to be restricted”. 3

Thus, restricting entry of women into the abode of a Lord who is a naisthika bramhachari – or a perpetual celibate – may not tantamount to gender inequality or discrimination against women, when viewed though a broader lens. Be as it may, the other four judges, in their wisdom have obviously not been convinced by these arguments and hence their opinions have prevailed and the judgement is there for all to see.

The impact of the judgement is expected to be felt far and wide. From breaking its own restraint in not entering into the domain of religious beliefs and practices that are not pernicious, the Supreme Court has opened the possibility of internecine litigations between religious faiths where one practitioner is now free to question and seek the quashing of practices of another religion. The outcome could be a judicial nightmare which could easily lead to bloodshed on the streets.

In multiple discussions I had with Hindu women, particularly millennials in Tamil Nadu, I got a sense of their disbelief. Many did say that they were suspicious of the motives of the petitioners since they themselves would never have approached the courts on such a matter. Many felt violated since Hindu women had traditionally revered the practice of naisthika bramhacharya vratam of Lord Ayyappa. They pointed out that the unprecedented heavy rains and consequent damage to life and property in Kerala as a sign of Lord Ayyappa’s anger.

Plural societies like India have diverse groups and interest and by definition have differing identities and belief systems which have to be celebrated. But they also have large and vulnerable underbellies that have to be carefully nurtured and protected, not exploited. But in India we seem to be witnessing the opposite.

.But if the average Hindu, particularly the women, feel outraged, they cannot be faulted for, here is a judgement that nullifies a centuries-old practice that they did not ask for. The certainly avoidable outcome, is that a growing number of reasonable Indians now think that the judiciary appears to have abandoned all shreds of caution and sensitivity when treading on matters of religious faith, however irrational they may appear.

Over the ages, Hindu social memory has been burdened with a lot of baggage – from flawed to gross miscarriages of justice – more than what many other social systems have experienced. But they have been absorbed and digested in the sands of time. So too this will be.

Despite the judgement, out of reverence for Lord Ayyappa, Hindu women have not come forward to visit the temple. And they are steadfast in their resolve. Nonetheless, many Ayyappa Sangams – groups or forums of Ayyappa devotees – do expect the usual suspects – activist women who have a track record of protesting against Hindu practices – to visit the temple. But like always, most of them will be a flash in the pan.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2018 in Hinduism, Indology, Media, Sabarimala

 
 
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