Politics of Religion, Caste, Creed, Region and LanguageThere are many different strands that can be debated in the issue of separating politics from religion, caste, creed, region and language based identities. The divided bench in the Supreme Court took up two prominent strands and debated them with felicity. That they decided on the problem at hand by a wafer thin majority of 4-3 to outlaw appeals for votes based on both the candidates and the voters identity affiliations just goes on to prove that this is a very complex issue not given to easy solutions and certainly not solutions via judicial intervention.
By Sunil Garodia
The first strand relates to the need to provide political space to the requirements of the groups belonging to particular religion, caste, creed and region or speaking a particular language who have been historically oppressed for that reason and balance it with the need to have fair electoral practices that do not divide people along such sectarian lines.
While the first need is necessary because political parties often acquire an all-India presence but not a character to go with it. For example, the Congress party historically won most state elections in the North-East till recently. But since its policies where decided through fiat from the so-called high command and local satraps had no power, it only managed to alienate entire populations, giving rise to regional aspirations that were peculiar to the region. This in turn gave birth to mainstream political parties (as distinct from ultras) in those regions that unabashedly appealed to the regional identity of the population to win elections. If we are to agree with the Supreme Court verdict in the above case, do we leave these people to continue to suffer at the hands of politicians far removed from the realities of the region or even local politicians of such parties whose hands are tied since the parties they belong to that are indifferent to local grievances? Will such a path not be hugely oppressive at one level and highly discriminatory at another?
There can be no argument that India needs to do away with sectarian politics that divide its people along religious, casteist, regional and linguistic lines. By allowing this to continue, we are creating several mini-Indias that have the possibility of becoming ghettos, imbibing all the bad qualities associated with them. We are also allowing self-serving leaders to hijack the agenda of the people and profit from their fears. We are also dangerously allowing such mini-Indias to work at cross purposes and defeat the efforts to have a national identity for our people. Hence, we have parties fighting for the so-called Marathi manoos, the Biharis or the Tamils or the Muslims but none fighting for Indians. The common Indian man has lost his identity and has been given such tags as found fit by politicians claiming to represent him.
The need is to balance the two. But this cannot be done by judicial intervention. While one cannot fault the Supreme Court on this as it has just interpreted and given a wider interpretation to section 123(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act, this is one area where society has to take the lead in discussing ways to eliminate sectarian politics and get relevant laws passed by the legislature. This is the second strand. Justice D Y Chandrachud, while writing the dissenting judgment, correctly said that discussion on caste, creed, religion is constitutionally protected within and outside elections and this cannot be restricted, while adding that it is a matter of free speech and through this legitimate concerns of the society are addressed. Going by this majority judgment, if we are to do away with appeals for votes based on religion, caste, creed or language, should we also do away with reservation of legislative seats for scheduled caste and tribes? For, if asking for votes on parochial basis is illegal, then surely standing for election on a seat reserved on that basis is also wrong. This is a much wider debate that cannot be settled through court orders.