The Kerala High Court recently held that Rule 67A of the Kerala Government Servants Conduct Rules, 1960 does not curtail a religious denomination's right to manage its own affairs available under Article 26(B) of the Constitution of India in any manner. Rule 67A prohibits any Government Servant from being an office-bearer of any communal or religious organisation or of such trust or society.
Justice T.R. Ravi observed that what is protected under Article 26 (B) is the right of a denomination to manage its own affairs in matters of religion and not regarding the election of office-bearers.
"An election to the office bearers of the Diocese or the Church Committee cannot be termed as a matter of religion. True, the result of such an election can decide who should administer the Church or Diocese. The said aspect is not protected by Article 26 of the Constitution."
Further, the Court held that Rule 67A does not prohibit contesting an election.
"What is prohibited is only holding an Office. If the result of a contest in an election is placing a Government servant in an office, necessarily, Rule 67A will come into play."
CSI Central Kerala Diocese is a religious congregation following the Christian faith and it has been registered as a non-trading company under the Companies Act.
The governance and administration of the Sabha at the grass-root level of the local Church are managed by a Church committee which is an elected body. The Sabha has colleges, schools, hospitals, retreat centres and other non-religious institutions and their governance is controlled and directed by the elected Council.
The petitioner submitted that for the past several years, there is a tendency of Government servants to contest the elections of the Council and by virtue of their official positions there is a likelihood of corruption and nepotism under the cover of the membership in the council. To curb such activities, the State had amended the Kerala Government Servants Conduct Rules in 2014 by adding Rule 67A to prohibit allowing full-time Government servants from standing and contesting the election to the various religious bodies.
The petition was filed alleging that the election to the CSI Council is going to be finalised in which respondents 5 to 8 were contesting, despite being Government servants.
Advocates C.S. Manilal and S.N. Nidheesh appearing for the petitioners referred to Rule 67A and submitted that there is a total prohibition of any Government Servant being an office-bearer of any communal or religious organisation or of such trust or society. It is submitted that the intention of the Government is clear on a mere reading of the Rule, that what is prohibited is becoming an office-bearer of any Body which has a communal or religious colour.
Advocate R.T Pradeep appearing for the respondents contended that CSI is a minority religious denomination of Christians as envisaged under Article 26(A), 29 and 30 of the Constitution and hence cannot be treated as a religious organisation mentioned in Rule 67A. It is submitted that a minority religious denomination has constitutional protection under Article 26(A) and Article 30.
Advocate S. Subhash Chand representing one of the respondents argued that the prohibition under Rule 67A (1) arises only if a person becomes an office bearer and there cannot be a denial of the right to participate in an election.
The Court noted that Article 30 also relates to the right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions and the operation of Rule 67A does not in any way affect the rights available under Article 30 to the 3rd respondent.
Coming to Article 25, the right guaranteed therein is a personal right available to all persons to freely profess, practise, and propagate religion. It is not a right available to a denomination. The said right also is subject to regulation by the State, the Judge added.
"Rule 67A is a Conduct Rule imposed on Government servants alone who are a class by themselves, and the prohibition contained in Rule 67A does not affect the independent right of members of the denomination to freely profess, practise, and propagate the religion. The right that is curtailed is only a right to hold any office of a religious organisation and nothing more."
Therefore, the contentions regarding the protection under Articles 25, 26, and 30 of the Constitution were found to be unsustainable. As such, the writ petition was allowed. It was declared that Rule 67A will apply to holding an office under CSI and the respondents.
Case Title: Philip K.J v. State of Kerala & Ors.
Citation: 2022 LiveLaw (Ker) 224