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'Babri case will decide what happens to secularism'

September 25, 2019 18:57 IST

'What is at stake is not one mosque or temple, it is the question of the principle of secularism which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution as declared even by the Supreme Court of India.'

IMAGE: The workshop for the proposed Ram Janambhoomi temple in Ayodhya. Photograph: ANI Photo

The Supreme Court of India is expected to deliver its verdict in the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid case in two months's time, a decision that has far-reaching implications for the nation.

Dr Madhav Godbole was India's home secretary when the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992. Soon after he sought voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service.

Now based in Pune, Dr Godbole has just published his latest book, The Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir Dilemma -- An acid test for India's Constitution.

"India alone as a country can show to the world that you can live as a secular country even though you have a number of religions actively participating in the country," Dr Godbole tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

 

The verdict in the case is due any time now, so why have you come out with your book at this time?

My book has got nothing to do with the judgment. My own feeling was this issue should be resolved by compromise between the two parties. This is not something that should have been decided by the court.

I was hoping the mediation would finally succeed. It did not succeed, therefore it finally went to court.

Were you hopeful at any point of time that a compromise could come about?

I have written in the book that on the basis of past experience it was clearly an untenable position to expect any kind of mediation or a compromise.

Both sides had taken very firm positions and did not want to compromise on anything at all.

I had hoped that as time passed wiser counsel would prevail and they would see the issue in the larger perspective and be prepared to compromise. Maybe that was my fond hope.

Who was more adamant: The Hindu side or Muslim side that ruled out a compromise?

They were equally adamant. Both were producing experts and historians on their side. Both would take absolutely uncompromising positions.

I sat through those negotiations at that time and I have given a full account of that in my earlier book, Unfinished Innings and briefly in this book too. It was totally disappointing.

Why have you used the phrase 'acid test' in your book's title?

What is at stake is not one mosque or temple, it is the question of the principle of secularism which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution as declared even by the Supreme Court of India.

The question of what happens to secularism is going to be decided from (the outcome of) this case. Therefore, I call it as an acid test.

Also, the fact that the demolition of the Babri Masjid -- as I have written in one chapter of my book -- was entirely because none of the Constitutional functionaries discharged their responsibilities, and if that happens the Constitution can never survive.

The Constitution provides you only a framework of governance, but ultimately that governance has to be provided by people who man those institutions.

And in this particular case (the Babri Masjid demolition), starting from the Supreme Court, central government, state government, governor, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, civil services, everybody failed.

Therefore, it is an acid test if the same thing will happen again or whether we are going to really work with the Constitution the way it is meant to be.

What is the acid test for the Constitution when then UP chief minister Kalyan Singh gave an affidavit to the Supreme Court that he would protect the Babri Masjid, but didn't do so, and worse he was never punished for this act?The Constitution did fail after the Babri Masjid was demolished, isn't it?

But one can survive and live only on hope. I have raised this question (in my book) if another Babri Masjid kind of situation arises, will we be successful or not?

My categorical reply was 'no' unless we do the following and one of the things is commitment to secularism and commitment to rule of law.

This is not something totally alien to Indians, but it is something as part of the Indian Constitution. This is what the Indian Constitution asks us to do, but we have failed to do.

When the person who is leading the rath yatra leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid goes on to become deputy prime minister of India, and someone like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who aroused the mobs on December 5, 1992, in a speech against the Babri Masjid, becomes the prime minister, what is left of Indian secularism that we want to hold on to now?

There is still the Supreme Court. There is still a strong civil society. There is a fairly strong media which is there to safeguard all of these values. I am looking at them to safeguard (secularism).

But elected representatives are the most powerful and yet, if you have such elected representatives, what do you do?

Elected representatives can be held in check only by institutional arrangements. Ultimately, what is democracy? Democracy is what the institution dictates, the rule of law dictates. That should dictate for everybody, including elected representatives.

You mention in your book that India's secular character will never be finished.

That is true and that is my hope.

After Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's victory in the 2019 election and the election of terror accused Sadhvi Pragya by more than 300,000 votes, is there any secular character left in India or has it been extinguished forever?

I don't think the secular character of India is over. There is a strong section of Indian society which unfortunately is keeping quiet. They are believers in secularism.

My own feeling is that this strong silent majority needs to be heard, but unfortunately several of them are not speaking out, which they ought to.

I have read several statements of Prime Minister Modi and especially on Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas and I have quoted that in one chapter. I hope that is going to be the new direction to government policies.

You write in your book about separation of religion from politics. Prime Minister Modi meditates on polling day, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is always doing puja in front of television cameras.
Do we see such things in a secular State, say, like Great Britain? So are we really a secular country?

I have a different view on this. Doing puja and meditation should remain an individual act confined to his own home. If the prime minister wants to meditate in a particular place, obviously the media will go there and give publicity.

The question is not that, but whether in public life religion should count or not. This is really the crux of secularism in a country like ours which is a multi-religious country. That is what I have emphasised in my book.

India will be a unique case where we can live peacefully even if there are a number of competing religions in society. Let there be a personal religion and family religion as part of it, but (let it) not influence public policy.

Do such prime ministerial actions like meditating on election day demolish the secular character of India?

No, I don't think so. Please go through the discussions in the Constituent Assembly. Why did the Constituent Assembly not agree to India's being called a secular Constitution? Because their worry was secularism will be interpreted in the same way as secularism in the West from which this concept was derived.

Indian secularism is not Western secularism. It is not the separation of Church from the government. This is a highly religious society. Be it Hindu religion, Muslim religion or Christian religion, all of them have highly religious precepts laid down for their followers. And that should not be compromised.

In fact, if there are some good values which are picked up from religion and incorporated in politics that will be very good for the country. Therefore, separation of religion from politics does not mean doing away with religion.

It means doing away with religion so far as public dealing is concerned and electioneering is concerned.

Globally, if you see countries like Israel, Egypt or even the former Yugoslavia, they wanted to separate religion from the State. These were religious countries like India, but all of them failed as a secular State. Rightist politics won finally in these countries.

That is precise my point. Israel is a country which is hardly secular.

India alone as a country can show to the world that you can live as a secular country even though you have a number of religions actively participating in the country. There is no other example.

Is it because Hinduism is tolerant by nature, believes in pluralism and does not believe in conversion?

It is not Hindus alone who have to be secular or pluralistic in their outlook. All religions will have to be. Whatever they are!

SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com
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