A debate on constitutional morality would help the nation
Debates have gone out of fashion in Parliament. That is one of the markers of the decline of democratic political culture in India; the place of debates has been taken by shouting, rushing about and walking out at the drop of a hat. But it is difficult to kill off debate in a country that has, however imperfectly, become acquainted with a sense of what democracy means. So the site of the debate may shift. The Union minister for law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, asked in his speech on National Law Day, that the phrase “constitutional morality” that is being reiterated by the Supreme Court nowadays, be clarified, and not be perceived to differ from judge to judge. For philosophical, juridical, and even parliamentary debate, this is a substantial issue. Its immediate context appears to be the Sabarimala judgment, in which four judges out of five reportedly felt that allowing women of reproductive age into the Ayyappa temple, against customary practice, was in accordance with constitutional morality. One judge dissented, saying reportedly that people should be allowed to practise their religion as they feel fit; that was, presumably, the constitutional spirit.
The possibility of debate, however serious and necessary, is unfortunately assailed by rather awkward facts. There is a strong belief that the massive protests against the Supreme Court ruling on Sabarimala entry in Kerala were managed by right-wing forces. For such forces, the association with whom Mr Prasad cannot disown, the dissenting judge’s comment needs to be bruited abroad. The logic of the majority, on which the Bharatiya Janata Party relies to silence dissent, must be turned on its head by a representative of the government in this case to give free rein to the BJP’s value system. That allows quiet support of the killing of members of minority communities and underprivileged backward castes in the name of cow protection or child-lifting, the murder of rationalists and journalists as well as the arrest of rights activists, critics and dissenters under charges of sedition and anti-nationalism. The assertion of constitutional morality by the Supreme Court, even if from different viewpoints, cannot be pleasing to the upholders of such values. A debate on this would help the nation. It is to be hoped that the law minister is not merely undermining the Supreme Court’s seriousness.