The Beef with British Bank Notes

five-pound-note

Written by Randeep Singh

Hindus in the United Kingdom recently grew outraged over the Bank of England’s decision to issue a new £5 bank note. The note apparently contains traces of beef fat.

The Hindu Forum of Britain called the note “totally and utterly unacceptable.” Locally incensed Hindus have since been joined by Sikhs, vegetarians and vegans in petitioning to have the chemical content of the notes changed.

The Hindu Forum opposes the note on the grounds of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion protects one from interference from or coercion by the state in religious belief or practice. It does not require a government, however, to change its otherwise secular policies to accommodate religion.[1]

What would happen to Hindus if they came into contact with the bill? Would they be violating their religion? Haven’t they come into contact with beef-fat chemicals before in plastic shopping bags or in the leather soles in their shoes? Haven’t they sat next to someone eating beef in a school canteen or at a pub?

I don’t believe that the Hindu abstention from beef is a religious practice. It is a caste-based practice. Millions of Hindus in India eat beef. [2]  The Rig Veda and the later Vedic literature provide evidence that ancient Hindus did so too. [3]  When Hindus later abstained from eating beef centuries later, it was largely because it was deemed a “polluting” food eaten only by outcastes.[4]

In law, British Hindus are citizens who enjoy the same rights to freedom of religion as any other citizen. To ban the note does not promote equality or religious freedom: it promotes a sense of exceptionalism to the rules, encourages others to follow suit, and sanctions all sorts of practices in the name of “religion.”

Notes

[1] This happens where religious beliefs or practices compromise other freedoms like freedom of expression (e.g. the blasphemy row over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). It also happens where accommodating a particular religious belief or practice amounts to preferential treatment of that community.

[2] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/%E2%80%98More-Indians-eating-beef-buffalo-meat%E2%80%99/article16085248.ece.

It is often said the cow is sacred to Hindus because it provides milk, manure etc. Shouldn’t the cow then be sacred in all societies where it provides those goods?

[3] http://www.countercurrents.org/ambedkar050315.htm

[4] Hinduism borrowed the practice of vegetarianism from Jainism and Buddhism which were the dominant religions in India at the time.,

 

The Quebec Charter (and other secularisms)

quebec veil

The controversy over the Charter of Quebec Values got me interested in where Quebec stands as a secular society in comparison to other societies, including the rest of Canada.

STRICT SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

REPUBLICAN/LAÏCITÉ MODEL

France

  • Historical: The Wars of Religion (1648) prompted European states to recognize the need for a public domain regulated by non-clerical rules. The French Revolution (1789) saw the creation of the First Republic with all individuals as equal citizens under the law. The Civic Code of 1805 established the supremacy of the republic and state law; and the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State institutionalized the policy of state secularism in France.
  • French Constitution (1958): “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic”: religion is a private matter; the public domain is governed by the idea of republic citizenship and by an active state implementing the separation of religion from public citizenship
  • Law: law banning headscarves and conspicuous religious symbols  (2004).

France (flag)

Turkey

  • Historical: the Turkish defeat in World War I and the break-up of the empire (plus the cooperation between the Caliph and the allied powers) saw the Turkish political establishment reject the caliphate and a religious state; Kemal Ataturk westernized Turkish political and legal system (including the French model of secularism)
  • Turkish Republic and Nation: indivisible, secular with “active neutrality” of state (the Islamic religion is regulated by the state)
  • Law: in June 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court annulled the Parliament’s proposed amendment to lift the ban on headscarves, ruling that such an amendment violated the founding principles of the Turkish Constitution.

Quebec

  • Historical: Traditional Roman-Catholic society became increasingly secularized during the Quiet Revolution of 1960s onwards; ongoing movement to preserve distinctiveness of Quebec culture in Canada;
  • Law/Politics: 1977, Charter of the French Language (French as only official language of province);1982, Quebec only province not to assent to patriation of Canadian Constitution; National Assembly (Quebec) vote that people of Quebec form a nation (2003); 2013, Quebec Charter = bid for “distinctive” society and society?

ANGLO-AMERICAN MODEL

The “democratic” (rather than ‘republican’) model of secularism prevails in European protestant countries. Protestantism itself began as a dissident movement, giving rise to other dissident sects. The resulting dissidence among different groups in these countries forced the state to eventually tolerate those differences, rather than in France where the struggle between an all-powerful church and the state resulted in the state victorious and an ensuing tradition of anti-clericalism.

U.S.A

  • Historical: The United States established a secular state with no hostility toward religion; there has been a history of good relationships between church and the state;
  • First Amendment: no official religion and no prohibition of free exercise of religion;
  • Symbolic and ceremonial use of Christianity (in God we Trust); religious customs (use of bible) in courts and oath of President (not law).

U.K.

