I am a Bhopal-based journalist with impeccable secular credentials and with a deep sense of moral obligation I have just filed an election petition in the Madhya Pradesh high court challenging Pragya Singh Thakur’s election from the Bhopal parliamentary seat.
To me, her victory is a huge national shame. No country in the world, not even Pakistan, has ever elected a person being prosecuted for a heinous act of terrorism to its parliament. It would have been worse had the BJP Member of Parliament’s election gone unchallenged in a court of law.
None of Bhopal’s over 12 lakh voters has seen fit to challenge her election. Surprisingly, even the defeated Congress candidate and two-time chief minister Digvijay Singh shied away from availing this routine legal recourse. Of the 19 election petitions filed against victorious BJP candidates in the Madhya Pradesh high court, 17 have the defeated Congress candidates as petitioners. Only in two seats – Bhopal and Satna – ordinary voters are petitioners.
I am inclined to believe that Digvijay Singh chose to let go his crushing defeat by over 3.64 lakh votes uncontested because he lacked moral conviction. His own campaign, marked by the bizarre antics of assorted sadhus, was steeped in the public display of religious rituals – the very terrain on which his BJP opponent turned out to be more brazen than him.
There was a self-styled Computer Baba who presided over mass yagnas by hundreds of sadhus at a playground for the Congress candidate’s victory. Another sadhu, who goes by the name of Mirchi Baba, vowed to take samadhi if Digvijay Singh didn’t win.
All through the campaign, Digvijay Singh belaboured the point that he is a devout Hindu who keeps regular fasts, does elaborate puja, and visits temples and has been been unfairly portrayed as “anti-Hindu”. The Congress candidate consciously muted his attacks on the RSS and Pragya Singh Thakur. His uncharacteristic mellowness was explained away by Singh’s campaign managers as a strategy to avert polarisation of voters on religious grounds.
— ANI (@ANI) May 23, 2019
Of course, liberals, including me, whole-heartedly supported Digvijay Singh but the religious flavour he gave his campaign rankled with us.
When some well-meaning friends suggested the senior Congress leader file an election petition, he reportedly refused, sighing “what is the point now?” But I saw the point in doing what Digvijay Singh was supposed to do but didn’t.
The opportunity to become petitioner against the Bhopal MP’s election came my way by sheer chance. Noted activist Harsh Mander and his team had prepared a petition against Pragya Thakur’s election and were looking for a Bhopal voter to file it in the high court.
A common friend called to ask if I could rush to Jabalpur to file the petition. I instantly agreed as it afforded me an opportunity to be a part of the Mander’s multi-dimensional fight against communalism, the oppression of the poor and the hypocrisy of the elite in India.
Although I barely know Harsh Mander personally, I have closely followed his stupendous initiatives towards creating an egalitarian society from the days he was an Indian Administrative officer (IAS) in Madhya Pradesh till 1999, when he took early retirement and became an activist.
Utkarsh Mishra, a young lawyer from Harsh Mander’s team called me and we arranged to meet in Jabalpur on July 8, the last day for filing election petitions.
All through the train journey from Bhopal to Jabalpur, memories of the toxic campaign in Bhopal kept flooding my mind. The feelings were mixed – indignation at the sheer audacity of the BJP in fielding a terror accused facing charges of killing seven innocent Muslims in Malegaon over a decade ago, and satisfaction over the prospects of being able to challenge her election in court.
It hurt as I recalled that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong rebuff of the so-called Sadhvi didn’t translate into action against her. Modi had said in an election speech that he could never forgive Pragya Singh for calling Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a patriot. The BJP subsequently issued her a show cause notice. She is believed to have replied to the notice but nobody knows to whom and when. Not surprisingly, she remains unscathed and remorseless.
When the BJP had announced her candidature, we all genuinely believed that she stood no chance against Digvijay Singh. We were confident that notwithstanding the so-called Modi wave sweeping across the country, at least Bhopal would not be so overwhelmed by the nationalism rhetoric as to elect a terror accused who viciously valorised Nathuram Godse and credited her curse for the tragic martyrdom of the 26/11Mumbai blast hero Hemant Karkare. The shock over her victory flashed back and endured through the journey.
At Jabalpur, Utkarsh and I met at lawyer Arvind Shrivastava’s chamber in the Madhya Pradesh high court. Comrade Arvind is the state secretary of the Communist Party of India. We went through the voluminous documents which were to be part of the election petition. I signed on each page of the petition and supporting documents which ran in to several hundreds of pages.
