Who decides what Islam is? Or Hinduism, or any other religion? Every so often, the status quo around the answers to such questions is rocked by events that appear to mock them. A man allegedly rapes his daughter-in-law, but the religious school that claims jurisdiction cannot hold him accountable and it subjects the woman to further humiliation and little hope of counseling or rehabilitation. A religious board declares that a national monument is its property, and demands the right to manage it accordingly. Maniacal terrorists mount attacks on our shrines, or riot in targeted neighbourhoods. In each of these situations, we struggle to separate the conduct of individuals from their religious faiths.

Why the struggle? Consider this: what is the appropriate penalty for a man who rapes his daughter-in-law? Equally what must the woman do to seek redressal? Questions like that, asked without any indication of the identity (other than gender) of the perpetrator or the victim of the crime are likely to evoke fairly uniform responses. We are each conditioned by nature and nurture alike to look upon certain acts with disdain, and to honour certain relationships amongst us in particular ways. And so one would expect that jail or the man, and treatment and comfort for the woman, would be the proper recourse.

It has simply become convenient to point fingers at extremists of all faiths and assume that the faithful of each religion will include at least a few unworthy elements. Secularism of any sort then becomes a superior alternative. This won't do.
But throw religion into that mix, and suddenly our opinions aren't uniform any more. In the recent case of the Muslim woman who was allegedly raped, the Dar-uloom Deoband, a religious school decided that the woman must separate from her husband. Defying religious authority and with the support of her husband, the woman did go to court, the father-in-law was arrested and trial proceedings have begun.

But the commotion caused by the religious fatwa itself in indicative of a deeper and unsettled matter in our polity. A number of people, Muslims included, were quick to dismiss the religious verdict of the DuD itself as a farce, a travesty even. Surely a woman already robbed of privacy and dignity should have been accorded better treatment, they cried. Some went further, arguing that such judgements were essentially un-Islamic. Politicians of several stripes - the BJP, the CPM - were in agreement that the whole thing was a charade. Some others, notably Samajwadi party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Congress party leaders (by their silence and occasional defensiveness) appeared to say that whatever our disagreements with the verdict, we must not be too quick to tread on personal laws, lest we open a can of worms.

A lot of this is understandable political manoeuvring; it is well known which of our political parties depend keenly on the support of religious leaders from minority communities, and therefore prefer not to disturb the status which privileges those leaders, even at the cost of the community itself. Equally, it is well known which of our parties have apathy or antipathy to particular religions, and their positions too can be dismissed as opportunism of a different kind. Rather than dwell on those, therefore, let us instead ask only the questions that relate to a broader, rational consideration of the public good.

In particular, let us take up the view, offered by moderates of all faiths, that such decisions don't really represent Islam in any way.

Why do they claim this? Because religion is not the only guide to our standards of acceptable behaviour. Each of us is capable of doing deciding whether something is decent without rigorous religious reasoning. This is also why the women went to court, seeking justice. These 'secular' influences have established that rapists should be punished severely; as a result when a religious standard apparently punishes the woman, we find our secular measures for decency are in conflict with the conduct of that religious institution.

The only way to ensure that the religious powers are not dislodged, therefore, is to disengage their extremeness from the faith, and claim that the 'true' faith doesn't condone such despicable conduct. Thus we might agree that such rulings are based on narrow interpretations of religious texts by a few, and that one mustn't judge entire communities by such actions. The behaviour of most Muslims is much more liberal, we are reminded.

Unfortunately, it's not so simple, because this leads to other questions. One, why are the more liberal practices of Muslim citizens only called upon during times of negative perception of Islam itself? Why should we then not take the liberalism of the average Khan to be real representation of Muslims at all times? Two, if certain Muslim authorities do not really represent true Islamic justice when they hand down their verdict, what business does the state have recognising them as the arbiters of justice? To their merit, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board distanced itself from what is certainly a criminal case and the All Indian Woman's Muslim Personal Law Board encouraged the woman to go to court. But the only reason a rape case is judged by the DuD is that it has recognition on matters of Islamic personal law. In that case, secularists can hardly argue that the public must ignore this ruling on grounds that it does not represent Islamic norms.

