The Indian Constitution envisages an egalitarian society for its citizens who cannot be forced to choose between the right to education and the right to exercise reproductive autonomy, the Delhi High Court has said.
The observation was made as the court set aside an order passed by Chaudhary Charan Singh University refusing to grant maternity leave to its M.Ed student.
Justice Purushaindra Kumar Kaurav noted the Supreme Court has held that reproductive choices are inherent to a woman's right to privacy, dignity and bodily integrity and the right of women to avail the benefit of maternity leave in a workplace is an integral aspect of the right to live with dignity under the Constitution.
The judge directed the university to consider the petitioner's application for the grant of 59 days of maternity leave against 80 per cent theory classes. The court clarified that if the petitioner fulfilled the minimum attendance criteria, she would be allowed to appear in the examination without any delay.
"The Constitution envisaged an egalitarian society where citizens could exercise their rights and the society as well as the State would allow the manifestation of their rights. A compromise was then not sought in the Constitutional scheme.
"Citizens could not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy," said the court in its recent order.
The court stated that if the leave prayed for by the petitioner is considered, she would be fulfilling the 80 per cent attendance criteria in theory classes, which would ensure that the right of the petitioner is secured without compromising the standards to be maintained by the educational institution.
The counsel for the university opposed the petition on the ground that there is no regulatory provision creating any category for the students who want to avail the benefit of maternity leave and thus it cannot consider the petitioner's application for the same.
The court observed that in such a case, it can either "follow the bare text of an existing legal provision" and "be stuck at the bark of words" or apply the values enshrined in the Constitution to accommodate the law falling short of societal development.
It noted that while a man could well enjoy parenthood while pursuing his higher education, a woman necessarily has to undergo pre and post-pregnancy care, which is "not her choice but the will of nature".
The first path would force a woman to choose between her right to higher education and the right to motherhood, the court said.
It observed that when the Constitution was adopted, citizens pledged to disassociate themselves from such notions that prevent ushering of equality.
"The Constitution as adopted on November 26, 1949, served as a pledge that the citizens of India made to themselves. A pledge to disassociate ourselves from the parochial notions of society that prevented the ushering of equality. It was without any form of equivocation that the people asserted their right to be treated equally. Irrespective of gender, race, religion or caste, citizens were to claim their opportunities," it said.
The court asked the university to consider the application of the petitioner afresh in view of its observations, adding if the petitioner missed any practical classes during the period of leave, it can always be directed to be rearranged as a special case.
-With PTI Input