Author: Suryanshu Priyadarshi, Presently working as Law Clerk to the Advocate-General for Karnataka.
Recently retired Supreme Court Justice Rohinton Nariman expressed concerns over the ruling party in center endorsing hate speech against religious minorities. In his speech Hon’ble Justice mentioned about a letter written by Mughal Emperor Babar to his son Humayun explaining on how he should rule Hindustan keeping all religious bigotry aside.
India comprises of people belonging to diverse religious beliefs, providing her a rich social composition. The mix is so unique that certain religions of foreign origin have also flourished here and stood the test of time. Every now and then, the country has been touted as the biggest democracy in the world from even across the borders. With such varied population, the governance of the country and its citizenry becomes even more challenging.
The concept of secularism is not of recent origin and is deep rooted in the history of India. However, over the years, the courts have trifled down the meaning of secularism. Consequently, the varied definitions continue to elude us. Due to this ambiguity, the governing bodies have been exploiting this gap to their own advantage and have continuously involved themselves with religious matters. BJP has its origin linked to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) which was established as the political wing of the pro-Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A large-scale survey conducted by an American think-tank published in August 2021 shows how Religion and Politics influence each other in India. The survey report provides that the voting pattern across regions is influenced to a large extent on the basis of affiliation to Hindi Language, concept of Indian Identity etc. The report states that opinions on Hindu religion, Hindi language and national identity are highly interlinked with concerted efforts of BJP, a political party whose primary objective has been to declare Hindi as the National language and who have enacted laws such as restricting cow slaughter under the garb of promoting Hinduism, etc. BJP as a consequence has been said to sometimes prioritise Hindu interests. Today, religion and politics are so intertwined that the principle of secularism has lost its relevance.
Development of ‘Secularism’ in India
The term “Secular” was only added to the Preamble in the year 1976 through the 42nd Amendment. However, the Supreme Court had expressed its view on secularism as a tenet of the Indian Constitution prior to the amendment for the first time in the matter of Sardar Taheruddin Syedna Saheb v. State of Bombay wherein Justice Ayyangar opined that “Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution embody the principle of religious tolerance that has been the basic feature of the Constitution since the Indian civilisation.” Additionally, it emphasised the secular nature of India’s democracy that the makers of the Constitution considered to be the core of the Constitution.
Later, in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, “secular character” was held to be one of the basic features of the Indian Constitution. In S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, seven out of nine judges of the Apex Court again reiterated secularism as being a basic feature of the Constitution. However, even after addressing “secularism or secular character” in catena of judgements, no exhaustive and uniform definition could be accorded to the same. Consequently, in the case of MP Gopalakrishnan Nair v. State of Kerala, while dealing with the concept of Secularism, Justice Sinha made a sound interpretation holding that “Secularism under the Constitution does not mean the constitution of an atheist society but merely that all religions enjoy equal status without any preference in favour of or discrimination against any one of them.”
The interpretation of the term “Secularism” was given a different perspective in Dara Singh v. Republic of India wherein the court held that “Our concept of secularism is that the State will have no religion. The State shall treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual right of religion, faith and worship.”
S.R. Bommai v. Union of India: Underpinnings of Federalism and Emphasising Secularism
Considering the present political scenario in the country, the concept of “secularism” has somewhere lost its relevance which was, at one time, considered the basic tenet or foundational principle of this great country. This brings to light the emerging need to protect and address the challenges faced in implementing the principle of secularism. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to safeguard the ideologies on which S.R. Bommai case was founded.
This judgement known for its endorsement of Indian Federalism, is also a sharp and biting commentary on inroads of religion into politics and safeguards Indian secularism. Hon’ble Justice Sawant held that “the right to religion is subject to laws governing secular activities such as the law governing politics and that the Indian State is secular state and not a theocratic State. It thereby prevents the State from either identifying itself with or favouring any particular religion or religious sect or denomination. The State is enjoined to accord equal treatment to all religions and religious sects and denominations.” This is in consonance with the framework of the Constitution.
The Bench of the Apex Court in S.R. Bommai case considered amongst other things - on the interplay between Religion and Politics. Thus, the main principles opined in this judgement to be incorporated in the Indian Politics in order to protect the secular fabric that binds this country may be enlisted as under:
Religion Must Not be Mixed With Politics
In this judgement, it was laid down that Section 123(3) and (3A) of The Representation of People Act, 1950 explicitly prohibited appealing to any religion or seeking votes in the name of any religion. This is based on the ground that it cannot control the content of secularism which is inherent in our Constitution. The Corrupt practice is not confined to an appeal to the religion of the candidate but to any religion. This judgement has given birth to the notion of equal/principled distance from all religions. The court laid down that “In a secular democracy, like ours, mingling of religion with politics is unconstitutional. In other words, a flagrant breach of constitutional features of secular democracy. It is, therefore, imperative that the religion and caste should not be introduced into politics by any political party, association or an individual and it is imperative to prevent religious and caste pollution of politics”.
However, inspite of formulation of these principles by the court, the governments have turned a blind eye towards it and blatantly disregarded these important principles formulated by the Courts. The Political executives have normalised hate speech in the Indian culture. Religion is so readily invoked for political purposes.
Political Parties Should Not Invoke Religion During Election
In India, the political parties have time and again used religion to gain influence over the citizens to gain victory in elections. In S.R. Bommai case, the court has shed light over this phenomena and held that political parties must not use religion as a yardstick to gain prominence in elections. It promotes the concept of positive secularism. The Constitution states that protection of religion, beliefs and its propagation is conducive for a secular society and advancement of human lifestyle.
Government is prohibited from patronising any religion
In this judgement, the courts have made an attempt to prevent State’s interference in religion. The court laid down that “Article 25 inhibits the Government to patronise a particular religion as State religion overtly or covertly. Political party is, therefore, positively enjoined to maintain neutrality in religious beliefs and prohibit practices derogatory to the Constitution and the laws. Introduction of religion into politics is not merely a negation of the constitutional mandates but also positive violation of the constitution obligation, duty, responsibility and positive prescription of prohibition specifically enjoyed by the Constitution and the Representation of People’s Act. A political party that seeks to secure power through a religious policy or caste orientation policy disintegrates the people on grounds of religion and caste. It divides the people and disrupts the social structure on grounds of religion and caste which is obnoxious and anathema to the constitutional culture and basic features. Appeal on grounds of religion offends secular democracy.”
In other words, it should have been clear that there is no room for religion in politics as per our constitution just like it does not allow politics in religious matters.
Manifesto of a Political Party should not be formulated in ignorance of constitutional values like Secularism
This judgement has imposed a positive duty upon the political parties of our country to defend the principle of secularism. A political party must not cause obstruction to the electoral process or operation of the Constitution. It held that “The political party or the political executive securing the governance of the State by securing majority in the legislature through the battle of ballot throughout its tenure by its actions and programmes, it is required to abide by the Constitution and the laws in letter and spirit.”
Political parties must abide by the Constitution in the interest of secularism, sovereignty, integrity of the nation. Religious tolerance and fraternity are two tenets key to maintaining the fabric of National unity. Political parties are prohibited from formulating programs and principles based on religion. Religion must not be used as a tool of political governance.