Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 25 June 2024

Human dignity versus religious practices

Relevance: GS Paper I & II

Why in News?

The judge linked the belief of the devotees, who claim to derive spiritual benefit from such practice, to the right to privacy, a fundamental right under the Constitution.

More About News:

  • The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court allowed the resumption of "annadhanam" (offering free food) and "angapradakshanam" (circumambulation) at the final resting place of Nerur Sathguru Sadasiva Brahmendral on the eve of his Jeeva Samathi day.
  • The judge linked the belief of the devotees to the right to privacy, arguing that if the right to privacy includes "gender and sexual orientation", it also includes "spiritual orientation".
  • He stated that as long as this boundary is not crossed and the rights and freedoms of others are not affected, neither the State nor the courts have the authority to interfere with an individual's actions.
  • Justice Swaminathan cited the Mahabharata to support his decision and held that the customary practice is protected as a fundamental right under Articles 14, 19(1)(a), 19(1)(d), 21 and 25(1) of the Constitution.
    • Article 25(1): Right to freedom of religion, allowing individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion.
    • Article 21: Right to life and personal liberty.
    • Article 19(1)(a) and (d): Freedom of speech and expression, and freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India respectively.
    • Article 14: Right to equality before the law.
  • The judge overruled the 2015 Division Bench order on the ground that the devotees and the trustees of the Adhistanam were neither included as parties nor heard, calling it a fallacy that suffered from an egregious breach of the principles of natural justice.
  • Justice Swaminathan distinguished this case from a similar one in Karnataka, arguing that all devotees participate regardless of community, promoting "communal amity and social integration."

Previous Rulings and Contrasting Views

  • The practice of doing 'angapradakshanam' by rolling on the plantain leaves left behind by devotees after eating food from them, in the belief that it would offer spiritual benefit, had been in vogue for over 100 years. However, it was halted by a Division Bench order in a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in 2015.
  • The Division Bench order noted that all devotees irrespective of their castes indulged in the practice of rolling on the leftover plantain leaves. It concluded that such religious and customary practices affect human dignity and violate the rights of equality and life under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
  • Despite the devotees' voluntary participation, the court ordered the practice to be stopped immediately in 2015. The Division Bench based its decision on a pending Supreme Court case from Karnataka, where a similar practice occurred at the Kukke Subramanya temple
    • In December 2014, the Supreme Court stayed the practice and instructed the respondents to prevent anyone from rolling on leftover plantain leaves.
  • The Supreme Court case originated from an appeal by the Karnataka High Court's Division Bench. The respondents had agreed to make the plantain leaf rolling ceremony open to all and to stop the practice of only Brahmins eating the food offered to the deity. They also assured that the food on the leaves would be untouched. 
  • The State of Karnataka appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed the rituals, arguing they violated public order, morality, and health restrictions under Article 25(1) of the Constitution.

Critiques and Broader Implications

  • The judge overlooked the people's movement that culminated in the judicial decisions that recognised sexual orientation, which cannot be equated with a spiritual orientation, especially as angapradakshanam on the plantain leaves left behind by devotees is customary and religious rather than spiritual.
  • The judgment focused on protecting devotees' fundamental rights to continue the ritual but failed to consider the constitutional duty to develop scientific temper, humanism, and spirit of inquiry and reform.

Existing conflict

  • The conflict between cultural relativism and universalism is at the heart of the judgment. 
    • The universalists argue for adopting human rights standards, whereas the cultural relativists rely on customary laws, practices, and religious beliefs.
  • The judge has chosen the relativist argument and has moved away from the norms in international instruments, where the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mention human dignity. 
  • The judge failed to recognize that traditional and religious practices are steeped in superstitious beliefs and are the refuge of the ignorant and fearful, who guard against the challenge to their privileges.

Conclusion:

It is the duty of the State to change religious and customary practices, such as rolling over leftovers, that are unhealthy, harmful, and strike at human dignity. While an outright rejection of such practices may open up a Pandora’s Box, the State could educate the believers through reason and rational discussions and pave for a community that is humane and prone to the spirit of inquiry.

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