The Supreme Court today agreed to hear a plea of a 50-year-old Sikh cycling enthusiast, who alleged he was discriminated against on religious grounds and disqualified from participating in a long-distance cycling event in Delhi three years ago for wearing a turban.
A graphic designer by profession, petitioner Jagdeep Singh Puri sought formulation of guidelines for the protection of fundamental rights of persons belonging to turbaned Sikh community who participate in such social or sport events.
A bench of justices S A Bobde and L Nageswara Rao issued notice to the Centre and the long-distance cycling (Randonneuring) event organiser and sought their replies in four weeks.
The court appointed senior advocate CU Singh as amicus curiae (friend of court) and advocate Subrat Birla as the second amicus to assist it in the matter.
During the hearing, senior advocate RS Suri said the petitioner was disqualified from the Azad Hind Brevet (long distance cycling) organised by Audax India Randonneurs (AIR), a private organisation, on August 14, 2015.
“His disqualification owed to wearing a turban instead of a helmet. AIR maintains that its rules disallowed any exceptions and that all had to wear the helmet, including turbaned Sikhs. The petitioner was discriminated against on religious grounds and disqualified,” Mr Suri said.
The bench clarified that it would not hear too many intervening applications to avoid repetitive arguments and all parties can assist senior advocate RS Suri.
Mr Suri said all laws concerning motor vehicles and vehicular movement provide exemption to Sikh riders from wearing helmets, including those in the military and other public functionaries.
He said the USA Army since 1980s had a strict uniform policy but it had recently made a relaxation to accommodate religious identities and allowed their armed Sikh personnel to don turbans if it formed part of their belief.
The plea filed by Mr Puri said, “The question faced by this court does not concern a tussle between safety and religious freedom. It is submitted that Article 25 enshrines the freedom to practice religion subject only to public order, morality and health”.
It said cycling without helmets does not endanger health, as the state and legislature have time and again interpreted the restriction of health to include an exception for turbaned Sikhs.
“In other words, public policy has exempted donning of helmets for turbaned Sikhs, thus carving an exception to Article 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) subservience to health”, the plea said.
It said that when section 129 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 clearly exempted turbaned Sikhs from wearing any protective headgear while riding motor-cycles or motor powered vehicles, then why does it not apply to pedalled cycles.
The plea claimed that organisers of the cycling event have justified Puri’s disqualification, saying he was urged to wear a helmet but had refused. Thus, wearing a turban was not the issue. Instead, not wearing a helmet was the issue.
Quoting the reply of the event organiser, the plea said, “It was additionally communicated that other Sikh cyclists have worn the helmets in past brevets and that they have to follow strict safety protocols, failing which, their licence to conduct event in Delhi would be jeopardised”.