In the last post, I argued that after NALSA v. UoI, Koushal v. Naz ought to be reconsidered, since in rejecting the distinction between sexual conduct and sexual identity, NALSA removes the intellectual foundation upon which the entire Koushal decision was based. In conversation with Danish since then, it seems to me that we might not even need to go that far. Here is how.
While Koushal v. Naz is commonly understood to have recriminalized homosexual intercourse in India, it did not actually do quite that. The Delhi High Court, in Naz Foundation v. NCT, held that insofar as S. 377 criminalizes same-sex intercourse between consenting adults, it is unconstitutional. Recall, however, that S. 377 does not criminalize homosexual intercourse in so many words. It criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The conceptual middle-step, of course, requires associating homosexual intercourse with carnal intercourse against the order of nature.
And, interestingly, that is a finding that the Supreme Court in Koushal never made. Let us go back to the notorious Paragraph 42:
“Those who indulge in carnal intercourse in the ordinary course and those who indulge in carnal intercourse against the order of nature constitute different classes and the people falling in the later category cannot claim that Section 377 suffers from the vice of arbitrariness and irrational classification. What Section 377 does is merely to define the particular offence and prescribe punishment for the same which can be awarded if in the trial conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure and other statutes of the same family the person is found guilty. Therefore, the High Court was not right in declaring Section 377 IPC ultra vires Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.”
So there is nothing in Paragraph 42 that indicates what “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is, and the Court makes no finding on the point. True, the Court refers to precedents on what constitutes “sodomy”, and so on, but it does not incorporate any prior definition into its verdict. Now consider Paragraph 51:
“Respondent No.1 attacked Section 377 IPC on the ground that the same has been used to perpetrate harassment, blackmail and torture on certain persons, especially those belonging to the LGBT community. In our opinion, this treatment is neither mandated by the section nor condoned by it and the mere fact that the section is misused by police authorities and others is not a reflection of the vires of the section.”
Here again, it’s not so much as what is stated, but what is omitted, that is significant. The Court specifically refers to the LGBT community, and again refuses to rule on whether the LGBT community is covered by the ambit of 377.
Indeed, if there is one thing that emerges out of all the precedents that the Court cites, it is that there’s no consensus on what the term means. One case holds that all non-procreative sex is against the order of nature, while another holds that that particular theory is outdates. Another finds oral sex to fall within the ambit of 377. Indeed, in paragraph 36, the Court specifically observes:
“The understating of acts which fall within the ambit of Section 377 has changed from non-procreative (Khanu v. Emperor) to imitative of sexual intercourse (Lohana Vasantlal v. State AIR 1968 Guj 352) to sexual perversity (Fazal Rab v. State of Bihar AIR 1963, Mihir v. Orissa 1991 Cri LJ 488).”
So, is homosexuality “perverse”? Again, the Court refuses to make a finding on point.
Consequently, the upshot of Koushal v. Naz is that although it is no longer the case that S. 377 expressly excludes homosexuals, it is also not the case that S. 377 includes them. That judgment is one to be made by later courts.
NALSA v. UoI is the judgment that does so.
The NALSA Court understands this, because in paragraph 18, it holds that because of Koushal, it will not rule on the constitutionality of S. 377. That, however, leaves it entirely free to interpret 377.
Now, in paragraph 20, the NALSA Court notes:
“Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation and gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”
Notice that this paragraph is not limited to transsexuals. It refers to sexual orientation as such (especially because it uses the phrase in conjunction with “gender identity”). Now if sexual orientation is integral to personality, and a basic aspect of self-determination (and nobody – presumably not even the Koushal bench – would deny that same-sex intercourse is expressive of sexual orientation) – in what sense can we say that expressing your personality and self-determination is “against the order of nature”?
The Court then cites a number of international conventions and legal instruments, all of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity as well as sexual orientation. In paragraph 55, it holds that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity violates the equal protection of laws. And in paragraph 77 – the last paragraph of Justice Radhakrishnan’s judgment, he holds that:
“We, therefore, conclude that discrimination on the basis of
sexual orientation or gender identity includes any discrimination,
exclusion, restriction or preference, which has the effect of
nullifying or transposing equality by the law or the equal protection
of laws guaranteed under our Constitution.”
Now admittedly, Justice Radhakrishnan makes it clear that the scope of his judgment is limited to the rights of transsexuals. But surely it defies logic to argue that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited in the case of transsexuals, but allowed in all other cases? In other words, the logic of the NALSA judgment seems to make it clear – even if it does not say so in express terms – the “sexual orientation”, per se, is a protected category. And once again, recall that Koushal made no finding on that specific point.
In this sense, NALSA v. UoI can be taken to be a clarification of Koushal. Koushal holds that it is constitutional to criminalise carnal intercourse against the order of nature. NALSA holds that sexual acts that are characterised purely in terms of the sexual orientation are not acts against the order of nature. In effect, this is the same as the holding of the Delhi High Court. However, while the Delhi High Court held that 377 is unconstitutional insofar as it criminalises same-sex intercourse between consenting adults – the logic of NALSA requires the conclusion that 377 is constitutional only because it does not criminalise same-sex intercourse between consenting adults. In that case, then – because NALSA is not a case about homosexuals, and therefore not precedent on that point - perhaps the next step is to approach the Court for a judgment clarifying the scope of S. 377 as applied to homosexuals.
None of this, of course, is an endorsement of anything in Koushal, or anything that Koushal stands for. The act/identity distinction in Koushal remains flawed and indispensable. Its cavalier treatment of the “so-called rights of a minuscule minority” remains indefensible. But insofar as we’re considering the present state of law, it is perhaps arguable that, reading Koushal and NALSA together, same-sex intercourse between consenting adults can no longer be criminal in India.