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Not quite the bogeyman

Not quite the bogeyman

Author: Rakesh Sinha
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: June 9, 2000

THE UP Religious Places and Buildings Regulation Bill has been with the President of India awaiting his consent for the last three months.

It has spurred the Muslim clergy and politicians to launch an offensive campaign against the BJP government for "imposing the RSS constitution on the country".

The Bill has been discursively treated as a plank by the Muslim organisations to consolidate their support base by projecting it as "an engine of torture and an effort to interfere with the profession and practice" of Islam. There is a remarkable parallel between the campaign against the Supreme Court judgment on the Shah Bano case and the mode of mobilisation used by these organisations now.

Uttar Pradesh is not the first State to promulgate a law which requires the permission of the District Magistrate for any construction or use of building for religious purposes. It is, in fact, a progeny of the Rajasthan Religious Buildings and Places Act, 1954, and the Madhya Pradesh Sarvajanik Dharmik Bhawan Tatha Sthan Viniyaman Adhiniyam, 1984. The opposition to the UP Bill can, therefore, be seen as a way to score quick points against the BJP.

Those opposing the Bill have now made a subtle shift in their approach by including the demand to repeal the laws which have existed for decades in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Maulana Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, who accused the Sangh parivar for aspiring to "subjugate the Muslim community through the UP Bill", asked Sonia Gandhi to persuade the Congress-ruled states to abolish the law. He presumably believes that unless these states scrap the prevailing law, the campaign against "Sangh Fascism" will not take off.

At the focus of the campaign against the UP Religious Bill is the Sangh parivar. A memorandum to the President signed by JNU professors stated that the Bill is "an excuse to give unfettered power to the District Magistrates so that they can be used to serve the purposes of the RSS." Contrary to their claim, the UP government has tried to make the Bill more liberal than the laws prevalent in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Unlike in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the collector has unconstrained powers to permit or deny the construction or use of buildings for religious purposes, his jurisdiction is to be limited in UP. He can deny permission only if it is in the interest of public order, morality and health, or if it interferes with the rights of any other religious denomination to freely profess and practise its faith.

Such limitations on the powers of the executive make the Bill more in consonance with the fundamental rights concerning with religious freedom. Both the provisions keep in mind "public order, morality and health". Article 25 states that "nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the state from making any law". In the case of Masud Alam vs Commissioner of Police (Calcutta), for instance, the court reaffirmed that Article 25 is subject to "public order, morality and health" when it banned loudspeakers for prayer.

While the Rajasthan Act and the Madhya Pradesh Act are comprehensive in nature - they cover all buildings, even those which were in use before the laws were enacted - the UP Bill does not apply to buildings used for a religious purpose before the commencement of the act. Also, unlike the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh versions, the UP Bill does not envisage to be applicable to any temporary religious activity, ceremonies and processions.

The enactment of the law in Rajasthan during the Congress regime was made incumbent by "anti-national activities along the Indo-Pak border through the misuse of mushrooming places of worship". ISI activities, particularly along the Indo-Nepal border, became the immediate cause for pushing for a law in UP similar to that already in place in Rajasthan. This explanation led the anti-Bill campaigners to dub the move as an attack on mosques and madarsas.

That large-scale ISI activities do take place in Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh is a reality. It would be preposterous to dub it as "saffron propaganda". The protection of the rights of minorities is prerequisite for a secular democratic system. However, it is indiscreet to consider that there is a dichotomy between minority rights and national interests.

The fact is that this Bill would effect the majority community more than the minorities. Hindu forms of worship involve use of public places and any dispute would stop the religious activities in such places. The Bill also includes in its jurisdiction the three disputed places, Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura, and the law would be another obstacle for the VHP to construct a permanent temple in Ayodhya.

The law will help Uttar Pradesh to tackle the land mafia who are busy grabbing land by creating "temple trusts". It will also be a deterrent to the "investment" of black money in the form of donations. In fact, all the states should enact such laws to empower themselves against the misuse of religion.

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