Catholics skeptical over Indian court ban on use of religion in elections
NEW DELHI, Jan 7, 2017–India’s Supreme Court has barred the use of religion in political elections but Christian leaders say confusion exists as the court has not clarified its earlier ruling that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life.
The Jan. 2 ruling said political candidates, either directly or through their agents, cannot ask people to vote on grounds of their caste, race, community or religion as India is constitutionally a secular state and “necessarily implies that religion will not play any role in the governance of the country.”
It said an election would be void if a candidate sought votes on the basis of religion.
On the face of it, it is a welcome ruling but some confusion exists as the court has not clarified its 1995 judgment that Hinduism cannot be considered a religion but only a way of life, said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian Catholic bishops’ conference.
“The judgment could have been more complete and global had the court pronounced that seeking votes on the basis of the Hindu religion is against the secular ideals of India,” said Bishop Mascarenhas.
Supreme Court lawyer M. P. Raju told ucanews.com that this judgment can be potentially misused. “A candidate may seek votes in the name of Hinduism and say he or she is only seeking votes in the name of Hindu culture while a Muslim or Christian seeking votes using their religion can be taken to task,” he said.
Raju clarified that a law against the use of religion already existed in India and that the court was only considering the question of whose religion — a candidate’s, his opponents or voters — should not be used in political appeals.
Father Paul Thelakat, a social analyst, said he sees the judgment as “a weak defense” of India’s secularism. “It directly affects the minority religions” because the court has refused to overturn the 1995 judgment.
“The court’s interpretation of Hinduism has today led to demands of homogenization and assimilation of minority communities into the Hindu way of life,” he said. “What remains to be seen is how will this secularism be implemented when the court itself sees Hinduism as part of secular India,” he said.
However, Surendra Jain, international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council) said the judgment will help national integration, which has been “damaged because of politics based on religion, caste and creed.”
He hoped that the judgment would check politicians appeasing religious communities at the time of elections.
The judgment comes as the country is gearing towards elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Others include Sikh-majority Punjab and Catholic stronghold Goa, as well as Uttarakhand and Manipur.
Religion and politics have always been intermingled ever since British rule ended in the Subcontinent in 1947 forming Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Political policies are interpreted in terms of favoring or rejecting a religious group.
The rise of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party that heads the federal government is directly linked to a religion-based political campaign.
When Hinduism is “seen as way of life and not a religion, it creates confusion on how the term would be used during elections,” said Father Savari Muthu, spokesperson of Delhi Archdiocese.
Right-wing Hindu parties have already been using religion-based terms over the past two decades and now the court ruling has given “vital advantage” to one ideology. “This is going to create more confusion and not going to serve the purpose of a secular and democratic country,” he said. (UCAN)