It has been seven long decades since India became an independent country, yet the fight for equal rights and privileges continues today. Our Constitution makers had in their minds a society where everyone would enjoy the same opportunities, rights, and obligations in their respective walks of life. The Right to Life and Personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution has a deeper meaning than the words merely deliver. Equality in decision-making, economic and social freedom, equal access to education and to practice an occupation of one’s choice. Even though employment, education, and gender discrimination legislations aim to provide ample protection to women, especially during pregnancy, the execution of the same has not been dealt with seriously. The case discussed here deals with a similar issue where a female student was made to choose between a safe maternity period and her Right to Education by the university authorities.
FACTS OF THE CASE
The petitioner, a student pursuing a two-year M.Ed regular course from Chaudhary Charan Singh University on finding out that she was pregnant prayed the University authority to grant relaxation of attendance, thereby allowing her to take a 59-day maternity leave. The petitioner then applied for maternity leave before the Dean and Vice-Chancellor of the respondent annexing the doctor’s advice along with the prescription, which was rejected. The petitioner later requested the University Grants Commission to frame rules and regulations relating to the same. On receiving no response from either competent authorities she filed a suit in the court.
- Whether the women candidates of courses other than M.Phil/Ph.D. be allowed to avail maternity leave once in the duration of the entire course up to 240 days.
- Whether the benefit of maternity leave be denied solely on grounds that no provision exists in the statute, ordinance, or regulation.
- In the absence of any provision for the relaxation of attendance in the given course, should the University consider the application of the petitioner.
- Can the same grant of maternity leave be made in a course that has a distinctly lesser duration than M.Phil and D.
OBSERVATIONS OF THE COURT
In the words of Justice Purushaindra Kumar Kaurav, “The Supreme Court has held that reproductive choices are inherent to a women’s right to privacy, dignity and bodily integrity, and the right of women to avail the benefits of maternity leave in the workplace is an integral aspect of the right to live with dignity under the Constitution.” The court believed that rather than following the “bare text of an existing legal provision” and “being stuck in the bark of words”, the University should apply the values enshrined in the Constitution to allow equitable social development. It was 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 court further observed that a citizen should not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy. Relying on KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India, the Delhi High Court stated “The State must safeguard the ability of its citizens to make decisions.”
It was also put to the notice of the University that the petitioner had only requested a mere leave of 59 days in theory classes that would still allow her to meet the 80 percent attendance criteria. The court also stated that the universities can go one step further and create regulations for paternity leave as well, to ensure that child care is not just the responsibility of the mother but that of the father as well.
DECISION OF THE COURT
The High Court set aside the decision of the University of rejecting the application for maternity leave. The court found that the petitioner was enrolled in a course that was governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) Act, 1993and thus the University Grants Commission regulations on maternity leave were not applicable in this case. Interestingly, there was no provision for maternity leave in the NCTE regulations as well, but the court decided in favor of the petitioner. Justice Purushaindra has directed the respondent to consider this application. The court also made it clear that as long as the petitioner fulfilled the minimum attendance criteria, her appearance in the examination cannot be denied.
“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. Without any form of equivocation, the people asserted their right to be treated equally. Irrespective of gender, race, religion, or caste, citizens were to claim the opportunities”, the Court remarked.
Although the leave was granted, the 80 percent attendance criteria will have to be fulfilled to ensure that the standards of the institution are maintained. “Undoubtedly, in the exercise of its power under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, this court cannot create a different compartment for relaxation of attendance. At the same time, the interests of candidates seeking maternity leave are also required to be catered to”, the Court said. The Court also added that it can direct the University to rearrange the practical classes in case the petitioner missed any of them during the period of leave.
As half of the population in this country, women are well capable of making their own choices regarding health. The aforementioned case decided by the Delhi High Court is but a step towards a more gender-neutral society that we have been fighting for a long time.
The issue produced in the court was not a rarity because women’s right to a safe pregnancy, equal participation in various workforces, and the freedom to practice bodily autonomy have been the topic of discussion in recent years. The honorable Court essentially delivered a remarkable judgment in this direction which will serve as an exemplar for the years to come. Regardless of the present rules of the University Grants Commission, the Court did not leave the petitioner’s problem unaddressed. With a liberal interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution, the judge made it clear that no regulation, ordinance, or legislation will be executed by violating the essence enshrined in our Constitution. By looking beyond the wording of Regulation 4(3) of the UGC Regulations, 2016, the judge has also made clear the connection imbibed between law and society because, in a society where women are not allowed to take decisions regarding their bodies, they cannot call themselves free.
‘However good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad. However bad a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are good, it will prove to be good.’
– Dr. BR Ambedkar
The court with this judgment has yet again established its role as the guardian of our fundamental rights. Reproductive autonomy is one matter which has been repeatedly brought to the notice of the Indian courts, and decisions like these are necessary to reiterate that ‘Reproductive rights’ are indispensable elements of personal life and liberty. In addition to this, such an interpretation of Article 21 will ensure more equitable and inclusive learning for all, including women, without compromising on anything which is a part of their personal life. This single appeal of an aggrieved student has paved the path for many others who might be facing a similar problem in their professional journey. The case has found a place among the judgments that have changed the course of life for women in India.
Author(s) Name: Athika Gupta (Unity Law College, Lucknow)
 Constitution of India 1949, art 21
 Renuka v University Grants Commission W P (C) 3559/2023
 Arunima, ‘Delhi High Court directs University to consider 59-days maternity leave application of an M.Ed regular course student against theory class’ (SCC Online, 31 May 2023) https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2023/05/31/delhi–high–court–directs–university–consider–maternity–leave–application–of–med–student–legal–updates/> accessed 20 June 2023
 ‘Can’t Force Citizen To Choose Between Education And Reproductive Autonomy, Says Delhi HC’ (Outlook, 30 May 2023) <https://www.outlookindia.com/national/can–t–force–citizen–to–choose–between–education–and–reproductive–autonomy–says–delhi–hc–news–290721/> accessed 21 June 2023
 KS Puttaswamy and Anr v Union of India AIR 2017 10 SCC 1
 National Council for Teachers Education (NCTE) Act 1993
 Constitution of India 1949
 Constitution of India 1949, art 226
 Constitution of India 1949
 UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.Phil./Ph.D. Degrees) Regulations 2016
 Constitution of India 1949, art 21