Individual, Community, and State: Mapping the terrain of religious freedom under the Indian Constitution

     The Indian Constitution’s religious freedom clauses (Articles 25 and 26) constitute an extremely complex web of relationships between individual, community and State. To navigate this web, the Courts have developed two broad doctrinal tools: a distinction between the religious and the secular, and the “essential religious practices” test. To achieve clarity on what is certainly a very confused aspect of Indian constitutional jurisprudence, it is important to map out the factual background within which these tools have been employed, the methodology used by the Court, and the manner in which the conclusion has been reached.

A look at the text of Articles 25 and 26 reveals that in order to effectively interpret what the Constitution requires, the Courts are required to – at least to some extent – ask and answer substantive questions about religion. Let us take a close look at the text:

Article 25(1) guarantees the right to freedom of conscience, and the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion. This right is made subject to a prefatory sub-clause, in the interests of “public order, morality, and health.” Article 25(1) is similar to the religious freedom clauses in other liberal commonwealth jurisdictions, and standing by itself, would present no unique interpretive difficulties. However, Article 25(2)(a) allows the State to make laws regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” In some ways, the relationship between Article 25(1) and 25(2)(a) mirrors the relationship between Articles 26(b) and 26(d), which deal with the rights of religious denominations. Article 26(b) guarantees the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in matters of religion, and Article 26(d) allows the denomination to administer property in accordance with law (i.e., subordinating the right to manage property to State-made law).

What this scheme reveals is that the Constitution itself draws a distinction between the religious and the secular. Article 25(2)(a) provides three illustrations of the secular – the economic, the financial, and the political. 26(d) does something similar with the administration of property. Now if you think of situations where there is a dispute between the State and religious practitioners over whether a particular practice is, say, “political” or “religious”, the Constitutional text itself provides no further guidance on the issue. It is therefore clear that, ultimately, this is a question that the Courts must decide, and consequently, to an extent, the Courts will have to answer questions about whether something is religious or not.

Article 25(2)(b) further allows the State to make laws “providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.” There are at least four questions thrown up by the text. First – to what extent can the Court sit in judgment over whether a particular law is for “social welfare or reform”? Second – does such a law completely override religious freedom? Thirdly – what happens when a particular sect claims that it is not “Hindu”, and therefore not subject to the second part of Article 25(2)(b)? And fourthly – what happens when a Hindu temple claims that it is not of a “public character”? It is clear that the last two questions, at least, will require the Court to ask questions pertaining to the nature and character of religion.

With all these questions in mind, let’s consider the following Table, that attempts to map the manner of judicial intervention into religious questions:

Download Table

On a close reading of the cases in the Table, the following aspects stand out.

