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Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Freedom of Religion in India

The government's primary role in the modern welfare state is to defend and promote individual rights while also promoting social welfare. But the true issue occurs when one privilege is revoked in order to safeguard another. To stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown. When the subject of re-opening religious institutions as part of the unlocking scheme came up during the COVID-19 epidemic, the discussion concerning the right to health vs the freedom of religion developed. This first half of the paper will discuss the right to health and freedom of religion under the Indian Constitution. The second half of the paper will analyse how freedom of religion is being subjected to right to health and the relationship between religion and mental health in the ongoing pandemic and the views expressed by courts in relation to these.

Brief background:
The Government of India first implemented a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020 as a preventive measure to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in India. When the number of confirmed positive coronavirus cases approached 500, the first lockdown was implemented. The shutdown, according to experts, was the most important aspect in containing the virus's spread. However, the lockdown was gradually lifted, taking into account socioeconomic concerns. Shopping malls, religious buildings, hotels, and restaurants were to reopen on June 8 after the government established a set of Standard Operating Procedures.

Despite the fact that the central government set instructions, the various states decided whether or not to allow religious organisations to open. Several cases were filed in the courts at this time, both for and against the reopening of religious institutions. Those opposed to the opening of the places of worship argue that because it is an emergency pandemic situation and we are dealing with an asymptomatic, invisible enemy, it is not the right time to do so since it could spread the virus further.

Those in support of religious institutions reopening, on the other hand, argue that the pandemic has had an impact on people's mental health, and that permitting them to reopen can help them achieve spiritual serenity and pleasure.

The Issue:
Those against the reopening of the religious institutions argue that the maintenance of public health should rank high as these are indispensable to the very physical existence of the community and the ability of the State to act in the public interest is an essential part of Article 25[1]. The right to religious freedom must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with other fundamental rights. Others side advocates that “Mens sana in corpora sano”,i.e., a rational mind in a healthy body is a basic right and since the pandemic has affected the mental health of people, allowing religious places to reopen can help them attain spiritual peace[2].

The contentions of both the sides in relation to the opening of the religious institutions are reasonable and backed by valid concerns and ground. A rational balance needs to be struck between the protection of health versus the mental health vis-a-vis the religious freedoms of the individuals

Freedom of religion under the Indian Constitution:
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, including the right to freely profess, practice, and spread it, and Article 26 provides the right to govern religious matters. Furthermore, Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to liberty, which includes people's religious beliefs and lifestyles. The freedom of thought, expression, religion, faith, and worship is also included in the Constitution's preamble, which is considered to be the core guiding principle. As a result, religious freedom is not only safeguarded by Articles 25 and 26, but it also becomes one of the most significant aspects of a person's life when it falls under the purview of Article 21 and the preamble.

In the case of The Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt[3], The Court held that religion is undoubtedly a matter of faith with individuals or communities, not necessarily theistic, and that while a religion undoubtedly has its foundation in a system of beliefs or doctrines regarded by those who profess that religion as conducive to their spiritual well-being, it would be incorrect to say that religion is nothing more than a doctrine or belief. In the case of Commissioner of Police & others v. Acharya Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta & another[4], the Court said that the protection guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution is not confined to matters of doctrine or belief but extends to acts done in pursuance of religion and, therefore, contains a guarantee for rituals, observances, ceremonies and modes of worship which are essential or integral part of religion. According to B.R. Ambedkar, what constitutes a 'religion' or 'matters of religion' should be ascertained by limiting them to religious beliefs and ceremonials, which are held as essentially religious in a particular religion, which is under judicial review[5].

Right to health under the Indian Constitution:
The right to life has been regarded as one of humanity's most basic, fundamental, inalienable, and transcendental rights. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees everyone the right to life and liberty, regardless of citizenship. Every individual has the right to life, liberty, and security of person under Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[6].
Public health is also a subject enumerated in Entry 6 of List II, State List in Schedule VII of the Constitution of India.

In the case of Paramanda Katara v. Union of India[7], The Supreme Court stated that the preservation of human life is of paramount concern since once life is lost, the status quo ante cannot be restored because resurrection is beyond the capacity of man. In the Maneka Gandhi's case[8], the court observed that Article 21 of Constitution has ushered a new era of expansion of the horizons of right to life. Thus, the right to life is the most fundamental to all the rights and all the other rights are derived from it.

