A High Court judge has approved an ailing Hindu's attempt to seek judicial review of a city council's refusal to allow open air cremation, a move which could result in the community performing their traditional funeral rites across Britain.
An attempt to establish the first approved site for the 4,000-year-old spiritual ceremony in northeast England was blocked last year after a local authority ruled that it would breach cremation laws.
The decision was challenged by Davender Kumar Ghai, a 68-year-old devout Hindu who is in poor health and demanding the right, when he dies, to be cremated on an open-air pyre, The Times daily reported on Tuesday.
A High Court judge has approved his attempt to seek a judicial review of Newcastle City Council's refusal to permit a funeral rite that Hindus regard as essential for successful liberation of soul.
No date has yet been set for the judicial review application which will be led by specialist human rights barristers Ramby de Mello and Tony Muman.
They argue that open-air pyres fall outside the 1902 Act, which regulates what happens inside a crematorium, defined as "any building fitted with appliances for the purpose of burning human remains."
The burning of a human body in the open air, they say, is an offence only if it causes a public nuisance, which would be avoided as the sites would be in secluded locations.
Justice Collins ruled that it was in the public interest to allow the application because the issue was "of some considerable importance to the Hindu community".
He also noted that rulings in 1884 and 1907 "may mean that the burning of dead bodies in the open air is not necessarily unlawful."
Britain has 559,000 Hindus and many are expected to opt for an open-air cremation if such ceremonies are approved.
Ghai, founder and president of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, created headlines last July when he arranged the first human funeral pyre in Britain since the Home Office authorised the outdoor cremation of Sumshere Jung, a Nepalese princess and the wife of the Napalese ambassador in Woking in 1934.
The body of Rajpal Mehat, a 31-year-old Indian illegal immigrant found drowned in a London canal, was burnt on a wooden pyre at a secret location in rural Northamberland. Newcastle council had ruled that the ceremony was illegal under the Cremation Act 1902.
Police investigated the incident and passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. It ruled that an offence had been committed but that prosecution would not be in the public interest.
If the High Court disagrees, Ghai's case will be pursued on a human rights basis. "Only if the law is made clear in favour of pyres can I incorporate a clause into my Will that would complete a lifetime spiritual journey as a proud and active British Hindu."
Ghai, who has a UNESCO gold medal for peacekeeping and an Amnesty International Lifetime Achievement Award, said that throughout his life he had aspired to a "meditative acceptance of mortality".
His mind, however, has become "increasingly consumed with dread" at the prospect of a local authority cremation.
"Hindus are Britain's third largest faith group. We have proved to be a model migrant community and we feel hurt that other groups are allowed to undertake their funeral rites while we are left out. It is time for that to change."