Thursday, June 6, 2013

Freedom of Religion (Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors vs State of Kerala & Ors)

The case Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors vs State of Kerala & Ors deals with the expulsion of three children belonging to Jehovah’s Witness sect being expelled from the school because they refused to sing the National Anthem during the morning assembly. The followers of the given sect worship only Jehovah – the Creator and it is against the tenets of their religion to sing the National Anthem. A Commission appointed to inquire and report said that the students were “law abiding” and there was no disrespect shown by them to the National Anthem. However, the children were expelled by the Head Mistress of the school under the direction of the Deputy Inspector of Schools.

This given act of expulsion led the fathers of the children to request the Educational Authorities to let the children attend school. However, this plea was rejected and then they filed a Writ Petition in the High Court seeking an order to allow the children to attend the school. However, the appeal was rejected which led to the case going to the Apex Court of the country.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees all the Indian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression and Article 25(1) provides for the freedom of conscience and right to profess, practice and propagate religion, subject to order, morality and health to other provisions of Part III of the Constitution". On the other hand, Article 51-A(a) of the Constitution bestows upon the responsibility on the citizens of India to abide by the rules mentioned in the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions including the National Flag and the National Anthem.

 According to the verdict of the Supreme Court, the given expulsion of the three students is a violation of their Fundamental Rights as enshrined in the Articles 19(1)(a) and 25(1) of the Constitution. The children refrained from singing the Anthem because of their strongly held religious faith and they respectfully stood when the National Anthem was sung. No provision in law obliges a person to join the singing of the National Anthem. Moreover, the students gave due respect to the National Anthem by standing up during its singing. Hence, in order to restore the rights of the students to freely profess and practice their religion, the judgement of the High Court was set aside and the school authorities were redirected to re-admit the students to the school.

While the Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution gives all the citizens the freedom of speech and religion, Article 19(2) gives liberty to the State to make laws to regulate the freedoms given by Article 19(1). Similarly, the State is given the liberty to “make a law to regulate or restrict any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice and to provide for social welfare and reform, even if such regulation, restriction or provision affects the right guaranteed by Article 25(1)”. However, whenever any rule is made under the clauses 2 to 6 of Article 19 to restrict the freedom guaranteed by clause 1 of the same Article, it must be a law made by the legislature and must not be a departmental or executive guideline. The two circulars (issued by the Director of Public Instruction, Kerala in September 1961 and February 1970) on which the Department relied in this case did not have statuary basis and were just based on executive orders. Hence, the Court was right in nullifying the expulsion of the students from the school.

The religious practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses students might seem unreasonable to many. However, it must be noted that the beliefs of the community are genuinely held across the world.  The petitioners had not chosen not to sing the National Anthem first time or out of any unpatriotic sentiment, they stood up for such beliefs in other countries as well. There have been court cases where the petitioners from the given community have detested the singing of the National Anthem not only in India but also in the UK and the USA. In this light, it seems reasonable to protect the faith of the people of the community under the Article 25.

There have been instances when the parliament of India has tried to pose restrictions on the practices allowed by religion. The introduction and the subsequent enactment of the Hindu Civil Code Bills (Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act) in 1955-56 can be seen in those light. However, it must be noted that the purpose behind these acts was to unify the Hindu community and hence these laws were aimed at the social welfare by improving the position of women, reducing the distinctions on the bases of caste, introduction of divorces in the Hindu Community and others. On the other hand, the religious belief of the Jehovah's Witnesses community which prohibits them from singing the National Anthem has no social malice and hence, it should be respected.

The Constitution of India protects religious faith of each sect which is organised under it. Such a shield is necessary for the continuance of that community and the sustenance of any government under which a community has put its faith. Any law made by any legislative body, or any rules made by the order of an executive body must make sure that the religious faith of any sect remains sacrosanct. Moreover, only the judiciary has the power to interpret the law in India. Hence, the Courts have been given the power to strike down any law which violates the Fundamental Rights of the citizens or any other tenets of the Constitution. The given verdict by the Supreme Court of India surpassing the circulars issued by the Director of Public Instruction, Kerala not only protected the rights of the people to follow and profess their religion but also restored the faith of the Jehovah's Witnesses sect in the judiciary and the Constitution of India.

P.S. This write-up was a part of my assignment for the course on Law at the Young India Fellowship. I was required to analyze the PIL Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors vs State of Kerala & Ors (11 August 1986) which deals with a conflict between the Freedom to profess Religion and respect for the National Anthem.