SC bars religion, caste, community-based electioneering

The Supreme Court has ruled that it is against the law to seek votes in the name of religion, caste, race, community or language, a landmark judgment ahead of crucial assembly elections in five states where faith and caste are top poll issues.

A seven-judge SC bench headed by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur – who retires today – said the secular ethos of the Constitution had to be maintained by keeping elections a secular exercise.

''The relationship between man and god is an individual choice. The state is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity,'' the bench said.

But three of the seven judges dissented and said any such verdict would reduce democracy to an abstraction.

The court said the function of an elected representative should be secular. ''Religion has no role in electoral process, which is a secular activity,'' the judges added. ''Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible.''

The judgment will have significant implications in states that go to the polls just months from now, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and caste-based mobilisation are top poll planks.

In Punjab too, religion and sacrilege are top campaign issues.

The verdict said elections can't be fought by making a pitch to the candidate's, opponents' or voters' religion, caste, race, community or language.

But the three dissenting SC judges said such a decision amounted to ''judicial redrafting of the law'' and said to prohibit people from articulating legitimate concerns reduced ''democracy to an abstraction''.

''No government is perfect. The law doesn't prohibit dialogue or discussion of a matter which is concern to the voters,'' the dissenters said.

The court was revisiting a 20-year-old judgment that called Hinduism a ''way of life'' and said a candidate was not affected prejudicially if votes were sought on this plank. But several petitions filed over the years have challenged the verdict.

The question before the top court was whether seeking votes in the name of religion was a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act, and if candidates who indulge in this practice should be disqualified.