Sabarimala – it has been a burning issue since the Supreme Court gave its verdict on 28 September last year. The verdict took away the centuries-old tradition of restricting temple entry to women in the age group of 10 and 50 years.
As the country goes to elections, the Sabarimala issue will naturally be discussed and debated by voters, especially in Kerala, where devotees had to suffer because of the Communist government’s insistence on implementing the SC verdict.
But despite the obvious matter of Sabarimala drawing debate, the issue was flagged by the Election Commission. Parties were warned against using the Sabarimala issue in the run-up to the polls.
Malayalam actor and NDA candidate for Thrissur constituency, Suresh Gopi, recently received a notice for allegedly appealing for votes in the name of Ayyappa, violating Section 123 of the Representation of the People's Act.
It is clear from the video that the actor-turned-politician did actually not ask for votes in the name of Ayyappa, but only “in the context of Sabarimala."
Now... how the Commission came to say that Gopi’s statement violated the moral code of conduct is a separate question. But the Election Commission telling candidates which issues they should discuss and which they should avoid during campaigning is absurd.
If Sabarimala is an important issue for Hindus in Kerala, so be it. The Commission would be wrong to put a pin in it.
The Representation of People’s Act, which looks into matters of speech during elections, says that hate speeches and calls for violence are no-go areas. But Sabarimala falls into neither category. That’s why the Sabarimala diktat by the Commission can only be seen as stifling free speech.
Meddling with a candidate’s campaign by trying to determine what sounds sectarian and what doesn’t, should not be the concern of the Election Commission, a constitutional body with a larger mandate.
We saw this happening even in Yogi Adityanath’s case. By hauling up the UP chief minister for his reference to ‘Modi ji ki sena’ or Kerala’s Suresh Gopi for raising the Sabarimala issue, the Commission is undermining its credibility to enforce the moral code of conduct.
So here’s what we should remember: freedom of speech is integral to elections - the voters and candidates have the right to talk about what’s important to the electorate - that is the essence of a healthy democracy. Preventing debate on issues, on the other hand, would be the wrong way to go about elections.
If you ask me, the Election Commission’s time would be better used in trying to conduct free and fair elections - which is its mandate - instead of deciding how the electorate must think or who to vote for.
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