Sethusamudram case in the Supreme Court: Soli Sorabjee’s submission

The Sethusamudram case (Rama Gopalan v. Union of India) came up for regular hearing before the Bench comprising the Chief Justice, Justices Raveendran and J.M.Panchal.
Today Soli J.Sorabjee and K.Parasaran (on behalf of petitioners) made their submissions.

Soli Sorabjee said a religious belief, which is genuinely and conscientiously held over a long period of time by a substantial number of adherents or followers of a particular religion becomes an integral part of that religion and is entitled to protection under Article 25 of the Constitution. This, of course, is subject to the requirement that the practice and profession of the belief is not contrary to public order, morality or health. He said it was noteworthy that no restriction can be placed on freedom of religion on the ground that the restriction is “in the interest of general public” as in the case of Articles 19(5) and 19 (6).

He said it cannot be seriously questioned that it is the genuine and conscientious religious belief of the Hindus that Ram Sethu was constructed by Lord Ram and his followers. The issue before the Court is not whether this belief can be historically and scientifically established. The Court cannot sit in judgment over that belief. The Court’s role is to determine whether the aforesaid belief is genuinely or conscientiously held over a period of time by Hindus and if that be so it falls within the ambit of the freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 25. The right to worship and make offerings and perform rites at Ram Sethu is in pursuance of the integral belief of the adherents of Hindu religion; therefore, any State action which results in impairment or even partial destruction of Ram Sethu and leads to extinction or diminution of the right to worship at Ram Sethu as at present is per se violative of the guarantee of freedom of religion, Sorabjee said.

He pointed out that the expression “any object held sacred by any class of persons” in Section 295 of IPC has been construed by the Supreme Court to include any object however trivial or destitute of any real value in itself, if it is regarded as sacred by any class of persons, to be covered by this section. Citing S.Veerabadran Chettiar v. E.V.Ramaswami Naicker (1959 SCR 1211 at 1217 and 1218), he said the Court had emphasized that it is immaterial whether Courts share those beliefs or whether they are rational or otherwise in the opinion of the Court.

Sorabjee’s argument provoked Justice Raveendran to say that beliefs and rituals are not a subject matter here. To this, Sorabjee replied that the object of worship cannot be taken away. Justice Raveendran asked: “ Hindus worship Bhoomimata, does it mean earth cannot be touched? Rivers like Narmada and Ganges are worshipped. Does it mean you can’t touch them. They are not demolishing Ram Setu. Just 300 meters of the Setu will be touched. Should it be considered demolition or change, without affecting belief. Himalayas are also worshipped. So what is your principle? Tirumala hills are held sacred, does it mean you cannot build a road there?”

Sorabjee first said his colleagues, C.S.Vaidynathan and Parasaran will answer this question, and he would only give a legal answer. Sorabjee said you cannot do anything which changes the essential character of the object, being worshipped. Justice Raveendran then asked what was the test. “Is it one handful of sand, or 300 meters?” Clearly exasperated, Sorabjee then said “we are not concerned with mountains, lakes etc. Ram Setu has special significance”.

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