In a country constitutionally wedded to the ideals of secularism, can a state government promote one religion while ignoring the others? In Gujarat, over the last two decades under the rule of the BJP, there are numerous instances that can be cited that point in this direction.
The latest example comes in the form of disclosures in a public interest litigation filed before the Gujarat high court by Mujahid Nafees, a member of a social organisation called Minority Co-ordination Committee.
The PIL alleges that the Pavitra Yatradham Vikas Board (PYVB), constituted by the Gujarat government in 1995 for developing religious sites – such as providing better amenities to the visiting devotees – has focused on promoting and developing only Hindu religious sites over all these years.
The petitioner has stated that initially, religious shrines such as Ambaji, Dakor, Girnar, Palitana, Somnath and Dwarka were declared as ‘Pavitra Yatradhams’.
“However, the list has grown exponentially since then and now the temples covered under the Pavitra Yatradham Board are around 358. It is respectfully submitted that the aforesaid list does not contain even a single religious shrine belonging to Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Baudh, Zoroastrian or other religions,” the petitioner has stated. The details about the sites were obtained by Nafees through an application filed under the Right to Information Act.
- Article 27 forbids the State from compelling a person to pay taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
The Board is meant to provide facilities like drinking water on the approach road and around the shrine, toilet and bathroom facilities, install sheds, tents, proper sanitation and disposal of waste, a parking facility, repair of approach roads and basic medical facilities.
The petitioner has claimed that the Board is illegal, arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the constitution and therefore deserves to be quashed and set aside. Article 14 asks the State cannot deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
He has also alleged that the action of the state government in selecting only a particular religion for promoting its religious spots is “arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional”. He has further alleged that assuming for the sake of argument that the state government can promote or maintain religious spots of a particular religion, then also, the expenditure incurred by the state government is not as per the rules and regulations of the Board.
The high court has issued notices to the state government and the Board. The next hearing in the matter has been scheduled for December 12.
“Our whole contention is that constitutionally, the government cannot promote any religion. Secondly, it has no right to utilise the taxpayers’ money in doing so,” Nafees told The Wire.
The 2017 SC order
The PIL is also being viewed in the context of the issue pertaining to the Gujarat government’s stand on repairing religious sites destroyed in the 2002 riots, mostly those of the minority community. The state government had reportedly come up with a scheme to pay up to a maximum Rs 50,000 as ex-gratia assistance to authorised religious places damaged, destroyed or desecrated during the 2002 communal riots in the state.
The state had secured a victory in the Supreme Court in August 2017 where an order of the Gujarat high court delivered in February 2012 to compensate the owners of religious structures destroyed in the riots was set aside. The Supreme Court had said that it would be a violation of Article 27 of the constitution if a “substantial part” of the taxpayers’ money was spent on distribution of compensation to destroyed religious structures.
Article 27 forbids the State from compelling a person to pay taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
Reservations were expressed against the Supreme Court order on the grounds that it had failed to uphold a vital principle that read the government must be held accountable if shrines are destroyed or damaged during communal riots.
An observer pointed out in a lighter vein, “It’s a typical case where the government resorts to taking protection under ‘Nehruvian secularism’ when it comes to promoting religion practiced by the majority and used ‘traditional secularism’ when it comes to addressing the minorities.”
The decision of the state government to declare a ‘Navratri vacation’ from October 10 to 17 in government run educational institutions is also being viewed as part of the same agenda of promoting a single religion. The ‘Navratri vacation’ has made a comeback after two decades and even though as many as 400 schools have protested and said that it would end in an “academic shortfall”, the state government is not budging. Although the vacations are optional for private institutions, the general perception is: who can dare to “live in Rome and fight with the pope”?
“The arrogance with which the government comes out with such orders makes one doubt its motive and policies. The implementation of the academic calendar should not suffer,” Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said.
A deep-rooted phenomenon
The whole phenomenon of promoting a majority religion – and to some extent Jainism, which the Hindutva lobby views as a denomination of Hinduism in the state – has been visible in various forms for quite sometime.
While slaughter houses, mainly operated by the Muslims, have been remaining closed for the entire period of Paryushan, Hindutva elements have been raising demands for declaring entire towns as vegetarian. While non-vegetarian food is prohibited in places like Ambaji and some area around Palitana, Somnath may be the next to fall.
“The demand to declare entire Palitana and Somnath as vegetarian is an obvious ploy against the Muslims and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) who are in a majority in these places and a substantial number of them earn their livelihood running small eating joints serving eggs, chicken and fish. This is nothing but plain muscle flexing,” said an observer. Nafees pointed out that fishermen have even been threatened on many occasions to stop fishing.
Social activist Prasad Chacko, who works on human rights issues pertaining to Dalits, minorities and other marginalised communities, says, “This is criminal violation of fundamental rights. The government and the other organisations have been criminally circumventing the constitution in every way so that there is no need to amend it. Earlier there was a fear that the constitution would be changed if the BJP is in power but now there is no need for it. Every pronouncement and statement is hate filled towards this direction. Even the mob behaviour and lynching is nothing but outsourcing of violence.”
Even the central government’s reported move of serving a ‘Navratri thali’ on trains is being questioned on similar grounds. Many among the minorities, and even a section of majority that eats non-vegetarian food during the festive season, have publicly questioned whether the railways would make special arrangements for Durga Puja, Eid, Christmas and other holidays.
Rajeev Khanna has been a reporter for the last 23 years with special interest in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat politics, and has worked in print, radio, TV and online media.