Lessons From Bhutan: Is Separating Religion and Politics Prudent?

Bhutan, the tiny landlocked kingdom neighbouring India, made the shift from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008.

And the unilateral decision of the Kings to democratise the nation seems to have borne fruit, with Bhutan meeting its millennium development goals.

It now provides citizens with free primary health care services, basic infrastructure coverage, while managing to stay carbon neutral.

And though it is still categorised as a least-developed country (LDC), the nascent democracy has a few tenets in its constitution that can perhaps offer some lessons to older and much-larger democracies.

One such being the separation of religion and politics. Article 3 of its constitution states: “It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan. Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.”

Religion Above Politics

Bhutan’s constitution requires that religious personalities abstain from partaking in elections or electoral campaigning in any way.

So much so, that religious personalities and institutions are “expected to devote their efforts towards the promotion of peace and spiritual development for the society, without participation in the electoral process as a voter, candidate, member or supporter for a political party,” as pointed out in Kuensel, a local daily.

The reasoning behind this provision (opposed by some as undemocratic) is to ensure that the religious personalities and institutions remain above politics and uphold the Buddhist spiritual heritage of the nation.

A Kuensel editorial reasoned that religion is kept above politics in Bhutan because “earthly games like politics” are for “the lesser mortals.”

This was enforced in 2011, after the religious affairs ministry had barred Buddhist and Hindu clergy from voting “to keep a clear distinction between religion and politics.”

The commission’s notification, as per a Washington Post report, referred to a “noble national declaration” in the constitution “that provides for the political system to be secular where religion is elevated to the higher pedestal.

And while it is a constitutional requirement and not statutory, political leaders in the Buddhist nation had announced a nearly six-month ban on all public religious activities ahead of the 2012 elections.

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And Section 184 of the Election Act 2008 clearly bars all religious personalities, defined as “a Bhutanese citizen who is a monk, gomchen, nun, priest, sadhu, pundit, an ordained or a robed person of any religion, whether or not he or she is a member of any religious organisation or institution.”

Impeding Right to Vote?

Opponents of the Bhutanese religion-politics wall argue that it impedes on the absolute right to vote, which is also guaranteed by the constitution.

The debate was reignited recently when the country’s Election Commission had publicly stripped gomchens’ off their voter identifications.

Gomchens are mostly farmers who perform religious rituals only auspicious days. The poll body’s decision, as argued by a political observer quoted in a Kuensel report, was against one of the core philosophies of the Gross National Happiness – a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan.

“ECB’s decision to disqualify gomchens from voting would lead to not only shrinking the voter population but also was against Section 184 of the election Act, which states that the ‘laity’ can vote,” the observer said, as per the report. Gomchens, according to him, fall in the category of the laity.

Lessons for India?

Tenzing Lamsang, president of Media Association of Bhutan, had recently argued in favour of the religion-politics divide, citing India’s case as an example of the pitfalls of not doing so.

Also Read: Bhutan Parties Choose ‘Big Brother’ India Over Opportunist China

However, as is evident in the ongoing general elections, politics in India is inextricable linked to religion and emulating Bhutan seems highly improbable, if not impossible.

(With inputs from Kuensel, Washington Post, Scroll)

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