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Saturday / March 25.

Banning religious and caste appeals during elections: A step towards secularism?

By Ashima Makhija

“Freedom to follow religion has nothing to do with the secular nature of the state. The relationship between man and god is an individual choice and state is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity.” CJI Thakur

In a benchmark case on Monday, the Supreme Court, after its careful assessment of Section 123 of the People’s Representation Act, banned the use of religion or caste-based appeals during elections to garner votes.

In a broad perspective, this supposedly makes the the communally drenched elections in our country secular and “pure”. However, there are several discrepancies in this verdict that require to be acknowledged.

Why not religion in politics?

Historically, the issues that have been raised by political parties in the name of religion, ranging from the times of Indira Gandhi to the RSS party today, have created immense factionalism in the society.

The court’s ruling got a 4:3 majority. A ban was called on all communal affiliations from elections. Section 123 explicitly states that all use of religious slogans in an electoral campaign shall constitute as corrupt practices. Therefore, the ruling of the majority gives shape to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Minority ruling states that “the constitution allows a person from taking the position on religion, language and that the  candidate can raise such issues in an election.”

It is indeed justified to question why religion should not be a part of the sphere of electoral competition. Candidates should be allowed to raise the religious aspirations of people.

The hopes and opinions of a community professing a particular religion should be presented before the legislature. However, this creates divisiveness and divisiveness is the very heart of competitive politics.

But perhaps, this vision is too utopian and not driven by reality. Historically, the issues that have been raised by political parties in the name of religion, ranging from the times of Indira Gandhi to the RSS party today, have created immense factionalism in the society.

The Supreme Court makes a landmark decision regarding secularism.

The Supreme Court makes a landmark decision regarding secularism. | Photo Courtesy: Soundnlight

The Hindutva conundrum

A note-worthy characteristic of the verdict is its refusal to associate matters of religion and state. Interestingly, Indian secularism has never separated the two entirely. The verdict professes a secularism that has a more western outlook to it.

Despite protests from social activists, the SC refused to reconsider the existing definition for Hinduism and holds its previous judgement.

A very major question that remains unanswered in this entire issue is the question of Hindutva or Hinduism. In 1996, the SC came to the conclusion that the words “Hinduism” or “Hindutva” are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices. They are related to the culture and ethos of the People of India and depict the way of life of the Indian people.

This definition has given a way to many political parties to circumvent Section 123. In 1996, the BJP manifesto endorsed Hindutva as being consistent with the true definition of secularism. Despite protests from social activists, the SC refused to reconsider the existing definition for Hinduism and holds its previous judgement.

Thus saffronists, with their Hindu propaganda, can continue with their religious campaigns simply because Hindutva has different implications for the common people and for the judiciary.

Hindutva continues to be regarded as a “way of life” and the SC refuses to accept the term’s affiliations with the any religion. This brings the verdict of Monday into practical disuse since Hinduism is a religion professed by many in the country and Hindutva, as a term is associated only with their religious community and not others’.

Thus saffronists, with their Hindu propaganda, can continue with their religious campaigns simply because Hindutva has different implications for the common people and for the judiciary.

What can one expect?

Since 1951, Section 123 of the Peoples Representation Act has deemed religion and caste-based politics corrupt. This decision by the SC is meant to provide clarity as well as legal enforcement to this provision.

The effectiveness of this statute for secularism is not only determined by parties’ commitments but also by the people who should adopt this outlook. Though the verdict requires further scrutiny, it has the potential of being a herald for an end to communal and caste-based politics.


Feature image courtesy: The Logical Indian
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