SCO Daily: SC Hears Two Cases on Right to Religion

Two Benches of the Supreme Court heard petitions challenging the Places of Worship Act and forced religious coversions.


Miscellaneous Mondays and Fridays, which the Supreme Court dedicates to deciding if a case raises questions worth being heard by the Court, are usually busy days for politician and lawyer Mr. Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay. Mr. Upadhyay routinely files public interest litigation petitions asking the Court to direct government attention towards various policy issues. 

Today too, two different Benches of the Court heard petitions filed by the lawyer. The common thread in both cases? The Right to Religion. 

Chief Justice Chandrachud and Justice J.B. Pardiwala briefly heard Mr. Upadhyay’s petition challenging the Places of Worship Act. This Act, developed in response to the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid dispute, makes it a crime to convert the character of religious places. As per the Act, all places of worship must remain as they were on August 15th, 1947. The Babri Masjid is the only exception the Act allows. The Act became a flashpoint of debate during the recent Gyanvapi Mosque dispute as well. 

Mr. Upadhyay argues in his petition that the Act bars judicial review which is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and cannot be taken away. He says it also violates the principle of secularism by showing preference to one religious community. How so? Mr. Upadhyay argues that the choice of date adversely impacts Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. From 1192 onwards, Muslims and the British ruled India and destroyed temples. By freezing the date in 1947, the Act does not allow these communities to restore their places of worship. According to Mr. Upadhyay, this violates the Rights to Equality, Life and Religious Freedom. 

He is joined by former Rajya Sabha MP Subramanium Swamy, who in another related petition, argues that the Act in itself is not a problem. However, he asks for two religious sites in Benaras and Mathura to be added the list of exceptions. In today’s brief hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta requested  more time to file the Union’s response to this petition, stating that he must consult ‘higher level officials’ to clarify the Union’s stance. The next hearing is likely to take place in January 2023. 

In the second petition, Justices MR Shah and Hima Kohli issued notice on Mr. Upadhyay’s petition which implores the Union government to take serious steps to curb forced religious conversions. SG Mehta shared that the practice of giving rice and wheat to severely underprivileged people to induce them to convert their religious faith is rampant, especially in tribal regions. Justice Shah observed that this is a serious issue, directing the Union to make ‘very clear’ what it intends to do about it. 

In other news, CJI Chandrachud announced two moves to take the Judiciary online today. First, he announced that the Court is preparing to launch its Right To Information portal by next week. This will allow e-filing of RTI applications to the Court, significantly streamlining the process. Second, along with Justice Pardiwala, he ordered all of the government’s tax filing before High Courts and tax tribunals to be conducted online, in a completely paperless manner. Further he asked the Union to ensure that filing at the new GST tribunal, yet to begin its functioning, should be completely online from its inception. 

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