Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Religious Freedom
The Ministry of Justice v. Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center in Russia
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of India found that the expulsion of school children for not singing the national anthem constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Three school children were expelled from school after refusing to sing the Indian national anthem since it was against their religious faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their representative argued that the expulsion was an infringement of their fundamental rights to freedom expression under Article 19 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. The Court reasoned that a limitation on the right to freedom of expression must be based on a law with statutory force. Yet, there were no provisions of the law that obligated individuals to sing the national anthem and the State of Kerala’s Department of Education lacked statutory force to require school children to participate.
In July 1985, three children were expelled from their school after they refused to sing the national anthem of India “Jana Gana Mana.” While they silently stood during the morning assembly of the school, they objected to singing the anthem because it was allegedly against their religious faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Upon expulsion, their father filed a writ petition in the High Court of Kerala State, contending that the expulsion was in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, respectively protected under Articles 19 and 25 of the Indian Constitution. The court dismissed the case, finding that “no words or thoughts” in the national anthem was capable of offending religious convictions.
Pursuant to Article 136 of the Constitution, the father later filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court of India.
Supreme Court Justice O. Chinappa Reddy delivered the opinion of the Court.
Before dealing with the merits of the case, the Court relying on decision of the High Court of Australia in Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witness v. Commonwealth, (1943) 67 C.L.R 116, noted that the “Jehovah’s Witnesses are an association of persons loosely organized throughout Australia and elsewhere who regard literal interpretation of the Bible as fundamental to proper religious beliefs.” [p.5] After discussing a number cases on civil liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States and Canada, the Court held that even though the religion may appear strange or even bizarre to us, but the sincerity of their beliefs is beyond question.” [p. 7]
The main issue before the Court was whether the expulsion of three children from school for their refusal to sing the national anthem of India was consistent with the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
Pursuant to Article 19 of India’s Constitution: “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”, but it can be reasonably restricted by law “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offen[s]e.” As applied to the present case, the Court found no express provisions of law obligating individuals to sing the national anthem, nor it is disrespectful to stay silent when the national anthem is sung. [pp. 7-8] Relevant here, the Court further discussed the applicability of Section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971, under which: “Whoever, intentionally prevents the singing of the National Anthem or causes disturbance to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which extend to three years or with find, or with both.” [p. 8] The Court held that standing up silently “clearly does not either prevent the singing of the National Anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing.” [p. 8]
In addition, the Court ruled that that applicable regulatory measures created by the State of Kerala’s Department of Education on compulsory participation in singing the national anthem in schools amounted to mere “departmental instructions” and thus, they lacked statutory force within the meaning of Article 19 of the Constitution in order to place limitation on the right to freedom of expression. (See also Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1963 SC 1295.) According to the Court, “any law which may be made under clauses (2) to (6) of Art. 19 to regulate the exercise of the right to the freedoms guaranteed by Art. 19(1)(a) to (e) and (g) must be ‘a law’ having statutory force and not a mere executive or departmental instruction.” [p. 9]
With respect to the alleged violation of the right to freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution, the Court reiterated its jurisprudence that when the right to freely practice or profess a religious belief is invoked, the offending act at issue “must be examined to discover whether such act is to protect public order, morality and health, whether it is to give effect to the other provisions of Part III of the Constitution or whether it is authori[z]ed by a law made to regulate or restrict any economic, financial, political or secular activity which may be associated with religious practice or to provide for social welfare and reform.” [p. 11] According to the Court, the determination of whether a particular religious belief is protected under Article 25 is dependent on “whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion.” [p. 12] Having concluded that the children truly and conscientiously believed in their religious conviction, the Court found their expulsion unconstitutional under Article 25 on the ground that is was based on mere departmental instructions.
On the basis of foregoing analysis, the Court ruled that that the expulsion from school violated the children’s rights to freedom of expression and religion. It accordingly set aside the High Court’s judgment and ordered the State of Kerala to readmit them to school. It concluded by stating: “[O]ur tradition teaches tolerance, our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision confirms to the global standards of freedom of expression that “no individual can be compelled to affirm a belief and attitude of mind to which he does not subscribe to.”
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The law laid down by the Supreme Court of India binds all courts within the territory of India under Article 141 of the Constitution. Therefore, this case has precedential effect.
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