Secularism in India: In theory and practice!

Safi H. Jannaty

FOLLOWING the British model, after Independence, India also adopted a parliamentary form of democracy. Accordingly, like the United Kingdom where laws and regulations are enacted in the name of the Queen, in India, all decisions, orders, laws and regulations are promulgated in the name of the President, though, it is Parliament that legislates and passes all laws and regulations.

This customary arrangement where the President is merely a ceremonial head of State for all practical purposes is quite well understood. What is not understood and what has become more manifest in recent times are the norms and practice that run contrary to secularism, a principle that is entrenched in the heart of the Indian Constitution. Although, when it first came into effect, the Indian Constitution fell short of having the word “secular” in its Preamble, there was no doubt in the minds of leaders and members of the Constituent Assembly that India shall be a secular state. All of the six fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution reflect the secular nature of the State and one of the fundamental rights, namely, the right to freedom of religion says it all. When it comes to the right to equality or the freedom of speech, cultural and educational rights, there remains no distinction or discrimination as to the faith or religion one follows or practices.

Thus, the constitutional provisions strengthen and make secularism an unbreakable principle as well as prohibit the State to adopt or discard any faith or religion. Nor do they allow the State to promote, propagate or support rites, rituals and practices of any particular religion or prohibit any community to practice them in their private capacity. As a natural corollary, the State cannot allow legislators, ministers or bureaucrats to patronize, promote or support any religion. In the same vein, it cannot let candidates seek election to any government office in the name of religion or for undertaking or championing any religious cause.

As late as January 2017, the Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment rightly reiterated the constitutional provisions and outlawed seeking votes in the name of race, religion, caste, language or community. The Chief Justice of India at that time, TS Thakur, who had headed the seven-member bench that delivered the ruling, stated that the secular ethos of the Constitution had to be maintained by keeping elections as a secular exercise. He added that the “State is obliged to allow practicing and professing of religious faith a citizen follows, but can forbid interference of religions and religious beliefs with secular activity such as elections. The State being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations.”

Thus, the Indian Constitution prohibits the use of religion or religious issues in governance as well as for seeking public office and the last ruling by the Supreme Court on the matter is clear. There is no ambiguity whatsoever vis-à-vis secularism and surely it is not for mere namesake; nor should one attempt to draw a parallel with the actual position of the president of the country.

However, unfortunately, elections in the country have largely been contested along the lines of caste, community and religion. In practical terms, if not the sole criteria, caste and religion play a major role in voters casting their votes in favor of a candidate or party. While it is understood that the Election Commission, an independent body that oversees the entire process of elections in India, and the Judiciary cannot effectively control or stop people casting their votes along the lines of religion or caste, the Commission could certainly stop and prohibit candidates and parties using caste and religion for seeking votes by disqualifying their candidature or setting aside their election and imposing other punishments and fines in line with the model code of conduct issued by them. The Supreme Court ruling also contained a statement that “an election won by soliciting votes along the lines of identity politics could be considered corrupt practice and the result could be set aside”.

With a view to circumventing constitutional and judicial provisions, parties devise different means and phrases to list the inherent agenda in their election manifesto. However, call it an irony or sheer ignorance, the Election Commission, the mainstream media and even the political parties opposed to such an agenda have kept quiet with regard to the Bharatyia Janata Party (BJP) adding in its election manifesto, released a month after the landmark ruling, a clear promise to explore possibilities to construct Ram Mandir (Ram Temple).

In fact, in the past three decades and more so since the last general elections of 2014, besides caste and religion, religious issues have turned out to be the focal point to garner support and seek votes on communal lines. The demolition of Babri Masjid in December, 1992 is inherently linked to the aspirations of BJP and like-minded right wring parties to wrest control of the seat of power.

It all started with the religious campaign tour led by L.K. Advani, the key leader of BJP at that time which found the movement to build a temple on the site where Babri Mosque existed for over 450 years a good platform to strengthen its determination to govern India by creating polarization. Despite clear constitutional provisions, codes of conduct by the Election Commission, judicial guidelines and the last Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of religion in elections, Ram Temple has taken the center stage and the Hindutva forces have been hinging their election campaigns on it.

During the recent election campaign for the legislative assemblies of key States of India, the BJP which is eyeing a second term in 2019 left no stone unturned to stoke the emotions of people over the issue of Ram Temple. In one of his election speeches, the Prime Minister went to the extent of attacking the Congress Party for causing delays and creating judicial obstacles in the party’s determination to fulfill its election promise of building the temple. With a view to pacifying different fringes of Hindutva and garnering votes in elections, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, where the disputed site exists and who is known for spearheading Hindutva causes, announced the building of a statue of Ram taller than the tallest statue on earth today, namely, the “Statue of Unity” unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home state of Gujarat, a month ago.

Although he did not indicate the cost, it would surely be more than Rs. 30 billion. Again, there is no one to question the use of such a large amount of the State’s funds and machinery to pacify a particular community or sect. Political parties shy away from the matter as that would cause a dent in their vote bank and they cannot afford to attract the angst of any sect or caste. Feeding on such communal frenzy, the BJP and its allies have been successful in polarizing society which has enabled them to win seats despite having a smaller percentage of votes.

It is also a fact that other national and regional parties are using the religion and caste card to get votes. They have mainly focused their agenda on providing sops to minorities and backward classes; although most of the promises remain unfulfilled. For instance, the promise by one regional party of Telangana to provide 12 percent reservation in government jobs for minorities has remained just a promise and the party has cleverly blamed the party ruling the country for not allowing them to fulfill such a promise.

The obsession with religion and religious issues has dwarfed socio-economic issues and put them on the back burner. At the time of elections, battlelines are drawn around faith, religion and religious issues. In this situation, the common man of India, who is more concerned with the overall welfare and development of the nation, finds his voice suppressed and sees no incentive to vote for any party.

Indian democracy is hailed the world over as a great success story. Despite so much diversity, ignorance and illiteracy among the masses, it has not only survived for 70 years but also has made many powerful leaders bite the dust. However, if the nation is to take a giant leap and develop at a faster rate, it will have to elect leaders on the basis of their vision and agenda for socio-economic development. Corruption, crony capitalism, injustice and discrimination, which continue to widen the bridge between the rich and the poor, are the major obstacles to the country’s overall socio-economic growth and to providing a decent standard of living for all citizens. The current ruling party has been able to strengthen its stranglehold on the reins of power by entangling the people in religious affairs.

Safi H. Jannaty,