Arvind sounded confident that we have very solid grounds to ensure that Pragya Thakur’s election will be set aside. His confidence seemed to stem more from the genuine conviction of a conscientious citizen than the habit of a lawyer used to assuring clients. “It appears an open and shut case”, a beaming Arvind said. Utkarsh appeared pleased but I remained a little sceptical, given the fact that judicial processes in deciding election petitions are tortuously slow in India.
Utkarsh Mishra, the brain behind the petition, has summarised main points of the election petition.
The petition seeks directions that the result of the election for the Bhopal constituency declared on May 23, 2019 be set aside and the returned candidate (Pragya Thakur) be held guilty for having committed the corrupt practices of appealing for votes on religious grounds and/or undue influence within the meaning of Section 123(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 and making false statements about her rival candidates, defined as a corrupt practice within section 123(4) of the act.
The petition has been filed in light of the undue influence exercised by the candidate over the voters of the Bhopal constituency, by appealing for votes on the grounds of religion, aggravating existing communal tensions and creating enmity between different religions as well as making false statements about her rival candidates, reasonably calculated to prejudice their prospects in the Lok Sabha elections. All of these acts are defined as corrupt practices under Sections 123(3) and (4) of the act.
Grounds under section 123(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951
The ambit of Section 123 (3) has been greatly expanded over the years by the Supreme Court to include even a single appeal made on the basis of religion of the voters. The following statements made by the Pragya Thakur have been alleged as appeal for votes on religious grounds and/or attempts to promote enmity between religious groups in relation with the elections which which constitutes an electoral offence:
1) On April 18, she said: “I am not contesting elections. I am a sanyasi; Power is not for me. I can be a marghdarkshak, I can do the work of state power, But this is a dharmyudh. I had to come to this dharmyudh. I am here considering it as the order of god. I am not here to do netagiri.; I have been instructed by the god to take part in this dharmyudh.”
2) April 19: “The investigation team called Hemant Karkare to Mumbai and said if you do not have evidence, let her go. He said I will do anything to get evidence against her. I won’t let her go. This was his stubbornness. He was traitor. He was anti-religion…You won’t believe but I said you will be destroyed…After just over a month, the terrorists killed him.”
3) April 20: “Ram Mandir hum banayenge, evam bhavya banayenge. Hum todne gaye the dhancha, maine chadhkar toda tha dhancha iss par mujhe garv hai. Mujhe Ishwar ne shakti di thi, humne desh ka kalank mitaya hai.” (“We will build a Ram temple [at Ayodhya] and build a grand one. We had gone to demolish the [Babri] structure, I am proud that I climbed the structure and demolished it. God gave me power and we removed a blot on the nation.”
4) April 20: “I am, in fact, proud of it. There were some waste products at the Ram temple and we removed it.”
“See what they have done to the country in 70 years. Even our temples are not safe. The Hindus awakened their self-respect by demolishing the structure and we will construct a grand Ram temple” and “Yes, I had gone there (Ayodhya), I had said it yesterday too, not denying it. I had demolished the structure. I will go there and help in the construction of Ram temple, nobody can stop us from doing that, Ram rashtra hain, rashtra Ram hai [Ram is the nation, the nation is Ram].”
5) May 5: “People will take revenge for insulting the women, they will take the revenge of equating our religion with terrorism. The mistake that you have made four months back should not be repeated now,”
It is clear that the abovementioned statements fall prima facie under the ambit of corrupt practices as defined under Section 123 (3), of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 which states as follows:
[(3) The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of, or appeal to religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate: [Provided that no symbol allotted under this Act to a candidate shall be deemed to be a religious symbol or a national symbol for the purposes of this clause.]
(3A) The promotion of, or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language, by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.]
There is extensive judicial precedent from the Supreme Court expanding the ambit of Section 123 (3) to include even a single appeal for votes on the basis of the religion of the voters and candidates.
In 2017, the Supreme Court in the case of Abhiram Singh v. C.D Commachen held that that religion and caste of the voter or rival candidate cannot be used to unduly influence anyone while making any statement during electioneering or otherwise.
