Rights of Religious Minorities and Constitutions


How do constitutions in a secular polity address the concerns of religious minorities? Are religious minorities thought of as members of a community or as individuals? Do the rights awarded to a community as a group come into conflict with rights of individuals? These are some of the questions that have animated debates in secular countries about the rights of minority religious groups.

One of the best examples of this is India where the question of the rights awarded to minority religious groups, especially Muslims, has been a bone of contention between liberals, who place the individual above the community, and communitarians, who prefer community rights to be enshrined in the legal system. This has been a major concern for countries who have tried to embrace a form of secularism based on equal respect towards all religions. There are several variants of secularism – the French model of laïcité which implies the strict control of religion by the state, the American model which implies a relative autonomy of religion from the state, and models which incorporate features of both.

Indian Secularism and Minority Rights

The Indian constitution awards rights to religious minorities to practice and propagate their faith. Under Article 25 of the Constitution, freedom of religion is granted to all individual citizens. But this freedom has often come into conflict with the freedom granted to minority religious institutions to manage their own affairs. This illuminates the conflict that we highlighted between community rights and individual rights. The framers of the Constitution attempted to achieve a balance between the two; they recognised the rights of individuals but also secured the rights of minority communities through special provisions. This was premised on the idea that the cultures of minorities need to be protected and preserved. This is why the Parliament allowed the existence of personal law systems, legal systems based on the individual community and religious practices of minorities, to persist along with the secular law.

The Core Debates

The core challenge for a secular country is to address the concerns of preserving and protecting community identity while at the same time making sure that the rights of individuals are not curtailed. Societies with a wide range of ethnic and religious minorities often face this challenge. It is important to secure their rights as a group. However, individual citizens in these communities also need to be awarded rights similar to those of their counterparts in majority communities. In India, the issue has come to the fore once again in recent times with a petition pending in the Supreme Court of India asking for the banning of the practice of triple talaq, a form of instant divorce permitted by some schools of Islamic law. Interestingly, the petition has been filed by a group of Muslim women seeking to reform religious practices from within the community.

This resource will help you familiarise yourself with the debates about individual rights and religious rights in contemporary politics; we will also touch upon the issue of integration of minorities in a secular, multi-cultural society. In the activities that follow, we will take up three case studies where the questions of women’s rights, the secular state and multi-culturalism come up. Using an array of articles and videos, we will examine how religious minorities imagine their rights and the politics of integration in multi-cultural societies.

Video Resource

Resource activities

Shah Bano and the Triple Talaq Debate in India

In this activity we will study two particular instances in India, one in the 1980s, and one more recent, where the Supreme Court of India has had to address the conflict between the rights of communities and the rights of individuals. In examining these examples, we will try to think about questions of how multi-cultural societies can address these conflicts.


France and the Burkini Ban

In this activity, we will try to understand current debates in France around demands for a ban on the burkini, a piece of clothing which covers the head and the body and which is used by Muslim women. 


Muslim Women in the UK and Sharia Courts

The continued existence of sharia courts – community courts run by local sharia councils in the United Kingdom, which adjudicate on issues of marriage, maintenance, domestic violence and inheritance for Muslims has stirred up controversy in recent times. This activity will ask you to engage in this debate.


Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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