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Secularism Can’t Remain A Mere Word


India has a carnivalesque quality about it. From birth to death and everything in between, all events are touched by a sense of festival, of ritual and ceremony, lending to all things a sense of religious solemnity and popular theatre at the same time. Our elections too are not immune to this carnivalesque state of our being. If there is a single element that unites us, across the social spectrum and all its divides, it is the fact that very little is strictly personal in India. We live and revel as communities, in congregations. Identities around caste, creed, culture and linguistic determinants, as distinct from purely class elements, form us. A Sundar Pichhai, for instance, may not entirely be seen through the prism of the above mentioned categories in the Silicon Valley. But he would in India.

One of the reasons why we are still anchored by our communities is because the state still has not stepped in to take care of existential needs. In this rural and still semi-feudal society, the community and its networks are still invariably the fallback option. When we do display social behaviour outside of community, as citizens of a modern state, it is in compliance with the codified constitutional infrastructure —even if choice is offered at the individual level within that to a voter.

Thus a Pranab Mukherjee, to celebrate Durga Puja, travels back to his ancestral village in Bengal and cannot entertain the thought of holding the community festival in the forecourt or backyard of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. As President, he not only has to appear ‘secular’, shorn of any religious trappings, but also has to visibly abide by the constitutional mandate of keeping the state and its functions separate from religion and religious practices. His precedecessor, A P J Abdul Kalam, used to visit a small mosque outside the sprawling president’s estate to offer his Id-namaz. The President and the head of government are, however, expected to greet the ‘nation’ and its people on all important religious festivals. A miss of a greeting from the top on a Ganesh Chaturthi, Id, Guru Nanak/Buddha/Mahavir Jayantis or Christmas is read as a violation of the secular ethos. Contradictory as it may seem to those looking at the letter and not the spirit of the Constitution.

The Indian nation-state has evolved a rather nuanced engagement with the three main criteria that define identity here—language, caste and religion. The Supreme Court’s recent judgement prohibiting use of identity markers from those three domains based to appeal for votes in elections comes as a significant reinterpretation of the Representation of People Act—and tips the fine balance in more ways than one. The seven-judge bench, in a 4:3 judgement, has ensured that any attempt to revisit the Preamble of the Constitution that defines India as a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic’ will not hold judicial scrutiny. Moreover, ‘secularism’ cannot remain just a written word, nominally and perfunctorily present, and observed more in the breach. Unlike ‘socialism’, the other loaded word nowadays.

But the redefining of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act has a practical corrective aspect which goes beyond the theoretical, philosophical underpinnings of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation-state. The judgement is intended to bring an end to election campaigns filled with hate speech, overt caste appeals, threats against intercaste, inter-religious marriages, minority and majority appeasements and display of religious iconography. It’s a ruling aimed at restoring balance, at reining in forces that act in blatant disregard of constitutional norms—so much a fact of life these days. Even if it does not entirely curb ‘the new normal’, a legal precedent has been set and one hopes at least public lipservice to secularism would be restored.

However, the judgement has perhaps opened up more thorny practical/legal issues in trying to bottle the genie before these crucial Assembly polls—however salutary its intentions are. We have an entire polity riddled with formal political entities that are based on religion —often overtly in their name itself. Would this verdict put a question mark on their very raison d’être? Would those parties be delegitimised and rendered vulnerable to legal questioning, or is a judicial revisiting of the matter itself inevitable?

Is ‘Hindutva’ a way of life or a religious appeal? What about the status of parties like the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal of Punjab, which has been founded on the basis of religious identity? Or the Shiv Sena on regional, community identity? Or the All India United Muslim League, Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen? Yes, in a democracy built around competitive bargaining between the sectors of society, the idea is to keep the mutual negotiations sane and reasonable. But at a time when popular consensus on constitutional reservation for scheduled castes and tribes is elusive, how can the apex court prohibit the disenfranchised from articulating their legitimate demands around the rubric of caste in elections? It is only by naming the problem can one begin to solve it.

A further question at the fundamental level. Even if there is no outright hate speech, parochialism or even genuine politically contentious talk of the mandir-masjid sort, will that address politics at the deep level? The day parties can finally stop selecting candidates on the basis of caste, creed and religion, India would have redeemed a core part of its constitutional pledge.

By bringing ‘secularism’ to the centre of the debate, and drawing some lines in the sand, the Supreme Court has turned a practical exigency into a theoretical reassertion of the fundamentals.

By Santwana Bhattacharya

Courtesy: The New Indian Express