Restrictions imposed on religious places: Legal angle

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India is a country encompassing numerous religious practices and ceremonies being associated with its diverse culture. With such a large population, our country depicts endless varieties of cultural patterns and physical features. India is diverse in its physical traits, racial characteristics, linguistic attributes, and religious diversification. The 42nd amendment to the Constitution of India ingrained the term “secular” in its preamble. Therefore, even though the majority of population in our country is Hindu, the state pledges to make no discrimination against the other religions. There is no particular state religion and thus every person residing in our country has the right to profess the religion he believes in.

In the recent judgment of Mubeen Farooqi v State of Punjab and others, the Punjab and Haryana High court on 22.05.2020 upheld the restrictions imposed on religious places during lockdown. The bench comprising of justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Ajay Tewari observed that the imposition of restrictions on religious places is in larger public interest and has reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved. It was also quoted that “merely that in certain areas restrictions have been relaxed cannot be a ground to relax the same qua religious places of worship”.

Legal provisions regarding it

Given the current world crisis, the parliament has enacted the Disaster Management Act,2005 and imposed a nationwide lockdown since 24.03.2020. Also, section 35 of the disaster management act, 2005 permits the Central government to take measures as it deems necessary or expedient for the purpose of Disaster Management and Section 38 of the act permits State governments to take measures, they consider necessary.

The viewpoint of impartiality towards all religions is secured through several constitutional provisions such as-

  1. Article 25-

The Indian constitution guarantees various fundamental rights to its citizens including the right to freedom of religion. Article 25 guarantees freedom of religion to all persons in India. It provides that all persons in India, subject to public order, morality, health, and other provisions are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and they have the right to practice, profess and propagate the religion of their choice. But this article does not prevent the state from making any law relating to-

  • Regulating or restricting economic, financial, political or secular activity associated with religious practice.
  • Giving social welfare and reform.
  • Introducing Hindu religious institutions of public character for all classes of Hindus.
  • Article 26-

Subject to public order, morality, and health, Article 26 confers a right on every religious denomination or any of its section to –

  • Establish and maintain institutions for charitable and religious purposes.
  • Manage its affairs in regard to religion.
  • Owning and acquiring both movable and immovable property.
  • Administering property in accordance with law.

Challenging the restrictions imposed by the government on the functioning of religious places during lockdown, the petitioner Mubeen Farooqi, who is an Advocate by profession and a social activist filed a public interest litigation (PIL) alleging that despite relaxations have been made by the Ministry of Home Affairs in regards to other areas such as shops and markets maintaining social distancing, there has been no relaxation provided qua religious places. The petitioner stated that Ramadan is the most sacred month for the Islamic culture and the Mosque is the best place to offer prayers during Ramadan. He contended that the restrictions on the religious places are unconstitutional and a clear violation of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Article 25 and 26 of the constitution of India.

The petitioner prayers included-

  • Opening of the Mosque for a restricted time period for offering Namaz of Eid-ul-Fitr.
  • Opening of other religious institutions such as temples, gurudwaras and mosques, since shops and markets have also been permitted to open by maintaining social distancing.

Why are the restrictions imposed?

Dismissing the petition, the court observed that the imposition of restrictions on religious places is in larger public interest. The main object behind imposing such restrictions is to stop people from gathering in religious places so as to control the spread of corona virus. The guidelines issued are strictly in conformity with the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The opening of religious places and holding religious congregations cannot be ordered to be relaxed on the contention that relaxations have also be made for business establishments. The imposition of restrictions is not in contradiction to Article 25 of the Constitution of India.

Article 25 permits the state to impose restrictions on the ground of –

(a) public order, morality and health;

(b) to the other provisions of the Constitution;

(c) regulation of non-religious activity associated with the religious practice;

(d) social welfare and reform.

The situation we are dealing with is an an extra ordinary situation and to safeguard the health of the society it is necessary to impose restrictions and to close down all places of worship for public, including holding of religious congregations. These restrictions do not interfere with the religious affairs of any community and have been imposed qua religious places of all the religions.

One of the other reasons for imposing such restrictions are in view of the Tablighi jamaat gathering that took place in Delhi in March resulting in a rapid spike of corona virus cases across the country.

Significance of this development

While the government is trying to control the spike of covid-19 patients, religious believers are trying to reconnect with their almighty and offer them prayers. The dismissal of the petition filed by Mubeen Farooqi left the Muslim community without a place to offer prayers on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr. Though the Muslim community could not offer prayers in mosques on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, the decision given by the High court is in the larger interest of the public. Opening of Mosques for a limited period would surely have been an act against the social distancing policy leading to outbreak of the virus in large numbers. By keeping the religious places closed, the government has attempted to break the cycle and prevent the outburst of this deadly virus.

Critical analysis

It is an accepted fact that freedom of religion in our constitution is not confined only to religious beliefs but extends to religious practices as well. Subject to the restrictions which article 25 and 26 impose, every person has a fundamental right not just to follow such religious belief as may be approved of by his judgment or conscience but to exhibit his belief and ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined by his religion and further to propagate his religious views.

For the very first time in history have people witnessed a situation like this. The citizens of India are majorly atheist and they follow their deities through every step of life. The outbreak of the Corona virus has stopped people from visiting religious endowments. The nationwide lockdown resulted in the shutdown of all religious places such as Temples, Mosques and gurudwaras. The people kept their calm till no relaxations were made to any of the businesses, shops and markets. As soon as relaxations were made for shops and markets maintaining social distancing, the people started demanding the reopening of their religious spaces.

Their demands took the form of a PIL to get a permit for the opening of Mosques on the special occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr. Denying their demands, the court allowed no relaxations and maintained that the closure of religious places for a temporary period is a mere regulation and not a prohibition.

Conclusion

Keeping in mind that our country has been thumped by the spread of the corona virus, the decision taken by the Home ministry to keep the religious places shut was definitely in the larger public interest. The restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Home affairs on not providing relaxations to religious places do not violate any of the fundamental rights of the petitioner or people at large. The endeavour was to break the cycle by maintaining social distancing. Also, the right of the State to impose restrictions, as necessary on the ground of public order, health and morality, is inbuilt under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India. Thus, the discretion not to allow opening of places of worship and religious congregations has been exercised judiciously.

Author: Muskan Goyal from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.

Editor: Silky Mittal, Junior Editor, Lexlife India

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