  1. The Supreme Court’s religious freedom cases can be broadly divided into two types: cases involving State intervention into the management of temples, durgahs, maths, gurudwaras, which primarily include administration of estate, and appointment of officials; and cases involving the relationship between the members of religious communities, or practices of those members (beef eating, bigamy, excommunication, tandava dancing). Of course, the line might be blurred sometimes (Seshammal and Adithyan are examples).
  1. In the first decade of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, the religious/secular distinction was evolved to deal with the first type of case, and the essential religious practices test was invented to deal with the second type. As argued above, there is some justification for the Court dealing with the religious/secular question on the basis of the constitutional text itself (although one might disagree with how the Court has drawn the line), and the nature of the claims before it. However, the essential religious practices test was invented out of whole cloth. In fact, in each of the cases that used it – Narasu Appa Mali, Ram Prasad Seth, and Qureshi – there were alternative means, rooted in the constitutional text, available. In fact, in the first two cases, the Court expressly upheld the law on the basis of Article 25(2)(b) as well as holding that it was not an “essential religious practice.” In the third, the Court’s own reasoning would have allowed it to reach the same conclusion on the basis of the “health” restriction under Article 25(1).
  1. In Swamiar, the Supreme Court held that what practices are deemed religious will be decided on the basis of what the religion itself claims. This, very clearly, is an unworkable proposition. If the entire scheme of Article 25 and 26 is to draw a line between the religious and the secular, then the determination of what constitutes religion cannot, under the risk of vicious circularity, be left to the religion itself. This is evident from the fact that the Court, while paying lip service to the proposition throughout its history, has never seriously applied it. In Ratilal, for instant, the Jains argued that the whole point of temple property was its use for religious purposes. The Court simply dismissed the argument by asserting that management of property was incidental to religion, without substantiating the same. In Sardar Sarup Singh, the Court made a half-hearted attempt, stating in one line that no text had been produced to show that direct elections to the management committee were part of the Sikh religion. However, even in that case, the Court dodged the main issue by reframing it: it had been argued that the Management Committee performed religious functions. The Court expressed no opinion on that contention, but stated that the impugned provision was only about elections to the committee, and therefore, what the committee actually did (once elected) was irrelevant. This reasoning is unconvincing. Throughout its history, the Court has consistently failed to provide a set of principles to distinguish the religious from the secular. Instead, it seems to have decided the cases on a priori definitions that change with every judgment.
  1. In the 1960s, Gajendragadkar CJI substantially muddied the waters by invoking both tests together. In Durgah, which classically fell into the first category (management of estate), he conflated the two tests, and then further added another, holding that practices born out of mere “superstition” could not be considered religious (this proposition was disagreed with in Seshammal). Then, in Govindlalji – another estate management case – he first invoked the essential religious practices test, but applied it to draw a distinction between the religious and the secular. While in Seshammal the Court stuck to the religious/secular distinction, the confusion returned in Adithyan, and continues to this day.
  1. In determining what constitutes an “essential religious practice”, the Court has failed to lay down a set of consistent principles. It has often referred to Swamiar (again, a case in a different context), but has not applied it. In some cases, it has referred to texts such as the Quran, in others it has referred to judgments of the Privy Council, in still others it has looked at how old the practice is. Again, while paying lip service to Swamiar’s proposition that the religion itself should be allowed to determine what is religious, the Court has, effectively, arrogated to itself that power, relied upon sources of dubious authority, has never explained why it has chosen the sources that it has and ignored others – and most importantly – has elevated the essential religious practices test to the first, and often last, enquiry that it conducts.
  1. Each of the cases that the Court decided on ERP grounds could have been decided on the basis of the constitutional text. We have discussed the three cases in the 50s; furthermore, in Saifuddin, Faruqui and Avadhuta, ERP was an entirely extraneous consideration. In fact, it is unclear what role, as an analytical matter, the essential religious practices test plays in the first place. It would be one thing if Justice Ayyangar’s concurring opinion in Saifuddin was law. In that case, proving ERP would insulate a religious practice even from Article 25(2)(b). However, that is not law. What the essential religious practice achieves is that it spares the Court from actually upholding a law on the basis of Article 25(2)(b), or the prefatory sub-clause of 25(1). Instead, it allows the Court to hold that religion, the Constitution, and the State are not in conflict, because the practice sought to be regulated isn’t “integral” or “essential” to the religion at all, and so outside the scope of constitutional protection. This might be a convenient doctrine politically (and scholars have made that argument), but it is entirely contrary to what the Constitution prescribes.
  1. In sum, therefore, while Articles 25 and 26 are unhappily worded, the Court’s messy jurisprudence is entirely of its own making.
    1. The essential religious practices test is an entirely arbitrary doctrine that has been grafted onto the constitutional text, in effect to make 25(2)(b) and the first part of 25(1) as redundant as possible.
    2. The Court has regularly mixed up doctrines originally evolved in two very different contexts. The question of the extent to which the State can intervene into the management of religious institutions is very different from the extent to which it can intervene into intra-community relationships and individual practices – the Constitutional text itself treats the two very differently. This has led to absurd results, such as Avadhuta II.
    3. The Court has failed to develop a coherent jurisprudence on the two basic tests that it has used: what principles are to be applied to distinguish between the religious and the secular? And what is the methodology and sources to determine whether something constitutes an “essential religious practice”?
    4. At the same time, the present confusion is easy enough to resolve. It can be resolved by getting rid of the ERP test, replacing it with a deferential – but watchful – application of Article 25(2)(b) and 25(1), using the illustrations provided in 25(2)(a) and 26(d) to draw the distinction between the religious and the secular when it comes to the first category of cases, and applying a civil-rights based standard (as evolved in Justice Sinha’s dissenting opinion in Saifuddin, discussed earlier on this blog) in the second category of cases.

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Filed under Essential Religious Practices, Freedom of Religion, meaning of, Secularism

Constituent Assembly Search Website

The Centre for Law and Policy Research has developed a website for searching the Constituent Assembly Debates. So far, researchers have been using Vivek Srinivasan’s fantastic search engine for our research, which has been a truly invaluable resource. The CLPR website, however, looks to be a step up with a more interactive interface, and more focussed searches. Happy browsing!

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New Blog on Women Members of the Constituent Assembly

Priya Ravinchandran has started a new blog called Women Architects of the Indian Republic, which aims to document the contributions of women members of the Indian Constituent Assembly, to the Debates and the Framing. It promises to be a fascinating enterprise.

