The courts and matters of faith



We need to make a distinction between matters of conscience and matters of faith

There is an uncanny similarity of argument between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) on controversies that have to do with belief. This is illustrated best in their respective positions on the Ram Setu and the triple talaq debates.

In 2005, on the Ram Setu issue, the RSS stated that their opposition to the UPA government’s plan to dredge a canal between Rameswaram, off the coast of Tamil Nadu, and the islands of Mannar, near Sri Lanka, was a “matter of faith and hence required no substantiation”.

Twelve years later the counsel for the AIMPLB has offered a similar argument in the Supreme Court when making his client’s case on the practice of triple talaq. A Constitution Bench of five justices is to decide on whether the practice of divorce by triple talaq is consistent with the protections guaranteed to individuals by the Indian Constitution. In opposition to pleas that the practice be considered unconstitutional, the AIMPLB counsel stated that triple talaq “is a matter of faith. Hence there is no question of constitutional morality and equity”.

This argument that matters of faith be given special status needs to be assessed. Why should matters of faith be given immunity from scrutiny?

Three responses can be offered to this question. Let me, on grounds of brevity, refer to them as (i) the special status of faith, (ii) the issue of validity, and (iii) ethical codes in modern democracies.

Special status of faith

At the outset we must acknowledge that faith, as religious belief, must have special status in any constitutional order. It constitutes the core of an individual’s sense of self and is the basis of a believer’s conscience.

Belief is a matter of personal choice and no external authority, whether state, cultural community, or religious congregation, can tell an individual what her beliefs should be. To do so is to violate the individual’s freedom of conscience guaranteed by most constitutional systems and human rights covenants. But on matters of faith, an important distinction has to be made.

All ‘matters of conscience’ are ‘matters of faith’, but not all ‘matters of faith’ are ‘matters of conscience’. It is only matters of conscience that are protected by the freedom-granting provisions of the Constitution. Matters of conscience are individual-centric. They have an ethical core that guides the choices that an individual makes.

They endow the world with meaning and give the individual purpose. In contrast, the ‘matters of faith’ which the RSS and the AIMPLB are referring to — while they may look similar to ‘matters of conscience’ — are not so for they are group, not individual, centric. They have a component that is based on evidence, whether this is textual, historical, or empirical. In other words, the belief is contingent on the evidence. For example it would take the following form: ‘we believe X because it is said so in our holy book’.

It is the ‘because of’ component that demands analytical and scientific scrutiny of the matters of faith. Does the holy book actually say so? Did Lord Ram really build the Setu?

Further, when matters of faith have harmful social consequences, they must be subject to scrutiny since the Constitution guarantees the individual protection from harm.

This is the basis of all social reform in our history.

When the AIMPLB says that triple talaq has evolved in the last 1400 years, it has inadvertently conceded that the practice is not cast in stone. Let the court’s intervention be part of that evolution.

The issue of validity

The many advances in linguistics, cultural anthropology, gender studies and, of course, the natural sciences can make the probing of the ‘because of’ component of the belief very exciting. For example, a textual analysis of a holy book using a study of old and new grammar, or the etymology of the word, or its placement in a sentence are all ways of arriving at the meaning of the statement.

Textual analysis has advanced considerably and hence is available to determine the validity of the interpretation being offered by scriptural authority. The many schools of Islamic jurisprudence are testimony to this plurality of interpretations.

To that can be added the modern tools of linguistic analysis, gender studies, human rights jurisprudence, and cultural anthropology. The validity of triple talaq must be subject to textual interpretation. Similarly with the Ram Setu claim. It too must be scrutinised by modern science.

Ethical codes in democracies

The most difficult issue in this debate is how to respond to the situation where, after scrutiny, the matter of faith is found to be valid but considered by many in need of change such that it conforms to the contemporary ethics of human rights.

When the counsel for the AIMPLB says that there is “no question of constitutional morality and equity” in matters of faith, he is building a wall, a fashion these days, behind which the orthodox will police their community. Such a wall must not be built. It has no place in a constitutional democracy.


Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2020 12:55:51 AM |

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