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Don't undermine Constitution

Religious leaders should not be addressing legislatures

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

The Haryana Legislative Assembly's decision to invite a Jain monk named Tarun Sagar to deliver a lecture on the floor of the House has rightly attracted a great deal of criticism. Not all of it is helpful or progressive - there is no reason, for example, to focus on the fact that the monk in question belonged to the "Digambara" sect of Jains, which practices effective nudity. That is not what is infelicitous about the event. What is, is the fact that the monk's speech in the Assembly fundamentally violates the Constitutional requirement to separate religion from politics. When the Constitution says that India is a secular state, it essentially means that the state will have no religion. A necessary corollary of this is that the state will not discriminate amongst religions. Note that Mr Sagar's address was not the same as the invocations, which begin the proceedings in many legislatures across the world. Instead, this was an actual "pravachan", or sermon, in which the monk dispensed advice to lawmakers, with the implication that these officers of the state would then change their actions to reflect the precepts the monk was laying out. Beyond the larger principle that was violated, even the contents of Mr Sagar's sermon were disturbing. In particular, many will not agree with his views on women; Mr Sagar said that women should "obey" their husbands. Again, besides the obvious gender bias, what is further ignoble was the context in which this statement was made.

He said "dharma" was the husband, and "politics" the wife, and the wife should obey the husband. In other words, politics should be subservient to religion. This is clearly an unconstitutional belief, one that is out of place on the floor of the Assembly. That the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in Haryana makes no difference in this regard. Its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is free to agitate for a Hindu or "dharmic" state. But the BJP is a political party, and its elected leaders have sworn to uphold the Constitution, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls his holy book. There is genuine apprehension that Mr Sagar's lecture may be seen as laying down a precedent. If so, which religious preacher will address the Haryana Assembly next? What will they say? And which other state Assemblies will be next? Will Parliament follow suit? It is a slippery slope that is best avoided. Indians can have any religion they want; individual legislators and ministers are welcome to go and listen to Mr Sagar as often as they like. But the state and the Assembly cannot be associated with any religion to ensure that policymaking is not overtaken by majoritarian or religious priorities. The outrage against this incident should warn politicians of all stripes that there is no place for religion in the affairs of the Indian state. It is a foundational principle that must not be undermined.

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First Published: Thu, September 01 2016. 21:41 IST
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