[Answered] Critically evaluate the role of the judiciary in determining the essentiality of religious practices in India. How does this align with the constitutional ethos and values?

Introduction: Contextual Introduction

Body: Highlight the role of the judiciary in determining the essentiality of religious practices.

Conclusion: Way forward

The role of the judiciary in determining the essentiality of religious practices in India is pivotal and contentious, as it involves balancing religious freedoms with constitutional values. This balance was brought to the fore in the case of P. Navin Kumar (2024), where the Madras High Court allowed the practice of angapradakshinam.

Role of Judiciary

  • Historical Context: The judiciary has historically intervened to ascertain which religious practices are “essential,” starting with the Shirur Mutt case (1954), where the Supreme Court introduced the “essential practices” doctrine. This doctrine has been pivotal in numerous cases, including the Sabarimala Temple Entry case (2018) and the Triple Talaq case (2017).
  • Inconsistency in Rulings: The judiciary has been criticized for inconsistent rulings regarding essential religious practices. For instance, in the Durgah Committee, Ajmer case (1961), the Supreme Court ruled that only essential practices are protected, dismissing those deemed superstitious or non-essential. However, in cases like Ismail Faruqui (1995), the Court’s decision appeared to disregard established religious significance, showing inconsistency.
  • Judicial Overreach: Critics argue that the judiciary should not act as clergy, making theological determinations. This overreach can be seen in cases like Mohammed Fasi (1985), where the Kerala High Court ruled on the essentiality of growing a beard in Islam based on empirical evidence rather than religious texts.

Alignment with Constitutional Ethos

  • Secularism and Equality: The Indian Constitution enshrines secularism, mandating that the state maintain an equidistant relationship with all religions. The judiciary’s role in determining essential practices should align with this principle, ensuring that religious practices do not contravene constitutional values such as equality, dignity, and human rights.
  • Social Reforms and Public Health: The framers of the Indian Constitution subordinated freedom of religion to other fundamental rights, including public order, health, and morality. The judiciary’s interventions, like in Navin Kumar (2024), should consider these aspects. Justice Swaminathan’s ruling on angapradakshinam ignored potential health hazards, raising questions about the practice’s alignment with public health and morality.


The judiciary’s role in determining the essentiality of religious practices is crucial in maintaining a balance between religious freedom and constitutional values. While decisions like P. Navin Kumar (2024) highlight the judiciary’s commitment to protecting individual rights, they also underscore the need for consistency and rationality in such determinations. Ultimately, the judiciary must ensure that religious practices do not undermine constitutional ethos, promoting a balanced approach that respects both religious diversity and the supremacy of the Constitution. The Constitution, rather than religion, should guide the extent of religious freedom in a progressive nation like India.

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