Historically, the State has always kept its distance from Religion. Accepting the importance of organised religion in an individual’s life, the value of the belief and respecting the faith a citizen has are some of the reason for this demarcation. Avoiding the chaos of clashing with religious rules and guidelines for the sake of governance is another reason for it.
Maneka Gandhi came out for this demarcation in a recent interview with the Indian Express. The Minister for Women and Child Development who has been championing the Animal rights movement in India went on to say, “Some things should be left outside the government’s purview. Let the society decide on it. In this particular case, it is about religion and I am not sure the state should intrude. In all democracies, there is a clear demarcation between religion and the state.”
This fine line, one may remember, was crossed in the Shah Bano case of 1985. Shah Bano, a 78-year-old Muslim woman had filed a criminal case in the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in her favour, granting her the right to alimony from her ex-husband. The Congress government, under Rajiv Gandhi, passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which limited the alimony to the period of Iddat, which is 3 months. This was later challenged in 2001, where the Shah Bano judgement was upheld.
This demarcation between the state and the religion is hailed as an important separator, with the view that religion is a matter between an individual and his/her God. It is supposed to reduce the influence which any religion might exert on a believer in the government.
On the other hand, we have the example of a Uniform Civil Code in effect in Goa. Under this, whatever the religion of a person might be, all fall under the ambit of these laws. The code does have a few provisions based on religion, for example Hindu men are allowed bigamy, but only if their first wife fails to produce an heir by 25 years of age or a male heir by 30.
This civil code upholds the separation between religion and the state, making all citizens equal in the eyes of the law. A similar code of personal law was envisioned in 1979 for the whole of India, but that initiative is yet to bear any fruit.
Maneka Gandhi’s response, while diplomatically distant, represents the hesitancy of Indian politicians to tackle the problem of religion infringing upon the democratic processes of the country. Every passing year gives us new examples of how religion, while not influencing, gets manipulated to secure the vote banks at play in the Indian democracy. With rampant discrimination being practiced by religious places across the country, what will it take for our leaders to move beyond the petty politics and work towards truly making the citizens of this country equal?
Ranveer Raj Bhatnagar