Will the Santhara verdict go the Shah Bano way?

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parlimentIndia was outraged when Sikhs living in France, land of laicite, were disallowed from wearing a turban. Should it bother us as a people that there was not a similar outrage when Jains, living in India, not in a foreign land, were barred from practising a centuries-old tradition of Santhara or fasting unto death? But then again, are we not the same people who welcomed the judicial intervention in the Shah Bano case?

Before you attempt to answer those questions, there’re more: If the Supreme Court (SC) upholds the 10 August Rajasthan High Court verdict declaring Santhara illegal, violative of human rights and a punishable offence under Section 306 (abetment to suicide) and Section 309 (attempted suicide), would Prime Minister Narendra Modi do a Rajiv Gandhi a la Shah Bano in 1986 to overturn the S C judgment? And if Modi follows suit, would it not go against his party’s avowed policy of ‘appeasement of none’?

But, wait, was not the BJP-led Maharashtra Government’s ban on sale and consumption of beef and the ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks (in addition to cows) instigated in part by the Jain community? Was the Mumbai based Viniyog Parivar Trust, a non government organisation (NGO) working under the “Jain Sangh”, exhibiting tolerance of (and reinforcing) India’s secular traditions or pursuing its narrow (religious) agenda when it leaned on the state government to dictate the dietary choices of people of other religious persuasions?

There are no easy answers to some of the above-mentioned questions. But attempt we must, for only by doing so will we enable ourselves as a society and a nation to draw the right lessons from contemporary history.

The Rajasthan High Court held that Santhara or Sallekhana is not an essential tenet of Jainism and it likened the practice to suicide. The verdict brings to the fore issues such as bioethics and metaphysics but the Jain community, predictably, has moved the SC. In its plea, the community has cited Article 25 of the Constitution which provides for freedom of conscience and free profession, practise and propagation of religion.

The Santhara verdict is the latest in a series of consistent judicial interventions that have reignited the secularism debate. On 24 July, an SC Bench disallowed a prayer for appearing for an examination wearing a hijab (headscarf ). On 6 July, another SC Bench came to the rescue of an unwed Christian mother by ruling that she can be the sole legal guardian of her child without the father’s consent.

The intersection of religion and freedom is fraught with politics. The BJP wants a Uniform Civil Code but it does not know how to or when to implement it. The Congress, singed by the Shah Bano episode, is once bitten, twice shy. That leaves us with the Left; pushing for a Uniform Civil Code should have been right up its alley but it has tied itself up in knots. For a party that described the late Rajiv Gandhi’s stand on Shah Bano as a blatant concession which goes totally contrary to the essence of secular polity, the CPM has since shifted tack by extending a qualified support to Uniform Civil Code and instead seeking reform in various personal laws.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a non-government organisation, has weighed in on the debate by pushing for changes in the Muslim personal law so that they reflect the times we live in. In a recent survey conducted by the NGO, an overwhelming majority of the Muslim women respondents sought a ban on oral triple talaq and wanted the government to intervene in the matter should the Muslim clergy not be amenable to change.

We would do well to ponder what historian Romila Thapar said: Secularism is not the absence of religion from society but the Indian interpretation of secularism to mean coexistence of religions has not prevented some religions from getting marginalised.

ramachandran@tehelka.com

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