Sabarimala row: BJP and Congress undermining Constitution's secular values without a second thought for country's future
The Congress provoked communal politics of 1980s by its highly questionable role in the Shah Bano and Ram Janambhoomi cases.
As you read this, the BJP is rolling out a rath yatra and the Congress is holding several padyatras in Kerala to protect the Hindu faith amid the backdrop of the Sabarimala temple row. During the Diwali festival earlier this week, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath organised celebrations in Ayodhya and announced the construction of a “grand statue” of Lord Ram to honour the Hindu faith, at State expense, after offering prayers at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
Yogi has also changed Muslim names of places: Allahabad, Faizabad, Mughalsarai now have Hindu names. A few days earlier, his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya said “no power can stop” construction of a grand Ram temple at the disputed site and Union minister Giriraj Singh said the Hindus were “running out of patience” after the Supreme Court postponed hearings on the case to January.
These activities point to a growing and disturbing trend of political parties and governments acting on behalf of the majority Hindu faith, against their avowed commitment to honour and uphold the rule of law and the secular character of the Constitution. Once the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages can enter the Sabarimala temple, that becomes the rule of law and so long as it is seized of the Ram Janambhoomi dispute, all parties to the case are supposed to desist from doing anything that could have a bearing on the judgment.
And the Constitution of India, which governs the central and state governments, is expressly secular in character–the ‘State’ has no official religion and equal rights have been granted to all citizens regardless of their caste, creed or gender—to which the political parties and governments have sworn allegiance.
Is it then the death of secularism and constitutionalism as we know it? The cavalier manner in which the two principal political parties and governments at different levels are operating to promote the Hindu faith certainly indicates this. The silence of the civil society and media have created a conducive environment for these political players to act with impunity and undermine the cherished ideal of India’s founding fathers, but they are not the focus of this article, the two principal political parties and their governments are.
The BJP is not exactly known for secular politics and to that extent, some may argue that it is acting on the expected lines now that it has an overwhelming political dominance. However, what is of greater concern is the complicity of an avowedly secular Congress. The Congress has not only vacated the secular space, it is now actively engaged in promoting communal politics. In the Sabarimala case, it sided with Hindu orthodoxy instead of standing up for women’s rights and the constitutional values on the basis of which the Supreme Court allowed their entry into the temple.
The Congress has also desisted from questioning the Uttar Pradesh government’s actions in converting the Diwali festivities into a State-sponsored programme, the announcement of building a statue of Lord Ram at State expense, which is not the business of a state government. Nor did it protest against a spree of changing only the Muslim names of cities, bazaars and railways stations. It did raise the issue of Ram temple, but not to object the role of the State or the propriety of it, but to say that this was a mere distraction to divert attention from the poor performance of the Centre.
Many would argue that the Congress bears a far greater responsibility for undermining secularism and constitutionalism. In fact, it is the Congress which provided a fertile ground for and provoked communal politics of 1980s by its highly questionable role in the Shah Bano and Ram Janambhoomi cases. Since then, it has hardly done anything to retrieve the lost ground or secular space. In recent times, it started flaunting temple visits of its president Rahul Gandhi, projecting him as a janeu dhari and Shiv bhakt. While such acts could be justified on the ground of negating an anti-Hindu narrative being built around the party and its leaders, the Congress can certainly push back communal politics in the cases of Sabarimala, Ayodhya or replacement of Muslim names.
As for the BJP, it is no revelation that secularism took a backseat once it established its political dominance and ‘secular’ became a dirty word. Those who espouse the cause of secularism are now simply dismissed as “sickular” without sparing a thought for its consequences for India and its future.
That was not the case when the party was launched in 1980 with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its president. It put aside the communal politics of its precursor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and adopted “positive secularism”: describing it as “distillation of common moral values whether derived from different religions or from other historical and civilisational experiences and approach which always remained integral to the Indian civilization” as one of its five commitments. It was meant to be different from the secularism of the Congress which was criticised for being pro-Muslim and a vote bank politics.
After its first electoral defeat in 1984 (when it won just two Lok Sabha seats), the BJP, however, abandoned this position and went back to the hardline Hindutva ideology of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. With LK Advani at the helm, “pseudo-secularism” and “Muslim appeasement” replaced the narrative. Then came Advani’s rath yatra to build a temple for the Hindus and the party went on to raise its Lok Sabha numbers to 85 in 1989. Since then, there has been no looking back. The party’s constitution still retains the words “positive secularism” but is described differently as “sarva dharma samabhav”. But that is precisely what its “positive secularism” is not in its actions and political discourses.
When the courts (Bombay High Court and Supreme Court) allowed Muslim women entry into Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah in 2016, the BJP welcomed it saying that it was a fight for women’s rights, supported by court judgment. Its government in Maharashtra told the court that the fundamental rights of citizens were above customs and traditions. A few days later, 400 women entered the dargah and offered prayers while the trustees of the dargah paid their courtesies to them.
The party also championed the cause of the Muslim women in the triple talaq case. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, for example, said, “It is not about caste or religion or faith but gender justice, dignity and equality for women” One of his tweets read: “The government of @narendramodi has stood firmly for safeguarding the rights of Muslim women in the triple Talaq matter. #ModiGovtEmpowersWomen”.
But when it comes to the Sabarimala case, these lofty ideals of gender justice, dignity and equality for women or the sanctity of court judgment are abandoned. The narrative turns to protecting the Hindu faith. No less than the party president Amit Shah threatened the Kerala government and reprimanded the Supreme Court by saying that “you should issue orders that can be implemented, not the ones that break the faith of people...”
The BJP and Congress, or any other political party for that matter, and their governments are not supposed to play footsie to any faith: unless they are seeking to rebuild India into a theocratic State. Assuming that that is not the case now, the two principal political parties should do well to revisit their own party constitutions which solemnly declare that they shall “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established and to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy and would uphold the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India”. There is no allusion to theocracy anywhere.
In fact, it is precisely this kind of behaviour of the BJP and Congress that BR Ambedkar warned against and described as “grammar of anarchy” in his speech while handing over the Constitution to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November, 1949. It is worth quoting the entire paragraph here. He said:
“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”
The constitutional way is the right way to resolve every conflict, at least so long as the Constitution of India continues to govern India.
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