Secularism: An Ambiguous Concept

The recent debate over the pro­posed destruc­tion of the Ram Sethu to build a ship­ping canal and the asso­ci­at­ed affi­davit filed by the UPA Gov­ern­ment, which was lat­er with­drawn, has enraged the peo­ple of India and caused a lot of anguish and debate because of reli­gious sen­ti­ments being hurt.

Keep­ing the project of destroy­ing Ram Sethu aside, it is inter­est­ing to focus on how the peo­ple of India are respond­ing to the Gov­ern­ment sup­port­ed affi­davit (lat­er with­drawn) by the Arche­o­log­i­cal Insti­tute of India, which stat­ed that: “the mytho­log­i­cal texts of Ramayana formed an impor­tant part of ancient Indi­an lit­er­a­ture, but can­not be said to be his­tor­i­cal record to incon­tro­vert­ibly prove the exis­tence of the char­ac­ters, or the occur­rence of the events, depict­ed there­in.”

While polit­i­cal par­ties are obvi­ous­ly milk­ing it for what it’s worth, the debate has spread among the edu­cat­ed intel­lec­tu­als as well. Hence we have dif­fer­ent view­points like The Ratio­nal Fool on one hand, who says that the affi­davit is one step clos­er to a sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy, and Nita, with a Wide Angle View of India, who thinks that the gov­ern­ment did a wrong thing in (sup­port­ing) fil­ing of such an affi­davit. The core issue being debat­ed is: should a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ment med­dle with the reli­gious sen­ti­ments of the pub­lic that elect­ed it? And in the course of this debate, the word ‘sec­u­lar’ is being used often, with­out any­one actu­al­ly defin­ing what it means. And that, I think, is (one of) the roots of the prob­lem.

What is meant by a “sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy”?

Inter­est­ing­ly, such a term does not have a def­i­n­i­tion in Wikipedia. Instead, Wikipedia defines “sec­u­lar­ism”:

Sec­u­lar­ism is gen­er­al­ly the asser­tion or belief that cer­tain prac­tices or insti­tu­tions should exist sep­a­rate­ly from reli­gion or reli­gious belief…In the extreme, it is an ide­ol­o­gy that holds that reli­gion has no place in pub­lic life.

In one sense, sec­u­lar­ism may assert the free­dom of reli­gion, and free­dom from the gov­ern­ment impo­si­tion of reli­gion upon the peo­ple, with­in a state that is neu­tral on mat­ters of belief, and gives no state priv­i­leges or sub­si­dies to reli­gions. In anoth­er sense, it refers to a belief that human activ­i­ties and deci­sions, espe­cial­ly polit­i­cal ones, should be based on evi­dence and fact rather than reli­gious influ­ence.

The coun­try of the Unit­ed States was found­ed on the prin­ci­ple of sep­a­ra­tion of the Church and the State. What was the found­ing prin­ci­ple of sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic India? Nehru says:

We talk about a sec­u­lar India…some peo­ple think it means opposed to reli­gion. That obvi­ous­ly is not cor­rect. What it means is that it is a State which hon­ors all faiths equal­ly and gives them equal oppor­tu­ni­ties; India has a long his­to­ry of reli­gious tolerance…In a coun­try like India, which has many faiths and reli­gions, no real nation­al­ism can be built up except on the basis of sec­u­lar­i­ty.

My Mer­ri­am Web­sters Col­le­giate Dic­tio­nary defines sec­u­lar­ism as: “indif­fer­ence to or rejec­tion or exclu­sion of reli­gion and reli­gious con­sid­er­a­tions”.

Some com­men­ta­tors on this top­ic pre­fer to define sec­u­lar­ism as being neu­tral to reli­gious beliefs. A review of Jef­frey Stout’s “Democ­ra­cy and Tra­di­tion” inter­est­ing­ly express­es his opin­ion thus: “A sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy rec­og­nizes that peo­ple dif­fer in their reli­gious com­mit­ments; sec­u­lar­ism, on the oth­er hand, requires them to pre­tend that they don’t have those com­mit­ments.” The con­cept of sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy has even been used to prop­a­gate reli­gious beliefs!

