In the Supreme Court of India Case No. 1987 AIR 748 Petitioner Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors Respondent State of Kerala & Ors Date of Judgment Decided on 11 Aug 1986 Bench Justice Reddy O. Chinnappa
Three children namely Bijoe, Binu and Bindu, studying in a school in Ettumanoor near Kottayam, were expelled from school after they refused to sing the national anthem of India. Their father had asked them not to salute the flag or sing the anthem because it was against their religious faith in Jehovah’s Witnesses. Through their representative, they filed a writ petition in the High Court of Kerala State, seeking to restrain authorities from preventing their school attendance. They alleged that their expulsion amounted to an infringement of their fundamental rights to freedom expression under Article 19 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. The High Court dismissed the petition on the ground that no word or thought in the national anthem could offend any religious beliefs.
Subsequently, they appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of India. The Court found their expulsion in violation both Articles 19 and 25 of the Constitution, holding that a reasonable limitation on the right to freedom of expression must be based on a “‘a law’ having statutory force and not a mere executive or departmental instruction.” It found no provisions of law in the country expressly obligates individuals to sing the national anthem and that the applicable regulatory measures by the State of Kerala’s Department of Education lacked statutory force and that were “mere departmental instructions.
1. The appellants-three children belong to a sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses who worship only Jehovah-the Creator and none other.
2. They refused to sing the National Anthem: ‘Jana Gana Mana‘ because, according to them, it is against the tenets of their religious faith-not the words or the thoughts of the National Anthem-but the singing of it. They desisted from actual singing only because of their aforesaid honest belief and conviction but they used to stand up in respectful silence daily, during the morning assembly when the National Anthem was sung.
3. A Commission was appointed to enquire and report, and it reported that the children were “law abiding” and that they showed no disrespect to the National Anthem. However, under the instructions of Deputy Inspector of Schools, the Head Mistress expelled the appellants from school from July 26, 1985.
4. A representation by the father of the children to the Education Authorities requesting that the children may be permitted to attend the school pending orders from the Government having failed, the appellants filed a Writ Petition in the High Court seeking an order restraining the authorities from preventing them from attending the school. A single Judge and then a Division Bench rejected the prayer of the appellants.
5. Pursuant Article 136 of the Constitution, the father later filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court of India.
6. On August 11, 1986, the Supreme Court overruled the High Court of Kerala in the case of Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala. The Court held that expelling the children based on their “conscientiously held religious faith” violated the Constitution of India. Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy stated: “No provision of law …obliges anyone to sing.” The Court noted that the right of free speech and expression also includes the right to remain silent and that standing for the national anthem showed proper respect. The Court ordered the school authorities to readmit the children.
The main issue before the Court was whether the expulsion of three children from school for their refusal to sing the national anthem of India was consistent with the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
The petitioners argued that they do not sing the Anthem though they stand up on such occasions to show their respect to theNational Anthem. They desisted from actual singing only because of their honest belief and conviction that their religion did not permit them to join any rituals except it be in their prayers to Jehovah their God. They further submitted that they truly and conscientiously believe what they said was not in doubt. They did not hold their beliefs idly and their conduct was not the outcome of any perversity. They emphasized that singing the anthem was idolatry and an act of unfaithfulness to their God.
While the Respondents justified their actions according to the Kerala Education Act and Rules.
Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala is profoundly significant because it affirms that no one can be legally compelled to violate his conscientiously held religious beliefs. While recognizing that fundamental rights are not absolute and are subject to public order, morality, and health, the Court limited the State’s ability to impose on its citizens arbitrary and disproportionate restrictions. The decision stated: “To compel each and every pupil to join in the singing of the National Anthem despite his genuine, conscientious religious objection. . . would clearly contravene the rights guaranteed by Art. 19(1)(a) and Art. 25(1) [of the Constitution of India].”
The ruling also safeguards constitutional freedoms for minority groups. The Court further stated: “The real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.” Justice Reddy added: “Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held it attracts the protection of Art. 25 [of the Constitution].”
Even today, Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala stands as one of the pillars of free speech in India. Jehovah’s Witnesses are happy to have had a part in contributing to the constitutional freedoms of all citizens in India.