26 Aug 2023 4:52 AM GMT
The Calcutta High Court has recently observed that Durga Puja, celebrated predominantly in West Bengal, is not merely a religious offering, but rather “much more secular in nature than a pure religious performance by a particular community.”In allowing the petitioner’s plea for hosting their “Durga Utsab 2023” celebrations on the New Town Mela Ground, a single-bench of...
The Calcutta High Court has recently observed that Durga Puja, celebrated predominantly in West Bengal, is not merely a religious offering, but rather “much more secular in nature than a pure religious performance by a particular community.”
In allowing the petitioner’s plea for hosting their “Durga Utsab 2023” celebrations on the New Town Mela Ground, a single-bench of Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharya opined:
Argument of the respondent-Authorities [New Town Kolkata Development Authority] regarding the petitioners not having any choice to hold worship or organize religious offerings wherever they wish, falls flat, in view of the implicit character of the Durga Puja Festival held in the State of West Bengal. As is public knowledge, the Durga Puja Festival is not confined merely to the worship or religious offerings component of the incarnation of feminine power but also a melting pot of different cultures. People from all over the state, the country and even from abroad, come to West Bengal purely for the purpose of observing the fanfare and the cultural milieu in the state during Durga Puja Festivals. Hence, there is as much an element of ceremony, cultural programmes, festival and fanfare involved as religious worship.
These observations came in a plea by the 'Manab Jati Kalyan Foundation’, against the refusal of the NKDA (“respondent-authorities”) in allowing the petitioners to host their Durga Utsab 2023, on the New Town Mela Ground, which is a public ground in New Town, Kolkata.
It was argued by the petitioners that “an emotion was attached with celebration of durga puja” and under Article 14 of the Constitution, they had an equal right as others to hold the puja celebrations on the public ground.
Petitioners submitted that in 2022, when they had approached Court against the respodents’ refusal to allow them to hold the same festival in a bus-stand complex, the court had directed for an alternative venue, and the respondents had provided the aforesaid ground, which was used for holding cultural programs, to the petitioners as an alternative.
It was argued by the petitioners that one of the reasons cited for refusal of permission was the neighbouring area being a dense residential zone, but that permission had nevertheless been granted to several entities to hold puja festivals in nearby areas.
Respondents on the other hand argued that no one can have a rigt to hold worship and provide offerings in a particular place.
It was submitted that on earlier occasions which were cited by the petitioner, permissions had not been granted by the NKDA, but the HIDCO, and the same had been done as a one-time measure in compliance with the direction of the Court, since the Mela Ground had never been used for organizing any Puja and was not meant to be so used.
Respondents submitted that permissions for fairs on the mela grounds were only granted when there were no ongoing public festivals, since the same would cause “utter pandemonium” due to the large amount of footfall experienced by other puja pandals in the vicinity, “leading to disruption of traffic beyond repair.”
It was finally argued by the respondents that Article 25 of the Constitution does not provide the petitioners with any vested right to perform religious practises in public parks, roads, etc.
Upon hearing the submissions of both parties, and reflecting on the nature of celebrations, the Court was of the opinion that when permissions had earlier been granted to the petitioners for celebration of Durga Puja on the aforesaid mela ground by the HIDCO, the same had not been opposed by the respondents.
It was further held that the argument that huge footfall would disrupt traffic and cause inconvenience for residents could not be sustained, due to the venue being a ‘fair ground’ which had routinely hosted large crowds, and was properly equipped to deal with the same.
Accordingly, in rejecting the arguments of the respondent authorities along Article 25 of the Constitution due to the ‘semi-secular nature’ of Durga Puja and upholding the petitioners’ right under Article 14 and 19, the Court concluded:
The basis of such argument in the present case is erroneous, since the petitioners do not assert their right under Article 25, in view of the semi-secular nature of a Durga Puja Festival, which is not only about providing offerings to the feminine incarnation of power but also to provide a common meeting ground for people from all cross-sections of society, irrespective of caste, creed, gender and religion.
Article 14 of the Constitution of India confers the right to equality before the law to all persons. In view of other organizers being permitted to hold public fairs on the ground-in-question, which is designated for such purposes, there is no plausible reason why the petitioners‟ plea for holding a Durga Puja Festival there can be refused. Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees that all citizens have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms and to move freely throughout the territory of India. The specific purpose of such rights shall be frustrated if people are refused permission by public authorities on the ground of their residing elsewhere, unless there is a specific intelligible reason for such discrimination or a policy decision in that regard, also based on intelligible criteria.
Case: Manab Jati Kalyan Foundation and another Vs. The State of West Bengal and others
Coram: Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (Cal) 236
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