Tuesday, 6 December 2016

CASH, RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS AND THE LIVES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE



What does one make of an openly Hindu nationalist government, under whom the Income Tax (IT) department has sent a notice to the Archdiocese of Goa to declare the 500 and 1000 denomination notes in their possession? This move came in the wake of the central government’s decision to withdraw old notes from circulation; setting in motion one of the worst financial crises in recent Indian history. Arguably, if Christians are incensed, if there is outrage in the press, and if the opposition parties are baying for the blood of the ruling party – even if it is meant for “doing politics” – it seems to be eminently justified. How can anybody be so insensitive as to add to the existing chaos?

By the time this article appears in print, enough would have been said on the issue; with the Church hierarchy in Goa submitting the necessary documents and data to the IT department in record time, the issue appears to be like an open-and-shut case. However, the manner in which the various responses were structured around the issue leaves much to be discussed. It is also long overdue to ask how the interventions of religious institutions affect politics and the lives of ordinary people.

While the Church emerged with a clear moral high ground in this case, past instances of its alleged dubious financial deals have left a bad taste in the mouths of many of its faithful. One wonders why the Church couldn’t have speedily addressed the issue of the Vanxim island sale in a similar manner to the IT department notice? From what the Church authorities have conveyed to the public, all churches and chapels in Goa were pressed into service for providing the necessary documents, proving that the Church can organize itself within a short span of time and rise to such challenges despite the inherent discrimination from the bureaucratic machinery. Arguably, such efficiency in getting things done can also be extended to other issues that are plaguing the faithful in Goa. Otherwise it would seem that the Church acts only when it is arm-twisted into action, but doesn’t heed the pleas of the faithful.

By only acting in extra-ordinary circumstances, the Church is rather abdicating its role and its calling of leading the faithful. It is up to the Church hierarchy to reflect deeply on the happenings of the past couple of weeks and make sure that the functioning of the Church benefits, in reality, the multitude of lay parishioners who have always looked up to it.

The news of the IT notice also witnessed many politicians quickly claiming that the churches, like Hindu temples, should also be exempted from the purview of the Income Tax Act. The Rajya Sabha MP, Shantaram Naik, for instance, said that a similar provision like the Lei das Mazanias or Mahajan Act could be extended to the Churches in Goa. Such statements came in the wake of several newspapers in Goa making enquiries if any of the large and important temples in Goa had received similar notices like the Archdiocese.

The Mahajan Act, which is now being heavily contested by bahujan groups in many places in Goa, exempts temples from the “compulsion” to pay income tax. As Herald explained a few days ago, “Audits of devasthans are verified by Mamlatdars and there is no compulsion to pay Income Tax, as financial auditing is done by their own appointed CAs and finally verified by the Mamlatdar”. Asking the people of Goa – particularly Christians – to not be “misled”, BJP’s Nilesh Cabral informed that the temples “come under the Mazania Act and the government takes care of all the accounts”. Other temples outside Goa have also been sent notices, he added.

Even if this is so, it doesn’t explain why such a short time was given to the Church authorities. Further, saying that everything is fine as per the Mazania Act is to ignore the protests against the said Act. The recent protests have highlighted how temples are under the control of upper-caste groups, thanks to the same Mazania Act, whereas the bahujan groups have little or no say in the functioning of the temple.

Hence it is rather odd that the provisions and spirit of the same heavily-contested Mazania Act would be held up as worthy of extending to other religious communities. 

In such a scenario, where the manner in which the religious institutions are run can affect the lives of the members of that religious community owing to the internal fractures and conflicts, the argument that the IT notice can lead to hurt religious sentiments appears to be misguided. To be fair, protests of hurt sensibilities – in the case of Christians, for instance – highlight how communities are pushed in a corner in a Hindu majoritarian setup. So there is some merit to this suggestion, however to say that the IT notice will hurt religious sentiments would mean that we miss the forest for the trees. While it is definitely a problem with the manner in which the government intervenes (or does not) in religious institutions, perhaps this is not a bad time to reflect on how religious institutions themselves can further marginalize beleaguered communities. It is this that needs to be taken care of as well. 


(And edited version was published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 December, 2016)

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