New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday formally reopened the question of whether politicians can use religion to seek votes in an electoral campaign.
The case, being heard by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice T.S. Thakur, reopens a two-decade-old ruling of the apex court, which held that seeking votes in the name of “Hindutva” is not a corrupt practice under the People’s Representation Act, 1951.
Coincidentally, the apex court has taken up the hearing at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a pro-Hindutva ideology, leads the coalition at the centre. Further, it comes in the run-up to assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, a state which is deeply divided along religion and caste lines.
During the arguments on the first day, the bench posed various hypothetical questions to senior advocate Arvind Datar, arguing on behalf of the petitioners who had challenged the election of several candidates in the 1992 the Maharashtra assembly polls claiming they had appealed to voters on religious grounds.
“What would be the situation in case of sects like Dera Sacha Sauda and Other backward Classes (OBCs)? Would that amount to corrupt practices?” the bench asked.
A bench headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma had upheld the elections in 1992 saying the definition of “Hindutva” represents “a way of life and not a religion in India”, allowing the word to be used in election campaigns.
The judges further said: “Hindutva should be understood as a way of life or a state of mind and should not be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism.”
Similar cases were brought before the apex court in 1996. However, that bench decided to refer the case to a larger bench; but the five-judge bench was set up only in 2014, and it in turn referred it to a seven-judge bench.
Section 123 (3) of the People’s Representation Act of 1951 provides that no candidate or his agent can appeal for votes on the grounds of his religion, race, caste, community or language, religious symbols for prejudicing the election.
“We believe in the philosophy of Hindutva and the Supreme Court has earlier said that it is a way of life. The stand of BJP will remain the same—that Hindutva is a way of life which talks about cultural unity of the country while respecting the diverse traditions across India,” said a senior leader of BJP.
“It is too early to comment on the issue. This matter was raised earlier and we had concerns then so we are yet to formalise an opinion on it. We will await more details and also want the court arguments to get over,” a senior Congress leader and former Union minister said requesting anonymity.
The case will be heard next on 19 October.