By Sandeep Suresh
Sandeep Suresh is a fifth-year law student at the National Law University in Jodhpur, India.
On September 23rd 2014, a constitutional court of India delivered a promising judgment on the right of an individual to state that he does not believe in any religion and therefore has “no religion.” A few days ago, the United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the American Constitution is only obligated to protect freedom of religion and not freedom “from” it. In that light, this development in India would definitely be an interesting event for the American society to take note of.
The judgment under consideration came in the matter of Dr.Ranjeet Suryakant Mohite v. Union of India.  The petitioners in this case were members of a registered organization that believed that Jesus Christ did not intend to form Christianity as a religion and hence claimed that they did not have religious faith. The contention in the petition was that the State cannot compel any individual to disclose his religion while submitting government forms or declarations. The petitioners also requested of the court that an individual be allowed to state that he belongs to “no religion.”
In a brief ten page judgment, the court categorically held that Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice any religion, included the right to state that an individual does not practice any religion as well.
Further, the court also gave effect to the petitioners’ request by directing the State to provide the option for individuals to state they belong to “no religion” in government forms.
Article 25 of the Constitution is the basis of the reasoning given in the judgment. The objective of Articles 25 to 28 of the Indian Constitution is to protect religion and religious practices from State interference except in certain exceptional circumstances that affect the general public. Hence, the judgment in Ranjit, which directs that the State cannot compel disclosure of religion in their forms, is compatible with the aim of Article 25.
Further, the Supreme Court of India, through Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, held in the landmark judgment of S.R.Bommai v. Union of India that while citizens are free to profess or practice any religion as they choose, so far as the State is concerned, “religion of a person is immaterial” for any purpose of the State.  This holding portrays the two sides of secularism. When we consider the viewpoint of the State as explained by Justice Reddy, it can be concluded that the requirement of disclosing religion in government forms is against the spirit of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. Hence, the decision in Ranjit upholds the very essence of secularism i.e. State neutrality toward a person’s religion. Moreover, secularism in India is sufficiently couched in the safe hands of the doctrine of equality under Article 14 and more specifically under Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which bars the State from discriminating citizens based on religion.
Therefore, it is constitutionally ideal that the State not make religion a necessary factor for any of its purposes. Disclosure of such sensitive information creates an inherent bias. For instance, the United States has itself witnessed such instances of bias created by religion. It created public debates when the Salvation Army, a religious charity organization, threatened the candidates in their interviews with termination if they had refused to disclose information regarding their religious practices.
From a practical perspective as well, information regarding religion does not serve any beneficial purpose in secularist nations. For example, in interviews for employment, there is no considerable advantage relevant for employment that the employer would get from facts on religion, caste, or race. In fact, elimination of such disclosures would pave the way for merit as the sole criterion for selecting the best candidates.
This judgment in Ranjit cannot claim to be the first step toward upholding this unique aspect of secularism. Firstly, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the “right not to profess any religion.” Compelling an individual to disclose his religion could undermine this aspect of universal religious freedom guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Secondly, in 2010, the European Court of Human Rights in Sinan Işik v. Turkey held that a requirement to have religious faith disclosed in identity documents was incompatible with an individual’s right not to disclose his religion. 
Thirdly, the United States of America’s Equal Employment Opportunity law is an example of disregarding religion, specifically for employment purposes. As per the law, a person cannot be compelled to declare his religion, age, gender, marital or family status, colour, ethnicity and national origin. Discrimination against employees on any of these grounds is punishable under the American law.
Therefore, on a holistic approach, the Ranjit judgment can be seen as a lighting lamp not only for the profoundly contested cause of secularism in India, but for every nation that supports the cause of secularism to be taken higher up the pedestal.
A significant conceptual consequence of this judgment is the probable rise of two types of secularism; “active secularism” that guarantees an individual the freedom to practice any religion and ‘passive secularism’ which is one that is propounded in the Ranjit judgment i.e. the right not to believe in any religious faith.
It is undisputed that this judgment signifies the importance of rationality and freedom of choice of an individual. As it is widely known, India is a country of many religions. Therefore, such pro-secularist judgments will only benefit the general will. However, such judgments would be valuable only if they are properly implemented by the government authorities in India.
 Public Interest Litigation No.139/2010; Judgment delivered on 23rd September 2014
 AIR 1994 SC 1918
 Application No. 21924/05; decision rendered on 2nd February, 2010
Photo Credit: Flickr user Angel Rodriguez-Rey