There is something quaintly ironic about the existence of a national body called the Indian Rationalist Association. It is even quainter when such a body publicly condemns a state government for showing signs of spending Rs 18 crore in support of prayers for rain. The cliché that comes most readily to the service of such bizarre situations is India being the land of contradictions and, lo, the president of the Indian National Science Academy, possibly rendered speechless by the state-sponsored prayers, took recourse to precisely that. The state government in Karnataka has promised to pay Rs 5,000 to each of the state’s 37,000 temples so that they can pray properly for rains this season. The precedent to this was set more than a couple of decades ago by none other than the Central science and technology department, which had supported prayers for rain in Mathura. This earlier instance had created the delightfully Heath-Robinsonian scenario of a Centrally-funded priest conducting a yajna while a bunch of Centrally-employed meteorologists tested the air for atmospheric change caused by the holy smoke. Later, there was an equally absurd attempt to translate superstition into science by trying to portray the whole ritual as a meteorological experiment.
The question here is, of course, not only the use of public money to promote activities that are inimical to the “scientific temper”, but also of the secular State’s endorsement of, and involvement in, such religious practices. Indian temples are, in an important sense, public institutions, some of which wield a huge economic and cultural clout. There are all kinds of overlap between their administration and the polities of which they become an integral part. But a modern democracy has to protect the principles of secularism and rationality, together with certain benchmarks of accountability, on which it is founded.