Fake news about a maulvi being taken into quarantine created a law and order problem in Haldwani on Sunday. In actual fact, a government team was only seeking to screen him for COVID-19 symptoms along with others in the locality. Such a reaction emerges from the belief that religious leaders hold a special status in society and are not to be treated like others. This is in contrast to the principle of the modern nation-state that no one is above the law and all are to be dealt with equally. Also, traditionally, temples, churches, mosques, etc., have been considered sanctuaries, where people could take refuge from the wrath of the king. Even today, the police and other agencies are loath to enter such places even though no law expressly prohibits it.
Such traditions, based primarily on the belief that those who consider themselves answerable to the Almighty need not submit to the laws of man, have become a major challenge to constitutional rule in almost all countries. Only nations that have atheism as a fundamental credo disregard such beliefs altogether. Maintaining a balance between religious sentiment and secular functioning has become a serious challenge in times when the erosion of religion has led to increasing radicalisation of the believers. The failure of democracy to find roots has pitted religion against dictators in many countries. The new age of radical Islam, for instance, was triggered by the arming of the Taliban by the US against the USSR backed regime in Afghanistan. The malaise has now spread to almost the entire world in the name of a new jihad.
Things are made worse when people with psychological disorders such as psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, etc., treat religion as a death cult to vent their inner demons. It becomes difficult for the followers to distinguish between the good and the evil. Moderates and reformers find themselves in the minority, even hunted down. This was evident from the incident in Punjab, where so-called Nihangs attacked a police party at a barrier and severed the hand of an ASI. It turns out their head is a man with criminal antecedents and the Gurudwara they had forcibly occupied contained illegal weapons and drugs. The same goes for the maulana who leads the Tablighi Jamaat – his contempt for the law and science has created a major problem for India in the present crisis.
There is need today for a political and social consensus on how much ‘autonomy’ religious institutions can have in a modern set-up. Claims of a mandate from a divine power should not be allowed to override the constitutional mandate of governments and administrations. The courts, in particular, should institutionalise this over time with their rulings so that there is no confusion on the ground when dealing with misuse of religion for personal or communal purposes.