Politics

Kerala EC’s Decision To Bar Sabarimala From Poll Issues Is Anti-Free Speech

Members of Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam take part in a protest against the Supreme Court verdict. (Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • The bar on free speech should be restricted to hate speech or targeting of religious groups.

    An issue like Sabarimala cannot be declared no-go area when it is so important to so many devotees.

The Kerala Chief Election Commissioner, Teeka Ram Meena, has decided that bringing up the Sabarimala controversy would be a violation of the model code of conduct announced for the general elections.

You can also read this article in Hindi- सबरीमाला को चुनावों से दूर रखने का निर्णय अभिव्यक्ति की स्वतंत्रता के विरुद्ध

He announced that no campaign would be allowed in the name of god or religion, but this is a violation of basic democratic norms. It is one thing to stop hate speeches or the targeting of people based on religion, but surely an issue that bothers so many millions in Kerala and elsewhere cannot be barred from becoming an electoral issue?

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On what basis can the Election Commission ban anyone from raising an emotive issue in public before a vote? How is it democratic to tell voters that issues that seriously concern them should not be raised? When communists can polarise in the name of class, others in the name of caste, and yet others on issues related to job and other reservations, why must voters not be told about the real issues in Sabarimala, and how it amounts to denial of religious rights to a section of Hindus who worship Swami Ayyappa in a particular form in this specific temple?

The Sabarimala issue is a hot-button one in Kerala in the context of the Supreme Court’s ill-advised decision last year to open the temple to women in the 10-50 age group. This age group has largely voluntarily abstained from entering the temple to respect an age-old tradition, which celebrates Swami Ayyappa as a Naisthika Brahmachari, or eternal celibate. The Supreme Court has been inundated with review petitions, and it is not clear if the September 2018 verdict will be ultimately overturned.

Kerala will go to the polls on 23 April, in the third of the seven phases announced for the 17th Lok Sabha.

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There are no two ways about it: the constitutional right to free speech cannot be curtailed arbitrarily by the Election Commission just because it involves religion. There is nothing in the Constitution that says that votes must be sought only on economic issues, when issues of identity and faith are important to various groups at various points of time.

The bar on free speech should be restricted to hate speech or targeting of religious groups. An issue like Sabarimala cannot be declared no-go area when it is so important to so many devotees.

By this yardstick, no party should be promising a Ram temple or fighting to restore the Babri Masjid.

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The Election Commission, if it enforces this ill-thought-out ban, will force candidates in Kerala to use dog-whistles to raise the issue of Sabarimala. A ban will not work. It should rethink.

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