Thus, there is a lot of ambi­gu­i­ty in the con­cept of sec­u­lar­ism itself. Does Nehru’s “hon­or” entail respect and acknowl­edg­ment? Are the dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tions of the term wrong? Wikipedia’s entry epit­o­mizes the ambi­gu­i­ty involved: sec­u­lar­ism means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

In a coun­try with a one bil­lion plus pop­u­la­tion found­ed on an ambigu­ous con­cept that is not well defined, the result­ing chaos in this instance is not going to be one of a kind. This is one of the great lessons of Epis­te­mol­o­gy: if we do not define our con­cepts and leave them ambigu­ous to ran­dom inter­pre­ta­tions, con­flict ensues. The cur­rent uproar over Ram Sethu is just anoth­er epi­dem­ic of this viral root cause, that began with Nehru in India.

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  • Good angle to take — on the mean­ing of sec­u­lar­ism, with so many peo­ple writ­ing on the Ram Setu!Thanks for men­tion btw.
    But ofcourse if sec­u­lar­ism means treat­ing all reli­gions equal­ly, India has cer­tain­ly failed, hasn’t it? There are dif­fer­ent laws for dif­fer­ent peo­ple! But even this can be inter­pret­ed to mean that peo­ple are being treat­ed equal­ly, as they are all being treat­ed accord­ing to their own reli­gion. Any­one can argue this way too…but at least for me true equal­i­ty is the same law for all peo­ple. Every­thing has to apply equal­ly. If loud music from mosques is banned, it has to be banned for ganesh chau­rthi too and so on…

  • Speak­ing of the Ram Setu, I wrote this com­ment a long time back. But I think it fits this post bet­ter.

    If one lit­er­al­ly inter­prets the vedas and puranas, the dura­tion of a kalpa is around 4 mil­lion years. So in the Tre­ta yuga, all of us would have looked like this:

    Since that looks uncan­ni­ly like a mem­ber of the Vaa­nara sena (or Bajrang dal, as we know them today) I am in total agree­ment with you. They must have built the Ram setu. The co-inci­dence is too pow­er­ful.

    Air Dec­can is also India’s res­ur­rec­tion of the Tre­ta yuga’s push­pakav­i­maan, and there­fore, I pro­pose that VHP and RSS take up an agi­ta­tion to put a stop to all those anti-hin­du news­pa­pers that crit­i­cize its con­stant­ly delayed flights.

    It is also the accu­mu­lat­ed bad kar­ma (as per orig­i­nal Vedic laplace trans­form and hyper­for­mu­la) of Sri Lan­ka due to Ravan’s fol­lies that it still suf­fers today. Per­haps, we should send a new IPKF (Indi­an Priest Keep­ing Force) to ved­i­cal­ly puri­fy that install Ram Rajya there.

    I there­fore pro­pose the fol­low­ing list of her­itage sites
    1. ram setu
    2. Jaffna (clear­ly, this is where the Ramayana battle’s blood would have been split)
    3. Air Dec­c­can
    4. All trees and fruits along the path Ram took. Clear­ly, that is pun­yab­hu­mi.
    5. All of UP (since we are total­ly clear on where the orig­i­nal Ayo­d­hya real­ly was)

    I also fur­ther pro­pose that we build a “World’s first Divorce” mon­u­ment at the place where the just Ram dumped the con­stant­ly nag­ging Sita who was caus­ing all sorts of rep­u­ta­tion prob­lems for Ram by being preg­nant, with twins no less.

    Om That’s That
    Ashok

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  • Mahen­dra:

    Thanks for link­ing back to my post.

