by Lija Merin John

India's judiciary has played a significant role in upholding religious freedom in the country. The Supreme Court of India has time and again emphasised the importance of religious freedom and upheld the right of every individual to follow their religious beliefs. The judiciary has intervened in cases where the religious freedom of individuals has been violated by the state or any other entity. The judiciary has also interpreted the provisions of the Constitution to provide greater protection to the right to religious freedom. 

Despite the constitutional and judicial safeguards, religious freedom continues to be increasingly threatened in India. Protecting religious freedom is particularly crucial for the protection of the rights of minority communities in India, as they often face discrimination and persecution.  

Here are five cases in which the courts upheld the individual’s freedom of religion and belief, reinforcing our belief in India being a secular, democratic state. These cases deal with five fundamental aspects of freedom of religion as a community or an individual. Each case represents a significant legal battle fought in the courts of India, highlighting the complexities and challenges of protecting the right to religious freedom in the country. 

1. Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala, 1987 AIR 748  

Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala is a landmark case in Indian constitutional law that deals with the issue of freedom of religion and expression. The case involves three students who refused to sing the national anthem of India on religious grounds. 

The incident took place in 1985 when the students, who were studying in a government school in Kerala, remained silent when the national anthem was being played in their school. This led to disciplinary action against them, including expulsion from the school. The students and their parents argued that their religion prohibited them from singing the national anthem and that their right to freedom of religion and expression was being violated.  

The key issues in this case were whether the expulsion of the children was valid under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act 1971 and the Kerala Education Act and Rules, and whether it impinged on the children's fundamental rights protected under Article 19(1) and Article 25 of the Constitution of India. The High Court dismissed the petition based on the Kerala Education Act and two circulars which demanded strict compliance with respect to the code of conduct for teachers and students. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court of India. 

The Supreme Court held that the action of the school authorities in expelling the three students was arbitrary and violative of the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion. The Court observed that the students' right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion extends to not only the holding of their beliefs but also to the act of expressing or practising their beliefs. 

The Court also noted that the action of the school authorities was not based on any reasonable or justifiable ground. The Court stated that the right to freedom of conscience and religion is a vital part of the Fundamental Right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. 

The Court held that the school authorities had failed to discharge their duty to protect the students' fundamental rights. The Court observed that the school authorities had a responsibility to protect the students' right to freedom of conscience and religion, and that the authorities could not simply invoke the school rules to violate the students' fundamental rights. It was held that there is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing National Anthem. The two circulars which demanded strict compliance with respect to the code of conduct for teachers and students were mere departmental instructions. The circulars contravene Article 19(1) (a) and 25 (1). The rights under Article 19(1)(a) can only be restricted by a law having statutory force and not a mere executive or departmental instructions as the circulars.  

The Court further held that the school authorities' action violated the Right to Education guaranteed under Article 21A of the Constitution, which provides for the right to free and compulsory education for children between the ages of six and fourteen years. 

The children did not sing the National Anthem due to their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court held that Article 19(1)(a) and Article 25 (Freedom of Religion and Conscience) cannot be infringed on the grounds of disrespect shown to the National Anthem. The compulsion on every student to sing the National Anthem despite their religious beliefs and free will violates Article 19(1)(a) and Article 25 of the Constitution of India. 

“Article 25 is an article of faith in the Constitution., incorporated in recognition of the principle that the real test of democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution. This has to be borne in mind in interpreting Article 25”. 

The conduct of the children to stand up when the national anthem was sung proves that the three students were not guilty of disrespect to the National Anthem just because they refused to sing it. The Court further emphasized that our traditions taught us tolerance, our philosophy preaches tolerance, our Constitution practices tolerance and hence we should not dilute it. 

Overall, the Supreme Court's judgment in Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala reaffirmed the importance of the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion as a Fundamental Right protected under the Indian Constitution. The judgment also emphasised the duty of public authorities, including schools, to respect and protect this right, and to act on reasonable and justifiable grounds when regulating the exercise of this right. 

