NEW DELHI:Jan.22: The Supreme Court has said that burqa-clad women cannot be issued voter identity cards, rejecting the argument that religion prohibits
them from lifting their veils.
Counsel for petitioner M Ajam Khan had contended that asking `purdah-nashin’ women to lift their veil for being photographed would amount to sacrilege as their photographs would be seen by many men working as polling agents and electoral officials.
"It will hurt their religious sentiments and the Election Commission must not insist on `purdah-nashin’ women to be photographed for inclusion of their name in the electoral rolls," said the counsel arguing before a Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice Deepak Verma.
The order comes at a time when a controversy triggered by the ban on full-length burqas has roiled France, attracting protests from clerics.
The argument put forward on behalf of petitioners failed to impress the court. The Bench said: "If you have such strong religious sentiments, and do not want to be seen by members of public, then do not go to vote. You cannot go with burqa to vote. It will create complications in identification of voters."
Referring to the Madras High Court order upholding the EC’s insistence for a photograph without veils, the Bench said that the elections have been conducted without staying the HC order and that those who do not comply with rules on voter identification not be allowed to vote.
Appearing for the EC, counsel Meenakshi Arora said though electoral rolls were being prepared as per the judgment of the HC, it would be better if the SC gave a verdict that would help reach a closure on the issue.
When the petitioners again insisted on protection of religious sentiments, the Bench said: "The photograph is for identification of a voter. If someone comes to vote in a burqa and the photograph was also taken with veil covering the face, how would anyone identify the voter?"
Explaining that right to vote was only a statutory right and not a fundamental right, the Bench said: "Right to contest an election is an extension of the right to vote. Can anyone contest an election saying photograph of her face be not taken? Can she be photographed in a burqa with a veil and yet contest an election?"
Though the Bench made its mind absolutely clear, it agreed to a detailed hearing on the issue at a later date.
The Madras High Court had in a 2006 verdict held that faith and practice were on two different planes, saying there was nothing wrong on the part of the EC to insist on a photograph of the face of a `purdah-nashin’ woman for the purpose of preparing electoral rolls.