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Privileging the Powerful: Religion and Constitutional Law in India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 October 2018

Rehan Aindri ABEYRATNE
Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
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There is vast literature on secularism in India and on the effects of Hindu nationalism on secular constitutionalism. This article takes a different tack. It focuses on cases where minority status is contested or competing rights of minorities are at stake. The article uses three exemplary recent cases to illustrate how judicial doctrines devised to reform discriminatory religious practices or to protect minority interests have, perversely, favoured certain groups at the expense of others. In each area examined, the jurisprudence privileges the more powerful of those interests: the sanctity of Muslim personal law over the rights of Muslim women; Hindu dalits over dalits that converted to other religions; and minority educational institutions over children from ‘weaker’ and ‘disadvantaged’ sections of society. The article concludes by proposing a new jurisprudence of religion and constitutional practice for India, one that takes account of these inequalities and gives meaning to the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable individuals and groups.

© National University of Singapore, 2018 

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Assistant Professor of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Member, New York State Bar. J.D. 2010, Harvard Law School; A.B. 2007, Brown University. Many thanks to Dian AH Shah, Donald Horowitz, and participants in the Religion and Constitutional Practices in Asia Conference for helpful feedback. I am also grateful to Didon Misri for excellent research assistance.


1. See Bali, Asli and Lerner, Hanna, ‘Constitutional Design Without Constitutional Moments: Lessons from Religiously Divided Societies’ (2016) 49 Cornell International Law Journal 227 Google Scholar.

2. See Jeffrey Jacobsohn, Gary, The Wheel of Law: India’s Secularism in Comparative Constitutional Context (Princeton University Press 2003)Google Scholar.

3. Constitution of India 1950, art 25(1).

4. ibid art 26.

5. ibid art 30.

6. ibid art 25(2)(a).

7. ibid art 25(2)(b).

8. SR Bommai v Union of India (1994) 3 SCC 1.

9. Madan, TN, ‘Secularism and Its Place’ (1987) 46(4) Journal of Asian Studies 747 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10. Nandy, Ashis, ‘A Billion GandhisOutlook India (New Delhi, 21 June 2004)Google Scholar, <> accessed 16 September 2017.

11. Bhargava, Rajeev, ‘India’s Secular Constitution’ in Zoya Hasan, E Sridharan and R Sudarshan (eds), India’s Living Constitution (Permanent Black 2002) 117 Google Scholar.

12. Dhavan, Rajeev, ‘The Road to Xanadu: India’s Quest for Secularism’ in Gerald Larson (ed), Religion and Personal Law in India (Indiana University Press 2001)Google Scholar.

13. Jacobsohn (n 2) 94.

14. John, Mathew, ‘Decoding Secularism: Comparative Study of Legal Decisions in India and US’ (2005) 40(18) Economic and Political Weekly 1901 Google Scholar.

15. Das Acevedo, Deepa, ‘Secularism in the Indian Context’ (2013) 38 Law and Social Enquiry 138 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16. See Sen, Ronojoy, Articles of Faith: Religion, Secularism and the Indian Supreme Court (OUP 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sen, Ronojoy, Legalizing Religion: The Indian Supreme Court and Secularism (East-West Center 2007)Google Scholar; Sen, Ronojoy, ‘The Indian Supreme Court and the quest for a “rational” Hinduism’ (2010) 1(1) South Asian History and Culture 86 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) ch 7.

18. Sen, Legalizing Religion (n 16) 6–7.

19. ibid 11–29.

20. ibid 29–37.

21. See Cossman, Brenda and Kapur, Ratna, ‘Secularism’s Last Sigh?: The Hindu Right, The Courts, and India’s Struggle for Democracy’ (1997) 38 Harvard International Law Journal 113; Bhatt, Chetan, Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths (Berg 2001); Jaffrelot, Christophe, Religion, Caste and Politics in India (Columbia University Press 2011)Google Scholar.

22. Jaffrelot (n 21) xvi–xx. The Mandal Commission issued its report in 1980, but its implementation was only announced by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990.

23. ibid xx (‘The relation between Mandal and Mandir [temple] is now well-established’).

24. Cossman and Kapur (n 21) 117–119.

25. SR Bommai (n 8).

26. ibid 151.

27. Dr Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo v Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte (1996) 1 SCC 130.

28. ibid 22.

29. ibid.

