The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Temple fireworks spark audience salvo
- The Telegraph Calcutta Club Debate

Calcutta, March 10: A battle of wills, ideals, principles and philosophies. Or, as one participant put it, “a shouting match between politicians”.

Whatever the description, The Telegraph Calcutta Club National Debate — In the opinion of the house, religion has derailed democracy in India — saw a punch-up that was alternately booed and applauded by a 3,000-strong audience yesterday.

Ayodhya was on top of everyone’s mind as the past was raked up and instances in history were used by both sides to hit at each other. Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy, Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh, CPM’s Sitaram Yechuri and journalist N. Ram argued for the motion with focus on the Babri Masjid demolition and last year’s Gujarat riots.

On the other side of the fence were law and justice minister Arun Jaitley, information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, journalist-writer Mark Tully and journalist Swapan Dasgupta.

Jaitley hit back, saying “majority bashing (was) becoming the norm” and protection of minorities and secularism were clouding people’s judgement.

Moderator Jairam Ramesh of the Congress deftly juggled the strident opinions as the participants, including the excited audience, chastised him for “taking sides”. The audience, who Ramesh did not allow to question the participants as it was beyond the rules, appeared to enjoy the political firecrackers and shouted out their opinions. Ramesh decided to “let comments fly to get people to react”.

Tully nearly took the steam out of the debate when he said: “I am not aligned with any party, so, perhaps, I am the most impartial person here…. And I propose that it is, in fact, democracy that has derailed religion, and not the other way round.”

He appeared to strike a chord with the audience when he said religion is merely used by those running the country as a smokescreen to hide their inadequacies and inability to address the “real problems” of the people.

Put to a vote, the motion was rejected as “roughly 60 per cent” of the participants believed religion had not derailed democracy.

Tully, however, was the ultimate victor when his opinion was put to an impromptu audience vote. “Around 95 per cent” of the audience believed he was right.

Ramesh summed up the debate, saying: “The real battle for secularism is not between majority and minority issues. It is actually a battle between those who are intensely religious but practise in private, and those who bring it into the limelight because they want to use it for public mobilisation.”

He appealed to the people to find a “middle ground between the traditional, orthodox secularism and fundamentalism”.

“But most people are not able to find it because they are not being allowed to,” Ramesh said.

Lookad Advertising was the associate sponsor of the debate and ITC Sonar Bangla the official host.

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