Out of step with reality

USE OF RELIGION IN POLLS : The SC remained strangely silent on a 1995 judgement which contended that Hinduism is not a religion but "a way of life."

Days ahead of his retirement, then Chief Justice of India T S Thakur left his final imprint on Indian democracy in a significant judgement on January 2 this year.

A seven-judge bench headed by him ruled that political parties are prohibited from appealing for votes on the plank of “religion, race, caste community or language” at the electoral altar. Violation would entail disqualification from contesting the
elections. The verdict is significant in the context of the fact that five states
are lined up to elect new governments in the next couple of months.

Political parties across the board have assumed a diplomatic stance in welcoming the judgement. With the election season in full swing, no party would want to be seen on the wrong side of the argument made by the highest court of the land. However, any media house’s archives would showcase how the poll arithmetic is primarily calculated by additions and divisions of various subsets of ethnicity. The judgement then surely has emphasised the creases on many a political head.

The judges were examining section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act. A number of corrupt practices has been listed under the section, one of which states: “The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or to refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religi­on, race, caste, community or language...”

The point of contention here was the interpretation of “his”; if this was to be interpreted literally, the candidate must refrain from invoking his own cultural ethos and beliefs but can seek votes based on other religions, castes and so on. The majority of the constitution bench chose to take a broader view and declared that election campaigning foisted on caste, religion, race, community or language is not permitted, regardless of whether the appeal was in favour of the candidate, the election agent or the voters or even against the political rival.

The four judges who constituted the majority, including the former Chief Justice, believe that the continuing influence of religion in electoral outcomes stands as an antithesis to the secular foundation of the country. With India’s bloodied communal history on constant recall, concerns regarding the politicisation of religion is perfectly valid. With respect to secularism, the term has been dismembered to an extent that it is now reduced to an empty catchphrase.

The concept has been defined as minority appeasement, an interpretation which reeks of a majoritarian complex. The widely-accepted view is that a secular state would not grant official recognition to any religion for administrative purposes. However, a secular state has the mandate to ensure that there is a conducive environment which facilitates the practice of all religions without exception. This may involve positive discrimination, taking special care of the historically persecuted minorities.

Muslims, particularly, continue to bear a stigma cutting across classes. From uptown housing societies with a no-Muslim policy to cases of lynching in the dusty interiors of the country, the community is constantly reminded of their place, or the lack of it, in our society.

In a similar vein, caste is indispensable to the Indian DNA. An individual’s caste is still critical in determining the extent of his/her access to education and employment. Despite the presence of casteism in covert forms, large sections are in denial of its existence. A classic example is the Rohith Vemula case where the political class has been more concerned about insisting that the young PhD student was not a Dalit. Negating caste discrimination as the reason behind his suicide allowed the state to normalise his story as that of just another disgruntled student. The graphic images of the flogging of Dalits in Gujarat’s Una may have been a rude eye-opener for the caste-blind privileged class.

When the background of a huge chunk of the population determines their economic and social well-being, eliminating any reference to religion or caste during elections is a myopic decision. Indeed, more often than not, these factors are invoked with the sole objective of number-crunching. It is also important to note that an election is the only platform where the otherwise ignored concerns of the faceless is brought to light.

Level-playing field

If a true democracy aims at creating a level-playing field which represents every section of society, can the nation’s largest democratic exercise ignore those very sections in its discourse? The minority view presented by the other three judges was far more nuanced.
“Social mobilisation is an integral element of the search for authority and legitimacy. Hence, it would be far-fetched to assume that in legislating to adopt Section 123(3), Parliament intended to obliterate or outlaw references to religion, caste, race, community or language in the hurly burly of the great festival of democracy,” they said.

The SC remained strangely silent on a 1995 judgement which contended that Hinduism is not a religion and defined it as “a way of life”, which in turn can be exploited to appeal for votes on the plank of Hinduism. This is a textbook interpretation which does not apply to the country’s political landscape where the question of a Ram temple in Ayodhya could still whip up passions. One would have to be afflicted with a case of selective amnesia to reject the communal connotations of Hindutva, an obvious derivative of Hinduism.

Denying the existence of religion and caste will not solve the issues of casteism and communalism. Discrimination can be tackled only when its presence is acknowledged and confronted, for which a persistent dialogue is necessary.

What’s in a name? It contains within itself the caste and religious identity of a person; an instant recipe for the perpetuation of prejudices which have dogged the downtrodden sections for centuries. To then expect the political class or the citizenry to denounce their ingrained social status, in a country which is never out of election mode, is to ask for utopia.
(The writer is a student with the National School of Journalism, Bengaluru)

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