Should a country that is officially atheist engage in a diplomatic exchange with a country that is officially secular over matters of religious faith? Ironically for the history of each country and of their relations, the national leaders of India and Russia may soon be having a dialogue, or even an exchange of ‘favours’, on Russia allowing a Krishna temple to be built in Moscow if India allows a Russian Orthodox church to be built in Delhi. Alongside talking about nuclear reactors, submarines, trade and investment, Vladimir Putin and Manmohan Singh will also have on the agenda for their imminent summit talks an attempt to come to a mutual agreement on the building of fairly extravagant shrines in each other’s country. At a time when political and religious orthodoxies in each country are joining hands over shared — and somewhat unsavoury — interests, the Indian prime minister, whose stakes in secularism ought to be at an all-time high, should think hard before making religion a currency of diplomatic understanding.
On the Indian side, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a private spiritual organization that has a well-established and amply-resourced global reach, which should make it perfectly capable of managing its own affairs without the intervention of the Indian government. The organization wants to save its temple in Moscow from being pulled down to make room for a metro station. This should be treated as a civic matter between the organization and the Moscow authorities, and the Centre should think several times before turning it into a political issue involving religious rights and freedom. On the Russian side, Mr Putin’s increasingly strong alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church is built upon a shared investment in political, cultural and sexual conservatism (‘orthodoxy’ in the temporal sense), which a modern democracy like India should be wary about. Mr Putin and the Christian patriarchs of his country have been in perfect league over a particularly bigoted form of legally institutionalized homophobia, for instance, and this is only one aspect of their shared suppression of various other kinds of dissent. Whatever the stakes in its relations with Russia, India cannot afford to regress from its democratic, liberal and secular principles.