A relevant extract of the 2017 judgment is as follows:
“…the purpose of enacting section 123 (3) and amending it more than once during the course of the first 10 years of its enactment indicates the seriousness with which the parliament grappled with the necessity of curbing communalism, separatist and fissiparous tendencies during an election campaign ( and even otherwise in view of the amendment of section 153 –A IPC. It is during electioneering that a candidate goes virtually all out to seek votes from the electorate and parliament felt it necessary to put some fetters on the language that might be used so that the democratic process is not derailed but strengthened. Taking all this into consideration, parliament felt the need to place a strong check on corrupt practices based on appeal on grounds of religion during election campaigns (and even otherwise).
Concerns which formed the ground for amending Section 123 (3) of the act have increased with the tremendous reach already available to a candidate through the print and electronic media , and now with access to millions through the internet and social media as well as mobile phone technology none of which were seriously contemplated till about fifteen years ago. Therefore now, more than ever it is necessary to ensure that the provisions of Section 123(3) of the act are not exploited by a candidate or anyone on his or her behalf by making an appeal on the ground of religion with a possibility of disturbing the even tempo of life…”
The grounds of our petition also state that Pragya Thakur’s comments regarding Hemant Karkare, the Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid are a clear attempt to not only appeal to majoritarian Hindu sentiments but also foster enmity between different religions, in relation to the elections by referring to the polarising issue of the Ram Mandir and describing ‘the structure’ (i.e. the Babri Masjid) as a ‘blot on the nation’ and ‘waste products’. These are defined as electoral offences and corrupt practices in the ambit of section 123 (3A) of the Act.
Other senior BJP leaders also assisted Pragya Thakur in committing the corrupt practice of seeking votes on religious grounds on her behalf, by openly admitting to fielding her for a Lok Sabha Seat in Bhopal on the sole grounds of giving an answer to those who have allegedly defamed Hindu civilisation by associating it with terrorism.
In an interview to the news network Times Now on April 19, 2019, Modi said that the ticket to Pragya Thakur was an answer to those who had equated a 5,000-year-old civilisation with terrorism. He said as follows: “They defamed a 5,000-year-old culture that believes in vasudhaiv kutumbakam. They called them terrorists. To answer them all, this is a symbol and it will cost Congress.”
On May 17, 2019, BJP president Amit Shah, said, “Pragya Thakur’s candidature is a satyagraha against fake charges of saffron terror”.
“They have fabricated false cases to frame her. It was a conspiracy for vote bank politics. The courts have said that saffron terror is an imaginary concept” .
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath on April 20, 2019 also stated that”BJP has made Sadhvi Pragya a candidate because the charges of Hindu terror were fake and for demeaning the religion before the world, Congress must apologise.”
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, on May 6, 2019, said, “Pragya Thakur’s candidature is a reply to [those] who termed Hindus as terrorists for their own vote bank politics.”
BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav on April 18, 2019 said that “she [Pragya Thakur] is probably the right challenger for a person like Digvijay Singh who is largely responsible for propagating the dubious and mischievous idea of Hindu terror in this country. He needs a proper challenge that is why Pragya Thakur was fielded by the party.”
The above statements are clear admissions by the prime minister of the country, the BJP president, the Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh chief ministers and the BJP general secretary that candidates such as Pragya Thakur can be given Lok Sabha tickets on solely religious considerations. The projection of the returned candidate before the religious majority of the country as a Lok Sabha candidate intended to preserve the integrity of Hindu civilisation is itself a direct appeal to vote for the returned candidate and the BJP in Bhopal on religious considerations.
Grounds under Section 123 (4)
On April 25, 2019, Pragya Thakur, in reference to Digvijay Singh said that “to vanquish such a terrorist, to again deal with such people who have increased unemployment, a priestess has had to stand up.”
Terming Digvijay Singh a terrorist is prima facie a false statement as defined under Section 123(4) of the Act, that has been reasonably calculated to prejudice the prospects of Singh’s election.
The above mentioned statement is prima facie a corrupt practice as defined under section 123 (4) of the Act as follows:
“(4) The publication by a candidate or his agent or by any other person [with the consent of a candidate or his election agent], of any statement of fact which is false, and which he either believes to be false or does not believe to be true, in relation to the personal character or conduct of any candidate or in relation
to the candidature, or withdrawal, of any candidate, being a statement reasonably calculated to prejudice the prospects of that candidate’s election”
I don’t know when the petition will be taken up, if at all. Its fate is also uncertain. But the satisfaction of having stood up against Pragya Singh will remain with me forever.
Rakesh Dixit is a Bhopal-based journalist.