India's balancing act between faith and democracy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 04, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:03 PM, November 04, 2018

India's balancing act between faith and democracy

Two temples—one existing in the South and another proposed in the North of India—are being used by India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindutva outfits to bring to the centre stage of the political discourse a highly emotive issue in the run-up to the coming assembly elections in five states in November and December and the national polls next year. And in both cases, the BJP and other right-wing groups are upset with two separate decisions of the Supreme Court, and appear determined to promote their core ideological plank of Hindutva—and in both cases, they have given rise to a perception that they want to circumvent the apex court's rulings.

The top court recently allowed the entry of women of all age-groups in Kerala's Sabarimala temple where the presiding deity is considered a celibate. In a separate ruling on October 29, the top judiciary decided not to give an urgent hearing to the civil dispute over the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

Kerala is witnessing street protests, led by the BJP and some other Hindu organisations, against the decision to allow women of all ages into the Sabarimala shrine. What came as fuel to the protests was the recent visit of BJP President Amit Shah to the southern state and his remark that the apex court ought to have kept in mind the sensitivities of Hindus about the long-held tradition of restricting the entry of young women into the shrine. The apex court order, by a majority opinion of a five-member bench, was based on equality of men and women before the law. Now, the BJP is reportedly planning to take out a six-day “Save Sabarimala” campaign from November 8. In the process, the BJP has opened itself up to the charge of going against the Supreme Court order.

In the case of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, the apex court bench made it clear that it has its own priorities and the dates of hearings on it would be decided by an “appropriate bench” in January next year. This effectively rules out a judicial verdict on the issue before the parliamentary elections which are expected by April 2019. The decision dashes the hopes of the BJP and others who had hoped for a day-to-day hearing to begin on October 29 ahead of the series of coming elections.

The apex court ruling has fired up the Hindutva outfits like the RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad which are now turning the heat on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be seen making at least one move and not to wait for the judicial order. They want the government to come out with an ordinance or to pass a law in the coming winter session of parliament, expected to start next month, for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The assessment in the BJP is that if an ordinance or parliamentary law is passed, it will help the party electorally. And if the law runs into resistance in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP lacks majority on its own, it could give the party an opportunity to portray the opposition as “anti-Hindu”. But the BJP needs to resolve three key questions: 1) whether a gambit on the temple issue can ensure adequate political and electoral dividends; 2) whether it will not boomerang by making the party open to the accusation that it is trying to circumvent the top judiciary, the second most important pillar of a democracy; 3) whether a parliament guided by a secular constitution can pass a legislation for temple construction. Besides, the BJP has to decide if polarisation in the Sabarimala and Ram temple issues would help it in the elections and not undermine Prime Minister Modi's campaign on development and anti-corruption planks, which brought him to power four and a half years ago. Does putting the divisive issues on the front burner imply a recognition that there is a lacuna in the developmental plank?

No doubt, the Ayodhya dispute is one of the most polarising subjects in India as the demolition of the Babri mosque had triggered bouts of riots across the country in 1992. The razing of the mosque was termed by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a “shame.” A large measure of the BJP's rise in Indian politics may be attributed to the Ram temple agitation of the early 1990s but that was the time when the party was in the opposition. Having been in power thrice, the party finds itself in a dilemma on the issue. This is reflected in Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad's response to the Supreme Court ruling of October 29 on the date for Ayodhya issue hearing. The government has full respect for the judiciary but “I would like to humbly say that a lot of people in the country want that the hearing on the issue be completed soon,” he said. But Prasad's caution is in stark contrast to his ministerial colleague Giriraj Kishore, considered a Hindutva hothead, who responded by saying that “Hindus are running out of patience” on the issue.

In a democracy, there are certain institutions which need to be insulated from electoral politics—most of all divisive politics—for their preservation and nourishment. Secondly, there is no guarantee that giving short shrift to such institutions pays in the long run. The two most classic instances of this are the Rajiv Gandhi's pushing a parliamentary law to overturn a Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case and Indira Gandhi's imposition of the Emergency that saw both the parties tasting electoral defeat by ensuring consolidation of their political rivals. No attempt should be made to juxtapose the Temples of Faith and the Temple of Democracy.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.

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