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Supreme Court terms seeking votes on basis of religion illegal, but this isn't a new format

It is a coincidence that the Supreme Court's split verdict on use of religion in elections to secure votes should come the day two news items were featured in newspapers which related to identifying the voters by a religion. One was Syed Ahmed Bukhari telling Muslim voters that they should not vote for the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh because "they cheated the Muslims."

The other was Asaduddin Owaisi, MIM chief saying, that "Muslims comprise 21 percent of population" and when its civic body's budget was Rs 37,000 crore, Muslims' share should be Rs 7,770 crore. "Elect at least 20 to 25 members of MIM in the BMC and we will get the fair share for Muslim wards," he was quoted as saying. In both, the identification of the voters is on religious lines.

The apex court's 4-3 split verdict was clear that seeking votes on the basis of caste, creed, community, religion or language was illegal, while hearing the Hindutva Case which had declared that Hindutva was "a way of life". It had struck at it in the past leading to Bal Thackeray, once a more strident proponent of Hindutva, and the Election Commission had disenfranchised the Sena supremo.

 Supreme Court terms seeking votes on basis of religion illegal, but this isnt a new format

Supreme Court of India. Reuters

What the Supreme Court has done is reiterated that the Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act would come into play if anyone indulged in the corrupt practice of using religion to seek votes. Like Bal Thackeray had when his party’s candidate was Ramesh Prabhu against Prabhakar Kunte. All three are dead now.

Today's judgment, however, is not laying down a new format. The oldest case, I can recall, is the disqualification of Marri Channa Reddy, once the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, who was earlier an advocate and agitator for statehood for Telangana. An Arya Samajist, Vandemataram Ramachandra Rao had filed a petition on the grounds of corrupt practices because Reddy had appealed to religious sentiments at a meeting held in a mosque.

These cases have not, in the least, barred people from using religious sentiments on a scale unheard of in the past till the L K Advani rath yatra helped bring about a polarisation of the country on religious grounds in what is actually a secular process. Today’s judgement has reaffirmed that “relationship between man and God is an individual choice” and the state is "forbidden to interfere" in that activity.

In other words, it has set out that secularism was, to use the metaphor, the separation of the state and the church. However, subtle messages can be and have been given in a manner that emphasises the affinity of one party to a particular religion while pretending to be even-handed. Some leaders like Thackeray had divided even the Muslim community into the ‘good’ and the ‘not good’.

The two instances cited – Bukhari, the Shahi Imam’ and Owaisi’s utterances on Sunday – may perhaps sneak through the scrutiny because they were said much before the election processes commenced, but it does help lay the basis for seeking votes. The use of caste and community has always been the basis on which elections are fought even if the pretense is of the platform being all about roti, kapda, aur makan, or road, bijlee, aur paani.

If you want to cut through the clutter, the Court has, inter alia, said the following:

-The elections is a secular exercise and thereby its way and process should be followed and use of religion was an electoral malpractice.

-If a candidate was found to be seeking vote in the name of religion, it would be considered a corrupt practice under the Representation of People's Act.

-Seeking vote in the name of religion by the candidate will be dealt under Section 123(3) of the Representation of People's Act, the Supreme Court ruled.

-Use of creed, language or community as a tool for seeking vote in election is explicitly prohibited.

Religion as a tool to seek the favour of a vote been has been in vogue – Channa Reddy’s case was as far back as in the mid-1960s. In a country where symbols are required for political parties to identify itself because illiteracy is a weakness we continue to endure, the vulnerability to appeals on prohibited platforms is remains. Of course, the local linkages due to patronage, and deciding the ‘winnability’ of a candidate on the basis of caste and religion has never been questioned.

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2017 18:58:55 IST

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