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Religion and Religious Practice

Religion and Religious Practice
Religion and Religious Practice


India, a country of profound religious diversity, holds a complex relationship between religion and law. The Indian Constitution, while providing a framework for religious freedom, also addresses the regulatory needs of religious practices to ensure order and harmony.

A landmark concept within this framework is the doctrine of essential religious practices, which first emerged in the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Shirur Mutt in 1954. 

Doctrine of Essential Religious Practices

The doctrine was articulated during the dispute in Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt. The case arose against the backdrop of allegations of mismanagement of funds by religious institutions. 

The Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1951 enabled a statutory commissioner to intervene in the administration of religious bodies suspected of mismanagement. The mathadhipati of Shirur Mutt contested this, claiming it infringed upon his right to manage the monastery's religious affairs, a right protected under Article 26(b) of the Constitution.

Justice B.K. Mukherjea, writing for a seven-judge bench, established a crucial distinction between what constitutes religious activities and secular ones within religious operations. He emphasised that the Constitution not only protected religious beliefs but also the practices integral to those beliefs, thus laying the foundation for the doctrine of essential religious practices.


Judicial Interpretation and Expansion

Following Shirur Mutt, the doctrine was further explored in Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v State of Bombay. The court here was tasked with evaluating the Bombay Public Trusts Act, which aimed to regulate religious trusts. The justices reasserted the autonomy of religious denominations to determine what constituted essential religious practices, underscoring the limited role of secular authorities in these matters.

Another important case is Mohd. Hanif Quareshi v State of Bihar, where the court examined whether the prohibition of cattle slaughter impinged on the Muslim community's religious practices. The court held that not all practices claimed as religious are necessarily protected under the Constitution, especially if they are not deemed essential according to the tenets of the religion itself.

In a similar vein, Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v State of Bombay addressed the practice of excommunication within the Dawoodi Bohra community. The majority opinion in this case reinforced the principle that practises intimately linked to religious doctrine merit protection, while those based on social or cultural norms might not. This ruling underscored the court's responsibility to dissect the layers of practice and belief to ascertain their essentiality to the religion.

Sri Venkataramana Devaru v State of Mysore

A significant evolution of the doctrine occurred in the Devaru case, which dealt with the exclusion of Dalits from certain Hindu temples. The court had to balance the rights of religious denominations with the constitutional mandate to eliminate untouchability. This case illustrated the approach the court must take, acknowledging both religious autonomy and societal progress.

Secular vs. Religious: The Durgah Committee Judgment

In Durgah Committee, Ajmer v Syed Hussain Ali, the focus was not just on religious texts but also on the historical practices and administrative patterns of the religious institution in question. The court held that practices integral to a religion's belief system are protected, while those merely administrative or historical may not be. This decision emphasised a stricter scrutiny of what practices are deemed essential.

Modern Implications and Controversies

The essential practices doctrine has been crucial in numerous recent controversies, including those involving women's entry into religious places like Sabarimala Temple or the ban on triple talaq in Islam. These cases test the doctrine's limits and the judiciary's role in balancing religious freedoms with other constitutional rights.

Challenge of Interpreting Essential Practices

The judiciary’s role in distinguishing religious practices from cultural norms remains controversial. Critics argue that judicial interference in religious matters should be minimal, while proponents believe it necessary to uphold fundamental rights. The Supreme Court, through various judgments, has attempted to outline clear criteria, yet each case brings unique challenges that test these boundaries.


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