The Indian Constitution’s religious freedom clauses (Articles 25 and 26) constitute an extremely complex web of relationships between individual, community and State. To navigate this web, the Courts have developed two broad doctrinal tools: a distinction between the religious and the secular, and the “essential religious practices” test. To achieve clarity on what is certainly a very confused aspect of Indian constitutional jurisprudence, it is important to map out the factual background within which these tools have been employed, the methodology used by the Court, and the manner in which the conclusion has been reached.
A look at the text of Articles 25 and 26 reveals that in order to effectively interpret what the Constitution requires, the Courts are required to – at least to some extent – ask and answer substantive questions about religion. Let us take a close look at the text:
Article 25(1) guarantees the right to freedom of conscience, and the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion. This right is made subject to a prefatory sub-clause, in the interests of “public order, morality, and health.” Article 25(1) is similar to the religious freedom clauses in other liberal commonwealth jurisdictions, and standing by itself, would present no unique interpretive difficulties. However, Article 25(2)(a) allows the State to make laws “regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” In some ways, the relationship between Article 25(1) and 25(2)(a) mirrors the relationship between Articles 26(b) and 26(d), which deal with the rights of religious denominations. Article 26(b) guarantees the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in matters of religion, and Article 26(d) allows the denomination to administer property in accordance with law (i.e., subordinating the right to manage property to State-made law).
What this scheme reveals is that the Constitution itself draws a distinction between the religious and the secular. Article 25(2)(a) provides three illustrations of the secular – the economic, the financial, and the political. 26(d) does something similar with the administration of property. Now if you think of situations where there is a dispute between the State and religious practitioners over whether a particular practice is, say, “political” or “religious”, the Constitutional text itself provides no further guidance on the issue. It is therefore clear that, ultimately, this is a question that the Courts must decide, and consequently, to an extent, the Courts will have to answer questions about whether something is religious or not.
Article 25(2)(b) further allows the State to make laws “providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.” There are at least four questions thrown up by the text. First – to what extent can the Court sit in judgment over whether a particular law is for “social welfare or reform”? Second – does such a law completely override religious freedom? Thirdly – what happens when a particular sect claims that it is not “Hindu”, and therefore not subject to the second part of Article 25(2)(b)? And fourthly – what happens when a Hindu temple claims that it is not of a “public character”? It is clear that the last two questions, at least, will require the Court to ask questions pertaining to the nature and character of religion.
With all these questions in mind, let’s consider the following Table, that attempts to map the manner of judicial intervention into religious questions:
On a close reading of the cases in the Table, the following aspects stand out.
- The Supreme Court’s religious freedom cases can be broadly divided into two types: cases involving State intervention into the management of temples, durgahs, maths, gurudwaras, which primarily include administration of estate, and appointment of officials; and cases involving the relationship between the members of religious communities, or practices of those members (beef eating, bigamy, excommunication, tandava dancing). Of course, the line might be blurred sometimes (Seshammal and Adithyan are examples).
- In the first decade of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, the religious/secular distinction was evolved to deal with the first type of case, and the essential religious practices test was invented to deal with the second type. As argued above, there is some justification for the Court dealing with the religious/secular question on the basis of the constitutional text itself (although one might disagree with how the Court has drawn the line), and the nature of the claims before it. However, the essential religious practices test was invented out of whole cloth. In fact, in each of the cases that used it – Narasu Appa Mali, Ram Prasad Seth, and Qureshi – there were alternative means, rooted in the constitutional text, available. In fact, in the first two cases, the Court expressly upheld the law on the basis of Article 25(2)(b) as well as holding that it was not an “essential religious practice.” In the third, the Court’s own reasoning would have allowed it to reach the same conclusion on the basis of the “health” restriction under Article 25(1).
