The foundation ceremony for the Ram temple at Ayodhya in northern India represents the culmination of a three-decade campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The ensuing debate over Indian secularism has elided the role of the Supreme Court in contributing over the years to the idea of a unified Hinduism.
It is difficult to tease out a consistent line of reasoning in the Indian Supreme Court’s tangled web of religious jurisprudence in independent India. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the courts have since the 1950s attempted to construct their own version of Hinduism, which has on occasion helped the Hindu nationalist project. The court has done so in different ways, despite many of its judgements in the early years of independent India having been inspired by a progressive vision of eradicating casteist and discriminatory practices.
First, it has usually interpreted Hinduism as a capacious religion where differences between sects are seen as insignificant and exit from the religion virtually impossible. This was best articulated in a landmark 1966 ruling on the appeal of a sect for a separate religion status, for which the court said that underneath the “divergence” of Hinduism, there is an “indescribable unity.” In the same ruling, the court labelled Hinduism as a “way of life.” While this might have seemed relatively benign at the time, a similar logic was used to pernicious effect when the Court, in a 1995 ruling in the midst of the Ram Janambhoomi movement, conflated Hinduism with Hindutva (or Hinduness) – the central plank of the Hindu nationalists — using the same “way of life” metaphor. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism as well as Hindutva are cultural expressions that subsume all other religions, including Islam and other sects within India, had been put forward by Hindu nationalist ideologues. The court gave this idea its seal of approval. Unsurprisingly, the court’s imprimatur quickly made its way to BJP manifestos and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organisation, formulations, where it was proposed that all inhabitants of India are Hindus by virtue of their “culture and way of life.”
The second way in which the court has shaped Hinduism is by positioning itself as the arbiter of what constitutes “true” religion. It has done so through the use of what is known as the “essential practices” test, something that has become a trademark of India’s religious jurisprudence. Indeed, Supreme Court judges have sometimes been likened to dharmasastris or high priests in their zeal to discover the fundamentals of religion. The essential practices test has been something of a morass for the court, which has used the test to dismiss some religious practices as superstition and anti-modern while sanctioning state control over many of India’s biggest Hindu temples. The essential practices test often entails reconstruction of the history of a temple or a religious practice, which involves deconstructing mythology and religious texts. The perils of this approach were apparent in the 2018 ruling on Kerala’s famed Sabarimala temple, where the court decided to lift the bar on women of menstruating age to enter the temple. The ruling sparked widespread protests among some temple devotees and political parties, prompting the court to refer the matter to a larger bench. This was also evidence that the court is not immune to the politics of the day, or what Judge Benjamin Cardozo once called the “mores of the community” and Indian jurist S.P. Sathe called the “tide and currents” of the time.
These techniques and the tendency to obliterate the differences within Hinduism were very much in evidence in the Ayodhya ruling. In the very first paragraph of the 1,000-page ruling, the court stated that the “Hindu community” claims the disputed site as the “birth-place of Lord Ram.” Arguably, there are many Hindus who either do not worship Ram or disagree that the disputed site itself was his birthplace. Much of the voluminous judgement revolved around evaluating the faith and belief of Hindus in, and reverence for this disputed site, which is a tricky proposition at the best of times. Despite admitting that the existing mosque on the land had been first “desecrated” in 1949 and destroyed in 1992, the five-judge bench unanimously ruled that the claim of the Hindus to the entire disputed property to be on a better footing than the Muslims. The court compensated the Muslims by awarding them a plot of land elsewhere in Ayodhya to build a mosque. This is the same court, which in the 1990s, had ruled that secularism is fundamental to India’s constitution. A BJP member of Parliament has rightly noted that on the Ram temple, the court had “responded to the popular mood.”
Whereas many of the flaws and inconsistencies of earlier judgements were present in the Ayodhya ruling, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who headed the bench, was also seen as being sympathetic to the BJP. Indeed, the government, in unseemly haste, nominated Gogoi to a seat in the Indian parliament’s Upper House within four months of his retirement.
While the court paved the way for a peaceful — albeit regarded by many as unjust and bad in law — resolution of one of the most contentious disputes in modern India, its homogeneous view of Hinduism has served Hindu nationalists well. Arguably, the diversity within Hinduism – doctrinal, regional, and caste-specific – has been one of the biggest obstacles of the Hindu nationalist movement. Besides whipping up Hindu nationalist fervor, one of the primary aims of the movement around the birthplace of Ram was to give a sense of community to Hindus. The BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s rathyatra or chariot ride across northern India in 1990 was meant to achieve this. The attempt to project a united Hinduism was very much present in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the temple ground-breaking, where he said the “entire country is encompassed by and for Lord Rama.” Modi also proclaimed that India’s 1.3 billion people were “blessing this occasion” and that the temple would “unite” the nation. Like earlier proponents of Hindutva, the subtext was that all of India, irrespective of religion or creed, was celebrating the Ram temple. There was also a fallacy, likely intentional, in conflating the tremendous popularity of the Ramayana, the epic, with Ram, the deity.
Even as BJP supporters are exulting over the temple, which is likely to figure prominently in future elections both at the provincial and national levels, there are some who believe it spells the end of Indian secularism as we know it. While the secular state has corroded over the years, the Ram temple, built with full state sanction, possibly represents the most potent blow yet. There is a debate in intellectual circles on whether Indian secularism has suffered from downplaying the faith and beliefs of ordinary believers in the public square, an argument first made by sociologist Ashis Nandy when he distinguished between “religion as faith” and “religion as ideology.” Pratap Bhanu Mehta has offered a contrary view, arguing that peace can be secured only by keeping religion out of politics.
These debates are unlikely, however, to have any impact on the BJP’s majoritarian policies which have benefited from a strong rightward tilt in India’s electorate. This is apparent from the lack of meaningful opposition to any of the BJP’s contentious policies. The Supreme Court, whose credibility is at its lowest since the Indira Gandhi-imposed emergency in 1975, has played a role in laying the ground for this kind of politics. It has also been influenced by the ideological currents of the time.
Ronojoy Sen is a senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Articles of Faith: Religion, Secularism and the Indian Supreme Court (OUP).
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