    I’d like to clar­i­fy that I did not write that “refut­ing the exis­tence of a Hin­du God is being one step clos­er to a sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy”. Nei­ther did ASI, nor did I assert that Rama did not exist. I don’t believe that Rama was god-incar­nate, because I don’t believe that god (defined as an omnipo­tent, omni­scient, cre­ator of this uni­verse and oth­er uni­vers­es) exists. Whether Rama exist­ed or not, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

    What ASI said in its affi­davit was rea­son­able: “[Ramayana] can­not be said to be his­tor­i­cal record to incon­tro­vert­ibly prove the exis­tence of [Rama]”. This, imo, is a care­ful­ly word­ed state­ment that sim­ply high­lights the lim­i­ta­tion of Ramayana as suf­fi­cient proof for the exis­tence of Rama. As much as I know, it doesn’t say any­thing about the exis­tence of Rama per se here or else­where. And, I agree with the state­ment.

    That rea­son, and not reli­gious con­sid­er­a­tions, pre­vailed in an affi­davit sub­mit­ted by the Gov­ern­ment of India, brought it clos­er to a sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy. That the affi­davit was with­drawn sub­se­quent­ly, has thrown that nation state back to where it was, prob­a­bly worse.

  • Nita: //if sec­u­lar­ism means treat­ing all reli­gions equal­ly, India has cer­tain­ly failed, hasn’t it?//
    My point is, no one knows and every­one cer­tain­ly doesn’t agree on what sec­u­lar­ism means. Regard­ing treat­ing all reli­gions equal­ly: when a coun­try pass­es a leg­is­la­tion such as the “Hin­du Mar­riage Act”, it is no longer sec­u­lar, by any of the var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions at hand.

    For exam­ple, the Hin­du Mar­riage Act, passed in 1955, and still in exis­tence, says that a Hin­du can­not file for divorce until one year has passed after mar­riage. Now, if a Hin­du woman is mal­treat­ed by her hus­band and rel­a­tives, she would have to suf­fer tor­ture for one year before becom­ing eli­gi­ble for apply­ing for divorce! I’m not sure if a Chris­t­ian or a Mus­lim woman has to endure suf­fer­ing for one year.

    So, you are right, India is def­i­nite­ly not a sec­u­lar nation, by any widest stretch of the def­i­n­i­tion.

    What I’m sur­prised and aghast about, is the fact that no one from India has opposed such gov­ern­men­tal inter­fer­ence in reli­gion before. When it affects per­son­al lives, no one is con­cerned; when it is regard­ing the exis­tence of a Hin­du god, every­one is up in arms. That is what appalls me.

  • Ashok: Why don’t you write a book? Real­ly, seri­ous­ly. Your com­ment caused pain in my stom­ach due to laugh­ter. I was remind­ed of Dave Bar­ry! Thanks for mak­ing me laugh so much!

  • Of course, Ashok’s bril­liant humor does not deflect from the fact that there should be no con­fu­sion or ambiva­lence about the sec­u­lar­ism word, and its con­cept. You have right­ly point­ed out that the Nehrus have dis­tort­ed this enough to mean an all-embrac­ing reli­gios­i­ty. This is ver­i­ta­ble dis­as­ter. The truth is just the reverse (as men­tioned by you).

  • RTF: My apolo­gies regard­ing the incor­rect state­ment, I’ve cor­rect­ed it in the post now.

    //That rea­son, and not reli­gious con­sid­er­a­tions, pre­vailed in an affi­davit sub­mit­ted by the Gov­ern­ment of India, brought it clos­er to a sec­u­lar democracy.//
    My point is that, only a cer­tain sec­tion of peo­ple think so. And the rea­son is because “sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy” means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

    I would be hap­py if rea­son pre­vails over faith in a coun­try, how­ev­er, I would hes­i­tate before terming it as “sec­u­lar”, because of the ambigu­ous nature of the con­cept. Would you found a coun­try on a con­sti­tu­tion that defines it as a ‘ratio­nal democ­ra­cy’? No, you wouldn’t. The clever use of the ambigu­ous con­cept ‘sec­u­lar’ is noth­ing but an unde­fined, and dan­ger­ous, polit­i­cal euphemism.

  • Ram­bodoc: //there should be no con­fu­sion or ambiva­lence about the sec­u­lar­ism word, and its concept.//
    Ah! How I agree with you…but “should be” is a wish, a dream. The truth is that there is indeed ambi­gu­i­ty about the con­cept since a long time ago, and that’s (par­tial­ly) respon­si­ble for what we’re see­ing today.

