New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed the secular character of the Indian state, ruling that election candidates cannot seek votes on the grounds of the religion, caste, creed, community or language of voters.

“The Constitution forbids state from mixing religion with politics," ruled a seven-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur after a split verdict.

“The state being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations. This necessarily implies that religion will not play any role in the governance of the country which must at all times be secular in nature. Election is a secular exercise just as the functions of the elected representatives must be secular in both outlook and practice," Thakur wrote in his opinion.

The ruling can potentially overturn the rules of the game for electoral politics in India, where traditionally parties have not hesitated to employ religion, caste and ethnicity to woo voters. Greater clarity will emerge once the Election Commission, which is to implement the decision, spells out the ground rules.

Chief Justice Thakur, judges S.A. Bobde, Adarsh Kumar Goel and L. Nageswara Rao and Madan B. Lokur formed the majority opinion. Three judges—Adarsh Kumar Goel, U.U. Lalit and D.Y. Chandrachud—argued against it maintaining this was the prerogative of Parliament.

“Discussion on caste, creed, religion is constitutionally protected within and outside elections and this cannot be restricted," Chandrachud held, writing the minority opinion.

“It is a matter of free speech and through this legitimate concerns of the society are addressed," he added.

The court had to decide on the contours of law that holds seeking votes on the grounds of religion and caste as a corrupt practice.

According to Section 123 (3) of the People’s Representation Act of 1951, no candidate or his agent can appeal for votes on the grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language. Any violation of this would be deemed a corrupt practice under the law leading to disqualification of the candidate.

The case reached the apex court after there were claims that several candidates elected in the 1992 Maharashtra assembly polls had appealed to voters on religious grounds. Similar cases were also brought before the apex court in 1996. However, that bench decided to refer the case to a larger bench. The five-judge bench set up in 2014, in turn referred it to a seven-judge bench.

Now these cases will be listed before a fresh bench.

The apex court judgment comes weeks ahead of crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab where caste and religion play a key role.

Political analysts feel that the judgment is good in spirit but could be difficult to implement.

“It is a good judgment and a fine one at its own level but on the ground caste, religion and ethnicity matter because of the mindset of the people. These things will play most critical role in Uttar Pradesh. The question is that this judgment needs to be implemented and how that will be done," said Bidyut Chakraborty, political science professor at Delhi University.

The judgment came on a day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a rally in Lucknow that “development and not caste" should matter in elections.

All major political parties welcomed the ruling.

“It is an excellent decision; it is a decision which should be welcomed by everybody. It reaffirms the fundamental values on which this nation was cast by the founders of the Indian Constitution," Manish Tewari, Congress spokesperson told reporters.

A senior BJP leader who was present at the Lucknow rally welcomed the move arguing that PM Modi had unambiguously opposed wooing votes based on religion and caste.

“Political parties cannot function by projecting a particular religion or caste and that is what the constitution says too. The All Indian Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. (AIADMK) has always been a party for all," said Avadi Kumar, spokesperson of the AIADMK.

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