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Above: Chandigarh traffic police spreading awareness about road safety among women two-wheeler riders/Photo: twitter/@trafficchd

Bowing to pressure from the Akalis, the Union home ministry asks the Chandigarh administration to exempt Sikh women two-wheeler riders from wearing helmets

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Just as the Chandigarh traffic police had successfully begun enforcing amended rules to make wearing of helmets compulsory for all women two-wheeler riders, including Sikh women not wearing turbans, an advisory from the union home ministry has halted it in its tracks.

The advisory came after Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders, led by their president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to seek reversal of the rules amended by the Chandigarh Union Territory. The party, being a coalition partner at the centre and currently facing a serious crisis after a Commission of Inquiry pointed fingers at it for dereliction of duty during a series of sacrilege incidents in the state during its regime, had its say.

The UT administration promptly received a letter from Shreeshail Malge, director, ministry of home affairs, stating: “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 is issued with the approval of competent authority.”

The Delhi transport department had, through a June 4, 1999, notification, amended Rule 115 of the Delhi Motor Vehicles Act, 1993, making it optional for women two-wheeler riders, driving or riding pillion, to wear protective headgear. In a subsequent amendment on August 28, 2014, the word “women” was replaced with “Sikh women”.

The issue of making wearing of helmets compulsory for all women has been debated for long. While the traffic police, along with social welfare groups, had asked that wearing of helmets be made compulsory for all two-wheeler riders, some Sikh organisations had been opposing the move on the grounds that tenets of Sikhism forbid women from wearing any ‘hat’ over their heads “as it represented slavery”. Large sections of Sikhs, including scholars, disagree and say that such a belief has no relevance now. Moreover, safety helmets are not ‘hats’ and are to be used only while riding two-wheelers. There was, of course, no concept of helmets when the religion was established three centuries ago.

The thinking of common Sikhs was reflected in the fact that only a handful of persons had been protesting against issuing of challans by the police. Even their resistance was petering out and the Chandigarh police had begun issuing challans to Sikh women when the advisory came from the centre. Since the UT administration comes directly under the central government, it has to follow directives issued by the centre.

Although the traffic police has halted issuing of challans following the directive, its officers are in a quandary. The UT administration had amended the rules at the behest of the Punjab & Haryana High Court. Earlier this year, taking suo motu cognisance, a division bench of the Punjab & Haryana High Court had 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 exempted women from wearing helmets.

Taking a cue, the Chandigarh administration issued a notification on July 6, which read that: “The Administrator, Union Territory, Chandigarh, is pleased to amend Rule 193 of Chandigarh Motor Vehicles Rules, 1990, as follows: in the said rule, the words ‘or a woman’ are hereby substituted by the words ‘a Sikh person (including woman) wearing a turban’ with immediate effect.”

Thus, the new rules provided exemption only to Sikh women wearing turbans. The amendment was generally welcomed and the traffic police launched an awareness drive. The drive included distribution of helmets to women not wearing helmets on two-wheelers. Those wearing helmets were given gifts and flowers.

Although a handful of people kept up their protest, the police started issuing challans in a phased manner to all women driving without helmets. Just as the police thought that almost everyone had reconciled to the idea of helmets, it received the advisory from the Union home ministry.

During the last hearing in the High Court on September 26, the UT police informed the Court that over 1,200 challans have been issued to women riding two-wheelers without a helmet. It was during that hearing that the Court issued notice to the Punjab government and sought details of the progress on the matter. The government had stated that Sikh women two-wheeler riders were exempted from wearing helmets.

The Court directed the Punjab government to clarify the exemption granted to Sikh women. “What has been stated is that all Sikh women are exempted from wearing helmets, 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 helmets even if they were not wearing turban,” the order read.

This may have been the last straw for the Akali politicians in Punjab who claim to be representing the Sikhs. Evidently, this directive prompted the Akalis to meet the Union home minister who agreed to the demand of the coalition partner and issued an advisory to the UT administration.

The fact that only a minuscule number of leaders claiming to be the ‘guardians’ of Sikh tenets were protesting against the use of helmets is evident from the fact that a large number of Sikh women were wearing helmets even when they were exempted under law. There was hardly any resistance from the general public when the police started its challan drive. Several Sikh leaders, including prominent leaders from Chandigarh, had expressed support in favour of helmets.

Even doctors had joined the campaign for use of helmets, pointing out that head injuries were the major cause of deaths in road accidents involving two-wheelers. Calling it a retrograde step, Dr Ashok Sharma, a leading neuro surgeon, said there was enough evidence that these injuries are caused due to victims not wearing safety helmets.

As per statistics maintained by the Chandigarh police, 43 women two-wheeler riders have died since 2013 and most of them suffered head injuries because they were not wearing safety helmets. The plea taken by the president of the Akali Istri Dal, Bibi Jagir Kaur, is that death will come whenever ordained by the gurus, whether one wears a helmet or not.

Way back in 1998, similar orders issued by the High Court which made wearing of helmets mandatory for everyone, with sole exemption to Sikhs wearing turbans, led to a furore. Subsequently, the Supreme Court, in its order dated September 9, 2004, ruled that the state had the power to relax rules in a particular area following which Chandigarh exempted all women from wearing helmets.

All eyes will now be on the Punjab & Haryana High Court where the next hearing in the case is on November 15.

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