A writ petition was filed by disqualified candidates in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of an election law that disqualified persons having more than two living children after a certain date from holding certain public offices in the Panchayat, a local government system, of the state of Haryana (Sections 175(1)(q) and 177(1) of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994). The objective of these disqualification provisions was to “popularize” the family planning programs of the government. The challenge alleged that these disqualification provisions violated the right to equality before the law guaranteed by the Indian Constitution under Article 14 (as persons with two or less than two children qualified for public offices); the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (as it prevented individuals from exercising liberty in their personal life as it relates to the number of children one chooses to have); and the right to religious freedoms under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution (as the practice of polygamy in Muslims often leads to more than two children).
The Court held that the disqualification provisions of the election law were constitutional. The Court opined that the provisions are neither arbitrary nor unreasonable nor discriminatory and thus did not violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Court found that the law was not arbitrary as the two groups (those that do and those that do not have more than two living children) are well-defined and that the classification is rationally related to the objective of promoting the socio-economic welfare and health care of the population and is consistent with the national population policy. The Court found that the disqualification provisions of the election law promote the election law’s overall objective and the limitation has a nexus with the objective it set out to achieve.
The Court found that the law could not be said to be discriminatory based on the fact that other Panchayats and/or self-governance institutions do not have a similar requirement, as different organs of local self-government may have different powers. Likewise, the Court noted it to be irrelevant that no other state had passed a similar law. The Court noted that running in an election is not a fundamental or common law right, but a statutory right. Thus, fundamental rights do not bear on restrictions imposed by the statute. Furthermore, the Court greatly emphasized the significant challenge India faces due to its dramatically rising population. It emphasized that controlling population is necessary to fulfill the State’s obligations and is part of the State’s fundamental duty of sustainable development.
Before moving to the issue of Articles 21 and 25 of the Indian Constitution, the Court held that the right to contest is a statutory right and such right can be curtailed through statute.
The Court held that the disqualification provisions of the election law do not violate Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution, as fundamental rights are to be read in conjunction with fundamental duties of citizens and directive principles of the state which require the state to take steps for the welfare and development of the country, including implementing family planning policies.
The Court rejected the argument that the disqualification provisions of the election law violated Article 25 (freedom of conscience or of religion) of the Indian Constitution. The Court noted that this right is subject to exceptions for public order, morality and health, and permits limiting the right to religious freedom by means of social welfare legislation. Furthermore, the Court noted that the freedom protects a religious practice or a positive tenet, not just something that is permitted by a religion and found that those who refrain from practicing polygamy will not be considered “irreligious” by the Muslim community. The Court also noted a long line of precedent showing that a practice allowed under the Personal Law can be overruled by statute. Finally, the Court also noted that someone disqualified by this election law could not give up a child for adoption to become qualified. The purpose of the law is population control, which is impacted by the total number of living children, not by whom they are raised.
The Court concluded by rejecting submissions of the petitioners of many Indian women lacking independence to make choices about having a child (the choice primarily being exercised by men) and thus being disparately impacted by the disqualification provisions of the election law. The Court opined that the legislature may make an exception to these disqualification provisions for women, but even if the legislature does not make an exception, these disqualification provisions would still be constitutional. The Court also rejected claims that couples that have triplets and twins shall be exempted from the disqualification provisions.