The recent Supreme Court judgement on allowing women of all age groups into the Sabarimala temple has brought out extremely sharp reactions from the two opposite camps, the modern liberal groups and the orthodox Hindu traditionalists.
The judgement has raised the question whether a religious belief that does not violate the provisions of Article 25 can be adjudicated by the courts. Justice Indu Malhotra, who wrote the dissenting judgement in the Sabarimala case, said that “the notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion.” She added that the shrine and deity are protected under Article 25 of the Constitution and that it was not up to the court to decide which religious practices should be struck down, except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.
India is a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic’ as mentioned in the preamble to its Constitution. But are we actually a secular and democratic republic? During the Constituent Assembly debates on the question of including the word ‘secular’ in the preamble to the Constitution, B R Ambedkar said, “what should be the policy of the State, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”
“It is an ideal to be aimed at and every one of us whether we are Hindus or Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, whatever we are, none of us can say in his heart of hearts that he has no prejudice and no taint of communalism in his mind or heart,” said Nehru. Yet, when it came to including the word ‘secular’ in the preamble, both were wary of its usage.
The term ‘secular’ was incorporated in the preamble by the 42nd Amendment in 1976, without any debate in parliament as most opposition leaders were in jail during the Emergency.
How have we been practising secularism in India? Political parties are registered by the Election Commission as per rules laid down in the Representation of Peoples Act. The rules do not prescribe that no political party can be registered if it carries a name which can be easily associated with a particular caste, community or religion.
How have we omitted such an important condition? When seeking votes in the name of religion, caste or community amounts to corrupt practice and election of a candidate who indulged in it can be set aside, how can political parties that identify themselves with a particular caste, community or religion be allowed to participate in the electoral process? Yet, we have quite a few such parties.
The other issue currently being debated is whether the State should regulate and legislate on aspects that lie in the domain of religious practices and beliefs. The State can, of course, legislate and regulate the other aspects of places of worship as provided in Article 25. Article 26 of the Constitution gives the right to every religious denomination or any section thereof to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.
The Supreme Court has also laid down, in the case of the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, that the temple will be managed by the priests and not the state government. It further observed that “even if the management of the temple is taken over to remedy the evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied. Continuation thereafter would tantamount to usurpation of their proprietary rights or fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in favour of the persons deprived.” How is any State justified in running the affairs of almost all important Hindu temples on a perpetual basis? Should a secular State not treat all religions equally and refrain from interfering with matters of religion as guaranteed by Article 26?
How are we practising democracy in our country? Indian democracy is being practised through political parties. The main question then is whether the political parties themselves are being run on democratic basis or not. Barring a few, most parties in India are being run as private entities wholly controlled by a particular family or an individual. The control of the party is also handed over to successive generations as if it is private property. Besides, the government and the Election Commission seem totally helpless in regulating the functioning of political parties.
The Central Information Commission has held that national parties are public authorities as they get substantial State funding by way of getting land at highly subsidised rates, tax benefits and free primetime on State-owned TV channels during elections, etc. Yet, the functioning of these parties is not regulated. The same government imposes numerous conditions on various other institutions, like the autonomous sports bodies or other charitable institutions and NGOs, while granting them any benefits. And look at the damage these political parties are doing to national integration, communal harmony and decency in public life, particularly during election campaigns!
Has the time not come to regulate the internal functioning of political parties, like conducting their internal elections by an independent Election Commission-like body? Should their office-bearers be not subject to a maximum tenure? Should there not be provision to deregister parties that violate such conditions? How can they be trusted to run the affairs of the State on democratic principles when they don’t run their own affairs so?
It is time that some public-spirited persons sought judicial intervention through a PIL or otherwise and saw to it that these political parties first start running their own affairs democratically before they are allowed to contest elections. The SC could even suggest the composition of a regulator, perhaps a constitutional body, for political parties.
Until then, we must wonder if we are truly a secular and democratic State.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)