ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Constitutional Rights of Atheists and Non-believers

Constitutional Rights of Atheists and Non-believers

Though atheism has been socially prevalent in India, it has remained a grey area in the legal context. There are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are considered as belonging to the religion of their birth. The Constitution provides for “freedom of conscience” under Article 25 since 1950, but constitutional rights of “non-believers” were never substantiated by courts
until recently.

In India, the rights of “non-believers” have never been considered a part of the mainstream, despite 13% of “Indians being non-religious, and 3% being convinced atheists (WIN-Gallup Report 2012). Besides, atheism has existed in India since centuries with many schools of Indian philosophy being explicitly non-theistic: Charvaka (also known as Lokayata), Mām.sā, Samkhya and Buddhism. This tradition has continued in the present times as prominent leaders like Periyar E V Ramasamy, Bhagat Singh and Ram Manohar Lohia espoused atheism as a social philosophy. Though atheism has been socially prevalent in India, it has remained a grey area in the legal context. There are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are considered as belonging to the religion of their birth. The Consti­tution provides for “freedom of conscience”1 under Article 25 since 1950, but constitutional rights of “non-believers” were never substantiated by courts until recently.

To understand the true spirit and purpose of “freedom of conscience” provided under the Constitution, reference must be drawn to the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD). On 17 October 1949, H V Kamath had proposed an amendment to the current form of the Preamble to the Constitution that the words “In the name of God” be added before “We, the People of India.” The members of the Constituent Assembly asserted strongly against the said amendment, thus rejecting it. One member, Pattom A Thanu Pillai, stated that said amendment would amount to compulsion in the matter of faith. He added, “It affects the fundamental right of freedom of faith. A man has a right to believe in God or not, according to the Constitution.” Another member, pandit Hirday Nath Kunzru, said that invoking the name of god in the Preamble shows “a narrow, sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.” The rejection of Kamath’s proposed amendment was a conscious decision, which clearly indicates that the Constituent Assembly recognised the constitutional rights of “non-believers.” The “right not to believe” is a matter of choice, which was protected in the “freedom of conscience.”

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Updated On : 25th Sep, 2018

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