Public Interest Litigation challenges gender discriminatory rules to establish Sikkimeseness

Gangtok, 07 June:

In a Public Interest Litigation representing 68 Sikkimese women married to non-Sikkimese but residing and/or working in the State has petitioned the High Court of Sikkim to strike down rules which perpetuate gender discrimination in Sikkim. The PIL raises a host of issues, all of which challenge the separate set of rules imposed on Sikkimese women to establish their Sikkimeseness.

These range from denial of inheritance if they are married to non-Sikkimese, disqualification from being entitled to Certificates of Identification is they marry out and the demeaning practise of Sikkimese women with COI’s based on the documents of their fathers to keep procuring “unmarried” certificates every six months if they wish to continue using their COIs.

These rules, all interlinked and interpreted from the Sikkim Subjects Regulation of 1961, have been in practise in Sikkim for a long while, but the petitioners have argued that there is no extant rule which allows for Sikkimese women married to non-locals to lose their COIs after marriage. And yet, such a denial is practised across the board and is at the source of all complaints highlighted in the PIL.

Even though there has often been talk about challenging these rules, this is the first time that a formal opposition has been put on record.

The PIL alleges that the Sikkim Succession Act of 2008, because it denies this right to women married to non-Sikkimese, is gender discriminatory because the same set of rules are not extended to men.

After hearing both the sides of the case, the division bench headed by Chief Justice Satish Kumar Agnihotri and including Justice Meenakshi Madan Rai, issued notices to the State Government seeking its response within four weeks.

Justice Satish Kumar Agnihotri

The state government by imposing unconstitutional parameters binding the women folks of the state has been suppressing the Fundamental Rights as guaranteed under the Constitution and has created fear psychosis in the minds of women, the PIL has alleged.

The Succession Act, 2008 of the country provides and guarantees the safeguard of equal rights and other Fundamental Rights of women. However, the Sikkim Succession Act 2008 denies to the Sikkimese Women their “Fundamental Right to choose a spouse of their choice and found a family”, which is tantamount to gender discrimination, the PIL argues.

Counsel for the petitioners, Rachhita Rai and Dr Doma T Bhutia, contended that in the federal structure wherein Part III of the Constitution of India guarantees equality before law, as enshrined under Article 14 and also the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth under Article 15 to all the citizens, the prescription in the Sikkim Succession Act is not only discriminatory but also violates the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution of India.

The PIL further points out “Un-married Sikkimese Women” are “harassed illegally” when they are forced to retain an “unmarried certificate” for seeking employment, for pursing higher education, for registration of deeds of will, gift and deed of sale, for seeking job on compassionate grounds etc. since these are privileges available only to Sikkimese, which authorities in Sikkim have always linked to men when it comes to verifying the credentials of women here.

The petition alleges that since there is no rule in place which specifies that the COIs of women become invalid when they marry a non-Sikkimese, this is being perpetuated solely out of gender prejudices and gender biases.

The State, it is argued, has encroached upon the Right of Privacy and Right to life and the right to live with dignity of women here by practising such conditions.

The petitioners, who introduce themselves as Sikkim’s Daughters, have pleaded the High Court to pass writ of Mandamus or any other appropriate writ order directing the State respondents to quash and set aside the Sikkim Succession Act in order to stop gender discrimination and also immediately stop seeking “Un-married Certificate” for any purpose from Sikkimese women and appropriate writs, order directing the State Respondents to declare that the COI issued to “all Sikkimese Women, irrespective of their marital status and condition, shall be valid for all purposes as applicable to all other COI holders.”