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Will the Supreme Court allow Catholics to follow their own laws?

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 6 July 2016, 11:28 IST
The main issues
  • If Muslims are allowed to follow their personal laws, Christians should be allowed too
  • The demand is that Supreme Court should allow Catholics to follow their Canon Laws

Who is the man demanding this?
  • 84-year-old lawyer Clarence Pais
  • He is also the former president of Catholic Association of Dakshina Kannada district

More in the story
  • What is the government\'s angle?
  • What are the problems that could arise?

In December 2013, Clarence Pais, an 84-year-old lawyer and former president of the Catholic Association of Dakshina Kannada district, knocked the doors of the Supreme Court, contending that the law must grant parity between the personal laws of Muslims and Christians.

His principal contention was this - if the law and Constitution allows Muslims to follow their personal laws - comprising the principles of the Quran, Haadith and Sunnah, why shouldn't Christians be allowed to follow the Canon Law - the law of the Catholic Church?

Also read: Drought: Should the Supreme Court intervene

Now, upon the urging of Additional Solicitor General Neeraj Kishan Kaul and former solicitor general Soli Sorabjee, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice Tirath Thakur and Justice DY Chandrachud has agreed to expedite the hearing of the case.

The crux of the matter

Pais's principal contention is about the laws governing divorce among Catholic couples. He contends that because the Indian laws - the Divorce Act, 1869 and the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 - do not recognise the authority of ecclesiastical courts (the courts and tribunals governed by the church), which earlier had the authority to decide upon the nullity of a marriage, many Christians are in trouble.

Explaining further, he has stated that because of this reason, there are thousands who are in danger of being prosecuted for bigamy under Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code.

The government has opposed Pais's pleas.

Also read: Fake lawyers: crooks in black coats face Supreme Court crackdown

It has contended that as per a 1996 apex court ruling - in the case of Molly Joseph versus George Sebsation, the law has been clearly laid down - that only civil courts, and no other court, can negate a Christian marriage.

However, Pais has invoked Article 14 of the Constitution - the fundamental Right to Equality, and asked why there should be a difference between Christians and Muslims.

Thorny issues

Pais's PIL might have its merits, but it has the potential to raise prickly conflicts.

First and foremost, the present political dispensation is keen to bring about a Uniform Civil Code, which many minority organisations oppose, contending that it would amount to a bulldozing of their rights to religious freedom.

They instead demand that there should be a Common Civil Code which would protect religious diversity while at the same time rooting out regressive practices which are common to most religions.

Moreover, the BJP and the RSS, which form the main planks of the government, has been accused of being 'vehemently anti-Christian' in the light of the communal violence unleashed in Kandhamal (Orissa), in Gujarat's Dang area, and most recently, the saffron party's tirade against Christians for harvesting souls.

There is yet another angle. The saffron parties have been pulling out all stops to scrub off the taint of being anti-Muslim.

The main hearing in the case is yet to commence, but because of all these questions and possibilities, it is likely that there could well be scintillating legal battles.

Also read: Supreme Court adjourns hearing on 'triple talaq' till 6 September

First published: 6 July 2016, 11:28 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.