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Long-standing bond between religion and politics won’t end with BJP’s demand for observers at mosques during polls

  • The Delhi BJP wants special observers appointed at mosques to prevent any attempt to influence voters along religious lines

  • AAP, in return, said to prevent any communal discord, these observers should also be appointed at RSS shakhas

  • The inseparability of politics and religion is not limited to Muslims and Hindus, but spreads across religions and party lines

"Khutbah" refers to a sermon delivered at mosques before Friday prayers that comprises socio-political messages. Before the 2004 Lok Sabha election, Jama Masjid's Shahi Imam Ahmed Bukhari had appealed to Muslims to support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and to look beyond Article 370, the lack of a Uniform Civil Code and the Babri Masjid controversy and consider education and employment their priority.

Ulemas had taken a dim view of Bukhari's stand. His father Abdullah Bukhari had supported Independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan's movement during the Emergency and had later supported Indira Gandhi's return to power.

The political influence of the imams of the Jama Masjid is not a new phenomenon. However, there are nearly 1,500 mosques in Delhi. Neither are all the imams so influential, nor are the voters' minds as impressionable as they used to be back in 2004, when the Muslim Political Council of India had called for tactical voting — a last-resort vote in favour of a party to prevent its opponent from coming to power. At the same time, the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat had also appealed to Muslims to vote unanimously for the Congress and its allies.

 Long-standing bond between religion and politics won’t end with BJP’s demand for observers at mosques during polls

Representational image of a mosque. Reuters

Cut to 2014, and the friendship between religion and politics was still strong.

On Sunday, the Delhi BJP had demanded that special observers be appointed to watch over mosques to prevent any attempt to influence voters along religious lines. In retaliation, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) said it will welcome all steps by the Election Commission to prevent any communal discord, with one condition that observers also be appointed at shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The letter — addressed by the legal department of the Delhi BJP — claimed Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP members often gave speeches that could polarise voters. Shyam Jaju, national vice-president and state prabhari of Delhi and Uttarakhand BJP, told Firstpost that Kejriwal challenging BJP's "purely constitutional" demands was another marker of his irresponsible leadership.

In response, AAP's Amanatullah Khan told Firstpost that pushing the Lok Sabha election in Delhi to the seventh and last phase, making it fall during Ramzan, was a move aimed at dissuading Muslim votes. He also questioned why the RSS had gone back on its promise to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel that it will remain a non-political organisation.

Furthermore, a historian at Aligarh Muslim University, Ali Nadeem Rezavi explained the inevitability of politics in religious congregations and said the concept is not limited to Islam.

Yet another dimension, according to historian Syed Irfan Habib, is that the voting pattern among Muslims and Dalits had changed over the years. He pointed out bifurcations in voting patterns; in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the Muslim vote is broadly split between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, and the Dalit vote is bifurcated, with some sub-castes, like the Valmikis and Ravidasis, voting for the BJP.

The inseparability of politics and religion is not limited to Muslims and Hindus either. In 2014, the Shiromani Akali Dal had raised the demand for an All India Gurdwara Act, a good six decades after a private bill was first moved on the subject. The bill proposes to bring all gurdwaras in India under the control of a unified body of Sikhs elected from across the country.

In a book titled Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith, it is argued that "the proposed Act has elements designed to extend the Akali Dal's power base to Sikhs throughout the country, rather than to ensure the proper management of all Sikh religious institutions".

In the North East, countering the "Church veto" in states like Nagaland and Meghalaya was a challenge for the ruling party. After the BJP's victory in the North East, its star campaigner in the region, Sunil Deodhar, had said he had seen a trend of candidates being introduced in churches in Meghalaya. Right after the results of the elections were declared, he had revealed that loyalties were so sharply divided that Presbyterian churchgoers were urged to vote for a candidate from their sub-caste even if they were contesting against a Catholic candidate.

Last year, BJP spokesperson and advocate Ashwini Upadhyay had filed a petition under Article 32 to restrict the misuse of religion for electoral gains in line with the recommendation of the Election Commission. Under Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act, an appeal on the grounds of religion, race, caste, etc, and promotion of feelings of enmity between various classes constitute corrupt practices, but the problem lies in the fact that the same can be questioned only by way of an election petition and cannot be a subject of inquiry before the Election Commission, even when the polls are underway. In fact, it is this lack of electoral reforms that has left the judiciary with no option but to intervene.

In the world's largest electoral operation, the intervention of courts through such petitions has led to electoral reforms. For instance, one was on the provision for candidates to disclose their assets and criminal antecedents upon a petition filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms; another was on striking down Section 8(4) of the Representation of People's Act, 1951, which permitted even murder convicts to continue as MPs and MLAs.

Upadhyay had pleaded the court to declare that the Election Commission has the power to take action on complaints related to the misuse of religion for electoral gains. He had also sought directions to the Centre to take appropriate steps to restrict the misuse of religion.

The Supreme Court had dismissed the Public Interest Litigation in October 2018, but Upadhyay claims he had withdrawn the plea and moved the Election Commission, instead, to ensure free and fair elections in the spirit of articles 14, 19 and 324.

In 2014, RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale had referred to the Lok Sabha election that year as a "starting point of a long-term vision". The union of religion and politics demands addressing across parties and religions, not random measures like the appointment of special observers at particular institutions.

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2019 12:44:21 IST