Sudhanva Shetty Shetty
Writer, coffee-addict, likes folk music & long walks in the rain. Firmly believes that there's nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.
India is the birthplace of many religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The country houses the world’s largest population of Hindus and the second-largest population of Muslims.
The government has recognised the vast piety that is deeply embedded in Indian society. In order to honour this spectrum of faiths, the Indian Government provides benefits to religious organisations, specifically exempting them from certain taxes and providing a wide array of subsidies to religious pilgrimages.
But why? Religion, as the Supreme Court recently said, is a personal relationship between man and god; it is an individual choice. The issue of religious subsidies is a controversial one, with secularists asking why should the government bother to infringe on the relationship between man and god, and lamenting how this money could be used in more constructive, secular practices like education and healthcare. On the other hand, supporters of religious subsidies argue that it is important to respect religious beliefs. They opine that the government can spare to cater to pilgrimages
Let us evaluate the main subsidies India provides to religious groups.
Aside from domestic exemption, the Indian Government hassubsidisingdizing the travel expenses of Indian Haj Pilgrims; this is enforced through the Haj Committee Act of 1959. These contributions date back to the era of the British Raj. Through the form of discounted airfares on Air India flights, the Government takes care of all transportation costs from Mumbai to Jeddah. Throughout the last century, the Government has subsided more travel locations to destinations including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Jordan.
Many Muslims have negative opinions on the subsidisation. Maulana Mehmood Madani and Indian political and general secretary of the Muslim Organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind spoke out against the Government’s actions. “It is against the Shariat to be under any kind of obligation while undertaking Haj. According to the Quran, only those Muslims who can afford the expenses should perform Haj. It’s recommended only for adult, financially able and sane Muslims.”
The Indian Government also subsidises several Hindu pilgrimages.
In 1961, the Indian Government passed the Income-tax Act, which exempts charitable and religious trusts from paying taxes. The trust must put forth 85% of income derived from their religious activities (including the trust’s objective), and the remaining balance can then be used in the following year. Donations made are also exempted from paying taxes under section 80G of the Income Tax Act.
Some religious organizations, such as the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Temple, have felt mixed emotions regarding the enforcement of this act. In 2008, the temple management owed five crores to the Tirupati Urban Development (TUDA) and to the Tirupati Municipal Corporation (TMC). Reports have noted that this not only led to chaotic relations between the TUDA and the TTD but has also impacted the developmental activities in Tirupati as its economy relies on the temple’s presence.
However, because the temple is a renowned religious institution, under the Income-tax Act of 1961 the board argued that their exemption from paying taxes was justified. According to officials from the TTD properties wing, “The TTD has been earning income only through the offerings made by millions of devotees across the world. The construction of guest houses and mutts in Tirumala was possible only because of donations. Why should we pay tax to the TUDA? In fact, none of the government bodies has taken up development activities in the past two decades in Tirupati.”
Article 27 of the Indian Constitution states that “No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.”
In 2011’s Prafull Goradia v. The Union of India, the Supreme Court tackled the question of whether a Government grant funded by taxpayer money violates Article 27. The SC bench proclaimed that it would only amount to such a violation if a “substantial part of taxpayer money” is used to promote religious activity. It said: “In our opinion Article 27 would be violated if a substantial part of the entire income tax collected in India, or a substantial part of the entire central excise or the customs duties or sales tax, or a substantial part of any other tax collected in India, were to be utilized for promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. In other words, suppose 25 percent of the entire income tax collected in India was utilized for promoting or maintaining any particular religion or religious denomination, that, in our opinion, would be violative of Article 27 of the Constitution.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to gradually reduce and abolish Haj subsidy in 10 years and invest the amount — averaging over Rs 650 crore a year for last five years — in education and other measures for social development of the minority community.
When we have an argument about secularism, we must keep in mind that Indian secularism is slightly different from Western notions of the same. While the underlying principle of tolerance is mandated by both, Western secularism stresses on the separation of church and state whereas Indian secularism encourages religious coexistence in public life by preserving religious laws and respecting the customs of all religions.
Constitutionally, though the Preamble declares India to be a secular nation, India does not have a uniform civil code and the Constitution does not clarify on the relationship between religion and the state. Pluralism and religious freedom are championed by the legal system, though the prevalence of personal religious laws in a 21st-century democracy is an ironic feature (and a politically charged one).
Is Indian secularism perfect? Definitely not. We still have a lot of work to do to ensure social safety and economic security to every Indian man, woman and transgender, regardless of their belief (or nonbelief). There are still massive debates to be had – on our civil code, on our legal system, on our education system, on our tax system etc.
We will have these debates keeping in mind that our goal is to build a future where religious beliefs are secondary compared to our shared nationhood. Only then can we become a more perfect democracy.
That religious tolerance is of prime importance in a diverse nation like India is something every responsible and informed citizen will agree on. There is no debate here. And India has a long history of religious cohabitation. This has not been without its share of extremism and violence; but for a land of such cultural and religious variations, India’s endorsement of religious freedom is unique, and must be preserved. This habit of inclusion and respect for diversity, which India has championed for centuries, lies at the core of Indian secularism.
That being said, government subsidies given to religious pilgrimages highlight the strange nature of Indian secularism – which is essentially cooperation between State and religious institutions instead of separation of the same. This enables an environment where religious institutions like temples, churches, and mosques interfere in and corrupt governance.
This fosters minority and majority appeasement and vote bank politics. Politicians are unwilling to condemn subsidies on pilgrimages as they present them with a unique opportunity to communalise the electorate. Eventually, it is counterproductive for minority rights and toxic for the democratic fibre of the nation.
Religion is a personal thing. To quote the Supreme Court (on an unrelated judgement), “The relationship between man and God is an individual choice. The state is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity … Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible.”
When a government – center or state – is involved in religion, secularism is attacked and the unity of the nation is threatened. The extent of the distance between a country’s religious institutions and Government is the best indicator of the status of that country’s democracy.
State-sponsored religious subsidies and tax exemption for religious places have no place in a 21st-century democracy. Especially a diverse one like India where there are innumerable beliefs and practices. Better increase funding for education, healthcare, and infrastructure rather than give taxpayer money to validate religion that is supposed to be a private affair.
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