Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 06 July 2023

Right to change one’s name is part of the right to life

Source: By Khadija Khan, Aditya Jain: The Indian Express

The right to change one’s name or surname is a part of the right to life under Article 21, the High Courts of Allahabad and Delhi recently said. Allowing a man called Shahnawaz to change his name to Md. Sameer Rao, the Allahabad HC said the fundamental right to keep or change one’s name is vested in every citizen under Articles 19(1)(a), 21, and 14 of the Constitution.

The Delhi HC allowed a plea filed by two brothers to reflect their father’s changed surname — from “Mochi” to “Nayak” — on their Class 10 and 12 Board certificates, stating that the right to identity is an “intrinsic part” of the right to life under Article 21.

Why did the petitioners want to change their names?

In ‘Sadanand & Anr. vs CBSE & Ors’, a plea was filed by two brothers before the Delhi HC seeking to set aside a letter issued by the CBSE, refusing to change their father’s last name from ‘Mochi’ to ‘Nayak’ in their 10th and 12th Board certificates.

Owing to caste atrocities suffered by him, the father had earlier changed his surname and published it in the newspaper and the Gazette of India as required. His surname was changed across various public documents, such as AadhaarPAN, and Voter ID. However, CBSE refused to update the brothers’ certificates with the father’s new surname.

In ‘Md. Sameer Rao vs. State of U.P.’ the Allahabad HC dealt with a petition filed against an order dated December 12, 2020, passed by the Regional Secretary, Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad, Regional Office, Raebareli, rejecting Shahnawaz’s application to change his name to “Md. Sameer Rao” in his High School and Intermediate certificates, seemingly “for a higher sense of self-worth”.

Although the petitioner published his changed name in a popular daily and the Gazette, the Board refused to update the same on his school certificates.

Why were their name-change requests denied by the authorities?

In ‘Sadanand & Anr. vs CBSE & Ors’, the CBSE contended that a change in the surname of the petitioners would subsequently entail a change in their caste, which could be misused. It also said that seeking a change in the father’s name beyond the school records is not permissible.

In ‘Md. Sameer Rao vs. State of U.P.’ The state argued that a change in the name is not an absolute right and is subject to restrictions imposed by law. It was also argued that the Board rightly rejected the name change as it was barred by limitation.

What did the Allahabad HC hold?

Observing that the authorities had arbitrarily rejected the application for a change of name, the Allahabad HC in its 25 May 2023 ruling said that the action of the authorities violated the fundamental rights of the petitioner guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a)Article 21, and Article 14 of the Constitution.

Name changes made in the High School or Intermediate education certificates issued by the educational boards have to be simultaneously incorporated in all documents of identity issued by various authorities like Aadhar, PAN, ration card, etc., the court said, reasoning that congruence in all identity-related documents is essential.

Allowing one to carry identification documents with separate names “would lead to confusion in identity and possibility of mischief,” the court said, adding that the state should prevent such misuse.

What did the Delhi HC hold?

The Delhi HC in its 19 May 2023 ruling noted that the father had decided to change his surname “in order to overcome the social stigma and the disadvantage faced” by his sons and that CBSE’s denial to carry out the requisite change in the certificates was “totally unjustified”.

Observing that the petitioners belonged to a Scheduled Caste, the court said that ‘Mochi’ is a “caste name within the larger cobbler community dealing with leather”, particularly footwear, and owing to the work carried out by their father’s family, “Mochi” had become their surname.

Additionally, the court noted that the petitioners “have every right to have an identity which gives them an honourable and respectable identity in the society.” If they suffered any disadvantage on account of their surname or faced social prejudices due to it, “they are certainly entitled to a change of their identity that gives respectability to the petitioners in the societal structure,” the court reasoned.

What did the courts say about Article 21?

In both the Delhi and Allahabad High Court cases, a common thread of Article 21 was found running. As it allowed Shahnawaz to become “Md. Sameer Rao”, the Allahabad HC observed that the “right to keep a name of choice or change the name according to personal preference comes within the mighty sweep of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21.”

The court relied on the Kerala HC ruling in “Kashish Gupta vs. Central Board of Secondary Education” (2020), stating, “To have a name and to express the same in the manner he wishes, is certainly a part of the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1)(a) as well as a part of the right to liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. State or its instrumentalities cannot stand in the way of the use of any name preferred by an individual or for any change of name into one of his choices except to the extent prescribed under Article 19(2) or by a law which is just, fair and reasonable.”

Along similar lines, the Allahabad HC relied on the 2020 and 2021 rulings delivered by the Delhi HC and Supreme Court in “Rayaan Chawla vs. University of Delhi” and “Jigya Yadav vs. CBSE” to argue against adopting a technical approach to changing names and to say that “name is an intrinsic element of identity,” respectively.

In Rayaan Chawla, the court included the right to change names under the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) along with Article 21 of the Constitution. In Jigya Yadav, the top court ruled that “an individual must be in complete control of her name and law must enable her to retain” and exercise such control freely “for all times”.

Referring to the UN Human Rights Committee’s view in “Coeriel and Aurik v. The Netherlands”, the Allahabad HC also said that a name is an indispensable component of a person’s identity and falls within the realm of the right to privacy.

In the same vein, the Delhi High Court allowed “Lakshman Mochi” to change his last name to “Lakshman Nayak” while holding the “Right to Identity” to be an “intrinsic part of the Right to Life under Article 21”.

The court also said that “There is no denying the fact that the Right to Life includes within its ambit, the Right to Live with Dignity,” which includes “not to be tied down by any casteism” faced by a person due to the caste to which he or she belongs.

Thus, the Delhi HC ruled that “if a person wants to change his or her surname”, to not be “identified with any particular caste” that “may be a cause of prejudice” to them “in any manner”, the same is permissible.

What are some restrictions on the right to change names?

Although the right to change or keep one’s name is a fundamental right “by virtue of Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21”, it is not an absolute right and is subject to various reasonable restrictions, as the Allahabad High Court clarified in Sameed Rao’s case.

However, the restrictions imposed by law on fundamental rights have to be fair, just, and reasonable, the court said, citing the 2017 SC ruling in “K. S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India,” saying, “The inter-relationship between the guarantee against arbitrariness and the protection of life and personal liberty operates in a multi-faceted plane.”

The procedure for the deprivation of such rights must be “fair, just, and reasonable”, the court said. The court also highlighted the principle of proportionality as an “essential facet of the guarantee against arbitrary state action,” since it ensures that the nature and quality of the right’s encroachment are not disproportionate to the law’s purpose.

The value of human dignity has an important role in determining the proportionality of a statute limiting a constitutional right, the court said, citing the test of reasonableness in the 2016 SC ruling in “Jeeja Ghosh vs. Union of India.”

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