Legal status of Astrology in India by Ramaswamy Sastry

In the High Court of Andhra Pradesh , a writ of mandamus was filed by one Dr. Bhargava challenging the UGC’ decision to introduce astrology as a course of study in Indian Universities in April, 2001. The court dismissed the writ on the following grounds :

Firstly, no final decision had been made and the court could not interfere in the UGC’s decision-making processes. Secondly, the judge quoted from the second edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in the first half of the 19th century, which was ambiguous on the scientific nature of astrology. The opinion of experts differ and change from time to time, he concluded. Being ill-equipped regarding such matters, the court would exercise “the doctrine of self-restraint” and leave the issue to the UGC expert committee.

The petitioners moved the Supreme Court after a two-member Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court comprising Justices S.B. Sinha and V.V.S Rao summarily dismissed the public interest petition filed on April 11, 2001. In its ruling on April 27, 2001, the High Court had said that astrology was a subject that required further studies. Further, invoking Article 226 of the Constitution, it ruled that in exercise of its powers, as enshrined in the constitution, it cannot interfere with a policy decision of the UGC and, as such, the UGC (at that point of time) had not taken any final decision on the matter.In May, 2004 a Bench, comprising Justice S. Rajendra Babu and Justice G.P. Mathur, rejected the SLP which was directed against the April 2001 judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court declining to entertain a writ petition.The petitioners, had in their writ petition questioned the decision of the UGC in according permission to the universities for starting graduate, post-graduate and research courses in jyotir vigyan.

They had contended that the guidelines issued by the UGC were totally irrational, as Vedic astrology could not be held to see the unforeseen.They submitted that as a pseudoscience, astrology was considered to be diametrically opposed to the findings and theories of modern Western science.

The High Court dismissed the petition holding that it could not interfere in the policy decision of the Government unless it was found to be contrary to the law or made on extraneous considerations.

In their SLP, the petitioners contended that the scientific community considered the action of the respondents in starting the Vedic astrology course as a giant leap backwards, undermining whatever scientific credibility the country had so far achieved. They sought a direction to set aside the judgment and a direction to restrain the UGC and other respondents from implementing the decision to start the astrology course in Indian universities.

On behalf of the Union Government it was submitted that there was no compulsion in taking up the astrology course, which would be only an optional subject. Even in several Western countries, astrology had been included as a subject of study.The apprehensions of the petitioners were misplaced, the Government said seeking dismissal of the appeal.

The Supreme Court Bench agreed with the Center's contention and dismissed the SLP. While dismissing the appeal the following observations were made by the eminent judges :

"Astrology requires study of celestial bodies, of their positions, magnitudes , motions and distances etc. Astronomy is a pure science. It was studied as a subject in ancient India and India has produced great astronomers long before anyone in the Western world studied it as a subject. Since astrology is partly based upon movement of the sun, earth, planets and other celestial bodies, it is a study of science at least to some extent"

“The precise question as to whether Jyotir Vigyan should be included as a course of study having been considered and examined by an expert body of the UGC and they having recommended for including the said course for study and award of degrees in universities, it will not be proper for this court to interfere with the aforesaid decision specially when no violation of any statutory provisions is demonstrated."

The Bench rejected the contention of counsel for the petitioners that the introduction of Jyotir Vigyan in the curricula militates against the concept of secularism inherent in the structure of the Constitution. The judges cited a case in 1971 that challenged certain provisions of the Guru Nanak University Act, which provided for the study of the teachings and life of Guru Nanak. The petition was struck down on the grounds that this could not be construed to be amounting to religious instruction

The Bombay high court also dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking action against astrology on 03,February,2011.A division bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice S J Vajifdar was hearing a PIL filed by the NGO Janhit Manch questioning the validity astrology and similar practices.

"So far as prayer related to astrology is concerned, the Supreme Court has already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is a science. The Court had in 2004 also directed the universities to consider if astrology science can be added to the syllabus. The decision of the apex court is binding on this court," observed the judges.

The judges also took on record an affidavit submitted by the Union government. The Center had in its affidavit stated that astrology is a 4000-year-old 'trusted science' and the same does not fall under the purview of The Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954. "The said Act does not cover astrology and related sciences. Astrology is a trusted science and is being practiced for over 4,000 years," said an affidavit filed by Dr R Ramakrishna, deputy drug controller of India west zone.

"The said Act is aimed at prohibiting misleading advertisements relating to drugs and magic remedies. The Act does not cover and/or relate to astrology and/or allied sciences like palmistry, vaastu shastra etc. In view thereof, a purported ban on practices promoting astrology and related sciences sought by the petitioner, which is a time-tested science more than 4,000 years old is totally misconceived and unjustifiable," says the affidavit.

The PIL filed by Janhit Manch and its convener Bhagwanji Raiyani, along with his associate Dattaram Kumkar, had questioned the validity of predictions by many well-known astrologers and urged the authorities to ban articles, advertisements, episodes and practices promoting astrology and related subjects like vaastu, Reiki, Feng Shui, tarot, palmistry and zodiac signs. The more than 100-page petition pointed to several cases including that of Indira Gandhi and Charan Singh becoming prime ministers, despite predictions to the contrary.

Representing the Union government, advocate Advait Sethna told the court that even the SC accepted that astrology was a science and many universities had included it as a subject. Advocate for Maharashtra government, Bharat Mehta too supported the stand taken by the Center. Mehta submitted an affidavit filed by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) which said necessary action is being taken against the guilty under the Drugs and Magical Remedies Act.

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