Yesterday, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a state-wide public holiday to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Maharana Pratap. The declaration of a holiday, is another effort by the state government to celebrate the emperor who was known for his bravery and might in his battles against Mughal emperor Akbar. The purpose of this post is not to analyse the reasons or justifications behind this declaration but to discuss the law governing it.
Both central and state governments often declare public holidays to celebrate religious festivals and birth anniversaries of influential individuals or on the days of elections. The decision on who gets celebrated and dates for the celebrations are solely decided by the government concerned and hence, can be arbitrary at times. I myself have often wondered which provision of law vests this power on the government. In this post, I am sharing the answer as I explain the law governing public holidays.
A. Source of the Power:
Interestingly, the source of the power to declare public holidays is found in Section 25 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (‘Act’). The Act governs the functioning of promissory notes, bill of exchange or cheques payable in India. Section 25 of the Act deals with the situation wherein the day of maturity of a promissory note or bill of exchange is a public holiday. Maturity here means the day when the promissory note or bill of exchange becomes due for payment.
The Explanation to Section 25 defines the term ‘public holiday’ to mean Sunday or any other day declared by the central government through a notification in the Official Gazette. It is this Explanation that is used by the central government to declare public holidays in India. The central government through a notification dated 8 June 1957 extended this power to state governments as well. Hence, now both central and state government declare national and state public holidays respectively, using this provision.
For example, in the year 2021, the central government declared 14th April as a public holiday to celebrate the birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The notification read, “It has been decided to declare Wednesday, the 14th April 2021, as a public holiday on account of the birthday of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, for all central government offices including industrial establishments throughout India by invoking the powers under Section 25 of Negotiable Instruments Act, 1981.”
Similarly, the Odisha state government declared a public holiday on 30 August 2021 to celebrate the festival of Janmashtami. The notification read, “The Government of Odisha have been pleased to declare under the explanation to section 25 of the Negotiable lnstruments Act, 1881(Central Act XXVI of 1881), read with the Notification of Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs No. 20-25-56- Public-l dated the 8th June, 1957, the Public Holidays, expressly defined in the said explanation, that the Banks and other Banking lnstitutions etc. in Odisha, will remain closed on 30th August, 2021 (Monday) on the occasion of Janmastami”
The Assam state government declared a public holiday on 8 November 2022, on account of the elections in the Deori Autonomous Council. The notification read, “The Governor of Assam is pleased to declare 8 November, 2022 (day of Poll) as Public Holiday under Section 25 of N.1. Act, 1881 (XXIV of 1881) read with the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs Notification No.20/25/Pub-I dated 8 June 1957 for Deori Autonomous Council Election, 2022 where polling will be held on that day as notified by Assam State Election Commission vide No.SEC.71/2022/24 dated 11″ October 2022”.”
B. Public Holiday not the same as Government or Local Holiday:
Public Holiday is different from a government holiday. The former entails a complete closure of all offices, educational institutions, and other services (both government and private) whereas the latter only concerns government offices. The state government (through the governor) can declare a government holiday using its executive powers under Article 154 of the Constitution.
Similarly, a local holiday is different from a public holiday. Ordinarily, the declaration of a public holiday by the centre or the state affects the entire region i.e., the country or the concerned state respectively. However, the effect of a local holiday is applicable on the specific territory where it is declared. For example, recently the Hathras district administration in Uttar Pradesh extended the school holidays in the district on account of the cold weather. This order would bind only the residents of Hathras.
C. Declaration of Public Holiday: A Policy Decision
The decision on who gets celebrated and dates for the celebrations is a policy decision solely taken by the central or state government respectively. This position of law is reiterated by the Courts repeatedly, whenever someone knocks their doors to declare a national holiday on an important occasion.
For instance, recently, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking declaration of a national holiday on the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The Chief Justice of India Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud remarked, “whether a national holiday is to be declared is a matter of governmental policy. The Supreme Court cannot direct that.”
Similarly, last year the Bombay High Court dismissed a similar petition to declare a public holiday on 2 August, since it marked the liberation of Dadar & Nagar Haveli. The Court here made similar observations stating, “Whether or not to declare a particular day as a public holiday or an optional holiday or no holiday at all is as a matter of government policy.” The Court went on to hold that no one has a fundamental right to a public holiday.
It must be noted that there do exist some exceptional cases wherein the Court has directed the government to declare a national holiday. For instance, in 2019, the Bombay High Court directed the government to declare ‘Good Friday’ as a public holiday in Dadra and Nagar Haveli. However, subsequently, the High Court termed this case as an exception and not the norm.
Concluding Remarks: Who gets celebrated, an arbitrary decision
Often the choice of what and who gets celebrated through a national holiday depends on the political party in power and hence, is arbitrary. Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition that seeks the establishment of a National Uniform Public Holiday Policy which would lay down clear criteria governing the declaration of public holidays. The petition argues that the notification of public holidays is arbitrary and mainly aimed at appeasement. It gives the example of birth anniversaries of Dr. Ambedkar and Prophet Mohammad which have been declared as public holidays as against the birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh which has not been declared so.
Hopefully, the petition will push the government to adopt a clear and tangible policy on public holidays.