The role of the Supreme Court in Protecting and Sustaining Secularism

Ashwini Tallur and Satya Prasoon (CLPR), and Rahul Unnikrishnan, an Advocate in the Madras HC debate the question in the Wire

Is the tone of political discourse endangering secularism? Ashwini Tallur and Satya Prasoon from CLPR and Rahul Unnikrishnan, an advocate at the Madras High Court, debated this question in The Wire. On February 8th, the Supreme Court heard the Babri Masjid-RamMandir case., five days after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh flagged off a Yatra from Ayodhya to Rameshwaram to build support for a Ram Mandir on the disputed site.

Ashwini and Satya posited that the decision in the Abhiram Singh v Commachen case, in which Hindutva was declared a “way of life”, emboldened this type of action. The view of the RSS seems to have been that action rooted in the Hindu faith, which was a “way of life”, did not violate secularism (Section 123). This gave rise to the question – is the Supreme Court responsible for ensuring that the verdicts it delivers are not misinterpreted by the government?

Rahul Unnikrishnan, who assisted Arvind Datar in the Abhiram Singh v Commachen case disagreed. He argued that the principle of Separation of Powers precluded the Court from questioning the government’s stance on religious sites/actions. Constitutionally engagement with these topics could occur only if the government’s actions resulted in cases being brought before the Court.

The associates from CLPR agreed that the anxiety expressed about violating the Separation of Powers was valid. But equally important was for the Court to ensure that society at large understood and obeyed the spirit and the letter of the judgment. Furthermore, they said, the Court might have to eschew formality and initiate conversations necessary to safeguard Constitutional Values, including secularism.