Towards effective interpretation: Kerala HC rules that the right to have the name of one’s choice comes within the ambit of Articles 19 and 21

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In an interesting development, a single-judge bench of the Kerala High Court comprising of Justice Bechu Kurian Thomas ruled that the right to choose one’s name comes within the ambit of Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

The grievances of the petitioner

The petitioner, a girl who had attained maturity, decided to change her name, and such a change was effectuated by way of a Gazette notification in 2017. All the necessary information was given to indicate that both the names referred to the same person. Unfortunately, the petitioner’s name in her secondary school certificate, issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) could not be changed, and the board cited Rule 69.1(1)  in the Examination bye-laws as the reason for its inability to carry out the change in name. The petitioner had written two examinations of her senior school examination in 2020, before the nationwide lockdown being declared. The petitioner approached the court under the writ jurisdiction of Article 226 seeking directions of mandamus from the court to ensure that the CBSE carries out the necessary changes in the records.

Interpretation of Rule  69.1(1) of the examination bye-laws

Rule 69.1(1) of the CBSE Examination bye-laws states,

Applications regarding changes in name or surnames of candidates will be considered, provided the changes have been admitted by the court of law and notified in the Government Gazette before the publication of the result of the candidate.

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It allows applications for changes in name and surname, when interpreted literally, on two conditions. First, the change must be admitted by a court of law and second, the change must be notified in the Gazette. Both of these conditions must be fulfilled before the date of publication of the result. The court, however, did not take the grammatical or literal interpretation of the bye-law.

In Commissioner of Income Tax, Bangalore v. J.H. Gotla, the apex Court stated,

Where the plain literal interpretation of a statutory provision produces a manifestly unjust result which could never have been intended by the legislature, the Court might modify the language used by the legislature so as to achieve the intention of the legislature and produce a rational construction.

Justice Kurian found that the result of interpreting the word ‘and’ in the bye-law literally would be absurd. It is not required that a change in a person’s name be recognized by both a Gazette notification and the courts. Either of the two would suffice for changing one’s name.  Hence, relying on various precedents, he went on to interpret the word ‘and’ as ‘or’ to give the bye-law a rational meaning and in the process nullify the grounds of the counsel for CBSE as a reason for not making the required changes in the records.

Freedom to choose one’s name comes under freedom of speech and expression

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Justice Kurian observed,

Name is an expression of one’s individuality, one’s identity and one’s uniqueness.

He went on to rule that India, under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution does recognize the right of a person to have and express his name in the manner that he wishes and that such a right was integral to the liberty guaranteed to every individual. Accordingly, Justice Kurian allowed the writ petition and directed the Regional Officer, CBSE, Thiruvananthapuram to correct the name of the petitioner and make sure that such a change is made within six weeks.


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