Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A slightly different version of this appeared in the New Indian Express Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On March 30, 1940, eminent philosopher and one of twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, Bertrand Russell’s appointment as Professor at the New York City College, was revoked by Justice McGeehan of the New York Supreme Court. The case that he disposed was based on a tax payers suit filed by one Jean Kay of Brooklyn to void Russell’s appointment on grounds that he was an alien and an advocate of sexual morality. Mrs. Kay’s lawyers added two more grounds to the petition later: That Russell was appointed without having to give a competitive examination and that ``it was contrary to public policy to appoint as a teacher anyone believing in atheism.’’

The law suit and the judgment were preceded by hysteria orchestrated by the Church across the New York State against the faculty and the Board of the college who were the competent authority to make such appointments. Russell, at that time, was renowned for his scholarship. And yet, the court held that his appointment was void because he had not taken a competitive examination. The fact is that this was not the real reason. Russell was prevented from teaching at the New York City College simply because he was an atheist!

Similarly, Mrs. Kay, whose suit was the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision was hardly known to have shown any interest in public affairs until then. The campaign against Russell’s appointment was conducted by the clergy for most parts and Justice McGeehan, who had been associated with the Democrats had ``distinguished’’ himself even at that time by trying to have a portrait of Martin Luther removed from the murals in the County Court at Bronx. Let it be stated, for the record, that the campaign against Russell’s appointment was initiated by one Bishop Manning of the Protestant Episcopal Church through his letters he got published in the various newspapers in New York soon after Russell’s appointment was made public.

To cut a long story short, many factors converged and Justice McGeehan took only two days to glean through Russell’s writings as well as the reams of papers submitted by Mrs. Kay and her counsel, Joseph Goldstein. He declared that Russell was unfit for any teaching job in the college! That the judge overlooked even some basic facts was evident then itself. Mrs. Kay’s plea was based on her concern over what could happen to her daughter, Gloria, if she were to become a student of Bertrand Russell. Incidentally, at the time when Russell was appointed, only men could attend day session courses in liberal arts subjects at the New York City College. Recall what Charles Dickens said in some other context: The Law is an Ass!

This long recap of one of the events in Russell’s life is indeed very relevant in the context of the developments in Kerala in the past few weeks involving a lesson in the school texts. Compared with Russell’s thoughts on religion and God, the lesson in the school texts in Kerala are just nothing. All that it intends is to convey is that it is not necessary for everyone to profess a religion and that children, whose parents belonged to different religions, need not be forced to adopt that of one of their parents. This is not the same as being irreligious.
And in any case, Article 25 of our own Constitution that deals with the Freedom of Religion and Conscience is positively categorical that the freedom of conscience has no necessary connection with any particular religion or of any faith in God. In other words, it is the fundamental right of our citizens to have a conscience that is independent of any religion or of God. And by extension, it is the duty of the state to convey this to its citizens and protect the rights of such citizens to profess this faith in their conscience without having to rely that upon any religion or God.

The point is that a lesson of the kind in the school texts, as has been added in Kerala, is very much consistent with the Constitutional mandate. And even if one departs from this legalese and steps into the realm of socio-political reasoning, all that the said lesson does is to denigrate any sectarian design that promotes intolerance in the name of religion that is now eating into the vitals of our society. There is something seriously wrong with the campaign orchestrated by the clergy belonging to all the religious community against this insertion in the texts. And it is far more frightening to see the political parties, barring the Left, lending their muscle to this campaign.

Well. It is not the first time that this is happening. Recall the unholy alliance between the Church and the Congress party, headed at that time by Indira Gandhi (who professed at that time to be an atheist) against the legislative reforms in the school education system initiated by the EMS ministry and its eminent Education Minister Professor Joseph Mundasery. The real issue then was the unbridled ``rights’’ that the clergy enjoyed over the spoils of appointing teachers to the schools that the church controlled. And when Prof. Mundasery’s Bill laid out that the State Government, whose funds were used to pay the salary of the teachers, shall also have its say in the appointment of teachers, the clergy raised passions. And the Congress party provided the muscle to turn it into a violent agitation and got the elected Government dismissed.

The church ordained that Prof. Mundasery be denied of his dignity in death and denied him a place in the cemetery. That the communist party, with which Prof. Mundasery was associated did not give up on its commitment and even let go political power is as much a fact of history as with the fact that the clergy’s concerns then was the material gains that came from appointing teachers to the schools. Religion and faith, unfortunately, came to their aid.

But then, religion has always been like that. Galileo Galilei, after all was sentenced to imprisonment for having refused to repudiate Coppernicus. At the trial in Rome, the judges found Galileo to be ``vehemently suspect of heresy’’ and exiled him. On his death on January 8, 1642, the Pope refused the Grand Duke of Tuscany permission to stage a public funeral or erect a commemorative mausoleum. Galileo, one of the greatest scientists committed the ``crime’’ of having said Eppur si muove (And yet it moves), even while the sentence of his exile was read out.

Yes. Galileo was rehabilitated by Pope John Paul II as late as in 1992; 350 years after his death and the unceremonious burial then. And it is no longer heresy to say that the Earth moves around the Sun and not the other way round. Even if it may be that astronomy has moved much ahead from Coppernicus and Galileo, the basis for this was laid by them and the Church and the establishment called it heresy. Pope John Paul II was led to recognize this truth, even if it was after so many years after the Roman Church persecuted Galileo for saying that.

One wonders as to how long it would take for the clergy in Kerala to accept the simple truth that there is nothing absolute about religion and faith. Well. It is improper to blame the clergy alone for orchestrating such protests as were witnessed in Kerala in the past few weeks. Like in the case of Prof Mundasery and the Bill that he piloted, the blame squarely rests on the political leadership that lent its cadre to violate the laws in the garb of agitations. The Congress party did that in 1959. It is doing it again. And the BJP too is playing the game.


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