'Secular' netas, elaborate poojas

'Secular' netas, elaborate poojas

Performing religious activities in government buildings based on vastu is against the secular character of our Constitution

Representative image. Credit: iStock photo

Under articles 75 (4), 99, 124 (6), 148 (2), 164 (3), 188 and 219 of the third Schedule of the Constitution, any elected representative has to take the oath of office and oath of secrecy before assuming the office of the minister in the presence of constitutional authority. In a secular and pluralistic society like ours, when the new ministers take charge, before stepping into their chambers and start their work, their hallowed precincts are repainted and elaborate poojas and homas seeking divine blessings are conducted. Some ministers order the demolition of a wall in the precincts to meet vastu standards.

These ministers, after assuming office and during a political crisis or at the onset of elections, run to prominent mutts or monasteries to woo religious leaders and to gain the support of lakhs of people. The events will be played on the loop by TV channels, reporting and interpreting almost every angle of significance of such visits. The mutts rarely refuse permission for such visits, treating everyone at their doorstep equally, giving enough content for the politician to flaunt, almost as if claiming to have the validation and support of pontiffs and their followers.

Though swamijis have taken the oath of renunciation and abandoned their social status and though mutts were traditionally only into social and religious duties, some of these entities are increasingly getting involved in politics, especially since the 1980s. The original goals of the mutts are to spread Adhyatma, spirituality and to provide moral education and guidance to people. They should never deviate from these goals.

The 42nd Amendment changed the description of India from a “sovereign democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic”, and changed the words “unity of the nation” to “unity and integrity of the nation”. The Constitution does not recognise, does not permit mixing religion and State power. But unfortunately, our constitutional secularism has been sidelined or corrupted by electoral politics.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, secularism is defined as “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society”. The commonly accepted definition of secularism is “separation of religion from political, economic, social and cultural aspects of life”. According to this definition, are our politicians truly secular?

Performing poojas, havanas and other religious activities in government buildings, that are provided for public office or residence, based on vastu is against the secular character of our Constitution. And the alterations caused to structures to meet vastu standards is nothing but looting public money. In order to prevent such religious activities, in 2014, M C Nanaiah moved a private Bill in the legislative council, proposing amendments to the Karnataka Legislature Salaries, Pensions and Allowances and Other Law (Amendment) Bill, 2008. The member withdrew his Bill after the then IT minister and House leader S R Patil assured the House that the government was planning to bring a similar legislation shortly. But till date, no such legislation has been enacted to curb this. It is not fair on the part of the constitutional authorities, who, after administering the oath to ministers that they will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established, give tacit approval for such activities.

According to endowment department data, the state has over 830 registered mutts. Some of these mutts are entwined in Karnataka’s deep-rooted caste-based politics, backing candidates, opposing or proposing policies that are likely to impact the community, making political statements and even bargaining for better reservation and representation.

It was during former CM Ramakrishna Hegde’s tenure in the early 1980s that the trend of politicians and pontiffs sharing the dais at public events and for negotiations across the table commenced, when he sanctioned lands to mutts for starting professional colleges. Over the years, the rapport between elected representatives and religious heads became stronger, and during polls, each awaits the other.

Election laws prohibit appeals to the electorate on the basis of religion, caste, community, race and language. In 2017, the Supreme Court judgement, while clarifying Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, said that elections are secular exercises and religion should not be mixed with matters of state.

The highly visible and well-publicised visits of political leaders and ministers to religious places and their meetings with religious heads ahead of elections violate the spirit of this legal and constitutional bar on appeal to religion and community. But it is here that we need the courts, a free press, an alert citizenry, and civil society activists to move in, to show a mirror to these leaders and tell them what they can and cannot do.

It is on all of us to forestall the misuse and abuse of secularism. Citizens must work for a modern society based on individual rights and freedom.

(The writer is retired Deputy Director of Boilers)