calcutta high court

Calcutta High Court: While deciding a case related to a dispute over permission to hold a Durga Puja festival in a designated fairground, with the petitioners invoking their rights under Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution of India, a single-judge bench comprising of Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya,* J., emphasized that the festival was not just a religious event but also had cultural and public significance. The Court held the refusal to grant permission arbitrary and ordered the respondent authorities to allow the festival to proceed.

Brief facts

In the instant matter, the petitioners, an organization and its chairman, filed an application against the respondent's refusal to give permission to hold the “Durga Utsab 2023” festival at the “New Town Mela Ground,” a property used for holding fairs. The respondent authorities denied permission citing several objections, which the petitioners claimed were unjustified.

Petitioners' Contentions

The petitioners contended that they had equal rights under Article 14 of the Constitution of India to hold the festival and pointed to their previous years' experience where they were granted an alternative location by court order.

The petitioners contended that other cultural events and festivals had been held on the Mela Ground, and the refusal to grant permission was arbitrary. It was emphasized that Durga Puja was both a religious and cultural event and had public significance beyond mere worship making it applicable under Article 19(1)(b) and (d) (right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to assemble peaceably).

Respondents' Contentions

The respondents contended that Article 25 of the Constitution of India does not guarantee the right to worship at any place, and religious practice must be an integral part of the religion. It was contended that permission to hold a Puja cannot be claimed as a matter of right and the Mela Ground was not intended for Puja events and had never been used for such purposes.

Court's Observation

The Court observed that the Mela Ground was designed for fairs, and previous events had taken place there, including a Puja organized by the petitioners the prior year by court's order. The Court observed that there does not appear to be any specific bar in the New Town Kolkata Development Authority Act, 2017 (the NKDA Act), for holding any Durga Puja Festival in a mela ground.

Referring to M. Ismail Faruqui v. Union of India, (1994) 6 SCC 360, where the Supreme Court held that Article 25 “does not confer any right to worship at any place of worship unless specific significance of the place in particular is shown to be an essential part of the religion”, the Court emphasized that the Durga Puja Festival was not solely religious but had a cultural and secular dimension, making it different from situations solely governed by Article 25 (right to practice, profess, and propagate religion). The Court held that the petitioners' right to hold the festival was not solely under Article 25, but also under Articles 14 and 19.

“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.”

The Court criticized the respondents' argument that the petitioners' association was based in another area, stating it should not deter them from holding a festival at a designated public ground. The Court held such a refusal by the respondent authorities is arbitrary, mala fide, and violative of Articles 14 and 19.

Court's Verdict

The Court set aside the respondent’s order and directed them to grant permission to hold the festival at the Mela Ground, subject to conditions. The Court refused a stay on the operation of its judgment, considering the urgency due to the approaching festival.

[Manab Jati Kalyan Foundation v. State of W.B., WPA No. 17704 of 2023, order dated 25-08-2023]

*Judgment by Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr. Tarunjyoti Tewari, Mr. Sandip Ray, Mr. Hiranmoy Debnath, Ms. Polly Banerjee, Ms. Paramita Dey, Counsel for the Petitioners

Mr. Ratul Biswas, Mr. Chandan Kumar Mondal, Counsel for the State

Mr. Jishnu Chowdhury, Mr. Chayan Gupta, Mr. Sandip Dasgupta, Mr. Saaqib Siddiqui, Counsel for the Respondent 5 to 7

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