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4 Jan 2017

Major relief- secularism as a founding principle as the holding of elections

TT, 3 January 2017: There is a vital distinction between a principle and an abstraction. A majority verdict by the Supreme Court has made it possible to reaffirm secularism as a founding principle of the Indian State in as actual a situation as the holding of elections. A Constitution bench of seven judges has come to a reasoned decision that religion and other features of identity politics like race, caste, community or language have no place in a secular democracy going to vote. 
The majority verdict, shared by the Chief Justice of India, interprets a crucial section of the Representation of the People Act to declare secularism - as opposed to religious bigotry as well as other forms of identity-based parochialism - as integral to "the entire transaction of the appeal to vote". This interpretation applies not only to the electoral candidates and their agents but to the voters as well. To a principled citizen of a modern democracy who has been observing the run-up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh in particular, and the escalation of fundamentalist intolerance, interference, stridency and violence in general, it would be immensely reassuring to be told by none other than the nation's highest legal authority that the use of religion, race, caste, community or language to canvass votes would amount to "corrupt practice". 
Secularism is being held up in this verdict as a living ideal, a founding principle of the Indian republic, and as a form of actual political action.
Two other aspects of the verdict deserve to be celebrated. First, the fact that three out of the seven judges forming the Constitution bench have articulated their dissenting verdict and interpretation of the law in contradiction of the majority verdict proves that it is still possible to discuss and debate the relationship between religion and politics in a rational manner within the institutions of the State, and to resolve differences of opinion and interpretation judiciously and judicially. Second, what the chief justice has said in his judgment about the relationship between "man and God" being a matter of "individual preferences and choices" cannot but have a deeply progressive implication for the definition of, and respect for, individual liberties and for the principled distance that a democratic State should maintain from these "preferences and choices" in the 21st century. A whole realm of private freedoms opens up from these words that the State and society in India would now have to think through, discuss and debate.

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