RELIGIOUS faith should not be used for political gain, whether it is Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or any sect. This should be a principle accepted by all in a civilized society. In ancient and medieval times faith was used to fight wars, to mobilize armies, to conquer lands inhabited by people subscribing to other faiths and to convert the conquered en masse. Exploitation of faith for mobilizing people is an anachronism in our times. It should not be allowed by followers of any faith. The Chief Electoral Officer of Kerala Tikaram Meena is fully justified in asking political parties not to use the issue of women’s entry to Sabarimala as an issue in their electoral campaign. The Kerala unit of the BJP has declared its opposition to Meena’s directive, saying “Nobody can prevent the BJP from raising the Sabarimala issue in the campaign.” Meena has refused to withdraw his directive. He says, “Neither Sabarimala nor the name of Lord Ayyappa can be invoked with a view to influencing voters.”
Of course, Meena should note that women’s entry to the Sabrimala temple was a very big issue that caused a political and social explosion in Kerala. It would be wrong for him to put a blanket ban on the mention of the issue during the election campaign. After all, the Supreme Court has decided on the issue, and the temple board has taken a decision to abide by the verdict, which was in favour of allowing women’s entry to the temple. All political parties were involved in the conflict. So to expect the political parties to completely avoid mention of the Sabrimala issue during their election campaign would be impractical. After all, different political parties took different stands on the issue, whether it was the BJP or the CPM or the Congress. The political parties should be allowed to explain their stance to the electorate. It is good to hear that Chief Electoral Officer Meena has modified his directive, saying, “Political parties may refer to the issue of women’s entry into the hill shrine but within reasonable limits, which they can decide by themselves.”
It is up to the BJP and other political parties to keep their campaigners under restraint on the issue. Every party can trumpet the rationale of their stand on the Sabrimala issue for moving voters, but none of them should use the faith in Lord Ayyappa to get votes. In a recent judgement a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court had ruled that seeking votes in the name of religion is prohibited under section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act. The court wanted the law to be enforced to bar any appeal made on the ground of religion. The court observed: “The essence, the ethos of our constitutional system is secularism… religion and politics don’t mix. Elections are a secular activity or not? In a secular state, can religion be brought into secular activities?”
The BJP must desist from fanning emotions of the followers of the Ayyappa faith, an overwhelming majority of whom are opposed to entry of women to the temple. They should not base their campaign on the promise that they would get a legislation passed to bypass the Supreme Court verdict in order to bar the entry of women to the Sabrimala temple. Anything that is said with the intention of winning the sympathy of the followers of the Ayyappa faith can be perceived as use of religion for political gain. After all, the RSS and the BJP have always been opposed to exploitation of religion by the political parties championing the cause of the religious minorities in the country for electoral gain. The BJP should sanitize its election campaign and shun exploitation of religion in order to prove that it is a party with a difference. Religion has been exploited for gaining power in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to give just a few examples. Somewhere they have mobilised people in the name of Islam, somewhere in the name of Christianity, somewhere in the name of Buddhism. In the latest case, by wholeheartedly backing the Citizenship Bill, the BJP has only most damningly decried mobilization of people on grounds of religion, which forced tens of lakhs of people out of the neighbouring countries as refugees to India. The BJP and all other political parties must work for reinforcing the values of tolerance and pluralism: in short, co-existence of various faiths, value systems and streams of thought.