For God’s sake, this is patently unconstitutional!

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Arvind Kejriwal’s strange call for Hindu gods on banknotes to “improve the economy” unsurprisingly sparked a war of words between political parties. There are also the usual TV debates on this topic, as well as a few opinion pieces.

‘Subjecting to Hindutva politics’, ‘BJP B team’, ‘playing majority vote’, ‘anti-secularism’ etc. are some of the accusations rightly leveled at the chief of the PAA.

But what is really surprising is that no one has called Kejriwal’s proposal unconstitutional.

Before continuing to explain why the request is completely illegal and clearly contrary to the secular principles of our Constitution, a little more on the politics of this question.

Read also | AAP’s turn to Hindutva: can a pretender face the original?

A shrewd politician, the AAP leader is doing his best to secure the Hindu vote, confuse the BJP and beat it at its own game. Putting the ball in the Center’s court, Kejriwal formally wrote to the Prime Minister demanding the Center accepts his proposal to include the photos of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha on the banknotes. “I write this on behalf of 130 million Indians,” says Kejriwal. He is quick to add that this gesture alone would not improve the economy but that we need the blessings of the gods and goddesses. Indeed, we all need the blessings of the gods. But this is a private and personal matter. Kejriwal’s plea goes against the Constitution and Supreme Court pronouncements on secularism.

Boasting a secular constitution

Our country is greatly privileged to have a unique heritage of tolerance, inclusiveness and respect for all religions. It is therefore not surprising that the framers of the Constitution, inspired by our heritage, incorporated the positive principles of secularism and tolerance into the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.

Secularism is one of the basic structures of our Constitution. Which means that the Indian state has no religion and cannot practice, promote or favor any particular faith or belief.

The Supreme Court of India, in a litany of judgments, has reiterated the importance of the constitutional mandate of a secular state. In SR Bommai’s landmark judgment, a nine-judge Constitutional Bench asserted: Secularism “is a constitutional goal. religions… Any measure incompatible with this constitutional policy is, in plain language, unconstitutional.

The Constitution bench went on to say that politics and religion cannot be mixed; that a “religion-based appeal offends secular democracy”.

In January 2017, a seven-judge Constitution bench said, among other things, that “…the constitutional ethos prohibits the mixing of religion or religious considerations with secular functions of the state…(Abhiram Singh vs. CD Commachen)”.

Thus, it is anathema for political parties to bring religion into politics. There is a constitutional obligation for public authorities to respect secular practices and refrain from wearing their religion on their sleeve.

But are politicians listening?

Courting religion, violating the dictate of the court

Unfortunately, the majority of politicians despise the secular way with impunity to achieve their ends. There is a long list of public figures who have fallen under constitutional and judicial command. Comes election time, and the frantic rush to appeal to voters on religious, castist and majority lines is there for all to see.

The representatives of the people visibly and shamelessly violate the spirit of the law. Rushing to temples at election time, appealing to the electorate for pious motives, the message is loud and clear: “See how devout I am…vote for me…”

The Founding Fathers of the Constitution, for whom secularism was the linchpin upon which it was written, would be horrified by the current scenario where nearly all politicians, or would-be politicians, play the religion card, patently heedless of any legal or moral obligation.

Right to religion

There is a perception that being secular requires a rejection of traditions, of religious principles. Not so. From the Indian perspective, there is due respect for all religions and beliefs. Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution guarantee freedom of religion – citizens can freely practice and profess their faith. However, the Indian state is constitutionally bound to be secular, to be religiously neutral.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan put it succinctly: “Secularism does not mean irreligion. This means that we respect all beliefs and religions. Our state does not identify with any particular religion.

Therefore, Kejriwal’s solicitation, for the gods on the banknotes, is a no-start. The Indian state, being secular, cannot “identify” with or endorse such a religion-centric demand. The courts should certainly overturn such a decision.

It should be noted that Section 25 of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 states that the design, shape and material of banknotes must be approved by the central government. In this particular case of the Kejriwal petition, the central government will have no choice but to reject the AAP leader’s totally non-secular plea. It’s Hobson’s choice, actually!

Ironically, in the West, secularism is not as well defined as in India. In the United States, religion plays a large role in influencing judicial decisions; for example, anti-abortion rulings.

In the UK, the official religion is Christianity. The Prime Minister must advise the King on appointments to the Church of England. Curiously, it will be the new Hindu Prime Minister of Great Britain, Rishi Sunak, who will thus advise the Christian king! As for the coinage, King Charles coins are minted. Divine right?

Coming back to India, images of gods on coins are prohibited by law. However, Kejriwal’s latest demand – for the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code throughout India – is perfectly legitimate and definitely constitutional! But this is another story.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based lawyer and writer)

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