Morari Bapu, a spiritual leader noted for his Ram Katha sermons held around the world, came under fire over the weekend for inviting 200 sex workers from Kamathipura, Mumbai, to attend an event which he conducted in the city of Ayodhya. This drew outrage from a number of other religious figures, who predictably spoke of sin and shame. Ayodhya is regarded as the birthplace of Ram, in whose praise Morari Bapu recites the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas’ 16th century Ramayana with the distinct religious tones which have since been popularly associated with the epic.

As one important criticism of arts-based activism more familiar to us goes: it is not enough to bring the kutcheri to the kuppam, when the kuppam is still (figuratively) kept out of the kutcheri. This makes Morari Bapu’s initiative admirable: he did not choose to just deliver his discourses in the red-light district, but brought the people of that district onto holy (and hotly-contested) ground. Sex workers who spoke to the media of their experiences at the Ram Katha did so in glowing terms.

But, here’s a pinch of salt: given the incendiary context in which we live, can we really read even generous acts as apolitical? How can they be, when religion is the expressed basis of compassion as well as the implicit basis of hatred? So what are Morari Bapu’s politics? I confess my ignorance: being non-proficient in Hindi means I lack access to much material and commentary. I wish I could offer the unequivocal hope that he is that unbelievably rare figure – a progressive spiritual leader – and that his welcome to sex workers is a feminist act. His dedication of a 2016 Ram Katha to transgender people, during which he was quoted as having expressed the wish that a person from the community should one day lead a similar event with his support, would be one such heartwarming example.

But I’m wary. So what I’ll pay attention to instead is a contradiction: earlier this year, Morari Bapu criticised politicians who use the performative gesture of eating in Dalit households as a pawn to attract voters, going a step further by saying that marrying people from the same households would actually be meaningful. He is correct: inter-caste marriage is radical, truly risky (as murders by family members have shown in too many cases) and potentially revolutionary. However, more recently, he also criticised a CM’s comment that Hanuman was a Dalit, calling it a divisive statement while others like himself were working for unity.

This contradiction – of focusing on transcendence rather than reality – is where good intentions go to die. If we insist that our acceptance of others lies in our commonalities, we also insist on certain erasures. We can assume that the 200 sex workers who visited Ayodhya from Kamathipura were pious – but is that why they should be respected? Will the atheist or non-Hindu sex worker be offered the same? Will she be offered respect as a routine part of life, upon her return to her workplace – where, night and day, men whose actions are never questioned as they enter temples come to commit the sins of objectification and abuse?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.