“Essential Religious Practices” and the Rajasthan High Court’s Santhara Judgment: Tracking the History of a Phrase

This week, the Rajasthan High Court held that the Jain practice of santhara – a ritual of “voluntary and systematic fasting to death” was illegal, since it amounted to abetment to suicide (criminalised under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code).

There are many issues that arise out of this judgment. This was a PIL filed by a ‘lawyer’ who had no connection with, and was not affected in any way by santhara. The Court’s decision to issue notice and hear the case on merits demonstrates yet again that PIL has been entirely cast off from its moorings: the loosening of standing rules was intended to ensure the representation of those who could not represent themselves. By now, it is used to  transform the Court into a super-legislature, where any social question might be agitated by any person (something similar is ongoing in the Supreme Court, in the Kamlesh Vaswani anti-porn petition). The Court’s analysis of whether santhara is equivalent to suicide is fraught with problems as well. In this essay, however, I will focus on another part of the Court’s judgment: its finding that santhara did not constitute an “essential religious practice” for the Jains, and consequently, was not protected by Article 25 of the Constitution. The Court held:

“We do not find that in any of the scriptures, preachings, articles or the practices followed by the Jain ascetics, the Santhara or Sallekhana has been treated as an essential religious practice, nor is necessarily required for the pursuit of immortality or moksha.”

The essential practices test has been used consistently by the courts at least since 1957. The test allows the Court to initiate a judicial enquiry into whether or not an impugned religious practice is an “essential practice”, independent of what the religion’s adherents themselves say about it. Commenting upon the Supreme Court’s use of the test, Jacobsohn has insightfully noted that it has become “an internal level of reform”: by holding that certain regressive practices do not constitute “essential” parts of a religion, the Court not only denies them constitutional protection, but also takes upon itself the task of recharacterising the religion in a more progressive light, and, in a sense, create new social facts through its holdings. Naturally, for these very reasons, the test has met with fierce criticism. The judiciary, it is argued, possesses neither the competence nor the legitimacy to decide what constitutes an “essential practice”; it is not, after all, “the Supreme Court of Hinduism” (Galanter)  These criticisms are powerful ones, but in this essay, I want to ask a different question. The Constitution does not mention the term “essential religious practice”: it grants protection to the right to practice, profess and propagate one’s religion, not just to engage in the “essential practices” of religion. So where does this concept comes from?

We can find a clue in the Constituent Assembly Debates. On the 2nd of December, 1948, Ambedkar delivered a speech in the Constituent Assembly where, among other things, he observed:

“The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved, I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill. I do not think it is possible to accept a position of that sort. There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious. It is not necessary that the sort of laws, for instance, laws relating to tenancy or laws relating to succession, should be governed by religion.”

Ambedkar’s use of the term “essentially religious”, therefore, was in response to a very specific concern. He was worried that unlike in the West, with its seemingly clear demarcation between the City of God and the City of Man, there was no aspect of Indian life which was untouched by religion. Consequently, insofar as the Constitution protected religion and personal laws, there was a very real risk that it would entirely hamstring the State’s power to pass social legislation. He was, therefore, adamant that there must be a separation between religious activities, and secular activities tinged with religion. The latter could have no constitutional immunity from legislation. In Ambedkar’s formulation, it is clear the word “essentially” qualified “religious”, and was designed to separate the religious from the secular.

The wording of Article 25 responds to Ambedkar’s concern. Unlike Article 19, where the main Article lists out the fundamental freedoms (Article 19(1)), followed by the scope of reasonable restrictions (Articles 19(2) – 19(6)), Article 25 starts off with limitations: “Subject to public order, morality and health, and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

At this point, the following question may be raised: with the limitations built into the right to freedom of religion, is there any further need for Amedkar’s proposed demarcation between that which is “essentially religious” and that which is not? Surely, social and welfare legislation could be justified under the “public order, morality and health” categories. In fact, the very structure of the Article – specifying both the right and its restrictions – ought to preclude threshold enquiries separating the religious from the non-religious (this is the form of rights-adjudication practiced in South Africa, for instance).

Notwithstanding the presence of limitations, however, there might still be a role for the threshold enquiry. To start with, as Ambedkar pointed out, if every sphere of existence has religious significance, then there seems little point in a constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of religion in the first place. Secondly, prima facie constitutional protection places a heavy burden of justification upon the State, and if every regulatory law has to run the gauntlet of the “public order, morality and health” tests, many might not survive. And thirdly, the expressive significance of holding something to be a fundamental right protected by the Constitution might well require a threshold enquiry to ascertain whether the reason why the Constitution protects religion in the first place, ought to extend to the practice under question.

The first few judgments after the coming into force of the Constitution did use “essentially religious” in the sense that Ambedkar had used it. In Lakshmindra Swamiar (1954), the Supreme Court held that “what constitutes the essential part of a religion is primarily to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines of that religion itself. If the tenets of any religious sect of the Hindus prescribe that offerings of food should be given to the idol at particular hours of the day, that periodical ceremonies should be performed in a certain way at certain periods of the year or that there should be daily recital of sacred texts or oblations to the sacred fire, all these would be regarded as parts of religion and the mere fact that they involve expenditure of money or employment of priests and servants or the use of marketable commodities would not make them secular activities partaking of a commercial or economic character; all of them are religious practices and should be regarded as matters of religion within the meaning of article 26(b).”

