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Drawing the line

Religious institutions shall remain above politics, the Constitution states.

In implementing this constitutional provision, the election commission has stated that lams, monks and lay monks cannot join a political party or participate in the electoral process. They must remain above politics and cannot use their influence for the benefit of any party or candidate. 

For Bhutan, keeping religion above politics has to date meant keeping out religious personalities from participating in the electoral process. After two parliamentary elections, Bhutanese would have understood that this provision refers to the behaviour of religious personalities and not to Buddhism or any other religion as a spiritual practice.

Politicians visiting monasteries, rolling the die and starting their campaigns after visiting monasteries show that religion is held at a higher realm, above politics.

The issue of religion and politics has grey areas and debates on keeping religion separate from politics have arisen since the draft Constitution was made public. With time, more could arise even if we claim to know more given our experience of conducting two rounds of parliamentary elections. 

For the 2013 elections, the election commission issued a public notification informing individuals and religious organisations to refrain from engaging in religious events and activities that involve presence of public. In March this year, ahead of the national council elections, the commission issued a public advisory informing all institutions including religious organisations to avoid religious or any other event involving the public from February to May and August to October this year. 

These advisories may not be foolproof but are measures the commission takes for the cause of democracy, to ensure free and fair elections and in keeping with the Constitution.

The recent case of election officials taking back the voter photo identity cards of some 15 lay monks in Samdrupjongkhar must be understood in this context. The lay monks may have voted in the past elections because there were no objections or claims made to the commission. There are no records to show for instance, how many people are registered as lay monks. 

While the commission does update its electoral roll to ensure that those who are ineligible to vote aren’t on the list, the task is easier said than done. It draws its records from the civil registry and there have been instances when the electoral roll reflected those who were no longer alive. It is time we address this apathy – be it to vote or to update the civil registry.

But even as efforts are made to separate religion from politics, we cannot dismiss its influence on politics. Some claim that this is already happening. But politics is subordinate to religion and the Constitution requires the people, not just the election commission, to keep the two separate. 

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