At a time when the Punjab and Haryana High Court asked the Punjab government to clarify how it exempted every Sikh woman riding two-wheeler from wearing a helmet, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Thursday advised the Chandigarh Administration to exempt Sikh women from wearing a helmet. In a letter issued to UT Adviser Thursday, the MHA “advised” the Chandigarh Administration to follow the Delhi pattern which makes it optional for Sikh women to use a helmet while driving two-wheelers or riding pillion.
A letter by Shreeshail Malge, Director (DP) MHA, sent on Thursday, stated, “I am directed to refer to the Chandigarh Administration’s letter dated 6.9.2018 on the subject mentioned above and to advise the Chandigarh Administration to follow the notification issued by the Delhi government giving an option for Sikh women as indicated in the Government of Delhi, Transport Department notification dated 28.08.2014. This issues with the approval of competent authority.”
The Delhi transport department, through a June 4, 1999 notification, amended Rule 115 of the Delhi Motor Vehicle Act 1993 to make it optional for women two-wheeler riders, driving or riding pillion, to wear protective headgear. On August 28, 2014, the word “women” was replaced with “Sikh women”.
On July 6, 2018, the UT amended an earlier notification of exempting all women from wearing a helmet to exempt only turban-wearing Sikh women from the rule. The new rule makes wearing of helmet compulsory for all women except “Sikh woman wearing a turban”. But Sikh bodies opposed this and sought an exemption for all Sikh women, non-turbaned as well. The UT Administration, subsequently, conveyed to the ministry about the scenario in a letter on September 6 and also sought its advice in the matter.
At the same time, finding no relief from the UT Administration, Sikh bodies, headed by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader and former Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday following which the advisory was issued to Chandigarh. A UT Administration official said they would seek legal opinion first. “We are examining the advisory. We are in a fix – as we have changed our law and at the same time, the case is going on in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. If we reverse our notification – we will be answerable to the court and if not – we have this MHA advisory over us,” said the official.
This year, taking suo motu cognisance, a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court observed that road accidents “do not see the gender of the victim”. The bench of Justices Ajay Kumar Mittal and Anupinder Singh Grewal made the observation while hearing a public interest litigation filed by law researcher Anil Saini, seeking changes in the legal provisions in Punjab and Chandigarh, which provided women exemption from wearing a helmet.
Following the observations, the UT Administration made amendments in its rules under the Motor Vehicle Act which previously provided an exemption to all women. The challan drive began on September 5. UT then filed a status report in the High Court informing it about the amended notification. On September 26, during the hearing, the HC also directed the Punjab government to clarify its exemption to Sikh women. “What has been stated that all Sikh women have been exempted from wearing a helmet whether they are driving or riding pillion. There is no specification as to how they would identify a Sikh woman. Secondly, there is no justification to exempt all Sikh women from wearing a helmet even if they were not putting turban,” the order read.
The next hearing of the case is scheduled for November 15. SAD leader Daljit Singh Cheema, the affairs in-charge of Chandigarh SAD and part of the delegation that met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, said, “We kept our views before Rajnath ji and directions were issued then and there to Chandigarh Administration to take back its notification. They will have to reverse it immediately.”
“We had appealed to Home Minister Rajnath Singh and I am glad that the Home Ministry has agreed to our demand,” said Sukhbir.
Several Sikh organisations have lauded the move. A Sikh man or woman can’t wear any kind of hat as it is prohibited strictly in the code of conduct for Sikhs. So, no Sikh woman can wear a helmet,” said a SAD office-bearer.
1998 helmet order led to massive Sikh protests
In 1998, similar orders of making helmet mandatory for everyone had led to massive protests by Sikhs, who insisted that female members of the community would not wear a helmet as it is like a cap symbolising slavery. In its order dated July 9, 1998, in a civil writ petition titled Namit Kumar versus UT, Chandigarh, and Others, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had given exemption from helmet only to “Sikhs wearing a turban while driving (sic)”.
That led to vociferous protests by Sikh women, who also wanted to be exempted claiming that helmet was a cap symbolising slavery in their religion. After the protests, the Chandigarh Administration appealed to the Supreme Court in 1999, challenging the HC directions. The SC, in its order dated 27-9-2004, ruled that the state had the power to relax rules in a particular area following which Chandigarh exempted all women from wearing a helmet.