2. The Ahmedabad St. Xaviers College vs State of Gujarat, (1974) AIR (SC) 1389 

In this case, St. Xavier's College challenged state legislation encroaching upon the right of minority educational institutions to autonomy. The crux of the matter was the autonomy of educational institutions and the limits of governmental interference, especially in the matters of appointment and dismissal of teachers as well as admission of students of the minority community. The petitioners challenged sections of the Gujarat University Act, 1972, which required: 

  • University nominees in the governing and selection bodies of all colleges 
  • Conversion of all affiliated colleges to constituent colleges,  
  • Approval of Vice Chancellor for disciplinary action against members of teaching staff, and  
  • Arbitration of dispute between the staff and management left to the Vice Chancellor  

After both sides had made their arguments, the Supreme Court rightly pointed out,  

“The whole object of conferring the right on the minorities under Article 30 (right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions) is to ensure that there will be equality between the majority and the minority. If the minorities do not have such special protection, they will be denied equality.”  

The Court held that object behind the enactment of Articles 25 to 30 was the securing and preserving the rights of the religious and linguistic minorities. The Court further held that as long as the Constitution stands in place as it is today, then there could be countenance as to the tampering of those rights. And any act doing so, would tantamount to breach of faith and would be liable to be struck down by the Courts. 

3. Shafin Jahan v. Ashokan K.M. & Ors. (2018 SCC OnLine SC 201) 

This case concerned the marriage of Hadiya Jahan, a 24-year-old medical student who converted to Islam and married Shafin Jahan. Hadiya's father, K.M. Ashokan, filed a writ of habeas corpus before the High Court of Kerala, alleging forceful conversion. The High Court annulled the marriage, claiming that Hadiya was vulnerable and capable of being exploited, and exercised the parens patriae jurisdiction to ensure her welfare. The Supreme Court held that the High Court erred in annulling the marriage as it was beyond the scope of the writ of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court also held that the parens patriae jurisdiction must be exercised only for the benefit of the person in need of protection and not for the benefit of others. The right to marry a person of one's choice is integral to Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty), and the Constitution recognises personal autonomy and liberty.  

“Social approval for intimate personal decisions is not the basis for recognising them. Indeed, the Constitution protects personal liberty from disapproving audiences. Intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy, which is inviolable. The absolute right of an individual to choose a life partner is not in the least affected by matters of faith. The Constitution guarantees to each individual the right freely to practise, profess and propagate religion. Choices of faith and belief as indeed choices in matters of marriage lie within an area where individual autonomy is supreme. Neither the state nor the law can dictate a choice of partners or limit the free ability of every person to decide on these matters. They form the essence of personal liberty under the Constitution.” 

4. Shayara Bano v. Union of India (Triple Talaq case) (AIR 2017 SCC 1388) 

Shayara Bano v. Union of India was a landmark case heard by the Supreme Court of India in 2017. The case dealt with the practice of "triple talaq," a form of instant divorce prevalent in the Muslim community in India, where a husband could divorce his wife by saying the word "talaq" three times. 

Shayara Bano, a Muslim woman from Uttarakhand, challenged the Constitutionality of triple talaq and claimed that it violated her fundamental rights as a citizen. She argued that the practice was discriminatory and arbitrary and violated the principles of gender justice and equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. 

The case was heard by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, which included Chief Justice JS Khehar and Justices Kurian Joseph, Rohinton F. Nariman, Uday U. Lalit, and Abdul Nazeer. The Union of India and women’s rights organisations such as Bebaak Collective and Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), supported the petitioner’s claim that these practises are unconstitutional. However, the AIMPLB argued that uncodified Muslim personal law is not subject to constitutional judicial review, and that these are essential Islamic practises protected by Article 25 of the Constitution.   

The bench delivered a historic verdict, striking down the practice of triple talaq and declaring it unconstitutional and illegal. Commenting that “what is bad in theology cannot be good in law”, the Supreme Court declared the practice of instant ‘triple talaq’ unconstitutional, holding that it was arbitrary and not an essential part of Islamic law. The Court added that since triple talaq was banned in most Islamic countries, it cannot be ascertained as an essential practice. The Court also observed that personal laws must be subject to the test of constitutional validity and gender justice, and Article 25(2) says that if any religious practice violates the fundamental rights, then it can be struck down by the Supreme Court. It held that the practice of Triple Talaq was derogatory and was a violation of Article 14 (Right to Equality). 