- In Swamiar, the Supreme Court held that what practices are deemed religious will be decided on the basis of what the religion itself claims. This, very clearly, is an unworkable proposition. If the entire scheme of Article 25 and 26 is to draw a line between the religious and the secular, then the determination of what constitutes religion cannot, under the risk of vicious circularity, be left to the religion itself. This is evident from the fact that the Court, while paying lip service to the proposition throughout its history, has never seriously applied it. In Ratilal, for instant, the Jains argued that the whole point of temple property was its use for religious purposes. The Court simply dismissed the argument by asserting that management of property was incidental to religion, without substantiating the same. In Sardar Sarup Singh, the Court made a half-hearted attempt, stating in one line that no text had been produced to show that direct elections to the management committee were part of the Sikh religion. However, even in that case, the Court dodged the main issue by reframing it: it had been argued that the Management Committee performed religious functions. The Court expressed no opinion on that contention, but stated that the impugned provision was only about elections to the committee, and therefore, what the committee actually did (once elected) was irrelevant. This reasoning is unconvincing. Throughout its history, the Court has consistently failed to provide a set of principles to distinguish the religious from the secular. Instead, it seems to have decided the cases on a priori definitions that change with every judgment.
- In the 1960s, Gajendragadkar CJI substantially muddied the waters by invoking both tests together. In Durgah, which classically fell into the first category (management of estate), he conflated the two tests, and then further added another, holding that practices born out of mere “superstition” could not be considered religious (this proposition was disagreed with in Seshammal). Then, in Govindlalji – another estate management case – he first invoked the essential religious practices test, but applied it to draw a distinction between the religious and the secular. While in Seshammal the Court stuck to the religious/secular distinction, the confusion returned in Adithyan, and continues to this day.
- In determining what constitutes an “essential religious practice”, the Court has failed to lay down a set of consistent principles. It has often referred to Swamiar (again, a case in a different context), but has not applied it. In some cases, it has referred to texts such as the Quran, in others it has referred to judgments of the Privy Council, in still others it has looked at how old the practice is. Again, while paying lip service to Swamiar’s proposition that the religion itself should be allowed to determine what is religious, the Court has, effectively, arrogated to itself that power, relied upon sources of dubious authority, has never explained why it has chosen the sources that it has and ignored others – and most importantly – has elevated the essential religious practices test to the first, and often last, enquiry that it conducts.
- Each of the cases that the Court decided on ERP grounds could have been decided on the basis of the constitutional text. We have discussed the three cases in the 50s; furthermore, in Saifuddin, Faruqui and Avadhuta, ERP was an entirely extraneous consideration. In fact, it is unclear what role, as an analytical matter, the essential religious practices test plays in the first place. It would be one thing if Justice Ayyangar’s concurring opinion in Saifuddin was law. In that case, proving ERP would insulate a religious practice even from Article 25(2)(b). However, that is not law. What the essential religious practice achieves is that it spares the Court from actually upholding a law on the basis of Article 25(2)(b), or the prefatory sub-clause of 25(1). Instead, it allows the Court to hold that religion, the Constitution, and the State are not in conflict, because the practice sought to be regulated isn’t “integral” or “essential” to the religion at all, and so outside the scope of constitutional protection. This might be a convenient doctrine politically (and scholars have made that argument), but it is entirely contrary to what the Constitution prescribes.
- In sum, therefore, while Articles 25 and 26 are unhappily worded, the Court’s messy jurisprudence is entirely of its own making.
- The essential religious practices test is an entirely arbitrary doctrine that has been grafted onto the constitutional text, in effect to make 25(2)(b) and the first part of 25(1) as redundant as possible.
- The Court has regularly mixed up doctrines originally evolved in two very different contexts. The question of the extent to which the State can intervene into the management of religious institutions is very different from the extent to which it can intervene into intra-community relationships and individual practices – the Constitutional text itself treats the two very differently. This has led to absurd results, such as Avadhuta II.
- The Court has failed to develop a coherent jurisprudence on the two basic tests that it has used: what principles are to be applied to distinguish between the religious and the secular? And what is the methodology and sources to determine whether something constitutes an “essential religious practice”?
- At the same time, the present confusion is easy enough to resolve. It can be resolved by getting rid of the ERP test, replacing it with a deferential – but watchful – application of Article 25(2)(b) and 25(1), using the illustrations provided in 25(2)(a) and 26(d) to draw the distinction between the religious and the secular when it comes to the first category of cases, and applying a civil-rights based standard (as evolved in Justice Sinha’s dissenting opinion in Saifuddin, discussed earlier on this blog) in the second category of cases.