30. Cossman and Kapur (n 21) 125–29; Sen, Legalizing Religion (n 16) 32–37.

31. Writ Petition (Civil) No 118 of 2016.

32. Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum, AIR 1985 SC 945 (Supreme Court of India).

33. (2007) 2 SCC 335.

34. (2014) 8 SCC 1.

35. AIR 1952 Bom 84 (Supreme Court of India).

36. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 22 (Nariman J); Agnes, Flavia, ‘Personal Laws’ in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (OUP 2016) 909910 Google Scholar.

37. Shayara Bano (n 31) paras 11–19 (Nariman J).

38. ibid para 4 (Kurian J).

39. ibid para 19 (Nariman J).

40. ibid para 146 (Khehar, CJ).

41. Gautam Bhatia, ‘The Supreme Court’s Triple Talaq Judgment’ (Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy, 22 August 2017), <> accessed 4 October 2017.

42. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 165 (Khehar, CJ).

43. ibid para 166.

44. ibid.

45. ibid para 189.

46. ibid para 121.

47. ibid para 139.

48. ibid para 141.

49. ibid para 142.

50. ibid para 144–145.

51. Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt (1954) 1 SCR 1005.

52. Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) 49.

53. ibid 58–69.

54. Bhanu Mehta, Pratap, ‘Passion and Constraint: Courts and the Regulation of Religious Meaning’ in Rajeev Bhargava (ed) Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (OUP 2008) 322329 Google Scholar; Dhavan, Rajeev and Nariman, Fali S, ‘The Supreme Court and Group Life: Religious Freedom, Minority Groups and Disadvantaged Communities’ in BN Kirpal and others (eds), Supreme But Not Infallible : Essays in Honour of the Supreme Court of India (OUP 2004) 263264 Google Scholar.

55. AIR 1958 SC 731 (Supreme Court of India).

56. ibid; Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) 129–130.

57. ‘Pakistan, Egypt among 19 countries that have abolished triple talaq’ The Indian Express (New Delhi, 22 August 2017) <> accessed 4 October 2017.

58. (2002) 7 SCC 518.

59. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 10 (Kurian J).

60. ibid para 24.

61. ibid para 9.

62. ibid paras 12–14.

63. ibid para 25 (Nariman J).

64. Gautam Bhatia, ‘Two Cheers for the Supreme Court’ The Hindu (Chennai, 24 August 2017) <> accessed 5 October 2017.

65. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 137 (Khehar, CJ).

66. Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) ch 7.

67. Shah Bano (n 32) 951–952.

68. Dutta, Sagnik, ‘From Accommodation to Substantive Equality: Muslim Personal Law, Secular Law, and the Indian Constitution 1985–2015’ (2016) 4 Asian Journal of Law and Society 191, 201202 Google Scholar.

69. ibid 202.

70. Agnes (n 36) 914; Pal, Ruma, ‘Religious Minorities and the Law’ in Gerald James Larson (ed), Religion and Personal Law in Secular India: A Call to Judgment (Indiana University Press 2001) 3132 Google Scholar.

71. ibid. But see Dutta (n 68) 204–208 (arguing that commentators have misinterpreted the significance of this Act, which several High Courts interpreted to award ‘generous amounts’ of maintenance to divorced Muslim women).

72. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 3 (Kurian J).

73. Arghya Sengupta, ‘Let’s talk about discrimination: Supreme Court outlawing triple talaq was no surprise, it should have gone further’ (Times of India, 24 August 2017) <> accessed 5 October 2017.

74. Acevedo (n 15) 152; Fuller, CJ, ‘Hinduism and Scriptural Authority in Modern Indian Law’ (1988) 30 Comparative Studies in Society and History 225 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 19 (Nariman J).

76. ibid para 44; Ajay Hasia v Khalid Mujib Sehravadi (1981) 1 SCC 722.

77. Shayara Bano (n 31) para 45 (Nariman J).

78. ibid para 57.

79. Sengupta (n 73).

80. Ratna Kapur, ‘Triple Talaq Verdict: Wherein Lies the Much Hailed Victory?’ (The Wire, 28 August 2017) <> accessed 6 October 2017.

81. Constitution of India 1950, art 17.

82. ibid art 15(2), 15(4). Art 15(4) was added by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951.

83. Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950; Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950.