  • Historical: Official religion remains the Church of England use of Christian symbolism associated with the Monarchy; otherwise, a highly and increasingly secular society since World War II;
  • Multi-religious with an ongoing controversy regarding multiculturalism as policy (teaching of religions in school, recognition of Sikh kirpans in public places, establishment of Shariah Courts).

turban bus stop

Canada

  • Historical: Canada’s official recognition for two languages and “founding” nations has been accompanied by an increasing recognition of rights of Aboriginals and minority groups since the 1970s.
  • Law: Official policy of multiculturalism in Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988) including minorities’ rights to enjoy own cultures; religious freedoms and (equality) rights are subject to the limits justified in “free and democratic society.”

OFFICIALLY NEUTRAL STATE + ACCEPTANCE OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

INDIAN MODEL

  • Historical: India is a multi-religious society where all religions continue to be practiced in their traditional form. The Partition of 1947 helped encourage the rise of a secular state which sought to protect the rights of the minorities while proclaiming no official religion
  • State maintains a “principled distance” from religion (Bhargava): the Indian Constitution allows freedom of religion subject to health (harmful religious practices), law and order; religious pluralism and equality of all religions.
  • Law: recognition of separate personal laws for religious groups; no uniform civil code (1985 Shah Bano case);

Further Reading:

Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and Its Critics (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

Charles Taylor, “Modes of Secularism,” in Secularism and its Critics, 31-53.

Jean Bauberot, “The Two Thresholds of Laicization,” in Secularism and its Critics, 94-136.

D.E. Smith, “India as a Secular State,” in Secularism and its Critics, 177-233.

Rajeev Bhargava, “What is Secularism For?” in Secularism and its Critics, 486-542.

Written by Randeep Singh

“Cinema for Change” – Addressing Violence Against Women

2010_0301_women_hands_m

The South Asian Film Education Society (S.A.F.E.S.) hosted its first “Cinema for Change” film festival from April 19 to April 21, 2013. The theme: “Addressing Violence Against Women.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Guest Filmmaker, Samar Minallah, appeared at the opening night by Skype from Pakistan. Her documentary, “Swara: A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” looked at “swara,” the practice of using unmarried girls as compensation to settle disputes between families.  The practice of “swara” in the film of the same name, typically takes place as follows. One man kills another man and the family of the man who has been killed wants compensation from the murderer. The compensation takes the form of a girl, transferred from the family of the murderer to the family who would otherwise seek revenge. The girl is then expected to live in the “other” family as a daughter-in-law.

The practice of “swara” is well-known in North-West Pakistan and in other tribal communities and stopping it, Minallah admits, can be dangerous. The murderer (whose family pays the girl as compensation) is “let off the hook;” stopping that compensation would mean that the murderer must otherwise pay for his crime which, Minallah notes he will typically go to any lengths to avoid. Although Minallah acknowledges the challenges in fighting “swara,” she has helped bring awareness of the issue to the public and to policymakers through short public service-announcements. She also works to sensitive the police to the problem after the practice was made illegal through legislation passed in 2004. A growing number cases of “swara” moreover are being reported and addressed through public interest-litigation (200 cases were reported in 2011).

swara

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The second day saw the screening of “Common Gender” (2012), a Bangladeshi activist-documentary on the life of the hijra (intersexual) community of Dhaka and the violence underlying the social process of gendering. The two other films were “Afghanistan Unveiled” (2007) and “Provoked” (2006).

The film “Provoked,” is based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman in the United Kingdom who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her husband in 1989. Her conviction was set aside in 1992, partly through the help of the women’s advocacy and outreach group, Southhall Black Sisters. The judge noted that because of years of  abuse, Kiranjit suffered severe depression and battered women syndrome; her mental responsibility for the act was thus “diminished.” She had also been “provoked,” but was unable to retaliate right away because of her mental state. Her case (R v. Ahluwalia) changed English law, leading to the setting aside of convictions for battered women in 1992 and thereafter.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In “Saving Face,” we hear the stories of two survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan, Zakia and Rukshana. While highlighting the brutality of the attacks and their affect on the women, we see how the problem is being fought through cooperation between reconstructive surgeons, policymakers, lawyers, the media and NGO’s is key in bringing perpetrators to justice and helping women rebuild their lives.

In “Bol” (2012) Meghna Halder presents a short-film in three parts through masks, puppetry and shadows. Whereas the “The Cyclist” looks at the facelessness of the Indian Muslim woman who died in a bomb blast in Bangalore, “The Rape” looks at how two women went missing in Kashmir and were presumed to have been raped and disposed of by the Indian Army. In “The Mask,” Meghna presents the story of a man who wakes one day to find his face has been stolen. All three films were layered with meanings, teasing one’s interpretations.

While the issue of violence against women is ongoing and oftentimes distressing, I admire the filmmakers’ use of film as a medium for raising social awareness of the problem. In Minallah, we saw an example of the activist film-maker who has continued to make films despite risk to herself. In three films, we saw how individual and community activism can bring about social change such as the passage of law against “swara” and acid-attacks in Pakistan or the precedent-setting case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia in the United Kingdom. While the struggle continues, the SAFES has hopefully played its own part in presenting “cinema for change.”

For a list of all films shown and descriptions, go to: http://southasianfilm.blogspot.ca/