Department of Law, Central University of Kerala
The concept of the right to religion was carefully taken into consideration by the constitution-makers due to India’s pluralistic nature. They found that it is better for the State to not interfere in the matters of religion and it is essential to draw the limits of religious freedom. Thus, Article 25 of the Indian Constitution provides that subject to public health, morality and other provisions of Part III all persons are entitled to profess, practice and propagate religion. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic it can be observed that the concept of right to religion often comes in conflict with the right to public health and safety.
Religious Gatherings During Corona Outbreak
According to World Health Organisation, as of May 1st, India has accounted for nearly 50 percent of fresh COVID-19 cases and 25 percent of deaths reported across the world.1 Religious practices, festivals, and gathering are the major reasons for the spread of COVID-19 in India. From the events of Rath Yatra in the year 2020 to the CSI Munnar retreat in the year 2021, religious practices have been materialistic for the super spread of COVID-19. While it is evident that religion contributed to the massive spread of COVID-19, it can be seen that certain religious communities are alleged to be the carriers of corona virus and are been targeted over others.
According to the report of Ministry of Health, as of April 18, 2020, nearly 4300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country was linked with religious events of Tablighi Jamaat which occurred in Delhi, due to this there was stigmatization and harassment of Muslims all over the nation.2 When the country was experiencing the first wave of COVID-19, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the Rath Yatra, stating that the parties involved that the procession of chariots, the Rath Yatra itself, could be allowed to proceed without the general congregation of devotees by following the directives issued by the constitutional bench.3 By lifting its stay on the Rath Yatra, the Supreme Court appeared to test its commitment to secularism and Article 25 of the constitution. Following the logic of the apex court there exist no convincing reasons as to why similar religious festivals cannot be allowed, if the organizers and the state governments concerned agree to follow the conditions and the norms imposed by the court.
The mayhem created by Maha Kumbh Mela in the middle of the second wave of COVID-19, where millions of devotees participated added to the super spread of infection with devotees returning to their home cities. This situation was avoidable if there was proper adherence and fulfillment of the Standing Operational Procedure (SOP) and guidelines issued by the Union Health Ministry and Uttarakhand High Court.4 When it comes to Thrissur Pooram, unlike the previous years, the pooram was conducted as a ritual following COVID-19 protocol and guidelines issued by the High Court and the State Government.
In the holy month of Ramzan, people approached the Bombay and Delhi High Courts seeking permission to carry out their religious practices within the mosques,5 but both the courts took a different approach to address this issue. The Bombay high court rejected the petition, stating that the demands “cannot be considered in view of the ongoing critical COVID situation which is serious in nature.” On the other hand, in the Nizamuddin Markaz case,6 the Delhi High Court permitted a limited number of people to offer prayers during Ramzan, as there was no direction from the part of the Disaster Management Authority to close down the place of worship.
When the constitution itself makes it clear that public health should be preferred over the right to religion, it is seen some of the Courts face a dilemma to resolve this issue. Therefore, it is high time for the Supreme Court to issue necessary directions to the High Courts to avoid such confusions. The right to life and health of people cannot be sacrificed at the altar of the right to celebrate festivals. When the country is going through the havoc caused by the second wave of COVID-19 which have been more dreadful and lethal compared to the first wave, it is important to strictly adhere to the reasonable restrictions provided by Article 25 of the Indian constitution. Thus the political executive and judiciary must make all efforts to curb religious propaganda that is found inconsistent with the public order, health and morality.
1. WHO Says India Accounts for Nearly 50% of World’s New Covid-19 Cases, 25 % of Deaths, INDIA TODAY, https://www.indiatoday.in/coronavirus-outbreak/story/who-india-accounts-for-nearly-50-percent-world-s-new-covid19-cases-1799163-2021-05-05. (May 5,2021, 4:41 PM)↩
2. ARJUN PHILIP GEORGE & NABEELA SIDDIQUI, LIBERTY; NEW FACETS& CHANGING DIMENSIONS 358 (Dr. Anil R Nair, Centre for Parliamentary Studies and Law Reforms, NUALS 2020).↩
3. Odisha Vikas Parisad v. UOI & Ors. W.P.(C)No.571/2020.↩
4. Sachidanand Darbal v. UOI W.P.(PIL) No 58 of 2021. ↩
5. Juma Masjid of Bombay Trust v. State of Maharashtra and Ors. W.P.(L) No 10152 of 2021, Delhi Waqf Board v. Government of NCT Delhi and Anr. W.P. (CRL)42/2021.↩
6. Delhi Waqf Board v. Government of NCT Delhi and Anr. W.P. (CRL)42/2021.↩
7. Juma Masjid of Bombay Trust v. State of Maharashtra and Ors. W.P.(L) No 10152 of 2021, MANU/MH/1066/2021.↩