84. Dudley Jenkins, Laura, ‘Diversity and Constitution in India: What is Religious Freedom’ (2009) 57 Drake Law Review 913, 932 Google Scholar.

85. ibid 933–934.

86. (2007) 2 SCC 337.

87. ibid 337–338.

88. ibid 339.

89. ibid.

90. (1985) SCC (Supp) 590.

91. ibid 591–592.

92. ibid 594.

93. ibid 595.

94. ibid.

95. ibid (emphasis added).

96. ibid 596.

97. ibid.

98. Jenkins (n 84) 933–934.

99. Note also that Christian dalits do not automatically regain their scheduled caste status if they ‘reconvert’ to Hinduism. See Rajagopal v Armugam, AIR 1969 SC 101 (Supreme Court of India)(holding that a candidate for political office belonging to a scheduled caste who converted to Christianity and then reconverted to Hinduism was not eligible to contest a seat reserved for members of his original scheduled caste).

100. Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967, Act No 2 of 1968, s 3. For an overview of anti-conversion laws in India, see Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) ch 5; Andrew Huff, James, ‘Religious Freedom and Analysis of the Constitutionality of Anti-Conversion Laws’ (2009) 10 Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion 12 Google Scholar.

101. AIR 1977 SC 908 (Supreme Court of India).

102. ibid para 13; Huff (n 100). The Orissa High Court ruled that state legislatures lacked the authority to issue laws on religious matters – the Constitution assigns that competence to the Union (central) government.

103. Stainislaus (n 101) para 20.

104. ibid para 21 (citing Ratilal v State of Bombay (1954) 1 SCR 1055).

105. See Mehta (n 54) 333–334.

106. (2005) 6 SCC 690.

107. ibid 695.

108. (2002) 8 SCC 481.

109. Bal Patil (n 106) 695.

110. See Part IV.

111. TMA Pai (n 108) 587.

112. Bal Patil (n 106) 696.

113. ibid 701.

114. ibid.

115. ibid.

116. ibid 702.

117. ibid.

118. AIR 1966 SC 1119 (Supreme Court of India).

119. ibid para 57.

120. SP Mittal v Union of India, AIR 1983 SC 1 (Supreme Court of India).

121. Acharya Jagdishwaranand Avadhuta v Commissioner of Police, AIR 1984 SC 51 (Supreme Court of India).

122. For a detailed analysis of these cases, see Sen, Articles of Faith (n 16) 58–60.

123. Bal Patil (n 106) 702.

124. ibid.

125. ibid 699.

126. ibid 698.

127. ‘Minorities’ here refers to religious and linguistic groups. See Part III.B above.

128. (1993) 1 SCC 645.

129. Kothari, Jayna and Ravi, Aparna, ‘A Battle of Rights: The Right to Education of Children Versus Rights of Minority Schools’ (2016) 16(2) Oxford University Commonwealth Journal 195, 198 Google Scholar.

130. (2012) 6 SCC 1.

131. (2002) 8 SCC 481.

132. The Supreme Court here diverged from its judgment in Re Sidhajbai v State of Bombay, AIR 1963 SC 540 (Supreme Court of India), in which it held that Article 30(1) was an absolute right and, therefore, not subject to reasonable restrictions. Prior to TMA Pai, the Court had already retreated from this absolutist stance, encouraging minority institutions to integrate into secular society and to admit students from diverse backgrounds. See St Xavier’s College v State of Gujarat, AIR 1974 SC 1389 (Supreme Court of India); St Stephen’s College v University of Delhi (1992) 1 SCC 558.

133. ibid 563.

134. Society for Un-Aided Schools (n 130) 43.

135. ibid.

136. ibid.

137. Art 145(3) of the Constitution requires at least five justices to adjudicate ‘a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of [the] Constitution’.

138. (2014) 8 SCC 1.

139. ibid 269.

140. ibid.

141. ibid 270.

142. Society for Un-Aided Schools (n 130) 33.

143. ibid 32.

144. Pramati Educational & Cultural Trust (n 34) 260.

145. ibid.

146. Reddy, K Vivek, ‘Minority Educational Institutions’ in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (OUP 2016) 921 Google Scholar.

147. ibid 923–925.

148. TMA Pai (n 108) 578–579.

149. ibid 578.

150. Kothari and Ravi (n 129) 210.

151. ibid.

152. See for eg Kothari and Ravi (n 129).

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