However, the dissenting opinion of the judgement it was held that, 

“Religion is a matter of faith, and not of logic. It is not open to a court to accept an egalitarian approach, over a practice which constitutes an integral part of religion. The Constitution allows the followers of every religion, to follow their beliefs and religious traditions. The Constitution assures believers of all faiths, that their way of life, is guaranteed, and would not be subjected to any challenge, even though they may seem to others (and even rationalists, practicing the same faith) unacceptable, in today’s world and age. The Constitution extends this guarantee, because faith constitutes the religious consciousness, of the followers. It is this religious consciousness, which binds believers into separate entities. The Constitution endevours to protect and preserve, the beliefs of each of the separate entities, under Article 25.” 

In view of different opinions recorded, by a majority of 3:2, the prace of Talaq-e-biddat (Triple Talaq) was set aside. The judgment was widely celebrated as a victory for women's rights and gender justice in India. It was also seen as a step towards a more progressive and inclusive society, where citizens of all religions are equal before the law. 

5. Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh, (1977) 1 S.C.C. 677 

The case of Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh began with the arrest of Reverend Stainislaus, a Roman Catholic priest, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. He was accused of violating the provisions of the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act), 1968, which prohibited forced religious conversions. 

Reverend Stainislaus challenged the Constitutionality of the Act in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which rejected his petition. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of India, arguing that the Act violated his Fundamental Right to freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. 

The case was heard by a bench comprising Chief Justice A.N. Ray, Justice M.H. Beg, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, and Justice S.M. Fazal Ali. The Court ultimately ruled in favour of Rev. Stainislaus, stating that the state law was unconstitutional because it violated the Fundamental Right to freedom of religion enshrined in the Indian Constitution. 

In the judgment of Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the Supreme Court of India made several important observations regarding religious freedom. 

The Court affirmed that the right to propagate one's religion is a fundamental right under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality, and health. 

One of the key aspects of the judgment that has been used to support the enactment of anti-conversion laws is the distinction made between "propagation" and "conversion". The Court ruled that while every individual has the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate their religion, the freedom to convert others to one's own religion is not an absolute right. The Court observed that the freedom to propagate religion does not include the right to convert another person to one's own religion by force, fraud, or allurement. This distinction between propagation and conversion has been used by some to argue that anti-conversion laws are necessary to prevent forced and fraudulent conversions. This interpretation has been used to argue that anti-conversion laws are necessary to protect vulnerable individuals from being coerced into converting to a different religion. 

This case has been instrumental in shaping the legal landscape of India, especially regarding anti-conversion laws. Since this case, several states in India have passed laws regulating or prohibiting religious conversion, often citing concerns of forced conversion. However, many of these laws have faced legal challenges on the grounds that they infringe on the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech and Expression, Right to Privacy, Right to Equality and Right to Life and Liberty.  

It's worth noting that the provisions of the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act), 1968, which was challenged in the instant case, are not pari materia to the current law, enacted in Madhya Pradesh in 2021. Hence, considering this judgement as a precedent to uphold anti-conversion laws as they stand today would be questionable at best. In fact, the Court, in the judgement, emphasised that any law that restricts the freedom of religion must be carefully scrutinised and tested against the Constitutional standards of reasonableness, necessity, and proportionality. 

In summary, Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh was an important case that affirmed the right to freedom of religion and the right to propagate one's religion as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. The case has also had a significant impact on the legal landscape of India, especially with regard to anti-conversion laws. 

Adv. Lija Merin John is a practicing advocate in the courts of Delhi in matters pertaining to religious liberty and currently, working as a legal consultant in ADF India. She has completed her B.A., LL.B. from Bangalore Institute of Legal Studies and further pursued her LL.M. in Constitutional Law and Legal Order from University Law College and Department of Studies in Law, Bangalore University. She completed her dissertation on the topic, The Anti-Conversion Laws and Secularism in India: A study with special reference to Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021.