Supreme Court: The Bench comprising of CJ Dipak Misra and Ashok Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer, JJ., by a majority of 2:1, held that the appeals concerning the Ayodhya (Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid) matter need not be referred to a larger Bench for consideration. Ashok Bhushan, J. delivered the majority judgment for CJ Dipak Misra and himself. While S. Abdul Nazeer, J. in his separate opinion was of the view that the matter should be referred to a larger Bench.

The present appeals were fixed for commencement of final arguments on 05-12-2017, when Dr Rajeev Dhavan, learned senior counsel appearing for the appellants submitted that the Constitution Bench Judgment of the Court in Ismail Faruqui v. Union of India, (1994) 6 SCC 360 needs reconsideration, hence the reference be made to a larger Bench. In Ismail Faruqui, while the Constitution Bench (per majority) upheld the validity of the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993 except that of Section 4(3) of the Act which was struck down; it also made observations that a mosque s not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam and namaz (prayer) by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in open. According to Dr Dhavan, the law laid down in Ismail Faruqui in relation to praying in a mosque not being an essential practice is contrary to both, i.e. the law relating to essential practice and the process by which essential practice is to be considered. Whether essential practice can be decided on a mere ipse dixit of the Court or whether the Court is obliged to examine belief, tenets and practices, is a pure question of law. He submitted that Ismail Faruqui judgment being devoid of any examination on the above issues, the matter need to go to a larger Bench.

The Court had to find out the context of observations made in the judgment which according to the appellant were questionable and to decide whether the said observations furnish any ground for reconsideration of the Constitution Bench judgment. After referring to a plethora of judgments, Ashok Bhushan, J. observed that the question as to whether particular religious practice is essential or integral part of the religion is a question, which has to be considered by considering the doctrine, tenets and beliefs of the religion. What Dr Dhavan contended was that the Constitution Bench in Ismail Faruqui, without there being any consideration of essentiality of a religion, made the questionable observations. It was observed from that the context for making the said observation was a claim of immunity of a mosque from acquisition. Whether every mosque is the essential part of the practice of religion of Islam, acquisition of which ipso facto may violate the rights under Articles 25 and 26, was the question which had cropped up for consideration before the Constitution Bench. The observation has been made to emphasise there is no immunity of the mosque from the acquisition. What the Court in Ismail Faruqui meant was that unless the place of offering of prayer has a particular significance so that any hindrance to worship may violate right under Articles 25 and 26, any hindrance to offering of prayer at any place shall not affect right under Articles 25 and 26. the observation need not be read broadly to hold that a mosque can never be an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam.

As to the question of res judicata –the present proceedings being barred in light of the decision in Ismail Faruqui, the Court held that the issues which were involved in that case were validity of the Act of 1993. The issues which have been framed in the suits giving rise to the present appeals were different issues which could not be said to be directly and substantially in issue in Ismail Faruqui. On this count alone, the plea of res judicata as raised by the respondent was liable to be rejected.

While concluding, the Court held that the questionable observations made in Ismail Faruqui, as noted above, were made in context of land acquisition. Those observations were neither relevant for deciding the suits nor relevant deciding the present appeals. Therefore, the Court was of the considered opinion that no case was made out to refer the Constitution Bench judgment Ismail Faruqui for reconsideration. Hence, no case has been made out seeking reference of these appeals to a Constitution Bench of this Court.

S. Abdul Nazeer, J., in his separate opinion stated that he was unable to accept the view of the Justice Bhushan that no case had been made out seeking reference of the present appeals to a Constitution Bench of this Court. However, he was in respectful agreement with the opinion on the question of res judicata. Therefore, while concluding, considering the Constitutional importance and significance of the issues involved, he was of the opinion that following questions need to be referred to a larger Bench:

(a) Whether in the light of Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras v. Sri Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Sri Shirur Mutt, AIR 1954 SC 282 and other cases, an essential practice can be decided without a detailed examination of the beliefs, tenets and practice of the faith in question?

(b) Whether the test for determining the essential practice is both essentiality and integrality?

(c) Does Article 25, only protect belief and practices of particular significance of a faith or all practices regarded by the faith as essential?

(d) Do Articles 15, 25 and 26 (read with Article 14) allow the comparative significance of faiths to be undertaken?

As per the majority, it was held that the present appeal does not require to be referred to a larger Bench nor does the Ismail Faruqui case needs reconsideration. The matter was disposed of accordingly. [M. Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1677, decided on 27-09-2018]

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