Rights of dead persons: What courts have said in the past | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Rights of dead persons: What courts have said in the past

Jun 15, 2024 01:12 PM IST

Article 21 of the Constitution has played an evident role in ensuring the right to fair treatment & dignity irrespective of whether the person is alive or dead

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Representative file photo PREMIUM
Representative file photo

Human beings are bestowed upon with several rights derived through various constitutional provisions, judicial pronouncements, advisory published by multiple human rights organisations, among others. However, till date, there is no specific law which explicitly deals with the rights bestowed on a dead person. Prima facie, the rights of a human being cease on death and therefore, no title, interest, or ownership remains vested with the deceased.

However, Article 21 of the Constitution of India has played an evident role in ensuring the right to fair treatment and dignity irrespective of whether the person is alive or dead.

Here’s a lowdown of a list of judgements passed highlighting the importance of dead people’s rights.

Also Read: Ecuador rights abuses under state of 'armed conflict': HRW

Recently, the Bombay High Court in Faizan E-Gaus-O-Raza Trust v. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai & Ors. emphasised the importance of the rights of a dead person to have a dignified burial along with the role of the municipal commissioner to provide an appropriate place for the disposal of the dead.

In Parmanand Katara v. Union of India, the Hon’ble Apex Court observed that the right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution is not only available to a living man but also to his body after his death. The word and expression ‘person’ in Article 21 would include a dead person in a limited sense and his rights to his life which includes his right to live with human dignity, to have an extended meaning to treat his dead body with respect, which he would have deserved, had he been alive subject to his tradition, culture and the religion, which he professed.

Further, it was also observed that, “The State must respect a dead person by allowing the body of that dead person to be treated with dignity and unless it is required for the purposes of establishing a crime, to ascertain the cause of death and be subjected to post-mortem or for any scientific investigation, medical education or to save the life of another person in accordance with law, the preservation of the dead body and its disposal in accordance with human dignity.”

The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) also protects the rights and dignity of dead bodies. Section 297 criminalises trespassing on burial places with the intent to hurt any person or religion. Section 404 prescribes punishment for anyone who dishonestly misappropriates property that was in the possession of a deceased person at the time of their death. Additionally, Section 499 criminalizes the defamation of a deceased person, and Section 503 provides punishment for anyone who threatens to injure the reputation of a deceased person in whom the threatened individual has an interest.

In Jamuna Das Paras Ram v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the Madhya Pradesh high court, in reference to Section 392 of the IPC contended that the word ‘person’ cannot be so naturally construed to exclude the body of a human being, i.e., the human body must be given the right, irrespective of being alive or dead.

In Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v. Union of India (2002), the Supreme Court reiterated that the dignity of the dead must be maintained and respected and further, extended the right to the homeless deceased person to have a decent cremation according to the religious customs to which one belongs to. It also established a corresponding duty on the State to ensure that decent cremation is served to the deceased.

In S. Sethu Raja v. Chief Secretary (2007), the Madras high court directed the concerned government authorities to bring the dead body from Malaysia so that the burial could take place at home as per the traditions and customs of the deceased.

The Allahabad High Court in Ramji Singh @ Mujeeb Bhai v. State of U.P. (2010) contended that the right to life also includes the right of the dead body to be treated with the same respect that he would have deserved if he were alive. It is imperative for the State to treat the corpse with dignity and must only resort to postmortem if it is a necessity.

During Covid-19 outbreak, there were several instances when dead bodies didn’t receive respectable and dignified treatment prompting courts to take note.

The High Court of Calcutta in Vineet Ruia v. The Principal Secretary, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Ors. ruled that dignified disposal of human remains is part of the right to life and personal liberty, regardless of Covid-19 status, and must be done according to the deceased’s religion, if ascertainable.

In Vikash Chandra @ Ouddu Baba v. The Union of India & Ors., the Patna high court addressed the undignified disposal of bodies in the Ganga river, stating that unclaimed and unidentified corpses must be handled with respect and, if possible, according to the deceased’s faith.

The Supreme Court, in a suo motu writ petition, issued guidelines for the dignified handling of bodies in hospitals, criticizing the poor conditions in Delhi hospitals where bodies were stacked next to Covid patients.

The High Court of Telangana in R. Sameer Ahmed v. State of Telangana & Ors. noted the lack of respect for bodies due to inadequate space and facilities, requesting state data on cremation capacities.

The Madras High Court, in a suo motu PIL monitoring COVID-related activities, highlighted the lack of dignity in the treatment of bodies and urged efforts to ensure respectful handling.

The Preamble to the United Nations (UN') Charter recognises the “right to dignity” as one of its objectives, i.e., to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.

Further, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also acknowledges this right in its preamble recognising of the inherent dignity of human persons.

Not only in India, but courts across the world have also laid down guidelines, recommendations, and pronounced judgements on similar lines, where the rights of a dead person need to be protected and respected.

In the case from US Supreme Court, Munn v. Iliinois, Field, J, it spoke of the right to life.

"By the term 'life' as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed; the provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg, or the putting out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world," it said.

During the COVID outbreak, there was a severe violation of rules and protocols laid down by the existing legal framework.

Even during the first wave, the central and state governments issued protocols for the dignified management and handling of the dead in consonance with the World Health Organisation (“WHO”) guidelines. However, during the second wave, due to the rampant increase in number of deaths, it nearly became implausible for concerned governments to abide by the protocols.

There is a pressing need for laws at both national and international level specifically addressing pandemic-like situations.

It is equally important to safeguard the rights of human body even after death as the right to life does not end with the life of a human being.

However, it also extends after the death of a person to have a dignified burial and from any harm that may be caused by third person.

Sanya Singh is a practising lawyer based out in New Delhi. She pursued a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) from NUSRL, Ranchi and holds a keen interest in civil and commercial litigation.

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