    Again, when you refer to ‘all-embrac­ing reli­gios­i­ty’ — you are right, it does invite dis­as­ter, as we’re see­ing today. How­ev­er, I did not under­stand it when you said that “The truth is just the reverse (as men­tioned by you)”. I do not know which “truth” I referred to.

    The “truth” for me is still ambigu­ous: should a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment, elect­ed by the peo­ple, respect the faith of its peo­ple? Or should it aban­don the people’s faith, and embrace rea­son as it’s only guid­ing motive?

    The answer to me, as often, seems like this: a coun­try gets the gov­ern­ment it deserves! Sec­u­lar­ism is just a fan­cy polit­i­cal con­cept that has lit­tle mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance in real­i­ty, and whose ambi­gu­i­ty is exploit­ed to the max­i­mum by every­one con­cerned — each with their own inter­pre­ta­tion of the term.

  • The objec­tion is not whether Ram Setu was there or not but I object to the state­ment- there is no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that Ram exist­ed. Nobody can prove reli­gious beliefs but it is the busi­ness of the peo­ple who believe in them and not of the state, as long as they don’t harm any­body.
    I agree with Nita on the def­i­n­i­tion of sec­u­lar­ism.
    Karunanid­hi is propos­ing reser­va­tion for Mus­lims and Chris­tians in a sec­u­lar coun­try? Any com­ments on that?

  • Pre­rna: // I object to the state­ment — there is no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that Ram existed.//
    I did not make any such state­ment that you’ve object­ed to.

    //as long as they don’t harm anybody.//
    This again, is very ambigu­ous. Like the com­ments in Nita’s blog show: does the inabil­i­ty to widen roads or extend run­ways mean harm to oth­ers?

    //I agree with Nita on the def­i­n­i­tion of secularism.//
    I fail to see where Nita has pro­vid­ed a def­i­n­i­tion of sec­u­lar­ism. And my point is, you may agree with one inter­pre­ta­tion of it, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly everyone’s.

    //Karunanidhi is propos­ing reser­va­tion for Mus­lims and Chris­tians in a sec­u­lar coun­try? Any com­ments on that?//
    Where did I say India was a sec­u­lar coun­try? My point is, it is not, by any widest stretch of imag­i­na­tion!

  • // Nita, with a Wide Angle View of India, who thinks that the gov­ern­ment did a wrong thing in (sup­port­ing) fil­ing of such an affidavit.// This is what I was respond­ing to…The affi­davit says that there is no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that Ram exist­ed.
    When I mean harm any­body I mean both­er­ing peo­ple by their reli­gious acts like using micro­phones late at night or block­ing traf­fic etc.
    Our con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees sec­u­lar­ism and that makes me wish- maybe some­day..

  • Here are some more points to pon­der:

    How about gen­der sec­u­lar­ism? Does any­one fight or argue for it? No. Women can be tram­pled upon since “sec­u­lar­ism” doesn’t apply to them.

    How about caste sec­u­lar­ism? Does it mat­ter to any­one? Reser­va­tions in the high­est edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions is fun­da­men­tal­ly against “sec­u­lar­ism”, if you look at it from an “equal oppor­tu­ni­ty for all” per­spec­tive.

  • mahen­dra:
    Thanks for cor­rec­tion.

    I agree that “sec­u­lar­ism” is an ambigu­ous con­cept and can mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. So is the word democ­ra­cy. How else can one explain North Korea describ­ing itself as “Demo­c­ra­t­ic People’s Repub­lic of Korea”? I used the adjec­tive sec­u­lar to mean what the Estab­lish­ment Clause from the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States implies. As Hump­ty Dump­ty says in Alice in Won­der­land, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — nei­ther more nor less.” 🙂

    pr3rna:
    Please read the quot­ed por­tion of the affi­davit (in my com­ment above, or in the Tri­bune sto­ry that Mahen­dra has pro­vid­ed a link to) care­ful­ly. It does not say that “there is no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that Ram exist­ed”. It sim­ply says that Ramayana can­not be con­strued as his­tor­i­cal evi­dence to incon­tro­vert­ibly prove that Ram exist­ed. To para­phrase, Ramayana, tak­en in iso­la­tion, is not suf­fi­cient his­tor­i­cal evi­dence for prov­ing the exis­tence of Ram beyond doubt. What pre­cise­ly in that state­ment that you object to?

