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Friday, October 15, 2021

Listen to dissent

Identities and struggles around them are central to Indian democracy. The Supreme Court has missed this point.

By: Editorial |
Updated: January 4, 2017 12:56:24 am

Interpreting a provision of the Representation of People Act (RPA), a seven-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court has ruled that “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process” and that the election of a candidate would be declared null and void if these considerations are invoked in the campaign. The ruling expands the scope of what constitutes a corrupt practice as defined by the RPA: Earlier, the RPA provision covered appeals made on behalf of the identity of the candidates whereas reference to the voter’s identity too now comes under the ambit of the law. Any mention of the religious, racial, caste, communal or linguistic identity of voters by a candidate could now attract censure under the RPA. The intent of the judgement — to censure hate and divisive campaigns — is certainly laudable. But the dissent expressed by three judges is more weighty. It is sensitive to the Indian social reality and responsive to the history and nature of political mobilisations in this country.

In his dissent, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has observed that Parliament excluded reference to any of the social identities of the voter as a corrupt practice as defined by the RPA provision because “the Constitution… recognises the position of religion, caste, language and gender in the social life of the nation. Individual histories both of citizens and collective groups in our society are associated through the ages with histories of discrimination and injustice on the basis of these defining characteristics”. Caste, religion, language, etc, have been the basis of social discrimination in India. Political groups invoke these categories to mobilise people: In fact, many political parties have been products of mass mobilisations against caste, linguistic, religious and racial discrimination and oppression. The Constitution too recognises these social infirmities and has protective provisions to safeguard the rights of minority and marginalised groups. It is this social vision that influenced the founding fathers of the republic to allow parties like the Akali Dal and Muslim League, which clearly identify with specific religious communities, to participate in electoral politics. Not surprisingly, religion, caste, race, language and so on resonate in electoral campaigns and debates. For instance, the largest mobilisations in the past year — the student protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Jat/Patidar/ Maratha agitations, the Una Dalit protests — have centred on issues of social identity. The willingness of the Indian state to negotiate with these seemingly divisive political agendas and accommodate their purveyors is one of the remarkable success stories of Indian democracy.

But if the discourse stoops to incitement of hatred and violence, it should surely be dealt under existing laws. Any move to sanitise electoral politics of references to religion, caste, race, etc, will inadvertently stifle genuine political expression, especially of minority and marginalised communities whose cause of marginalisation and discrimination are their social identities.

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