The recent Bombay High Court decision dismissing a PIL filed by four law students opposing the Maharashtra government’s declaration of January 22, 2024, as a public holiday for the consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya marks a significant development in the intersection of religious observance, constitutional principles, and the judiciary’s role.

Background:
The PIL, filed by students from prominent law schools, contended that designating a public holiday for a religious event contradicts the constitutional principle of secularism. They argued that the state should remain impartial and not endorse any particular religion. This legal challenge was not merely a disagreement over a holiday but touched upon broader constitutional principles.

High Court’s Observations:
The special bench of Justice GS Kulkarni and Justice Neela Gokhale rejected the PIL, emphasizing the importance of secularism in a nation with diverse religious practices. The court cited a series of precedents, noting that the declaration of holidays based on religious requirements is not arbitrary but aligns with secular principles.

Drawing on a Kerala High Court decision regarding concessions during summer holidays for leaves taken during Ramzaan, the Bombay High Court underscored the accommodation of different religions without impeding constitutional provisions. The court also highlighted that the Supreme Court recognizes the declaration of public holidays as part of executive policy, affirming the discretionary power of the state in such matters.

Key Arguments:
– Petitioners’ Stand: The students argued that the state’s decision contradicts secular principles and warned of potential consequences under Article 356 for states deviating from secularism. They questioned the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra government to issue the notification under Section 25 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, contending that only the central government has this authority.

– State’s Defense: Attorney General Dr. Birendra Saraf, representing the state, countered that allowing citizens to observe their religious beliefs through public holidays does not violate secular principles. He asserted that the declaration of holidays is a policy matter falling within the executive’s purview, and judicial interference is unwarranted.

Political Overtones and Missing Notification:
The petitioners alleged political motives behind the notification, suggesting a connection to the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections. They pointed out the scheduling of the consecration just before the elections and highlighted the delayed construction of a mosque on land allocated to the Sunni Waqf Board, as per Supreme Court directives.

During the proceedings, the court questioned the absence of the May 1968 notification of the Central government, conferring powers on the state to declare holidays. Justice Kulkarni expressed skepticism about challenging the 2024 notification without this crucial document. The petitioners sought time until the next hearing to provide the earlier notification, emphasizing their primary relief was the quashing of the 2024 notification.

Caution Against “Motivated” PILs:
While the court refrained from imposing costs on the students, it cautioned against filing “motivated” PILs. This serves as a reminder that public interest litigation should genuinely address constitutional concerns rather than being driven by ulterior motives.

Significance of the Decision:
The Bombay High Court’s decision reaffirms the delicate balance between religious observance and constitutional secularism. It upholds the state’s discretion in declaring public holidays for religious events while cautioning against potential misuse of such decisions for political gains. This ruling contributes to the evolving jurisprudence surrounding the intersection of religion, politics, and the constitutional fabric of India.

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