  • Mahen­dra,
    I meant that the Nehru­vian con­cept of sec­u­lar­ism is a ‘straw man’. It is unre­al. Real sec­u­lar­ism is when the State dis­re­gards reli­gion in its deal­ings. Reli­gion is a per­son­al and pri­vate issue of an indi­vid­ual, and the State should have noth­ing to do with it.
    This is the ‘truth’ I was talk­ing of. Alter­na­tive words like ‘are­li­gious’ should be applied if the ambi­gu­i­ty per­sists.

  • Pre­rna, thank you for terming me as Nita with a wide angle view of India. I am indeed flat­tered. When I wrote that as a title of my blog, I sort of did it on impulse as I always (even at work, when I was work­ing full-time)had this habit of look­ing at every­thing from a wide, often glob­al, per­spec­tive, and peo­ple used to roll their eyes, but this is just my opin­ion of myself. At first when few peo­ple read my blog it didn’t matter…but now with so many read­ing it, I some­times feel embar­rassed.
    Any­way, thank you. 🙂

  • India has of course failed on mul­ti­ple sec­u­lar fronts… absence of Uni­form Civ­il Code is one. But even men­tion of these three words gau­ran­tees uproars from the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty because this pro­pos­al has always been raised by the Hin­dut­va brigade. Rea­son for resis­tance — Plain Sus­pi­cion.
    I am nei­ther a fan nor a bash­er of main­stream media, but I dont like cer­tain ways in which they report inci­dents. Spe­cial­ly the ver­nac­u­lar press… instead of say­ing “man beat­en to death”, the report in bold will say “hindu/muslim beat­en to death.…”… and of course it is bound to cre­ate ten­sion in the mass­es which is yet to mature as far as open mind­ed reli­gious sen­ti­ments are con­cerned.
    From the govt’s side, giv­ing Haj sub­sidy to pil­grims when none of the Mus­lim coun­tries are giv­ing it is anoth­er pseu­do sec­u­lar­ism issue that needs to be dealt with.
    To con­clude, unfor­tu­nate­ly Sec­u­lar­ism is a word/concept that can be twist­ed and cus­tomized to suit any per­son and ide­ol­o­gy. Athe­ists can claim it there’s and so can the reli­gious lib­er­al mass­es. There is no easy way to point out that yes, he/she is right and the oth­er is wrong.…. (I think I went a lit­tle bit off the top­ic)

  • Pre­rna: I’m not very knowl­edge­able about the Indi­an con­sti­tu­tion, but am com­plete­ly with you regard­ing what you wish! Yes, maybe, some­day…

    RTF: Yes, the con­cept of democ­ra­cy is also under the same threat of epis­te­mo­log­i­cal con­fu­sion! While there were clear dis­tin­guish­ing and defin­ing ele­ments of Democ­ra­cy in the past, they’ve been ridiculed by var­i­ous coun­tries claim­ing to be democ­ra­cies.

    Ram­bodoc: Thanks for clar­i­fy­ing, I now under­stand. BTW, you used a term “straw man” that I had almost used myself in the orig­i­nal post, before edit­ing it!

    Nita: (I think) Pre­rna was quot­ing from my post using copy-paste!

    Oemar: Thanks for list­ing oth­er exam­ples of the fail­ure of sec­u­lar­ism — I wasn’t aware about Haj sub­sidy! And no, far from being off the top­ic — you’re bang on it. A word/concept that can be twist­ed to suit any per­son and has no clear def­i­n­i­tion, is a sure path to dis­as­ter.

  • Now I am even more embar­rassed. 🙂

  • RTF: I’m not very knowl­edge­able about the US con­sti­tu­tion hence am curi­ous: do you think the “Seal of Con­fes­sion”, which guar­an­tees absolute con­fi­den­tial­i­ty to Catholic priests, is a sec­u­lar prac­tice in line with the US con­sti­tu­tion?

