When the Protestant Church of North India Bishop of Delhi, Karam Masih started deciding as the chairman of the St. Stephen’s College’s supreme council, the manner in which the college should be run and deciding on the subject of quotas and Dalit Christians, it got me thinking about the power that religious leaders wield and how they ought to be chosen. In such a sensitive subject as this, where in even fully state funded institutions, like the IITs and IIMs, the government has to tread cautiously. The Bishop how ever with out any visible effort to build consensus or consult any one made his decision as if the college was his private feudal estate. As Ramachandra Guha, the historian asks pertinently, “It is important to note here that while St Stephen’s was founded by Christians; it is funded by the state. According to the Union ministry of education, fully 95 per cent of the expenses of the college are met by the University Grants Commission. Why should a college that draws so heavily on the public exchequer be allowed to choose 40 per cent of its students from 2 per cent of the country’s population?”

The position of religious leaders in a secular state is ambiguous. At one level, they are no more than private citizens; at another level , as the recent controversy surrounding the head of the Dera Saccha Sauda indicates, religious leaders have a lot of clout and influence … possibly in many instances they have more authority than political leaders. In most instances, the leaders are unelected. In case of the older institutions like the various mutts, the leadership is inherited but more common these days are the god men who seem to have sprung up and acquired a following almost overnight.

Many of the religious heads in the country head huge empires worth crores, many of them by virtue of their office alone and not because of any management merit they might possess. Most religious leaders in India hold office at the tip of a very narrow support base and yet their decisions and actions be it Baba Ram Rahim Singh dressing up and aping Guru Gobind Singh or A Bishop with months to go before his retirement suddenly dispensing wisdom on reservation and quotas.

Mahants and Bishops and Imams and the like may preside over the fortunes of prestigious institutions set up by religious trusts only because of the religious office they hold. In case of the educational institutions, the religious clergy may preside over the fortunes of institutions into which they might themselves be unfit to gain admission had they been in the positions of students in these institutions. The clergy preside over several institutions and their valuable properties and make key policy decisions, often without any demonstrable skills or training to do so

Unelected leaders, be it in religion or politics are a bane. But typically political despots are more easily overthrown than religious leaders who wield a more mystic and other worldly grip on their followers. The gurudwara reform movement of the Akalis was launched in the early twentieth century to free up gurudwaras from the clutches of despotic mahants. The Christian reformation in Europe happened for similar reasons as did several reform movements within India itself, be it the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission and several others. But religious despotism and stranglehold like weeds seem to keep coming back in every generation.

In most situations, there is little that can be done. It is indeed a pity that Institutions and ashrams and establishments that most professionally managed set ups would hire experienced managers to run are managed by religious figure heads that may be well versed in rites and rituals but know little else. In India often , politics and religion seem to be the last refuge of the scoundrel and the ones who fit nowhere are the ones often the most blinded like in Hans Christian Anderson’s “ The Emperor’s new Clothes” be it cloaked in dummy robes of a Guru or a Bishop carrying a miter and cassock.

Mean while as the constituency of the Church of North India elects a successor in a democratic manner to the retiring Karam Masih, it is to be hoped that they will elect some one who is appropriately clothed with the robes of dignity, wisdom and godliness, some one who the secular world does not disdain as semi literate and unworthy of arbitrating in complex matters. The country is need of good and godly religious leaders, who are genuine conscience keepers for the nation and not paper mache versions of the typical politicians we see every day. May be the Christian community , typically understood to be progressive will show the way and elect some one we can all look up to as the personification of what a religious leader ought to be

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