By Aashna Sheth
Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
India is a country etched with a multitude of customs, beliefs and traditions. These practices are more often than not attributed to religious beliefs of different communities. Religion has historically played an imperative role in our day-to-day lives. Whether it comes to staunch devotees or those who do not accede to any religion or practice; its influence and importance in India’s social and political fabric is omnipresent.
This importance of religion when it comes to Indian customs is not solely limited to religious practices and traditions; it has paved its way into Indian bureaucracy as well. Every Indian is made to identify with a particular religious belief or community. More so, when it comes to filling in applications or government forms or declarations, one has to answer a question mentioning his/her religion.
This necessity of declaring one’s personal religious ideology or belief was questioned by a few members of the Full Gospel Church of God wherein they wanted to change their religious preference from ‘Christian’ to ‘None’ and issue a notification in the Official Gazette. However when the Government Printing Press refused to incorporate their request, three members of this organization jointly filed a PIL to address this issue.
This move led to the development of the historical landmark judgment delivered by Justices Abhay Oka, Girish Kulkarni and A.S Chandurkar, wherein it was held that an individual would not have to specify his/her religion in a form or declaration, further, it also stated that an individual has a right to claim that he/she does not belong to any particular religion. The legal fraternity has considered this judgment as an advanced and balanced one with a unique yet imperative analysis and interpretation of Article 25 of the Constitution of India.
Article 25 of the Constitution expressly states “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion; (1) 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, practice and propagate religion”. At first glance or when we first interpret this article we automatically lean towards India’s secular nature and the freedom its citizens enjoy in professing, practicing and propagating any religion of their choice. What we tend to overlook is the initial part of this article that deals with ‘the freedom of conscience’ – and this is precisely what the bench has interpreted and analyzed in its landmark verdict.
The first question we need to ask however is, what constitutes ‘conscience’ and what does ‘freedom of conscience’ mean and include? Conscience can be defined as an inner feeling or voice or a moral code governing the rightness and wrongness of one’s behavior. The freedom of conscience could therefore translate to the liberty or power the individual has in exercising this right. Thus, this freedom of conscience includes the personal beliefs or moral code of the individual; it comprises his/her own personal views or beliefs when it comes to religion. If an individual does not believe in God or religion he/she is entitled to this freedom of conscience. The judgment reiterated that Article 25 of the constitution includes and confers upon the individual the right to declare that he/she is an atheist.
Furthermore, this decision must be analyzed in relation to Article 19 of the constitution as well. Article 19 expressly states, “…All citizens shall have the right (1) to Freedom of speech and expression…” If an individual has the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice and propagate any religion he/she wants to, he/she also has the right to express his/her beliefs and ideologies. More so, if he/she does not identify with a particular religious community he/she has the ability to exercise this freedom of expression as well. Thus, the prayers of the petitioners in the PIL were answered affirmatively in accordance with Article 19 and Article 25 of the constitution.
The implications of this ruling are manifold. Firstly, it highlights the true nature of secularism of our country; one in which an individual is not only entitled to practice a religion of his/her choice, but in which he/she can choose to exercise his/her freedom of conscience and expression when it comes to his/her personal ideas and beliefs. Secondly, in a country in which religion and tradition has always been an integral part of our social and political framework, this ruling expresses an individualistic and forward thinking approach. Furthermore, although this change is limited to government forms and declarations, if extended to applications for admission into educational institutions or jobs it will diminish the possibility of religious discrimination and pave the way for a greater possibility of the equality of opportunity.
This ruling centered on the preference of the individual and the protection of freedoms under the Constitution signifies a move in the right direction. The analysis of Article 25 further showcases the importance of not only the rule of the law but its correct interpretation. The rule of law coupled with its pragmatic interpretation and efficacious implementation proves to be an asset, one that cannot be subordinated.