Skip to content

NOVEMBER 11, 2014

India’s Landmark Supreme Court Case Upholds Free Speech for Almost 30 Years

India’s Landmark Supreme Court Case Upholds Free Speech for Almost 30 Years

July 8, 1985, began like any other school day for three children in a small town in Kerala, in the southwest region of India. But on this day, the school’s headmistress ordered that the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” be sung in the classroom. All in attendance were required to stand and sing. But 15-year-old Bijoe and his younger sisters, Binu Mol (aged 13) and Bindu (aged 10), did not comply with the order. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, their conscience would not permit them to sing because they sincerely believed that doing so would constitute a form of idolatry and an act of unfaithfulness to their God, Jehovah.

V. J. Emmanuel, the children’s father, spoke to the headmistress and senior teachers, who all agreed to allow the children to attend school without complying with the order. But a school employee overheard the conversation and reported the matter. It eventually came to the attention of a member of the Legislative Assembly who raised the issue with the Assembly because he felt that the children’s behavior was unpatriotic. Soon after, a senior school inspector ordered the headmistress to expel the children unless they agreed to sing the national anthem. Mr. Emmanuel appealed in vain to the school authorities to reinstate his children. He filed a writ petition in the High Court of Kerala. After the court ruled against him, he appealed to the Supreme Court of India.

Supreme Court Upholds Constitutional Rights

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.

Justice Reddy observed: “They [Jehovah’s Witnesses] do not sing the National Anthem wherever, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ in India, ‘God save the Queen’ in Britain, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in the United States and so on. . . . They desist from actual singing only because of their honest belief and conviction that their religion does not permit them to join any rituals except it be in their prayers to Jehovah their God.”

Case Sets Legal Precedent for Religious Rights

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].”

“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”—Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy

Societal Effects of the Decision

Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala was widely published and discussed in Parliament. The decision is part of the syllabus in law schools when constitutional law is taught. It is still referred to in law journals and in newspaper articles as celebrated and famous and as having set a precedent for tolerance in India. The decision has contributed considerably to defining religious freedom in a pluralistic society. It safeguards free speech and expression in India whenever this cherished right may be threatened.

Protecting Constitutional Rights Benefits All

The Emmanuel family today (back row left to right) Binu, Bijoe, and Bindu; (front row) V. J. Emmanuel and Lillykutty

At the time, the Emmanuel family endured ridicule, pressure from authorities, and even death threats, but they have no regrets for holding fast to their religious convictions. Bindu, one of the daughters who is now married and has a child of her own, relates: “To my surprise, I met an attorney who studied my case in law school. He expressed great appreciation for the legal battle that Jehovah’s Witnesses fought to establish human rights.”

V. J. Emmanuel recounts: “Recently I happened to meet Justice K. T. Thomas, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court. When he learned that I was the father of the three children involved in the anthem case, he congratulated me and said that whenever he gets a chance to address a gathering of lawyers, he speaks about the anthem case, for he feels that it was a signal victory for human rights.”

Almost 30 years after the ruling, 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.