The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) plans to organise 700 shobha yatras to celebrate Ram Navami across South Bengal on April 14, just four days before the second phase of the general elections. Given that these yatras have a history of inflaming communal passions and leading to large scale violence, shouldn't the Election Commission step in and put an end to the Sangh Parivar's hateful and divisive agenda?
Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times
How Shobha Yatras led to Communal Violence in 2018
Just last year, several shobha yatras or religious processions were taken out on the streets of several villages, towns and cities in Bihar and West Bengal to celebrate Ram Navami. However, far from being peaceful celebrations that bring people together, these shobha yatras were a vulgar exercise of domination, an attempt to establish the supremacy of one community over others. This power play saw sword wielding men march through minority dominated neighbourhoods even as communally inflammatory songs were played on loudspeakers. What ensued was a series of violent clashesranging from stone pelting, to burning business establishments, to full scale rioting that left scores injured and many dead including the sixteen year old son of the Imam of Asansol. Now all of this could happen again, bang in the middle of election season!
This year yatras will take place in places like Kolkata, Barrackpore, Serampore, Naihati, Bolpur, Suri, Jhargram, Kultali, Howrah, Contai, Tamluk, Ranaghat, Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, Asansol, Durgapur, Krishnanagar, Kharagpur, Raniganj and Raiganj among other places. Many of these areas have a significant minority population. It is clear that the yatras are a ploy to gain political capital by polarising a communally sensitive vote bank. Also, this is a clear violation of the Election Code of Conduct and provisions of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951.
What does the Law say
According to the Election Model Code of Conduct rules, “No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” Additionally, “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, Churches, Temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.”
Also, section 123 (2) (b) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 prohibits "The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidates or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of, or appeal to religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate: 7[Provided that no symbol allotted under this Act to a candidate shall be deemed to be a religious symbol or a national symbol for the purposes of this clause.]"
Section 123 (3A) of the act prohibits "The promotion of, or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language, by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate."
Section 125 of the Act further states that, Promoting enmity between classes in connection with election.—Any person who in connection with an election under this Act promotes or attempts to promote on grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language, feelings of enmity or hatred, between different classes of the citizens of India shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both."
The BJP has already been stirring the communal pot quite a bit and yet getting away with just a light slap on the wrist from the Election Commission. From Amit Shah's take on removing "infiltrators"tweeted from the official twitter handle of the BJP, to UP CM Adityanath's Ali vs Bajrangbali remark at a rally, to the PM's own assertion at an election rally in Wardha that a Hindu could never be a terrorist, implying only non-Hindus were capable of violence, the list keeps growing. It is time that the EC asserted its autonomy and took strict action against sich hateful and divisive politics. The EC must ban the VHP's upcoming shoba yatras.