On Monday, the 11th of January, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will begin hearing the case of Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Committee v State of Maharashtra. This is a case that could potentially have important ramifications for religious freedom under the Constitution, and the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26. In this post, I will attempt to provide a short primer to the background of the case, and the events leading up to Monday’s hearing.
The genesis of Monday’s hearing lies in a Constitution Bench order passed in December 2004 (eleven years ago!), directing the setting up of another Constitution Bench to consider the correctness of the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin v State of Bombay. In that case (yet another) Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had struck down the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act of 1949, on the ground that it violated Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Twenty-five years after the decision in Sardar Syedna [hereafter “the Dawoodi Bohra Case”], in 1986, a writ petition was filed asking the Court to review and overrule its decision. Eight years after the filing, in 1994, a two-judge bench directed the matter to be heard by a seven-judge bench. A seven judge bench was constituted that same year, but it adjourned the case. There was some controversy over whether the matter could be referred directly to a seven-judge bench. In its 2004 order, the Supreme Court observed that only a bench of ‘equal strength’ could question the correctness of a prior judgment; consequently, it was not open to a bench of two judges to directly refer the matter to a seven-judge bench. After a length discussion on the need for judicial propriety and discipline, the Court held that the matter be placed before a five-judge bench. Only if that bench doubted the correctness of the Dawoodi Bohra Case, could there be a further referral to seven judges, to finally hear and decide the issue.
The key question on Monday, therefore, will be whether the Petitioners can convince the Constitution Bench that there exists sufficient reason to doubt the Dawoodi Bohra decision, and to refer the matter to seven judges. To understand the stakes, therefore, we need to closely examine the Dawoodi Bohra decision.
The Dawoodi Bohra Case: Issues
The Dawoodi Bohra Case involved a challenge to the constitutionality of the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act of 1949. The preamble to the Act stated that its objective was to put a stop to the practice of excommunication, that was prevailing in certain communities, since its effect was to deprive members of their ‘legitimate rights and privileges.‘ To this effect, Section 2 of the Act defined excommunication as ‘the expulsion of a person from any community of which he is member depriving him of rights and privileges which are legally enforceable by a suit of civil nature…’, despite the fact that the determination of such right/privilege might also involve the Court having to rule on questions pertaining to purely religious rites or practices. Section 3 of the Act invalidated any excommunication, and provided for penal sanctions for the same.
The Petitioner was the “dai”, or head priest of the Dawoodi Bohra community, an offshoot of Shia Islam. As the Court noted, “as Dai-ul-Mutlaq and the vicegerent of Imam on Earth in seclusion, the Dai has not only civil powers as head of the sect and as trustee of the property, but also ecclesiastical powers as religious leader of the community.” The Petitioner further argued that one of his powers, as Dai, was the power of excommunicating recalcitrant members from the community, the result of which was ‘exclusion from the exercise of religious rights in places under the trusteeship of the Dai-ul-Mustlaq.’ By taking away this power, the Bombay Act violated the Petitioner’s right to religious freedom under Article 25 of the Constitution, as well as the Article 26(b) rights of the Dawoodi Bohra community, as a religious denomination, to regulate its own religious affairs and preserve the community by enforcing discipline.
On the other side, apart from questioning whether the Dai had any such power of excommunication, the State also observed that the Petitioner’s rights “do not include the right to excommunicate any person and to deprive him of his civil rights and privileges… [further] it was denied that the right to excommunicate was an essential part of the religion of the community… [and] that, alternatively, assuming that it was part of a religious practice, it runs counter to public order, morality and health.”
At its core, therefore, the Dawoodi Bohra Case was about the limits of State intervention into the affairs of a religious community – intervention that, it must be noted, was aimed at recalibrating the balance of power between its members in a more equitable direction. Apart from raising important questions of constitutional law, the case also presents a fascinating philosophical problem: to what extent can a liberal democracy, which respects the rights of cultural communities to exist and propagate, impose democratic or liberal norms upon a community’s internal functioning?
The Majority Opinion
By a 4-1 majority, the Supreme Court struck down the Act. Das Gupta J. wrote the opinion for himself, and two of his brother judges. Referring to a previous decision of the privy council, he commenced by noting that it was now a settled legal position that the Dai did have powers of excommunication. He then observed that, on a survey of precedent, there were two clear principles underlying the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26:
“The first is that the protection of these articles is not limited to matters of doctrine or belief they extend also to acts done in pursuance of religion and therefore contain a guarantee for rituals and observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are integral parts of religion. The second is that what constitutes an essential part of a religious or religious practice has to be decided by the courts with reference to the doctrine of a particular religion and include practices which are regarded by the community as a part of its religion.”
