SC order to ‘enhance secularism’ may end up undermining democracy

Apex court saying that seeking votes on the basis of caste, community, religion and language is illegal may adversely impact pro-Dalit groups.

 |  4-minute read |   02-01-2017
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In what is being touted as a landmark ruling in Indian social and mainstream media, the Supreme Court has invalidated the seeking of votes on the basis of religion, caste, community and language.

Given that the Representation of People's Act aways held appeals on the basis of religion and caste against constitutional secularism, it is obvious that the major gulf exists not in theory, but mostly in praxis. The latest SC judgment is sure to have a major impact on the manner politics, particularly electoral politics, is conducted in the country, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. 

Questions of implementation

First, let’s understand what the SC ruling implies. “No politician can seek vote in the name of caste, creed, or religion,” the SC order says, in response to a number of petitions in the Hindutva case.

While the SC has made it clear that religion cannot be used as a trump card in the politics of appeasement – whether the majority or minority variety – exactly how such a blanket ban would be implemented remains a big question.

Why identity matters

Secondly, the SC ruling might have the good intention of wiping out the ugly religious and caste-based politics, which pits Hindus and Muslims, upper castes/classes versus lower/OBC/SC-ST/Dalits against each other, but the friction is much more than electoral competitiveness.

The religion and caste wars are not only about an old feudal structure refusing to die out, and in fact, reiterating itself with renewed gusto: they are about inequities that continue to exist with ever-widening rift between the haves and the have-nots of caste struggles.

For example, it is wildly misleading to paint with the same brush the blatant Hindutva politics of the RSS/BJP camp, with the pro-Dalit politics of, say, a BSP, or identitarian politics of a Telegu Desam Party.

ambedkarbd_010217022237.jpg It is extremely erroneous to see that majoritarian sentiment in the same vein as Dalit’s invocation of Ambedkarite practices. (PTI photo)

In the wars of political representation and distribution, identity – particularly of those from minority religious and caste backgrounds - assumes a significance that contributes to the secular spirit by the sheer dint of inclusion.

Indirect functioning of majority religion, upper castes

Unlike in the case of minority religion and the disenfranchised castes, the majority religion and upper castes do not have to depend on overt and direct symbols and speech to invoke their identity.

For example, the SC order making the national anthem mandatory at cinema halls before every movie screening and the need to stand up when it’s played has a direct bearing on a Hindu, upper caste, Sanskritised Bengali/Hindi culture, without directly being so.

The religious and caste hegemony acts in insidious ways, and a blanket ban on invoking religion, caste and language, therefore impacts those on the receiving end of the spectrum far more than those who do not have to agitate for their rights, thanks to the entrenched privilege which makes their identity, religion, caste, community, language and so on normative, and therefore, practically invisible.

Definition of 'Hindutva'

In 1995, the SC had said that “Hindutva and Hinduism are used in a speech to emphasise the way of life of the Indian people and the Indian cultural ethos”. This is in gross violation of the secular spirit of the country as manadated by the Constitution.

Unless this order by the late Justice JS Verma is revisited and recanted, no prohibition on religion in electoral campaign speeches would have any desirable effect whatsoever.

Unequal punishment

The SC’s ruling pertains to electoral malpractices in the name of religion, but this is a double-edged sword.

While calls to Hindutva are antithetical to the spirit of democracy, it is extremely erroneous to see that majoritarian sentiment in the same vein as Dalit’s invocation of Ambedkarite practices, which are in resistance to the Brahminical privileges of the mainstream.

The SC ruling says that if a candidate is found to be seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, creed, language, it would be considered a corrupt practice under the Representation of People’s Act, and shall be dealt under Section 123(3) of the Act.

However, it is obvious that those seeking votes in the name of the minority religion, underprivileged castes and neglected languages/communities are going to be impacted in a manner which will be far worse than the Hindu upper caste politicians taking insidious routes to appeal to their own kind. Harassment of opposition leaders, especially those with a wide base among the oppressed castes and classes, would nevertheless continue unabated, as they would be unfairly targeted, while the status quoists of the ruling party would get away citing the ambiguity over the definition of "Hindutva". 

Also read: Why India must not stop criticising Modi and his politics



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