The Indian judiciary has widely interpreted the concept of the Right to Life and Personal Liberty guaranteed by the Constitution of India. This right is said to be the most fundamental of all rights given by Part III of the Constitution.
In the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 and subsequently, in Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi, AIR 1981, the Supreme Court interpreting Article 21 observed that “Right to Life includes right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it”. Thereby, human dignity qualifies to be one of the most primary human rights in general and fundamental rights in particular.
Another intriguing idea related to the concept of dignity is the issue of obscenity.
The standard to be considered to qualify something as obscene in the eyes of law has been a highly debated question posed before various national and international courts in several cases. Some of them can be discussed now, where the core issue before the court was whether the holding of the beauty contest was a violation of the right to live with human dignity, or whether mere publication of photographs of such contests violates the code of dignity and decency of women.
Curious Cases related to the question of the obscenity of beauty contests
Amitabh Bachchan Corpn. Ltd. V. Mahila Jagran Manch and Ors., 1997
A letter petition was filed before the Supreme Court regarding the arrangement of the Miss World, 1996 Contest in Bangalore. It was contended that the event should not be held in any part of India for “public interest” as it was offensive to the sense of morality and decency of Indians.
The apex court held that an event of international repute could not be cancelled simply because a section of people were agitating against it. The State Government, in order to maintain the law and order situation, may recruit police and security forces, but it was not a concern of the Court. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in its judgement prohibited serving of liquor during the contest to the participants and to the audience in general, except selected enclosures to invitees.
The honorable court ruled that unless a matter of law was involved, the Judiciary was not supposed to intervene in such events.
Sane Group of Companies v. Chandra Rajakumari, 1998
A writ petition was filed before the High Court of Andhra Pradesh stating that holding beauty contests was violative of Articles 14, 21, and 51-A(e) of the Constitution, and therefore an unconstitutional practice.
According to the petitioners of the initial case, Article 14 which guaranteed the right to Equality was being violated because the participants were restricted to women and not men. There was a violation of Article 21 since the question involved human dignity. Article 51-A(e), which happens to be a Fundamental Duty vested on the citizens by the Constitution as a moral obligation, talks about the renouncement of practices derogatory to the dignity of women. According to the original petitioners, beauty contests derogated the dignity of women as well. They also stated that beauty contests amount to the commercialization of women’s beauty.
The honorable court held that there was no legislation to specifically prohibit beauty contests. Some others including the Indian Penal Code and the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act that could put some restrictions on such competitions do not include beauty contests in their purview and there was no need to exaggerate their domain unnecessarily.
With regards to Article 19(2) of the Constitution, it was held that there was no infringement of public order, morality, and decency upon holding beauty contests. It was a practice worldwide, like Miss India and Miss Universe, so there can be no reasonable ground to stop it on a state level.
The High Court upheld the ruling of the Supreme Court in the judgment discussed above and held that it was a personal view whether or not beauty competitions are indecent, and the Court ought not interfere if there is no question of law involved.
C. Sembian Sivakumar Petitioner v. N. K. Karuppasamy, 2017
The Madras High Court had given a progressive viewpoint towards the evolving concept of obscenity through this case. A petition was filed against the editor and publisher of a Tamil newspaper for reporting a World Beauty Contest held in Mexico. The reports also contained pictures. Accusations were under sections 292 (A) and 293 of the Indian Penal Code and Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986. Allegedly, the pictures would “kindle sexual passion in any person” and “corrupt the young minds”, while disregarding the glory of Tamil Culture.
The learned Court adjudged the case beyond Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution and laid down the Tests of Obscenity and Community Standards.
The Court stated that the objectionable publications had to be considered in the context of the message they were aiming to transmit. In this regard, it gave several examples of the kind, where various representations in movies and books hurt the so-called sentiments of the Indian population, yet the objective of whose was to inspire a completely different emotion in the minds of the readers or viewers.
The Madras High Court came to the conclusion that such publication of beauty contest pictures cannot by any means said to be obscene. This merely was a reporting of news.
Tests of Obscenity and Community Standards
For a long time, the Hicklin’s Test laid down by the English case Regina v. Hicklin, 1868 was considered to judge something (mainly publications) for obscenity. The test postulated that obscenity has to be judged by the apparent influence of a publication on the minds of those “open to such immoral influences” into whose reach such publications are likely to fall.
However, this test was rejected later and was replaced by the Community Standards test. This test put forth that obscenity must be considered in the context of existing social mores, the community’s current socio-moral attitude and its general norms of tolerance and acceptability in connection to the issues at hand. Therefore, the concept can evolve over time.
Going by the tests of Community Standards, Beauty Contests cannot be classified to be obscene. This is primarily for two reasons. First, the internet has made it quite easy to access numerous types of information according to one’s preferences. As a result, the notion of beauty pageants poisoning or corrupting young minds is unfounded. Such competitions are held all over the world, even on an international level, and many Indian women have won them, much to the pride and honour of fellow Indians. The fact of the matter is that the current socio-moral trend of the present generation does not find beauty contests to be derogatory.
The second and the more important point is that the objective of such contests is not to hurt the sentiments of anybody but to celebrate beauty, a gift of nature, an aesthetic expression understood universally.
It may be mentioned here that if in relation to the same there is a circulation of documents which are grossly indecent or scurrilous or intended for blackmail, it may attract legal action under the Indian Penal Code.
Violation of Human Dignity?
The use of terms like “dignity” and “human dignity” in the context of human rights were popularised through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Even the Indian Judiciary has absorbed the concept as a fundamental right.
The word dignity in general means “status” or “respect”. It is often argued that there is very little in common in the understanding of “dignity” across countries, cultures, and jurisdictions. The concept is subject to discretion.
Whether or not a participation in beauty contests violates a woman’s respectability should be left up to her decision, especially because such competitions judge the beauty of a contestant based on the physical attributes. After all, the Indian society is not so progressive as far as the question of a woman’s dignity is concerned and thus, the participant has got to live with her choice.
However, considering the stance of the Indian civilization on this issue over the ages, the practice of celebration of beauty cannot be said to be solely influenced by western culture. The ancient Indian scriptures celebrate “Sundaram” or beauty as a form of godliness. Such is evident from the erotic sculptures on the walls of age-old temples as well. Therefore, the concept cannot be categorised as something new to India.
Right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 includes the right to “express oneself in diverse forms”. Such freedom of expression is guaranteed by article 19 as well. It is available to citizens and non-citizens alike and can be curbed only according to procedure established by law. As already discussed, the question of law is not directly involved.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the concept of dignity is relative and does not hold a universalistic definition and is open to interpretation. Thus, holding or participating in beauty contests generally does not amount to violation of the right to dignity.
- Academike. 2021. Article 21 of the Constitution of India – Right to Life and Personal Liberty – Academike. [online] Available at: <https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/article-21-of-the-constitution-of-india-right-to-life-and-personal-liberty/> [Accessed 5 August 2021].
- McCrudden, C., 2021. Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights.
- Bag, A., 2021. Obscenity and the law in India: Moving from Hicklin test to Community standards – iPleaders. [online] iPleaders. Available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/obscenity-and-the-law-in-india-moving-from-hicklin-test-to-community-standards/ [Accessed 5 August 2021].