Das Gupta J. then examined the place of excommunication in several religious systems, quoting Professor Hazeltine’s opinion that the purpose of excommunication is “maintaining discipline within religious organizations and hence of preserving and strengthening their solidarity.” Accordingly, he observed that “excommunication cannot but be held to be for the purpose of maintaining the strength of the religion. It necessarily follows that the exercise of this power of excommunication on religious grounds forms part of the management by the community, through its religious head, “of its own affairs in matters of religion.” Consequently, Article 26(b) was violated by the Act. That the effect of excommunication was to deprive a person of his civil rights was, according to the Court, irrelevant, since Article 26(b) did not carve out an exception for civil rights.
The next question was whether, despite violating Article 26(b), the Act could still be saved by Article 25(2), which allowed the State, inter alia, to make laws for social welfare and reform. Without providing any further reasons, however, the Court simply noted that “the mere fact that certain civil rights which might be lost by members of the Dawoodi Bohra community as a result of excommunication even though made on religious grounds and that the Act prevents such loss, does not offer sufficient basis for a conclusion that it is a law “providing for social welfare and reform.” Consequently, the Court held that the law violated Article 26(b), was not saved by Article 25(2), and was accordingly unconstitutional.
Concurring Opinion of Justice Ayyangar
In his concurring opinion, Justice Ayyangar observed that the purpose of excommunication was to ensure the preservation of “the identity of a religious denomination… [which] consists in the identity of its doctrines, creeds and tenets and these are intended to ensure the unity of the faith which its adherents profess and the identity of the religious views are the bonds of the union which binds them together as one community.” He then noted that “the right to such continued existence involves the right to maintain discipline by taking suitable action inter alia of excommunicating those who deny the fundamental bases of the religion.” Consequently, it was clear that excommunication was a question of religion, and even if the aim of the Bombay Act was to protect civil rights, by outlawing excommunication altogether, it was interfering with the community’s Article 26(b) right to religion.
On the question of Article 25(2), Justice Ayyangar held that laws for social reform were saved only insofar as they did not “invade the basic and essential practices of religion”, because “by the phrase “laws providing for social welfare and reform” it was not intended to enable the legislature to “reform”, a religion out of existence or identity.” And since “faith in [the Dai’s] spiritual mission and in the efficacy of his ministration is one of the bonds that hold the community together as a unit”, the power of excommunication was clearly an integral part of the religion. Consequently, the Act could not be saved by Article 25(2).
Running through both opinions are the following strains of thought: first, excommunication is essential to maintaining the ‘identity’ or ‘purity’ of religion, by purging it of dissidents – and consequently, it is a matter of religion protected by Article 26(b); secondly, the fact that excommunication deprives an individual of core civil rights is legally irrelevant; and thirdly, the law is not saved by virtue of providing for social reform, because that is not its scope (Majority), and even it it is, the State is not permitted to ‘reform a religion out of existence’ (Ayyangar J.).
Dissenting Opinion of Justice Sinha:
Justice Sinha dissented. He located the Act within a long history of social welfare legislation, noting that its aim was to give “full effect to modern notions of individual freedom to choose one’s way of life and to do away with all those undue and outmoded interferences with liberty of conscience, faith and belief. It is also aimed at ensuring human dignity and removing all those restrictions which prevent a person from living his own life so long as he did not interfere with similar rights of others. The legislature had to take the logical final step of creating a new offence by laying down that nobody had the right to deprive others of their civil rights simply because the latter did not conform to a particular pattern of conduct.”
After considering precedent on the point, Justice Sinha then framed the question thus: Article 26 guaranteed religious denominations the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. However, “activities associated with religious practices may have many ramifications and varieties-economic, financial, political and other-as recognised by Art. 25(2)(a). ” These covered a much wider field than that covered by Article 25(1) or 26(b). Therefore, the Court had to “draw a line of demarcation between practices consisting of rites and ceremonies connected with the particular kind of worship, which is the tenet of the religious community, and practices in other matters which may touch the religious institutions at several points, but which are not intimately concerned with rites and ceremonies the performance of which is an essential part of the religion.” Only the former would be protected by Article 26(b). Now, in the case of excommunication, as Justice Sinha observed, the “expelled person is excluded from the exercise of rights in connection not only with places of worship but also from burying the dead in the community burial ground and other rights to property belonging to the community, which are all disputes of a civil nature and are not purely religious matters.” Consequently, it was clear that excommunication belonged to the category of acts that might “tough the religious institution“, but were not essentially religious.
