Saturday, 7 January 2017

Speaking Tree - The Supreme Court’s Secular Fundamentalism

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Speaking Tree - The Supreme Court’s Secular Fundamentalism




The Supreme Court’s January 2 ruling on the issue of religion and the election process is deeply flawed. India’s divided polity is bound to use its flaws to bring a mountain of cases before the judiciary, which, based on its ruling, will find it impossible to settle them in a consistent and principled manner. The apex court’s inconsistency is already evident in its refusal to review its own ‘Hindutva judgment’ in 1995, which held that since ‘Hindutva’ connoted a ‘way of life’, invoking it would not amount to a corrupt electoral practice.

The apex court’s ruling is defective on both social and spiritual/ethical grounds. The democratic edifice in any country – electoral system being an integral part of it – rests on its social foundation. Diversity in terms of religion, caste, language and race is an irrefutable and immutable characteristic of Indian society. To ignore this diversity, and to think of India as an undifferentiated collective of Indians, purged of their multiple social identities, is to live in a fantasy. Our electoral system is based on the principle of one-person, one-vote, but voters do vote guided by diverse social considerations. Their right to do so cannot be constrained, except by infringing upon their fundamental rights.

If voters have this right, candidates too cannot be denied the right to promise that they would, if elected, try to set right certain social wrongs, injustices, inequalities or deprivations. Such socio-economic and political disparities and deprivations are incontrovertible realities of contemporary India. The only obligation on candidates is that they should not speak ill of other communities or incite social disharmony.

The entire history of social justice and affirmative action movements in post-Independence India, which have infused greater equity and vibrancy into our democracy, is testimony to the fact that diverse social groups, especially disempowered or under-represented ones, have been mobilised electorally, following their social mobilisation. True, identity politics has created several problems, but these have to be set right by the democratic process itself, not by judicial fatwas.

The Supreme Court’s ruling that religion can have no role in elections, since the latter are a “secular exercise”, is also highly problematic since it seeks to de-legitimise the role of religion in our national life. Ours is a deeply religious society. But this fact does not come in the way of India being a secular nation. Indeed, India’s multi-faith character is a guarantor of secularism.

The apex court has erred by looking at religion only as an identity marker of voters and candidates. But isn’t religion also a source of ethics and spiritual light? It is indeed the most powerful provider of moral guidance to individuals as well as collectives (political parties, leaders and functionaries of the State, judges included).

Mahatma Gandhi said: “For me, politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concern nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth. For me, God and Truth are convertible terms… Therefore, in politics also we have to establish the Kingdom of Heaven”. (Young India, 18-6-1925)

True, religion has been often misused in the electoral process. But its misuse cannot be stopped by banishing religion itself. The answer lies in reforming religious practice, as also the practice of politics, governance, statecraft and justice delivery. Irreligious secularism is poisonous.
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