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Can the Supreme Court ban India’s communal habit?

The Supreme Court of India on Monday reportedly prohibited politicians from using peoples’ religion or caste to garner their votes, and the verdict has been described as one that could force political parties to change their strategy for the coming elections. The court had expressed a similar view in October.

“No politician can seek a vote in the name of caste, creed or religion,” said Chief Justice T.S. Thakur in an order, adding that election process must be a “secular exercise”.
Indian Chief Justice T.S. Thakur

Gandhiji said of the western civilisation that it was a good idea. The same can be said on behalf of the apex court’s verdict. It is a good idea. However, it looks untenable in its execution. Clever politicians seldom appeal directly to their constituents to vote according to their religion or caste. More often in practice it is done deviously.

For example, some people may ‘discover’ in an Uttar Pradesh village, bang on the eve of its state polls, that a Muslim ironsmith had slaughtered a cow for his daughter’s wedding. The dubious discovery could be enough of a trigger for a violent communal polarisation, without the politician lifting a finger. The country is replete with any number of permutations that could easily waylay the Supreme Court’s judgment without inviting contempt proceedings.

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If the Supreme Court prohibited the media against fanning religious trouble, on the other hand, which is how communalism gets oxygen, it could begin to help stem the rot.

Another approach to deter the use of communalism in politics can be to speed up the cases in communal riots. For example, punish the guilty in the one involving the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya. Deterring hate speech could be another condition to make politics less communalism prone and that is a major challenge.
Narrow nationalsim

Does the ambit of communalism include narrow nationalism, for example, the act of calling Indian Muslims agents of Pakistan? Everyone who opposes the current official mission of demonetising big currency notes is regarded as anti-national. But the expletive is usually reserved for the minorities and they are the ones who face the brunt of officially backed trolling. Does the Supreme Court expect to stop this practice on the social media as it impacts on the nation’s politics. Or is the Supreme Court suggesting that communalism is not good for politics even if it otherwise prospers in society?

Much would depend also on how the Indian law courts will see parties that are overtly religious in their political texture, as well as those that reflect their caste identities. How will the election commission approach, say, the Akali Dal of the Sikhs, which is founded on religious precepts, or the Muslim League, which still has pockets of influence in Kerala and elsewhere. There is a robust Muslim party in Hyderabad of Salahuddin Owaisi. It appeals to Muslims and plays on their real or imagined insecurities. Will that party be wrapped up?

It is possible that the Supreme Court’s order gets the backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. In the coming elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a big challenge from the Bahujan Samaj Party of Dalits, headed by former chief minister Mayawati. Will she now have to tread carefully and not appeal to the Dalits or Muslims to vote for the BSP? It is a very unlikely possibility.

But what could be behind the Supreme Court’s intervention, if that is what it is, to rein in the parties to bring them back on secular tracks. Secularism, which was woven into the Indian constitution’s preamble by Indira Gandhi during her emergency rule, is pooh-poohed by Hindutva groups who mock it as “sickularism”. Will the Supreme Court take note of that?

The reported observation by the Supreme Court is related to an appeal it is hearing against its own judgment some years ago that describerd Hindutva as a way of life, which implicitly has no communal implications. The real challenge for the court is to give a fair judgement on that appeal.

As it is, the court ruling comes just weeks ahead of a state election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where religion and caste generally dominate campaigns. Results of the election will be important for Mr Modi’s expected bid for a second term in 2019. State elections are also due this year in the states of East Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

The Supreme Court, ruling on a petition filed by a politician in 1996, wrote in its opinion that the secular ethos of the constitution had to be protected. The majority view of the seven-judge bench held that elections would be void if a politician made an appeal for votes on the basis of religious sentiment.

Apart from secularism, Indira Gandhi also inserted socialism as India’s premier objective in the preamble to the constitution. Without deleting the word, in 1991, the Congress party, which edited the constitution in 1976, threw out all the tenets of socialism as prescribed by its former prime ministers. No one has yet raised the issue with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy : Dawn News

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