Nearly two years after the Supreme Court declined to re-examine its 1995 judgment which held that Hindutva relates to a “way of life” and not just a religious practice, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday said that the original (1995) judgment had made India’s political discourse “somewhat lopsided”, and that “many believe” the “decision requires to be overruled”.
Delivering the A B Bardhan memorial lecture at the Constitution Club in the national capital, Singh said the judiciary should never lose sight of its “primary duty to protect the secular spirit of the Constitution” —a task, he said, that has become more demanding because “political disputes and electoral battles are increasingly getting laced with religious overtones, symbols, myths and prejudices”.
The event was organised by the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the lecture was in memory of Bardhan, who had, incidentally, played a role in the Left Front’s withdrawal of support to the Manmohan Singh government in 2008. Among those present were CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and the top leadership of the CPI, including party general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy and senior leader D Raja.
Singh reflected on the changed political dynamics in which political rivals are working ever more closely to challenge the BJP in 2019.
Speaking on “Defence of Secularism and Constitution”, he said the commitment of India’s Constitution-makers to a “secular order” was unequivocal. He recalled that former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee had, in 2001, observed that “secularism is not an alien concept that we imported out of compulsion after Independence. It is an integral and natural feature of our national culture and ethos.”
Singh said the demolition of Babri Masjid was a “traumatic event” which brought into disrepute India’s secular commitments. While December 6, 1992, when the mosque was razed, was a “sad day for our secular republic”, the Supreme Court judgment in the S R Bommai case on March 11, 1994 was a matter of considerable consolation, since it reaffirmed that secularism was a basic feature of the Constitution, he said.
“The Bommai judgment was eagerly seized upon by most as a much-needed reaffirmation of secularism. A kind of Constitutional sanity seemed to have been restored to our political discourse. Unfortunately, that satisfaction was short-lived. Not long after the Bommai verdict came Justice J S Verma’s famous but controversial ‘Hindutva a way of life’ judgment,” he said.
Singh said, “This verdict had a decisive impact on the debate among political parties about the principles and practices of secularism in our Republic. The judgment ended up making our political discourse somewhat lopsided, and many believe there can be no doubt that the decision requires to be overruled.”
Singh said, “….the judiciary as an institution needs never to lose sight of its primary duty to protect the secular spirit of the Constitution. This task has become much more demanding than before because the political disputes and electoral battles are increasingly getting laced with religious overtones, symbols, myths and prejudices.” Singh said that the armed forces should remain uncontaminated from any sectarian appeal.