For the Court, therefore, “essential” marked the border between the religious and the secular. These observations were repeated that same year in Ratilal vs State of Bombay, where the Court added that “no outside authorities has any right to say that these are not essential parts of religion and it is not open to the secular authority of the State to restrict or prohibit them in any manner they like under the guise of administering the trust estate.”

Three years later, however, in Ram Prasad Seth vs State of UP, the Allahabad High Court put a very different gloss on things. UP Government regulations, which prohibited bigamous marriages to those in public employment, were challenged on the grounds of Article 25. It was argued that the Hindu religion allowed certain funeral rites for a deceased individual to be performed only by sons. Consequently, it was imperative for a Hindu individual to have a son, and sometimes, bigamy was the only way of achieving this. In response, the Court analysed certain important Hindu religious texts, and on the basis of analysis, held that “[bigamy] cannot be regarded as an integral part of a Hindu religion… the acts done in pursuance of a particular belief are as much a part of the religion as belief itself but that to my mind does not lay down that polygamy in the circumstances such as of the present case is an essential part of the Hindu religion.”

Here is the key shift: the word “essential” has gone from qualifying the nature of the practice (i.e., whether it is religious or secular), to qualifying its importance (within the religion) – i.e., from whether something is essentially religious to whether it is essential to the religion. It is a minor grammatical shift, but with significant consequences, because it allows the Court to define questions that are internal to religion in a judicial enquiry, and thereby define the nature of the religion itself.

The Supreme Court adopted this interpretation one year later, in Qureshi vs State of Bihar, holding that the sacrifice of a cow on the occasion of Id was not an essential religious practice for Muslims: “We have… no material on the record before us which will enable us to say, in the face of the foregoing facts, that the sacrifice of a cow on that day is an obligatory overt act for a Mussalman to exhibit his religious belief and idea. In the premises, it is not possible for us to uphold this claim of the petitioners.” The Court further entrenched this position in 1962, in Syedna Saifuddin, while striking down a law that prohibited excommunications. The Court held that Article 25(2), which allowed the State to pass reform legislation, “is intended to save the validity only of those laws which do not invade the basic and essential practices of religion which are guaranteed by the operative portion of Art. 25(1).” Four years later, this attitude seemed to have become such an undisputed part of judicial wisdom, that Chief Justice Gajendragadkar was able to devote an entire judgment to answering the central questions: who is a Hindu, and what constitutes Hinduism?

We can see, therefore, that the essential practices test did not originally mean what it has come to mean now. At this point, however, another objection might be raised: does not the question of whether a particular practice is religious or secular involve as much judicial interference as the question of whether it is essential to a religion? The answer is: not necessarily. In its early judgments, the Court held that this question could only be settled by the tenets of the religion itself, which does not necessarily mean judicial enquiry into what those tenets say. In other jurisdictions, the Court only asks whether a particular practice is “sincerely held” by its adherent, a question that requires it to go into the adherent’s past behaviour and conduct, but not into the substantive nature of the practice itself. A purely subjective test, however, might simply smuggle back in Ambedkar’s fundamental worry: that religion could now be invoked to cover every aspect of a person’s life. A possible answer to this was suggested by Justice Sinha in his dissenting judgment in Syedna Saifuddin, holding that practices that directly impacted a person’s enjoyment of his civil rights that were guaranteed by law (as excommunication did), would not be given constitutional protection.

I cannot here go into a full analysis of Justice Sinha’s fascinating proposal. What I hope to have established is that in its present form, the essential practices test is based on an interpretive mistake: it misinterprets what Ambedkar said, as well as the early judgments of the Supreme Court itself. This, coupled with the institutional problems that it creates, should be enough for a fundamental reappraisal of this test within the scheme of Indian constitutional jurisprudence.


26 thoughts on ““Essential Religious Practices” and the Rajasthan High Court’s Santhara Judgment: Tracking the History of a Phrase

  1. I cannot agree more to your arguments but, I only have one question to ask whether the judiciary can interfere in a religion if a particular religious practice is retrograde? I mean if a religion is not evolving in the light of present humanistic understanding then what is the way out for its adherents?

    • If you believe that State of Bombay vs Narasu Appa Mali was correctly decided – i.e., personal laws are not subject to fundamental rights – then the only way out for the adherents is to petition the legislature to make a law banning or otherwise regulating the practice.

      My own view is that Narasu Appa Mali was wrongly decided, and religious interdicts should be subject to at least the core fundamental rights.

  2. Hello Gautam Sir, I am following your blog from Last six months and i must say you are doing great job. I am glad I found your blog when I was searching material for basic structure doctrine. Thank you 😊 so much for helping people like me to understand socio-legal aspect of any ruling of Courts. Many Regards Amit Gupta A law student

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s