Haj subsidy struck down: A Liberal Secularist Agenda for Disengagement from Religion

I am still to see the full judgment, but media reports suggest that a bench of Justices Alam and Desai have struck down the provision for Haj subsidy as unconstitutional. If this move signals a shift from secularism as equal engagement with/respect for all religions to secularism as disengagement from religious belief and doctrine, I think it is a very welcome move indeed (and one which should be welcomed not just by secularists but also by religious non-secularists – the disengagement view of secularism  provides greater autonomy to religions so long as they do not harm others, so religious groups are likely to be better off under a hands-off state rather than a hands-on state).

The secular disengagement agenda also includes personal law reform (with a secular Uniform Civil Code as the ultimate goal); abolition of religion-based tax benefits to Hindus (through the institution of Hindu Undivided Family); robust antidiscrimination provisions to prevent housing, education and employment discrimination on the grounds of religion; end to the state’s meddlesome role in temple trusts; end to symbolic religious practices by state institutions (eg bhumi-poojan); repeal of anti-conversion legislation; repeal of cow-slaughter bans; express enumeration of atheists and agnostics in the national census; effective measures to combat religious violence; robust protection for anti-religious speech etc. Acceptable exceptions will include cases where religious doctrine causes harm, e.g. open access to temples for dalits.

The agenda will require nuanced discursive responses to allegations of decontextualised naïvety and claims of Indian-exceptionalism (although the one thing we will perhaps not be guilty of is partisanship). Are liberals up for the fight?

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • THe Hindu Undivided Family is not a "tax benefit", really. It is a different kind of assessee for tax. The historical reason for it being a separate taxable entity was that HUFs used to (and in smaller towns and villages, still do) act as a separate economic unit. It has been used for various tax "planning" schemes, I don't deny, but it's not a "benefit".

  • ok, so 'benefit' was loosely used. but the difference will surely amount to disparate impact/ indirect discrimination in any jurisdiction with a sophisticated antidiscrimination regime, which looks not only at intent/purpose behind a measure but also its impact. here, the impact of HUF is that similarly situated Hindus and Christians end up paying different amounts of taxes. that, to me, sounds very much like indirect discrimination.