The Supreme Court, and not Parliament that takes too long to frame laws, would decide if invoking religion by candidates or their supporters to seek votes was illegal, Chief Justice of India TS Thakur said on Thursday.
Elections were a secular exercise and religion should be separated from political process, said a seven-bench judge headed by the CJI, wondering if raising issues like Ram temple by a poll candidate was legal.
“Our basic ethos is secularism…..elections are a secular issue. Can religion be brought into the secular arena? Do we allow religion to be the basis of electoral politics,” the court said.
The remarks come a few months ahead of five state elections, including those in Uttar Pradesh where attempts are being made to revive the Ram Temple issue, a promise to build a temple in Ayodhya where once Babri Masjid stood.
The court made these observations as it revisits a 1995 judgment that said Hinduism was a way of life and seeking votes in its name was not illegal.
“Parliament has not done anything in the last 20 years since this reference (dispute on Hinduism) was pending. They did not do anything about sexual harassment for years,” the court said, referring to 16 years Parliament took to formulate the law for what is popularly known as Vishakha guidelines.
The court is looking at section 123 (3) of the representation of people’s act that bars candidates from using religion to seek votes. It will also decide whether candidates can be disqualified if their supporters exploit the religious sentiments of voters.
The election law was intended to “stamp out communalism” and the court would soon give an appropriate interpretation to safeguard the country’s secular values, the court said.
“The very purpose of the legislation is to ensure there is no basis for religion. Religion should be separated from political process,” the bench told the lawyer of a former MLA from Madhya Pradesh.
Sunderlal Patwa’s 1994 election to the MP assembly has been challenged before the top court as his agent allegedly sought votes in name of Hinduism.
“Let us take his case. He belongs to the Jain community. But some person acting on behalf of him makes an appeal that he…will help in making the Ram mandir. The appeal is in the name of religion and not a candidate,” said the bench to the lawyer who argued that a candidate couldn’t be prosecuted if a party agent seeks votes in the name of religion.
The hearing will resume on October 26.