The secularists' dilemma, over the years, has been one of dual standards, appealing at some times to citizens' innate integrity, and flirting with religious authorities whenever convenient. As a result, their attitudes to religions themselves have become equated with this duplicity.

The problem, of course, is that 'personal laws' are not personal at all; in fact they are very communitarian. One isn't treated by the state in accordance with one's own religion; instead one is regarded according to what description and understanding of that religion has been developed by the state in association with state-recognised religious authorities. These are often the very authorities who interpret their doctrine narrowly on behalf of their more liberal followers.

Notice also that Indian secularism's silence on atheism is an unavoidable consequence of trying to woo intermediaries of all faiths. Atheists don't have intermediaries and thus Indian secularism doesn't even address them, preferring to pretend instead that everyone must be religious in one way or another. Likewise, it has simply become convenient to point fingers at extremists of all faiths, assume that since the faithful of each religion will include at least a few unworthy elements, secularism of any sort must be a superior alternative. This won't do. To be honest, any debate about what it means to be secular must go beyond the obvious. Respect for established faiths alone isn't an argument for secularism; the ideal must stand on its own merit.

The task of subjecting religious codes to checks and balances already provided in our Constitution must be finished.
 •  Winds of change
 •  'Reality' rape
Not everything in religious laws is bad, but all religions include some archaic bits that will not stand up to honest scrutiny. The politicians' response maybe is to ask "why stir a pot that is evidently so difficult to keep from boiling over?" One can understand such reluctance, but mustn't pretend that shelving the question has no consequences. The secularist's answer to a raped woman cannot be that her subsequent mistreatment is necessary for national harmony, or in the interests of her community. Instead, having set the goals for a secular and pluralistic society, one must ask repeatedly if those goals are being served by the means currently adopted.

The power to achieve those goals may ultimately lie in two spheres. One, the task of subjecting religious codes to checks and balances already provided in our Constitution must be finished. The Constitution does provide a framework to reconcile recognition for all faiths with civil law. In going to court to get justice as have others before her, a Muslim woman has already reaffirmed that the Constitution's set limits for the spaces that religious personal laws may occupy. But the matter does not end here. For one, the space for religious bodies to issue such fatwas must be circumscribed in law itself. The real debate about a Uniform Civil Code therefore -- controversial and intrusive though the term may be -- must happen on sharpening and codifying the limits further within which personal laws and authorities may have some non-absolute say while still allowing the judiciary overriding power to step in to ensure justice.

Two, the citizenry itself must assert more. In allying with Imams and Mullahs for the votes of Muslim citizens, politicians take citizens for granted, precisely because for too long substantive numbers of Muslim citizens have allowed their religious leaders to represent their political opinions. This is unnecessary in our democracy and must go. If citizens made up their mind to vote on civil and political matters unmindful of the advocacy of their religious leaders, politicians would prefer to engage and bring on board their non-religious leaders directly, thereby unhinging the powers of religious schools.

There is a price for inaction. With each disgrace and injustice condoned and sometimes perpetrated in the name of religion - whether it is as personal as rape, or as communitarian as rioting and murder - this pretext of tolerant harmony is further eroded. This will only get worse, as increasingly Indian society is called upon to judge all matters of personal conduct that have historically been swept under the carpet. Can the Imams judge homosexuality? Or cohabitation? Can they judge a beach volleyball player in a bikini? Will the public, or those judged by religious stand-ins for public behaviour of justice, accept those verdicts?

Unlikely. What is certain is that in time, the pronouncements of religious figures will lose their significance, if they do not also resonate with more naturally moral views of personal and social conduct. It is time to light the funeral pyre of 'state-sponsored' secularism.