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MHA’s telegram to Kerala that sums up the Indian State’s relationship with religion

In 'Governance by Stealth', Subrata K. Mitra examines the durability and roles of India's Ministry of Home Affairs.

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No longer rulers of native folks, coming from a distant land, but very much sons of the soil themselves, Indian lawmakers and administrators knew religion for the powerful and potent force that it was, for the people of India. Citizens of an independent state, the people of India, were eager to take matters into their freshly enfranchised hands. The vigorous debate on religion as a fundamental right in the Constituent Assembly opens a window to the deep divisions in Indian society, as well as the basic consensus within which the Assembly, led by stalwarts like Ambedkar and Rajendra Prasad, functioned. The full debate on the issue is accessible on the Internet. A brief excerpt from a long, impassioned speech by a member of the Congress party affirmed the simultaneous commitment to the autonomy of religion and social reform that required state interference with that precious autonomy. The speaker held out the dire prospect of communal riots if the state failed to maintain a balance between the two. This long statement gives the flavour of the passions that the debate aroused. (See Archive File 9.1, Constituent Assembly Debate on Religion, in the Appendix.)

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The Assembly had to find a solution that would simultaneously respect the autonomy of religion, States’ rights, and the commitment to social justice— often at odds with the hierarchical and oppressive aspects of religion. This led to the double strategy of recognizing the salience of religious autonomy and, at the same time, placing this autonomy within the structure of orderly governance whose legitimacy was conditional on social justice and reform. Article 25, which lays down the basic principle behind the extension of the right to freedom of religion as a fundamental right, shows the effects of these contradictory intentions. The fundamental right to religion guarantees to all citizens:

Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, subject to public order, morality and health. However, nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the state from making any law. . . providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions to all classes and sections of Hindus. [Emphasis added.]

In view of the local salience of religion, and the imperative to place the local and regional within the framework of national norms, ‘Charities and charitable institutions, charitable and religious endowments and religious institutions’ were placed in the concurrent list (Seventh Schedule) in the federal division of powers. The rule that governs the federal division of powers is that both the region and the union can make laws with regard to these areas, but in case of a conflict, the central law will prevail. A corollary of this provision is that all State legislative acts dealing with religion would require presidential assent in order to be effective.

This gave the Home Ministry its room to manoeuvre. Indirectly connected to faith, practice, and ownership of religious property, the MHA became an intermediary between religion and the state during these foundational years. Unlike language, religion did not form part of the ministry’s mandate. So the maintenance of orderly rule became an alibi and a subterfuge for the ministry to reach out to religion. A case study, ‘Administration of religious property: A case-study from Travancore-Cochin (1958)’, that we discuss later offers valuable insights into the indirect ways in which the Home Ministry sought to induct its thinking into the administration of religion in everyday life. (See the excerpts from the case file, Archive File 9.2, in the Appendix.)

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The politics surrounding the management of Hindu temples in Kerala following the integration of princely states of Travancore–Cochin presents in a nutshell the thinking within the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Indian state, right from the outset, has been very careful in taking over control of Hindu religious institutions. This Transfer of Power with regard to the governance of sacred places, practice, and ritual passed from the hand of the unelected princes to the elected representatives of the people. This could have led to violent altercations. Instead, this was managed, as we shall see later, in a manner that was supple, gradual, and stealthy.

After the integration of Travancore and Cochin, the government of Kerala intended to enlarge the electorate by adding an elected member to the Devaswom board. The other two were nominated, respectively, by the ex-ruler of Travancore or Cochin and Hindu members of the cabinet. The State bureaucracy ‘saw no objection’ as it held that the State legislature was competent to amend the Act, and, after obtaining clearance from the Law Department, forwarded the draft to the MHA which determined that the proposal ‘seems to be free from objection’. However, union Home Minister Pant was not persuaded that the measure should be carried out through an ordinance, an expeditious measure that is adopted only in the case of urgency. The following comment in the file (Archive File 9.2, in the Appendix) contains his thinking. The Kerala legislature, he wrote, was to meet shortly, and could consider the bill through a proper debate. He was confident that the MHA could obtain the assent of the President ‘within a week of the receipt of the Bill’ and as such, ‘it should be possible to reconstitute the Devaswom Board without issuing any Ordinance before the meeting of the legislature.’ In the file, the statement was initialled by H.M., dated 19 June 1958. That closed the matter. A handwritten entry was then made to the file: ‘Telegram dated 20.6.58 from H.M. to Revenue Minister, Kerala, Trivandrum’.

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The Home Minister in effect vetoed the idea. The question that naturally comes to mind is why did Home Minister Pant, from far away Delhi, intervene directly in this matter taking place at a far corner of the country? Was it an act of prudence on his part, or was it rather an effort to deny the communist government of Kerala an opportunity to make a publicity stunt, and thus, to keep union government’s control firmly over the recalcitrant State? This the Union Home Ministry did by making full use of the powers that it got from the concurrent list. A potential conflict was avoided through a surreptitious, administrative manoeuvre by the Home Minister, who enjoyed close personal links with Prime Minister Nehru and, obviously, President Rajendra Prasad, whose assent would have been necessary.

This excerpt from ‘Governance by Stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Making of the Indian State’ by Subrata K. Mitra has been published with permission from Oxford University Press India.

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