QUOTING from a report calling upon the Supreme Court to reflect how to protect minorities from majoritarianism, Vice-President Hamid Ansari Saturday urged the court to clarify contours within which secularism and composite culture should operate so as to remove ambiguities.
Addressing the 16th convocation of Jammu University here, Ansari also wondered whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy.
He said that a few years ago, in a volume published on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Supreme Court, lawyers Rajeev Dhavan & Fali S Nariman had observed that “as we transit into the next millennium, the Supreme Court has a lot to reflect upon, and not least on how to protect the minorities and their ilk from the onslaught of majoritarianism”.
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Unless the court strives to assure that the Constitution applies fairly to all citizens, Ansari said, the court cannot be said to have fulfilled its responsibility. “Is it therefore bold to expect that the Supreme Court may consider, in its wisdom, to clarify the contours within which the principles of secularism and composite culture should operate with a view to strengthen their functional modality and remove ambiguities?”
Any public discourse on India being a ‘secular’ republic with a ‘composite culture’ cannot overlook India’s heterogeneity, he added. “A population of 1.3 billion comprising over 4,635 communities… Religious minorities constitute 19.4 per cent of the total… Our democratic polity and its secular State structure were put in place in full awareness of this plurality. There was no suggestion to erase identities and homogenise them.”
Ansari said that the three accepted characteristics of a secular State were liberty to practise religion, equality between religions in State practice, and neutrality or a fence of separation between the State and religion. However, he said, their application had been contradictory and led to major anomalies. “The challenge, then, is to reduce if not eliminate these anomalies.”
Referring to the Constitution, the Vice-President said, “The State is prohibited to patronise any particular religion as State religion and is enjoined to observe neutrality… Programmes or principles evolved by political parties based on religion amount to recognising religion as a part of the political governance, which the Constitution expressly prohibits…”
Noting that secularism was “more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance; it is a positive concept of equal treatment”, he said observers have argued that pronouncements of the Supreme Court have “effectively vindicated the profoundly anti-secular vision of secularism” of some quarters. It has been argued for this reason, Ansari said, “whether a more complete separation of religion and politics might not better serve Indian democracy”.
“The difficulty lies in delineating, for purposes of public policy and practice, the line that separates them from religion… The ‘way of life’ argument, used in philosophical texts and some judicial pronouncements, does not help… identify common principles of equity in a multi-religious society. Since a wall of separation is not possible under Indian conditions, the challenge is to develop a formula for equidistance and minimum involvement. For this purpose, principles of faith need to be segregated from contours of culture since a conflation of the two obfuscates the boundaries of both.”
The Vice-President also emphasised the “constitutional principle” of equality of status and opportunity, saying, “This equality has to be substantiative rather than merely formal and has to be given shape through requisite measures of affirmative action… so that the journey on the path to development has a common starting point.”
Pointing out that one of the main ideals of the Constitution was justice, the Vice-President also quoted John Rawls to say, “Rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
Quoting K N Pannikar, Ansari said, “Whether India developed as a melting pot of cultures or only remained a salad bowl is no more the issue. The crucial question is whether Indian culture is conceived as a static phenomenon, tracting its identity to a single unchanging source, or a dynamic phenomenon, critically and creatively interrogating all that is new.”