Allahabad High Court verdict on Personal Choices: A reminder of Constitution’s most cherished values

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Context:

  • Recently, in a case of inter-faith marriage, Allahabad High court said that it won't interfere in the personal choices of individuals. This order comes amid the anti-conversion laws in U.P and other states.
  • Various State governments undertaking projects to outlaw what they describe as “Love Jihad”.

Relevance:
Prelims: 
Mains: GS II- Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

 

What was the case?

  • The Allahabad High Court has struck down its previous judgement in which it held that religious conversion “just for the purpose of marriage” was unacceptable.
  • The court said that essentially it does not matter whether a conversion is valid or not. The right of two adults to live together cannot be encroached upon by the state or others.
    The bench, comprising Justices Pankaj Naqvi and Justice Vivek Agarwal, was hearing a petition by a Muslim man and his wife, who converted from Hinduism to Islam, to quash a police complaint against them by the woman's father.
  • The decision may now pose a legal problem for the Uttar Pradesh government, which is planning a law to regulate interfaith relationships on the basis of the two previous judgments that were both delivered by single-judge benches.

Arguments of Petitioners and State:

  • The petitioners claimed that they were both adults competent to contract a marriage, and had, in fact, wedded in August 2019, as per Muslim rites and ceremonies, only after the bride had converted to Islam. They said they had been living together for more than a year.
  • The State argued that the partnership had no sanctity in the law because a conversion with a singular aim of getting married was illegitimate.
  • The government relied on a pair of judgments delivered by single judges of the Allahabad High Court, in particular on the judgment in Noor Jahan v. State of U.P. (2014). There, the High Court had held that conversion by an individual to Islam was valid only when it was predicated on a “change of heart” and on an “honest conviction” in the tenets of the newly adopted religion. 
  • Additionally, the High Court had ruled that the burden to prove the validity of conversion was on the party professing the act.
  • Therefore, in the present case, it was argued that it was for the woman to establish that her conversion was borne out of her conscience and out of a deep-seated belief in the teachings of her new religion.
  • However, the court rejected the arguments of the state and overturned its earlier judgment.


Highlights of the order:

  • Right to life and liberty:
    • Religious conversions, even when made solely for marriage, constituted a valid exercise of a person’s liberties. 
    • The right to live with a person of his or her choice irrespective of religion is intrinsic to the right to life and liberty. 
    • It is a right of an individual, and when this right is infringed, it would constitute a breach of his or her fundamental right to life and personal liberty as it included the right to freedom of choice, to choose a partner, and right to live with dignity as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
  • The constitutional duty of the court:
    • The courts and the constitutional courts, in particular, were enjoined to uphold the life and liberty of an individual guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Freedom of choice:
    • Interference in a personal relationship would constitute a serious encroachment into the right to freedom of choice of two individuals.
    • When the law permits two persons of the same sex to live together peacefully, then neither any individual nor a family nor even State can have any objection to the relationship of two major individuals who out of their own free will are living together.
  • Human right:
    • An individual, on attaining adulthood, is statutorily conferred a right to choose a partner, which, if denied, would affect his or her human right.
  • The dignity of an individual:
    • The order recognized that our society rested on the foundations of individual dignity, that a person’s freedom is not conditional on the caste, creed, or religion that her partner might claim to profess.
  • Freedom of conscience and religion:
    • Every person had an equal dominion over their own senses of conscience.
    • The judgment read that the court doesn't see the couple as Hindu and Muslim, rather as two grown-up individuals who, out of their own free will and choice, are living together peacefully and happily over a year.
  • Right to privacy:
    • The High Court’s order makes it clear that it is neither the province of the state nor any other individual to interfere with a person’s choice of partner or faith.
    • By invoking the Supreme Court’s judgment in Puttaswamy, the High Court held that an individual’s ability to control vital aspects of her life inheres in her right to privacy, that this promise includes the preservation of decisional autonomy, on matters, among other things, of “personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home, and sexual orientation”.
  • Non-interference of state:
    • Marriage, the High Court said, is a matter of choice, and every adult woman has a fundamental right to choose her own partner.
    • Even if such a decision encourages other concomitant decisions, including a choice of religion, the state can have little to do with it
  • Violation of the constitution:
    • According to the High Court, the Constitution is violated every time matters of intimate and personal choice are made vulnerable to the paternal whims of the state.
  • Unity in diversity:
    • To disregard the choice of a person who is of the age of majority would not only be antithetic to the freedom of choice of a grown-up individual but would also be a threat to the concept of unity in diversity.
  • Ethical autonomy:
    • The safeguards that the constitution affords to religion is not because there is something innate in religious faith that demands special security.
    • Liberty is promised because questions of conscience — which include choices of faith — are matters of ethical autonomy.
    • The provision’s ultimate raison d’être is to allow individuals the freedom to lead their lives as they please.

Constitutional provisions:

  • The preamble: The preamble of the constitution declares India as a secular country and ensures to all its citizens-
    • Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
    • The dignity of the individual.
  • Article 19: The Constitution of India provides the right to freedom, given in article 19 with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution.
    • The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, as one of its six freedoms.
  • Article 21: Guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty to every individual. Article 21 is the heart of the Indian Constitution and is the most organic and progressive provision in our Indian Constitution. Its ambit is very wide and includes rights like:
    • Right to freedom of choice
    • Right to choose a partner
    • Right to live with dignity
    • Right To Privacy
    • Right To Reputation
    • Right To Livelihood
    • Right To Social Security And Protection Of Family
  • Freedom of religion in India is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 25-28 of the Constitution of India:
    • Article 25: Guarantees freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion subject to public order, morality, and health.
      • Rights under Article 25 are guaranteed to individuals.
    • Article 26: gives every religious group a right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage its affairs, properties as per the law.
      • However, this right has to be exercised in a manner that conforms with public order, morality, and health.
    • Article 27: Freedom as to payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion.
    • Article 28: Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions.
  • Article 29: This article is intended to protect the interests of minority groups. 
    • This provides all citizen groups that reside in India having a distinct culture, language, and script, the right to conserve their culture and language.
  • Article 30: Right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.
    • All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

Related laws and court judgments:

  • Section 366 of the Indian Penal Code: Criminalizes the abduction of a woman with an intent to compel her to marry against her will.
  • Puttaswamy judgment: The nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2017 unanimously recognized that the Constitution guaranteed the right to privacy as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21.
  • Noor Jahan Begum case: a 2014 judgment of the Allahabad high court which ruled that conversion just for marriage is unacceptable.
  • Rev Stanislaus vs Madhya Pradesh: Supreme Court held that the right to propagate does not include the right to convert.

Conclusion:

  • The matters of religion and faith are part of freedom of conscience, which is an emotion that cannot be judged from outside.
  • Hence, the state cannot exercise its sovereign authority in such matters.
  • No person should be compelled to choose a certain religion, but to open up to scrutiny every act of conversion by placing on individuals the burden to prove that their decision was conscientious violates their fundamental rights.
  • When we fail to acknowledge and respect the most intimate and personal choices that people make- choices of faith and belief, choices of partners- we undermine the most basic principles of dignity.
  • Our Constitution’s endurance depends on our ability to respect these decisions, to grant to every person equal freedom of conscience.



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