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.
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.
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. 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
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.
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
, 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
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.
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.
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, 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, 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
, 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
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 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. 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
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
., 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 &
, 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. 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.
, 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
treating public health as a compelling reason to limit other fundamental rights.
In Nishikant Dubey v. Union Of India
, the Jharkhand High Court
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
Older adults are going through greater depression and loneliness during the
COVID-19 pandemic according to the study by Indiana University researchers.
As per data, at least 80 people killed themselves due to loneliness and fear of
being tested positive for the virus. 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
 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.
Written By: Taksh Khanna
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Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
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 Suicide leading cause for over 300 lockdown deaths in India, says
study, (May, 2020), accessible at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/suicide-leading-cause-for-over-300-lockdown-deaths-in-india-says-study/articleshow/75519279.cms?from=mdr.
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