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How the Madras High Court upheld the right to disagree with the existence of God [Read Judgment]

How the Madras High Court upheld the right to disagree with the existence of God [Read Judgment]

Meera Emmanuel

In a recent judgment, the Madras High Court was constrained to clarify that the freedom to profess one’s religion under Article 19 of the Constitution includes the right to disagree with the existence of God.

A ruling to this effect was passed by a Division Bench of Justices S Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad, while dealing with a plea to remove atheistic inscriptions below statues of social activist, Thanthai Periyar. Pertinently, the Bench observed,

If the petitioner has a constitutional right under Article 19 of the Constitution of India, to express his views on religion and existence of God, in the light of the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Lalai Singh Yadav’s case, we are of the view that the 2nd respondent and the members of the party, or followers of Thanthai Periyar, in exercise of the rights under Article 19 of the Constitution of India, has a right to disagree with the same.”

In the case before the Court, particular objection had been raised by one M Deivanayagam against a Tamil inscription made below statues of Periyar,  which loosely translates to:

There is no God, no God, no god, Those who preached God is fool, Those who spread God Rogue,Those who pray God are Barbarians.

The petitioner contended that the same was offensive to the Universal God, that he claimed to follow as a rationalist. Further, the petitioner also argued that the inscriptions made on the statues by members of the Dravida Kazhagam party (which Periyar had founded) misinterpreted Periyar’s message of humanism and self-respect. The petitioner claimed that Periyar had not advocated for atheism, and that such atheistic messages were being erroneously propagated by the Dravida Kazhagam members after Periyar’s death.

The Dravida Kazhagam party countered this claim, asserting that Periyar had endorsed atheistic views since as early as 1928. After examining various material, including speeches and editorials by Periyar, the Court also found merit in this submission, eventually noting that,

We are of the view that it is a undisputed fact, that Thanthai Periyar, in all his speeches, publications, from 1928, had declared that there is no god, God doesn’t exist, One who has created is a fool…Thanthai Periyar was known for Atheism… Thanthai Periyar, had advocated both atheism and self respect. Speeches, writings, essays, which we have extracted from the summary, fortify our views…

….Whenever Thanthai Periyar name is used, in general, people recognize him as a non believer of God and the one who fought for social justice and self respect. These are facts generally accepted by people. Contention of the 2nd respondent that the party has only continued the work of Thanthai Periyar and not added or deleted single word used by Thanthai Periyar, has to be accepted.”

While this was the case, the Court cited several judicial precedents, including the Supreme Court case of State of Uttar Pradesh v. Lalai Singh Yadav to emphasise that divergent views on philosophy must be accepted and that “there cannot be a prevention of freedom of expression” in the the permanent interest of human progress. 

In view of the same, and the freedoms enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution, the Court held that the writing and speeches of Thanthai Periyar cannot be curtailed. The Bench observed, 

“Thanthai Periyar believed in what he said, and there is nothing wrong in having his views inscribed in the statues.

The Court therefore dismissed Deivanayagam’s plea, stating,

“…we are of the view that the 2nd respondent, Dravidar Kazhagam, has every right under the Constitution of India, to fight for social justice in eradicating inequality, right for upliftment of women and downridden people, express views on religion and existence of God.”

The Court, however, made a brief note that it was not commenting on the correctness of the religious views forwarded by both sides. In this regard, the Bench observed, in the midst of judgment,

Who is a rationalist? Whether, one who believes in existence of God or deny the same, on the prayer sought for, we deem it fit not to delve into the same.

[Read the Judgment]