Justice Sinha ended his dissent on a rousing note. Comparing the effects of excommunication with that of untouchability, he concluded that:
“The Act is intended to do away with all that mischief of treating a human being as a pariah, and of depriving him of his human dignity and of his right to follow the dictates of his own conscience. The Act is, thus, aimed at fulfilment of the individual liberty of conscience guaranteed by Art. 25 (1) of the Constitution, and not in derogation of it.”
Why the Constitution Bench Ought to Refer the Question to Seven Judges
It is my submission that the Majority opinion in the Dawoodi Bohra Case is incorrect, and Justice Sinha’s dissent is well-reasoned and persuasive. I will not attempt to make a complete argument for overruling at this point, since that is not the question before the Court on Monday. At the very least, however, there is enough reason for the Court to doubt the correctness of the Majority, and refer the question for full argument on merits. This is because:
A. The Majority provides no reason to hold that the Act is not saved by virtue of being a measure of social reform. By contrast, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Sinha places the Act in the tradition of laws outlawing Sati, removing caste disabilities, allowing widow remarriage, and so on. Since the Majority has no answer on point, at least this question deserves a full (re)hearing.
B. Justice Sinha’s argument about the link between civil rights and religion is powerful, and truer to the Constitutional scheme and intent than that of the majority. Previously on this blog, I have had occasion to attack the “essential religious practices test” that has insidiously wormed its way into the Court’s Article 25-26 jurisprudence. Providing blanket protection to “essential religious practices”, as Justice Ayyangar does in his Concurrence, rests upon a misreading of a statement made by Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly Debates. On 2nd Decmber 1948, Ambedkar had said:
“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 central concern, therefore, was to ensure that in a country like India, where the influence of religion was far more pervasive than in the West, the State’s power to pass reformative legislation should not be hamstrung by giving religion an expansive interpretation. Consequently, he distinguished between questions that are “essentially religious”, and questions that are connected with religion, but deal with other aspects of a person’s life. By a judicial sleight of hand, the distinction has now been converted into one between “essential religious practices” and inessential ones, instead of practices that are “essentially religious”, and those which are incidentally so. And indeed, Ambedkar’s examples of tenancy and succession seem to speak directly to Justice Sinha’s reasoning that, insofar, an ostensible religious act ends up curtailing an individual’s civil rights, it loses constitutional protection.
C. Justice Sinha’s dissent is more in tune with the Indian constitutional secularism. In a detailed study of the Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence, Gary Jacobsohn has argued that it is best characterised as (in his words) “ameliorative secularism”. Ameliorative secularism – as opposed to the “wall of separation” view in the United States – is embodied by an approach to religion that allows the State (or the Court, as the case may be) to intervene in religious practices with the goal of ensuring individual autonomy and freedom. There is a deeper argument of liberal philosophy here: Liberalism is based on the priority of individual freedom; however, it is well understood by now that for human beings, individual freedom and self-fulfilment are often dependent upon participation in, and identification with, affiliative groups (including religious groups). The reason why a liberal Constitution also provides for group rights, therefore, is not because groups are valuable in themselves, but because they are central to a complete and fulfilling life. Consequently, insofar as groups fail to provide the basic conditions of individual autonomy (for instance, by wilfully suppressing women, or by forcing people to conform to the dominant ideology on pain of excommunication), to that extent, the State can intervene through reformatory measures. This idea of ‘ameliorative secularism’ is present in a number of Supreme Court judgments, and most vividly in Gajendragadkar CJI’s opinion in Sastri Yagnapurushadji.
D. Justice Sinha’s dissenting opinion is more in line with the transformative spirit of the Constitution, that recognises that horizontal asymmetries of power are as dangerous and pernicious towards individual freedom as State oppression. Indian civil rights movements leading up to the framing of the Constitution were focused equally on freedom from alien political dominance, as well as freedom from oppressive private power. This is reflected in Ambedkar’s Mahar satyagrahas for temple entry and for the right to draw water from the community well. The Indian Constitution as well, through a number of provisions, recognises this (Articles 15(2), 17, 23 and 25(2)(b), to name four).
I hope to be able to develop these arguments more fully, either as a critique of the Court’s decision, should it choose against referral, or as reasons why a potential seven judge bench should overrule the Dawoodi Bohra Case.