It is a universal premise that where there is a right, there is a remedy according to the doctrine of ubi “jus ebi remedium”. As a result, the government has a responsibility to promote and preserve the health of individuals. The WHO's Constitution declares that each individual's right to the best possible standard of health is a fundamental right, implying that nations have legal obligations to provide safe conditions for enjoyment of health.

In Vincent Panikulangara v. Union of India[9], the Supreme Court held:
'The maintenance and improvement of public health have to rank high as these are indispensable to the very physical existence of the community. In a welfare State, it is the obligation of the State to ensure the creation and maintenance of conditions congenial and appropriate to good health. The right to enjoy life as a serene experience, in quality far more than animal existence is thus recognized.'

Mental health as a part of Right to Health:
Mens sana in corpora sano”, is a well-known Latin saying from the Satires of Juvena (ad c. 60-c. 130) which means a rational mind in a healthy body. It was on this ideology that the Bhore Committee Report of 1946. Through different rulings, the courts have decided that an individual's mental health is just as important as their physical health, and that the need to safeguard people's health also extends to protecting individuals.

Mental health encompasses more than just the absence of mental illnesses, and courts have recognised the mental component of health. After 1983, Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code was added to protect women from cruelty, and this term included mental cruelty. Under the Hindu Marriage Act of 1956, cruelty is a basis for divorce, and mental abuse is included.

The constitution of the WHO[10] postulates: 'Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'. Subjective well-being, self-effectiveness, autonomy, and the ability to comprehend one's potential are all aspects of mental health. It can also be characterised as a condition of well-being in which people are able to recognise their own abilities, cope with everyday stress, work productively, and contribute to their communities. It's all about refining one's skills and enabling them to reach their own objectives.

Freedom of Religion being subject to Public Health:
The framers of the Constitution envisioned a secular governmental system that would provide equal protection to all religions (Sarva Dharma Samabhava). The state's attitude toward religion is one of 'principled distance'. The state's intervention or non-intervention in religious practises is determined by which of the two advances substantive ideals such as social order, social fairness, and religious peace, all of which are essential to a life of human dignity for everyone. Freedom of religion is also not an absolute right[11]. The State has right to impose restrictions, as are required or found necessary on the ground of public order, health and morality inbuilt under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.

In the case of the Durgah Committee, Ajmer v. Syed Hussain Ali[12], the Court observed that in order that a practice be treated as a part of religion, they must be regarded so by the said religion as its essential and integral part; otherwise even purely secular practices which are not an essential or an integral part of religion are apt to be clothed with a religious form. In the case of Afzal Ansari v. State of U.P[13]., the Court held that Azan may be an essential and integral part of Islam but recitation of Azan through loud-speakers or other sound amplifying devices cannot be said to be an integral part of the religion, warranting protection of the fundamental right enshrined under Article 25 of the Constitution.

In the case of Church of God v. KKR Majestic Welfare Colony Associations & Ors[14], the Supreme Court has held that no religion prescribes that prayers should be performed by disturbing the peace of others. In a civilized society in the name of religion, activities which disturb others cannot be permitted. The Court clarified that even in case of an essential practice, its adverse impact on public health and how it shall be deteriorating other's health would have been grounds for restriction and couldn't be allowed.

Relationship between religion and mental health:
Part III of the Constitution guarantees citizens specific rights while also requiring the government to defend those rights. The right to life under Article 21 encompasses the right to health and that would undoubtedly embrace mental health too. Before the 19th century, psychiatry and religion were interlinked. The responsibility for the care of the mentally ill was upon the religious institutions. Religion serves as a great integrating force in moulding the personality and producing fully healthy mature human being[15]. Religious teachings may help to prevent suicide, but social support, comfort, and the purpose and tranquilly that religious belief provides are also important. Religious practises, both public and private, can aid in the maintenance of mental health and the prevention of mental illnesses.

Reasons for keeping religious institutions closed:
The number of deaths caused by the COVID-19 has been significant in the current emergency situation, and given the nature of the coronavirus, social separation is critical. This also demonstrates that simply having standard operating procedures in place is insufficient to stop the infection.

In case of Mubeen Farooqi v. State of Punjab & ors.[16], the Court said to safeguard the health of the society, restrictions are important. Merely because restrictions had been relaxed in certain areas, it could not be a ground to relax the same for religious places of worship and said that restrictions are in collective interest of the society at large. The endeavour of the government is to break the cycle by maintaining social distancing.

