The Election Commission on Monday informed the Supreme Court that wearing a burqa by a Muslim woman was a mere religious custom, and not an integral part of Islam.

In its response to a special leave petition to restrain it from publishing photographs of purdah-clad Muslim women in the electoral rolls, the Commission said: “Article 25 of the Constitution does not confer unfettered rights to religious practice, but merely protects the essential or integral practice of any religion.”

Counsel for the Commission Meenakshi Arora submitted before a Bench of Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices Deepak Verma and B.S. Chauhan, hearing a special leave petition, that the photo electoral rolls would not violate the right of Muslim women to practise their religion under Article 25.

The SLP was directed against the September 7, 2006 judgment of the Madras High Court, dismissing a petition filed by M. Ajmal Khan against the use of photographs in the rolls.

Senior counsel P.S. Narasimha and Counsel V. Balaji, appearing for the appellant, contended that the use of photographs in the rolls was likely to cause damage to the sentiments of Muslims as a whole, since there was a likelihood of misuse of the rolls, if they were made available to polling agents.

Mr. Narasimha suggested that the photographs of Muslim women be deleted from the rolls given to polling agents as their religious belief did not permit circulation of their photographs.

Ms. Arora said rolls with photographs were not given to the public, and even the soft copy “does not contain photograph.” She said only the political parties and polling agents were given the rolls as it would ensure free and fair poll.

The Commission, in its affidavit, said: “To maintain the sanctity of democratic process, it is necessary to prevent fraud of voter identity, and the photo electoral rolls will greatly help in identification of electors and prevention of bogus enrolment.”

Mr. Justice Balakrishnan said: “It is not possible to deny access of the photo electoral rolls to the polling agents. If we give privilege to one candidate, lakhs of other candidates will come, and it will create a problem. If an order is passed by this court, thousands of applications will come seeking exemptions. You come out with a better suggestion without touching the religious issue. We will consider it.”

The Bench adjourned the hearing by three weeks.

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