Skip to navigationSkip to content
AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
Almost human.
FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT

Birds to holy rivers: A list of everything India considers “legal persons”

By Ananya Bhattacharya

An Indian court’s ruling last month that all animals and birds have the same rights as humans has put the spotlight on the idea of legal persons.

There are two types of persons, according to the country’s law: Natural, meaning a human individual capable of assuming obligations and holding rights. The second group refers to “legal persons,” which refers to entities endowed with juridical personality, decided upon by the courts.

“Legal persons, being the arbitrary creations of the law, may be of as many kinds as the law pleases like corporate personality, body politic, charitable unions etc,” writes Pramod Kumar Kushwaha of the Uttarakhand Judicial and Legal Academy (UJALA). “Legal persons have rights and co-relative duties; they can sue and be sued, can possess and transfer property.”

Since they’re voiceless, this is mostly done through guardians and representatives. Below are some of the biggest examples of non-human “legal persons” in India.

Animals

On May 31, a Chandigarh high court held that the “entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic” species has a “distinct legal persona with corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.” This was in connection with a cow-smuggling case.

In his ruling, justice Rajiv Sharma said citizens are loco parentis, implying they have legal responsibilities and functions similar to those of a parent vis-à-vis minor children, for the welfare and protection of animals.

The 104-page judgment said the state government must ensure that draft animals do not carry loads exceeding prescribed limits and the weight must be halved if the route traversed involves an ascent exceeding the limit prescribed by the court, and that they are kept in humane temperatures. No more than four people, excluding the driver and children below six years of age, are allowed to ride an animal-drawn vehicle. Rules around their veterinary care, housing, and food for animals were also established.

This followed the 2014 Animal Welfare Board of India versus Nagaraja ruling that not only humans but animals, too, had the right to dignity and fair treatment as per article 21 of India’s constitution. An Uttarakhand court, too, in July 2018, had given animals the same rights accorded to humans.

Although most countries don’t bestow human rights on animals, there are places that at least consider them sentient beings. For instance, in certain American states, the wellbeing of pets is being taken into account during a custody battle in connection with a divorce case, like it is for children. In New Zealand, the use of animals in cosmetic testing was banned four years ago.

Deities

For decades, temple idols have been given the status of juristic persons. And they have exercised their “human” rights to fight legal battles via the trustees or managing board in charge of the temple in which they are worshiped. Most famously, in a 2010 hearing of the long-drawn Ayodhya dispute, Bhagwan Sri Ram Virajman became a litigant, fighting a case for his janmabhoomi (birthplace) in front of the Lucknow bench of Allahabad high court through his representative Deoki Nandan Agarwal.

In the past, people have often exploited this law. For instance, many of the lands around the Chidambaram temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were registered as property of “Nataraja” (the lord of dance, a version of lord Shiva) under ancient Indian law. Under British rule, many men named Nataraja claimed ownership of these lands.

Still, idols continue to be treated as persons. In mid-2018, during the Sabarimala temple row over the entry of women of menstruating age, an advocate on the case suggested that the temple deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a legal person and as such was entitled to the same fundamental rights of the constitution as any other Indian person. Back then, the supreme court had even said that the deity had the right to keep its vow of celibacy under right to privacy. However, on Sept. 28, 2018, the traditional ban on women was finally lifted.

Rivers

To conserve the holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna, massively polluted due to waste dumping and pilgrims’ ritual bathing, an Uttarakhand high court in March 2017 deemed the water bodies “living entities.” Since the rivers can’t fight for their own rights, they have been assigned three legal guardians to ensure their protection.

Before India, New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people rallied to recognise the Whanganui river as an “ancestor” with the same rights as a human being in their country, too.

Corporations and more

To allow certain entities to own property and be represented in the court of law, they are deemed juristic persons. Corporations fall into that bracket. It shields owners from personal liability of their company’s debts for the most part.

Banks, railways, universities, colleges, church, temple, hospitals, municipalities, and gram panchayats (village councils), among other such entities, are also conferred legal personalities. Charitable funds and trust estates also enjoy the same status.