Thus, the Court said that the discretion not to permit opening of all the places of worship has been exercised judiciously. In the past, the Court favoured the approach taken in the case of Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal v. Tamil Nadu[17], treating public health as a compelling reason to limit other fundamental rights.

In Nishikant Dubey v. Union Of India[18], the Jharkhand High Court observed that:
Since we are fighting with the invisible enemy, so far as the symptomatic carrier of the virus is concerned, the same can be traced through medical check-up but there may be a serious threat from the persons who may be carriers of the virus who are asymptomatic. Further the Court said that the nature of the puja is such that controlling the virus and social distancing is very difficult. It has also been observed that it is not possible to screen the medical conditions of all those who converge in the city.

Thus, taking into consideration, the compelling need of the present emergency, the government has the rights to curtail the freedom of religion in order to protect the right to health and life of the other citizens which should be considered as the paramount importance as of now.

Reasons for reopening of the religious institutions:
Due to multiple pressures such as job loss, fear of infection, social isolation, significant shortages of resources for testing and treatment, unknown prognoses, and so on, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a mental health crisis. The coronavirus epidemic, according to mental health professionals, is causing panic attacks, anxiety, and sadness, placing more people at risk of suicide. During and after the COVID-19 epidemic, there is a propensity for suicide rates to rise.

Older adults are going through greater depression and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic according to the study by Indiana University researchers[19]. As per data, at least 80 people killed themselves due to loneliness and fear of being tested positive for the virus[20]. The U.S. government had also opened the religious institutions saying that religion is an essential to the way of life.

States have placed religious freedom on a lower pedestal by allowing businesses and economic activity but restricting religious acts. The epidemic is accompanied by unemployment, financial stress, and other negative consequences.

Hence, a rational balance must be achieved between the protection of health against mental health in relation to individual religious liberty.

In the case of Jayakumar T.V. v. State of Kerala[21] the court said that a contention that there is an absolute bar on religious assembly is not accepted. The state government's order limiting 15 persons per 100 sq. ft. was taken as a valid parameter and upheld. It was recognized that Mass in a Church is conducted at a particular time; prayer in a Mosque is performed at a particular time and so also worship in a Temple. Similarly, though the Supreme Court first prohibited the concerned from having a Rath Yatra, the court eventually authorised it when the state government issued precise rules to control and regulate the movement.

As a result, the State Government must find a middle ground that takes into account both the demands of the current situation as a result of the pandemic, as well as the physical and mental well-being of the population. In a welfare state, it is the government's responsibility to fulfil its true obligations.

  1. Vincent Panikulangara v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 990.
  2. Gitarth Ganga Trust v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No.963/2020
  3. Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt 1954 AIR 282
  4. Commissioner of Police & others v. Acharya Jagadishwarananda Avadhuta & another, (2004) 12 SCC 770.
  5. Constitutional Assembly Vol,7p.781.
  6. Article 3, Universal Declaration of human Rights, 1948; G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/8 10, at 71 (1948).
  7. Paramanda Katara v. Union of India, AIR 1989 SC 2039.
  8. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 S.C. 597
  9. Vincent Panikulangara v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 990
  10. Constitution of the World Health Organization, in Basic Documents, Thirty-ninth Edition, World Health Organization, 1992
  11. Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj etc. v. State of Rajasthan and Ors. AIR 1963 SC 1638.
  12. The Durgah Committee, Ajmer and another v. Syed Hussain Ali & ors, AIR 1961 SC 1402
  13. Afzal Ansari v. State of U.P., MANU/UP/0995/2020
  14. Church of God v KKR Majestic Welfare Colony Associations & Ors, (2000) 7 SCC 282.
  15. O'Doherty, E. F. “Religion and Mental Health.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 45, no. 177, 1956, pp. 39–49. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
  16. Mubeen Farooqi v. State of Punjab And Others, MANU/PH/0425/2020.
  17. Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal v. Tamil Nadu, (2016) 2 SCC 725
  18. Nishikant Dubey v. Union of India, MANU/JH/0273/
  19. Covid-19: Older adults faced mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic, (August 28, 2020), accessible at [20] Suicide leading cause for over 300 lockdown deaths in India, says study, (May, 2020), accessible at [21] Jayakumar T.V. v. State Of Kerala, MANU/KE/0117/2020
Written By: Taksh Khanna

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