No, the Allahabad high court judge did not make the statement he made, in casual fashion, at a seminar or a university debate. It was incorporated in a formal verdict he delivered from the bench; he invoked the Constitution to inform each and all that it was the fundamental duty of a citizen of India to respect — and observe — the tenets laid down by the Bhagvad Gita.
Every tale has a beginning. The Constitution of India, as originally adopted towards the fag end of 1949, had a long and elaborate chapter on the Fundamental Rights. There was, however, no reference to any Fundamental Duties. During her authoritarian heyday in 1976, Indira Gandhi considered this to be a big lacuna: citizens in Nehru-Gandhi India must not be permitted to proceed in a go-as-you-like-it manner, they must conform to a code of discipline and be made aware of the duties and obligations they owe to the nation. The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act was post-haste put in the statute book. It added a new part to the Constitution, Part IV A, entitled Fundamental Duties, and set forth a new article, Article 51A, spelling out the fundamental duties the citizenry were expected to always keep in mind. The article is a prize collection of banalities, such as the admonition that Indian nationals must abide by the Constitution and respect the nation’s ideals and institutions, including the national flag and the national anthem. It ended with the stern message that each citizen must strive towards “excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity”.
Mischief was set afoot. We are, at the end of 31 years, being forced to realize the magnitude of folly Indira Gandhi had perpetrated. One of the Fundamental Duties mentioned in Article 51A enjoins citizens “to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom”. This exhortation in the Constitution has landed on the psyche of the Allahabad judge in the shape of a gorgeous serendipity. Among the noble ideals which inspired the country’s freedom movement, he has not the least doubt, are the teachings of Bhagvad Gita; it is therefore, in his judgement, the duty of every Indian citizen, irrespective of what religious faith he or she adheres to, to observe scrupulously the precepts laid down in the Gita; not to do so must invite punishment.
This is a preposterous formulation and makes nonsense of India’s claim to be a secular polity. It also cuts athwart what another clause in the same Article 51A ordains: citizens should “promote harmony and the spirit of brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities”. The interpretation of the article cannot be left to the idiosyncrasy of a particular judge. The government is obviously embarrassed, and has suggested that the judge’s remark be ignored.
Can the matter, however, be left in that state of limbo' Consider the implications if the judge’s firman is treated light-heartedly and is not contradicted in the most categorical terms by highest official quarters. It was, for example, common practice during Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meeting that readings would take place from both the Gita and the Quran, and often supplemented by recital of passages from the Bible and the Guru Granth. Once the Allahabad judge gets away with his indiscretion, it would be carte blanche for judicial quixotism. Were some other judge, taking the cue from the format of Gandhi’s prayer meetings, to offer his considered opinion that Indian citizens were expected to adhere to Christian tenets in their daily perambulations, the authorities would have no moral right to proceed against him. Or suppose some judge takes it in his head that Indian women must henceforth not be permitted to stray from the code of conduct laid down in the shariat, the government would once more be in a quandary. There might even be a judge who happened to belong to some masonry of the Seventh Day Adventists; he could any day come out with the edict that a citizen of India who fails to assert publicly his belief in the imminence of the second coming of Christ deserves to be defranchized.
These might be regarded as grotesque hypothetical possibilities unlikely to happen. But one grim spin-off of the Allahabad high court judge’s dictum is not at all fanciful. If no official steps are taken against the judge and the affair is sought to be hushed up, this or that terrorist group could jump at the opportunity handed to it to castigate our country: what additional datum is needed to prove that India is an out-an-out Hindu state where Muslims are being coerced to subscribe to preachings embedded in a wretched Hindu holy book' A ferocious communal combustion could well be the consequence; no testimonial from Robert Oppenheimer on the magnificence of the thoughts contained in the Gita would be of any help.
What needs to be said should be said. Men with mindsets like that of the judge adorning the Allahabad high court are dangerous and should be removed from the seat of judicial authority. Their presence within the precincts of the nation’s judiciary is a blot on India’s credentials as a secular State.
A number of courses of action are available to the authorities. The ministry of law can seek the advice of the chief justice of India. The latter may be persuaded to write to the chief justice of the Allahabad high court, requesting him to discuss the issue with the judge concerned. The judge could be urged to resign from his position with immediate effect. Provided he agrees to do so, he could be accorded full retirement benefits. To induce him to vacate his position, the government might even make an extraordinary gesture: he could be allowed a full monthly salary and other emoluments till he reaches the age of retirement, as well as protection of all pensionary benefits, in case he agrees to retire forthwith.
Should the judge be adamant, the authority would have no alternative but to initiate proceedings to remove him from office in the manner laid down in Clause (4) of Article 124 of the Constitution. A judge, the clause says, “cannot be removed from his office except by an order of the President passed after an address by each House of Parliament supported by a majority of the total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of that House present and voting has been presented to the President in the same session for such removal on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.”
This is precisely where we are confronted by the hard rock of Indian realpolitik. To remove the judge, the necessary initiative must obviously come from the ruling coalition in New Delhi. The possibility of any such initiative on its part is currently zero. A government which, fearful of raising the ire of sections of the country’s Hindu majority, cringes into conceding that Ram was not a fictional, but a historical, figure, can hardly be expected to draw proceedings for the removal of a high court judge who wants every Indian citizen to cherish the thoughts enshrined in the Bhagvad Gita.
Most remarkably, not one political party has come out with a statement expressing outrage at the judge’s assertion and demanding action against him. So much for our secular pretensions.