October 31, 2018 @ 2:00 am

31st October 2018

Averting polarization

The Supreme Court has judiciously pushed back the timeline for a verdict on Ayodhya

By declining to fix until January 2019 a date for hearing the Ayodhya case, the Supreme Court has judiciously diminished the possibility of a final verdict before the next Lok Sabha election. The adjournment is both welcome and necessary, as it pushes back the prospect of any judgment in the run-up to the polls. It hardly needs reiteration that regardless of which way it goes, any verdict would polarise the nation. When a three-judge Bench refused to refer some questions of law in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute to a seven-member Bench last month, it raised the prospects of an early final hearing in the appeals filed against the Allahabad High Court’s judgment of 2010 in the main title suit. The court had then set October 29, 2018, for the next hearing. This had raised the hopes of aggressive proponents of Hindutva who have been expecting a favourable verdict for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. While it is true that courts should not tailor their timelines to election dates, it is equally important that religious sentiments are not stoked and exploited during election season. The decision of a Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to put off even the exercise of fixing a date for the final hearing is quite pragmatic. In the eyes of the law, this may be just a title dispute. However, given the divisive effect the Ram temple movement has had on the country’s politics and history, it would be unwise to equate this with any other judicial matter that can come up for disposal in due course.

A word of caution is in order. The postponement of the hearing does not preclude an aggressive campaign by those upset and impatient about what they see as a delay in achieving their objective of building a temple at the disputed site. Already there are voices clamouring, most imprudently, for an ordinance to enable the construction of a temple. These must be resisted, and the judiciary must be vigilant and resourceful in ensuring that the dispute remains within its jurisdiction. A solution, unless judicially driven, is unlikely to command constitutional legitimacy. Twenty four years ago the Supreme Court had resolutely refused to answer a controversial Presidential reference on whether a temple pre-existed the demolished masjid. It had restored the title suit and made it clear that the government is only a receiver of the land it had acquired in Ayodhya; and that it holds the land in trust, only to be handed over to the party that succeeds in the suit. This recourse to a judicial remedy should not be circumvented. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day address in 2014, had called for a 10-year moratorium on communal and sectarian issues. As long as he sticks to the spirit behind this appeal, it will not be legitimate for anyone to demand a pre-emptive law in favour of a temple.

Zia, cornered

The BNP suffers yet another setback as Bangladesh’s elections approach

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s conviction in yet another case of corruption imperils her Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s already meagre prospects in the coming parliamentary elections. She has been sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment. With her son and acting chairman of the BNP, Tarique Rahman, in exile, and convicted in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment for his alleged role in a grenade attack on an Awami League rally, the party’s leadership has been effectively crippled. It is no wonder that the BNP has formed an alliance, the Jatiya Oikya Front, with other minor parties, under the leadership of secular icon and civil society leader Kamal Hossain to bolster its fortunes in what looks like a lopsided battle against the entrenched Awami League. The Awami League and the BNP have rarely engaged each other as healthy political rivals. There has been no love lost between the leaders of the two parties, Ms. Zia and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: they have tended to view each other with a sense of vengeance. Yet it would be misleading to claim that the punitive actions ordered against the BNP’s leaders by the judiciary are entirely due to any pressure from the ruling party. The BNP’s last term in government, from 2001 to 2006, was marked by corruption, support for fundamentalism and repressive measures against the Opposition.

The BNP is now caught in a bind. It had boycotted the parliamentary election in 2014 to give the process a veneer of illegitimacy, leaving the Awami League as the only major political force in contention. But the BNP’s decision backfired. Bangladesh under Awami rule has recorded steady economic growth and has had creditable successes in welfare delivery and public health measures, seen tangibly in the lowered infant mortality and fertility rates and in sanitation. There have been some misgivings too, as Prime Minister Hasina has increasingly tended to be authoritarian and impatient with critics. While the judiciary has found the BNP’s leadership to be guilty of corruption and misdemeanours, the crackdown on the BNP rank and file, with thousands of activists targeted by the police, is a sign of the government’s overreach. A new digital security law, most ominously, has been passed with stringent punishment to anyone secretly recording state officials and spreading “negative propaganda” about the Liberation War, among other things. This manoeuvre is clearly intended to have a chilling effect on the Bangladeshi media. A healthy democracy must allow for differences of opinion. The government must not pursue this quasi-authoritarian bent at a time when its leading opposition has been emasculated. This would only help delegitimise the formal aspects of democracy, such as elections, among the government’s critics and the electorate.

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