Never really far from its debilitating complexities, India is again witnessing a conflict between religiosity and the rule of law as enunciated in its Constitution.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is under intense pressure to issue an ordinance or introduce a legislation that could facilitate early construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, although the Supreme Court has ruled to postpone hearing the parties in dispute till next January.
It is a double crisis that pushes the country on a precipice. Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) wants to challenge another order of the apex court that allows women of all ages – in effect those in 12-50 age who could be menstruating — to enter and worship the celibate deity at the Sabrimala temple in Kerala.
The court should not pass “orders that cannot be implemented,” says Amit Shah, BJP president and Modi’s chief political aide. His political ilk has been more aggressive and less polite towards the judges.
The gambit is to overturn the court’s verdicts through executive fiat, since the time for legislation seems short. While the government has so far given no indication, the BJP and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) are vociferous. Their numerous front organisations with cadres spread across the country, already active on the streets, have left none in doubt that they would work to undo the two verdicts. They hope to garner the majority Hindu community’s support in time for the crucial general elections due next summer.
If this reads like a re-run of what was said here last month, it is true, but equally unavoidable. The Supreme Court is the bulwark being challenged in this massive churning wherein the law is sought to be tweaked, if not enacted afresh, to achieve political/electoral ends.
RSS ideologue and lawmaker Rakesh Sinha is set to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to push for early temple construction at Ayodhya where pillars and bricks are reportedly readied and stored. He has dared the critics to support or oppose the move. The mandir chorus is rising and come January, should reach its crescendo to demand of the Supreme Court early hearing and judgment to match ‘shraddhaa’, the Hindu sentiment.
This parliamentary move to undo a judicial verdict reminds of what transpired 32 years back when law was challenged in the name of faith. Pertaining to the Muslim community initially, it engulfed the whole country.
The apex court had then upheld the claim of Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee, in a suit for maintenance beyond what is mandated in the Sharia. The court had made some observations on failure to enact a Uniform Civil Code as prescribed in the Directive Principles of the Constitution.
While these observations came in handy for the BJP that has nursed this issue for long, for the Muslim orthodoxy, this was a direct interference in their faith. Pressures were built on the streets and through lobbying in parliament.
The Muslim community did not have (the situation has changed but marginally) a secular leadership, its own clergy doubled up as intermediaries and spokespersons and pressurized the government and Muslim lawmakers.
Finding the Congress’ traditional vote challenged, an inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi buckled and brought in the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, restoring the status quo ante that favoured Muslim men over women.
This capitulating before the Muslim orthodoxy and use of the legislative route to overturn a judicial verdict, it was perceived, may not go well with the Hindu voters of the Congress party. To assuage that sentiment, the Rajiv government unlocked the doors of the long-disputed temple in Ayodhya supposedly built on the place where Ram was born. He fell between the two stools and lost the 1989 elections.
This triggered a chain of events — BJP stalwart L K Advani’s Rath Yatra (1990), destruction of the 15th century Babri Mosque that stood on the disputed site (1992) and sectarian violence that followed. In its prolonged aftermath, Gujarat witnessed violence under Modi’s watch (2002). India has never been the same again.
What we see today is competitive communalism with the Congress pursuing “soft Hindutva” to counter the BJP’s ‘hard’ one. As always happens, the ‘hard’ one sets the agenda.
This is evident in Congress President Rahul Gandhi frequently visiting religious shrines during his campaign trails. In Sabrimala’s case, he admits to his party’s stand in Kerala being ‘different’.
The Congress does not want to lose the Hindu vote. In Kerala, only the ‘Godless’ communists who rule in “God’s own country” are left, isolated, to uphold the court verdict and protect women who dared to approach the temple, but were turned back.
Like Rajiv Gandhi whose government enjoyed the largest ever parliamentary majority, today Modi, too, enjoys a comfortable majority and does not have to worry about being destabilized.
But unlike a politically naïve Rajiv who got buffeted by both communities and a Congress that continues to tail BJP while attacking it, Modi and his party seem clear about their aim. They want a fresh electoral mandate for now and beyond that, ‘consolidation’ of the majority Hindu community.
By no means confined to sprawling, poorly-developed Uttar Pradesh and the North, the Ayodhya issue contrasts with Sabrimala that is playing out in a highly literate, multi-religious and compact Kerala. Yet, both Hindu and Muslim religious traditions have combined with patriarchal pre-dominance in a significantly matriarchal society.
The process has begun elsewhere and cannot easily be stopped. Women are allowed entry in the Haji Ali Durgah in Mumbai although trustees resisted saying the women devotees may “show their breasts while kneeling to pray.” Those running the Shani Shinganapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district also relented after women forced their way, strongly supported by media and public opinion.
These are but individual examples that bear little generalization. Significantly, however, they have emerged from within the community, without the State or politicians’ involvement.
Women are gainers as questions are being raised: If the Modi Government can go the whole hog to outlaw triple talaq in support of gender justice for Muslim women, do Hindu women keen to pray at Sabrimala not deserve the same justice?
For now, political implications are very many, none too exciting. While Modi talks incessantly about ‘vikas’ , development, his party’s men and women have turned faith into a corrosive force and an expedient tool to win elections.
The most charitable thing that can be said, as assessed fairly objectively by Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, is that Modi is caught between his own development platform and pressures from his political and ideological mentors to push a backward-looking faith-based agenda of which the temple in Ayodhya is the core.
The development agenda has not worked, or to put it charitably again, not to the expectations Modi generated four years ago. With the economy not doing well – a matter of intense argument and can only be measured in terms of expectations and not what critics and previous governments did or did not – Modi placing his electoral bets on development seems less likely.
The pressures to fall back on the temple agenda have increased given the compulsions of a fresh mandate. But they have been hit by the Supreme Court declining to fix until January 2019 a date for hearing the Ayodhya case. In doing that, the court has judiciously diminished the possibility of a final verdict before the next Lok Sabha election.
If Modi takes the ordinance/legislation route to expedite Ayodhya and undo the Sabrimala verdict, India will be likely swayed by a combination of faith and a heavy dose of hyper-nationalism, causing a toxic us-versus-you discourse.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org