In the past, a section of politicians compulsively approached imams on the eve of elections. It was considered an acceptable practice given the hold of religious heads over god-fearing masses.
In the recent past, political leaders have made visits to temples an inseparable part of their election campaign itinerary and strategy.
Framers of the Constitution kept religion and politics separate. The Constitution mandates secularism as the cardinal principle of governance. But ground level politics has always tried to mix the two to form a potent vote catching chemistry.
With the chasm between communities widening, thanks to competing sectarian politics, there is a section of the intelligentsia which advises politicians to adopt a soft Hinduism line rather than advocate Hindutva, mistaking it for fanatic Hinduism, especially after the advent of cow vigilante groups. It is another matter that most states enacted laws banning cow slaughter in the 1960s when ‘cow and calf ‘ was the election symbol of a political party.
Over the years, the SC has made several attempts to explain the meaning of ‘Hindu’, ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ in different contexts — from pure religious point of view to use of religion in elections. In no judgment has the SC even remotely identified Hindutva as the militant or fanatic version of Hinduism.
Half a century ago, a five-judge constitution bench of Chief Justice P B Gajendragadkar, K N Wanchoo, M Hidayatullah, V Ramaswami and P Satyanarayanaraju in ‘Sastri Yagnapurushadji’ case [1966 SCR (3) 242] had attempted to narrate historical and etymological genesis of the word ‘Hindu’.
Writing the judgment for the bench, Justice Gajendragadkar had said, “The historical and etymological genesis of the word ‘Hindu’ has given rise to a controversy amongst Indologists; but the view generally accepted by scholars appears to be that the word ‘Hindu’ is derived from the river Sindhu, otherwise known as Indus which flows from the Punjab.
“When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet, it does not worship any one god, it does not subscribe to any one dogma, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances, in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.”
The difficulty faced by the SC in 1966 to define ‘Hindu’ was reflected in its judgement in ‘Commissioner Wealth Tax, Madras vs Late R Sridharan’ [1976 (Sup) SCR 478], in which it said, “It is a matter of common knowledge that Hinduism embraces within self so many diverse forms of beliefs, faiths, practices and worships that it is difficult to define term ‘Hindu’ with precision.”
With passage of time, as a reaction to perceived appeasement of a certain community by a section of politicians, counter political forces attempted to wage ‘save Hinduism’ election campaigns, which appeared to clash with the Constitution’s ‘secularism’ theme.
Seeking of votes by a candidate on the basis of his religion has been prohibited by the Representation of the People Act. A series of ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ themed speeches by then Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray in 1987, while campaigning for a candidate, came to be questioned in the SC.
The SC dealt with the question: whether use of ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ in an election campaign fell afoul of the RP Act? A threejudge bench headed by Justice J S Verma in Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo case [1996 SCC (1) 130] said, “The words ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people.
“Considering the terms ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ per se as depicting hostility, enmity or intolerance towards other religious faiths or professing communalism, proceeds form an improper appreciation and perception of the true meaning of these expressions emerging from the detailed discussion in earlier judgments of this court.
“Misuse of these expressions to promote communalism cannot alter the true meaning of these terms. The mischief resulting from the misuse of the terms by anyone in his speech has to be checked and not its permissible use.”
The SC had concluded, “It is a fallacy and an error of law to proceed on the assumption that any reference to Hindutva or Hinduism in a speech makes it automatically a speech based on the Hindu religion as opposed to other religions or that the use of words ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ per se depicts an attitude hostile to all persons practising any religion other than the Hindu religion.”
If the decisions of the SC over the years tell us that Hinduism referred to a way of life, the proponents and self-appointed guardians of Hinduism must make a conscious attempt to assimilate and reflect the cultures and customs in India in their speeches.
It cannot be a particular way of life dictated by a section of politicians or self-appointed guardians of Hinduism. It also cannot be what a section of intelligentsia projects ‘Hindutva’ to be in the present political context.