Is Hindutva a way of life? Revisiting Supreme Court's two-decade-old judgement

BJP states "only a jaundiced eye can find fault" with Justice Verma's judgement

The Supreme Court will on Tuesday take up its two-decade-old controversial ‘Hindutva judgement’ in which the court ruled that seeking vote in the name of Hinduism or using religion for electoral gains is not a corrupt practice. The three-judge bench led by Justice JS Verma had in 1995 held that “Hindutva/Hinduism is a way of life of the people in the sub-continent” and “is a state of mind”.

What the 1995 judgement said

“These Constitution Bench decisions, after a detailed discussion, indicate that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms Hindu, Hindutva and Hinduism; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage. It is also indicated that the term Hindutva is related more to the way of life of the people in the subcontinent.”

The origin of the word ‘Hindu’:

In an analysis by Ram Jethmalani, the eminent lawyer states that throughout India’s ancient history, the word ‘Hindu’ was never meant to denote religion. “It was a geographic and cultural term used by the Greeks, Persians and describe the people living by and beyond the river Sindhu. The Greeks modified Sindhu to Indos, and it is said that ancient Persian explorers dropped the letter S and called them Hindus.”

He also states how Muslim conquests used the term to distinguish between the original inhabitants of the land from the invaders. In the first census of India by the British in 1871, also defined “Hindu” as a term to encompass several religions that were not Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jain. “Thus, a term that originated to give geographical and cultural identity to a people, mutated through usage attributed by the rulers through the turbulent history of India, into a word connoting a religion, and that is how it stands today,” he writes in his article in Sunday Guardian.

Why Justice Verma gave the judgement?

Justice Verma’s rulings had come in response to cases filed against Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and party member Manohar Joshi, Maharashtra’s chief minister at the time, for violating Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, which prohibits “corrupt” election practices, including canvassing for votes in the name of religion.

The case was filed against Thackeray for a speech in Mumbai in November 1987 where he sought to teach a lesson to Muslims. “Anybody who stands against the Hindus should be worshipped with shoes,” Thackeray had said warning that people should keep in mind that this is a country of Hindus. Also in February 1990, Joshi’s speech of converting Maharashtra into a Hindu rashtra came under the scanner.

But Justice Verma refused to give a ruling against the two leaders and instead termed Hinduism as a way of life. Justice Verma said that the mere fact that these words (Hindutva or Hinduism) are used in speech would not bring them within the prohibition of sub-section (3) or (3A) of Section 123. “It may well be that these words are used in the speech to promote secularism and to emphasise the way of life of the Indian people and the Indian culture or ethos, or to criticise the policy of any political party as discriminatory or intolerant,” the court had ruled.

Other observations on Hindusim:

The case held significance as it gave a contrary view to a ruling pronounced by another bench of the Supreme Court just three months earlier in July. Four months after the verdict too, another Supreme Court bench asserted that a five-judge bench must examine the scope of inquiry when charges of “corrupt practices” are levelled.

Time and again, the issue has been raised in the apex court. Quoting the judgement, the Bharatiya Janata Party states that “only a jaundiced eye can find fault” with Justice Verma’s observations.