[ This article was published, with some slight editing, in the New Indian Express on the Op-ed page on 27.02.2017 ]
The Supreme Court’s well intentioned but unimplementable order prohibiting the use of religion, caste or community in electioneering has come a cropper even before the ink had dried on it. This order belongs to the same genre as previous judicial pronouncements that confused idealism with stark reality- the Allahabad High Court ban on all public meetings based on caste or community, the Rajasthan High Court ban on “ Santhara” ( a Jain ritual designed to attain Samadhi), the recent attempt to ban Jallikattu, to name just a few. All of them came to nought under public pressure, primarily because they ignored the social realities of a fractured, deeply ritualistic( not necessarily religious) society suspicious of authority. The legal should not be confused with the legitimate, or the ideal with the attainable. And so it has been with the latest judicial dictat.
It was like the idle wind which ALL political parties heeded not, especially in UP. The SP and Congress left no stone unturned to frighten the Muslims of a doomsday scenario if the BJP came to power. Ms. Mayawati of the BSP continued her genetic engineering by splicing Muslim and Dalit DNA strands into a potentially winning mutation. The BJP, sadly the ruling party at the center, was the worst of the lot: promising to impose curfew in all Muslim areas and shutting all slaughter houses on the day they formed the govt., raking up the Ram Mandir issue once again, likening the ( non-existent) exodus of Hindus from Kairana in UP to the forced exile of Kashmiri pandits from Jammu and Kashmir. Even the Prime Minister sought to whip up communal passions with his unfortunate comments about grave-yards versus cremation grounds. There is a feeling of inevitability and a deja- vu about all this. The Supreme Court order was a non-starter from day one: in a country where political parties are founded on caste, regional, community and religious beliefs and identities ( the SAD, BSP, Shiv Sena, BJP,RLD, DMK, AIDMK, AIMIM) it is not realistic to expect them to eschew their identities during elections. I would even go so far as to say that it is just and proper for them to project these identities. Politics in a democracy is all about the competing claims of different interest groups, especially of those groups which are in a minority or are socially or economically depressed. If the majoritarian groupings, which generally control all the levers of power and of the economy, will not give them space then the former have no option but to organise themselves into voting blocs and project their own agenda during elections. The incitement of hatred or communal/ casteist contempt is different, and the normal laws of the country are adequate to take care of that, provided the machinery of the state functions efficiently and impartially. That it rarely does so, however, is no reason to stifle the electoral aspirations of the disadvantaged or the distinct which, with all due respect, is what I think the SC order unfortunately seeks to do.
The judiciary has taken aim at the wrong target in its commendable, and consistent, effort to nudge us towards a truly secular state. It should have targeted the government ( of both the states and the center) which are mandated by the Constitution to function in a completely secular manner, but never do so. It is a fact that the religious beliefs of the individuals( and parties) which comprise the govt. at any point of time colour the policies of those govts, and that public resources are spent on furthering those beliefs. Public lands are allotted to religious institutions, financial grants are given to such bodies, stipends are paid to preachers of whichever religion happens to suit the political purpose of the party or individual in power. Religious rituals are performed at inauguration of public projects. Presidents, Prime Ministers and other high govt. functionaries visit all kinds of temples, mosques and churches for darshans in pursuit of the salvation of their individual souls. AND ALL THIS IS DONE AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PUBLIC EXCHEQUER, in a country where the Constitution enjoins the government to be secular ! The latest instance of this deplorable and unconstitutional practice is the decision of the Telengana Chief Minister to donate Rupees 5 crores to the Tirumala temple. Remember, he had performed a “yagya” last year which had cost the state Rupees 7.50 crores.
The question I would like the Supreme Court to pose to our political leaders is this: why should the state spend humongous amounts of tax payers’ moneys on religious rituals and donations when the Constitution enjoins it to function in a secular manner ? Why should any government functionary visit religious places at the cost of the public exchequer to cater to his personal religiosity ? How can a state claim to be secular when it uses public funds to indulge in any kind of religious activity, public or personal ? The former should not be permitted at all while the latter should be done at the individual’s own cost and time.
This is not to deny that a government official is entitled to profess and practice his religion- he certainly is, but not at the cost of the state. We must make a distinction between the country and the state: India is a country steeped in religion, but the state is supposed to be secular. We seem to have lost sight of this subtle distinction: it is high time the Supreme Court reminded our governments of this constitutional imperative.