  • Nita: Please let go of your propen­si­ty to become embar­rassed! You very much live up to the title of your blog…:-)

  • mahen­dra:
    I am not very knowl­edge­able about the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion either. I wish I am — would have made me rich 🙂 Otoh, I am glad I am not — would have made me live in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 🙁 Hav­ing said that, I am read­ing up on it — thanks to google, wikipedia, and the local library. What­ev­er that I say below, how­ev­er, is based on my rather neo­phyt­ic under­stand­ing of the weighty issues involved in the “Seal of Con­fes­sion”, and I reserve the right to cor­rect, with­draw, or refute any parts of it in future dis­cus­sions 🙂

    The “Seal of Con­fes­sion” that guar­an­tees absolute con­fi­den­tial­i­ty to the Catholic priests is among sev­er­al such priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ca­tion rights guar­an­teed to doc­tor-patient, lawyer-client, jour­nal­ist-source, hus­band-wife etc. It is an exemp­tion to the Estab­lish­ment Clause grant­ed under the Free Exer­cise of Reli­gion Clause, both part of the First Amend­ment. The con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of the exemp­tion of cer­tain reli­gious prac­tices, includ­ing con­fes­sion, can be chal­lenged under the Estab­lish­ment Clause, and can be over­turned if it did not pass the Lemon Test. To pass, the action/law (1) must have a legit­i­mate sec­u­lar pur­pose, (2) must not have the pri­ma­ry effect of either advanc­ing or inhibit­ing reli­gion, and (3)must not result in an “exces­sive gov­ern­ment entan­gle­ment” with reli­gion.

    All fifty states in the U.S, have grant­ed con­fes­sion­al priv­i­leges, but I under­stand that sev­er­al states have infringed upon them too, for exam­ple, by com­pelling the cler­gy to report on child abuse. Here is an arti­cle that I came across on this issue: Karen Ross, “Reveal­ing Con­fi­den­tial Secrets: Will It Save Our Chil­dren?”, Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 28:963. I haven’t read it thor­ough­ly, but I thought that I’d pass it along to oth­ers more inter­est­ed in this than I am.

    My per­son­al view is that the Estab­lish­ment Clause should pre­vail under all cir­cum­stances, and no exemp­tion to any reli­gious prac­tice that may involve the infringe­ment of the rights of oth­ers should be grant­ed under the Free Expres­sion of Reli­gion Clause [the Lemon Test may have accom­plished this to a large extent]. Such a blan­ket pro­hi­bi­tion may not have been required [Jef­fer­son and Madi­son may have want­ed it] in the prac­ti­cal­ly mono-reli­gious 18th cen­tu­ry U.S.A., but it’s a must in a mul­ti-reli­gious soci­ety such as India, imo.

  • RTF: Thanks for tak­ing the time to elab­o­rate and throw more light on this. In sim­ple Eng­lish, this does seem to me that the Priest-pen­i­tent priv­i­lege is not sec­u­lar. 🙂

    When the source you chose as the def­i­n­i­tion of the word ‘sec­u­lar’ is itself mired with con­tro­ver­sy because of mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions, it sim­ply rat­i­fies my post!

    None of the oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion priv­i­leges (doc­tor-patient, lawyer-client, etc.) have any­thing to do with reli­gion. The PDF you’ve linked to is unfor­tu­nate­ly not avail­able (one can read it ‘as HTML’), but Wikipedia does state: “In twen­ty-five states, the cler­gy­man-com­mu­ni­cant statu­to­ry priv­i­lege does not clear­ly indi­cate who holds the priv­i­lege. In sev­en­teen states, the penitent’s right to hold the priv­i­lege is clear­ly stat­ed. In only six states, both a pen­i­tent and a mem­ber of the cler­gy are express­ly allowed by the statute to hold the priv­i­lege.” If I was a Catholic liv­ing in the US, I would sure­ly know which state to go for con­fes­sion! 🙂

    Of course, my per­son­al view is very much in line with yours.

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