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Guest Post: Unconstitutional Laws and Non-Citizens

(In this guest post, Vikram Hegdea Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, discusses how Section 66A of the IT Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal’s Case, nonetheless continues to exist insofar as non-citizens are concerned)

For those who happened to have been living under a rock at the relevant time, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal in March 2015. The decision has been widely praised, with even the grumbles about the decision being that it didn’t do enough[1] and not that it did wrong. While the general celebratory consensus, is that this decision has sounded the death knell of Section 66A and all its malice, an old anomaly in the constitutional provision for freedom of speech may have the effect of commuting the death sentence of Section 66A to a banishment from India, but free to haunt foreigners. Shorn of comedic bombast, this means that while 66A is struck down as far as citizens of India are concerned, it may still survive as against foreign persons.

To improve the SEO value of this post, and also for ready reference, we may extract some provisions of the Constitution of India with selective outrage supplied emphasis:

Article 13. Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of the fundamental rights.—

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void.

Article 19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.—

(1) All citizens shall have the right—

(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

Now coming back to the Shreya Singhal case, the petitioners contended that Section 66A, in addition to being violative of Article 19, was also violative of Article 14[2]. The contravention of Article 14, it was argued, arose from the fact that the ingredients of the offence are vague and thus arbitrary. It was also argued that there is no intelligible differentia between the medium of print, broadcast and live speech as opposed to speech on the internet. The Court while holding that Section 66A is violative of Article 19(1)(a), being vague and overbroad, held that the intelligible differentia in the case of speech on the internet is clear and therefore the challenge to the provision under Article 14 must fail.[3] [Editor’s Note: My own reading is that the Court rejected an Article 14 challenge insofar as the internet is a space where certain specific offences exist, such as phishing, spam mails, cyber theft etc., which have no offline equivalents. Consequently, there can be a law framed to catch such offences; however, a law cannot impose different standards upon online speech, based upon spurious considerations such as the speed, or extent, to which online material can be disseminated) The conclusion of that judgment unequivocally states that Section 66A is struck down as violative of Article 19(1)(a).

Rights under Article 19[4], are available only to “citizens”. It has been urged by some that this means that only a citizen can challenge a legislation as violative of Article 19 and not a non-citizen, but once a law is struck down for violation of Article 19, the law is completely void, even as regards non-citizens. The judgment of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in State of Gujarat v. Shri Ambica Mills says otherwise. The court, taking into account the phrase “to the extent of the contravention” in Article 13(2), expressly held

“[L]aw offending article 19, remains operative as against non- citizens as it is not in contravention of any of their fundamental rights.”

Seen in this light, the effect of the Shreya Singhal judgment is that Section 66A is void only as against citizens and not as against non-citizens. When this line of thought was voiced on fora on which freedom was enhanced by the judgment in question, questions were raised as to whether this meant that Section 66A was still available against non-citizens, such as corporates and other non-natural persons. The answer to that would lie inter alia in Bennet Coleman v. Union of India[5] where it was held that the shareholders exercise their rights under Article 19(1)(a) through the juristic person of the company and thus where the shareholders were citizens, their company was protected. However, as regards companies where the shareholders are not Indian, Section 66A would still apply.[6]

It is now time to ask ourselves an important question.

“What about 1984?”

That is the year in which the Law Commission of India examined and published a report on this very issue. While the Law Commission recommended that Article 19 be amended by adding an explanation some non-natural persons would be deemed “citizens” for the purpose of Article 19. However, this was limited to entities that have the character of “Indianness”. The recommendation has not yet been acted upon.

While I am aware of at least one legal proceeding where, post the judgment in Shreya Singhal, Section 66A has been applied to a foreign company, that dispute is currently at the lowest level in the judicial hierarchy. For a direct answer from the Courts on this point, we may have to wait.

[1] The resident author of this blog, in his excellent book Offend, Shock, or Disturb, states that the part of the order reading down Section 79 “is not entirely satisfactory”.

[2] Article 14, not being very important to our enquiry is treated unequally here and is consigned to a footnote: Equality before law.—The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

[3] I don’t know if and why the rational nexus angle was not raised and at this point am too afraid to ask.

[4] As also Articles 15, 16 and 29.

[5] The long list of cases supporting this proposition includes Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury, Sakal Newspapers, R.C. Cooper etc.

[6] I offer generous help in this regard. If the management of a foreign company such as Google or Facebook wishes that its rights under 19(1)(a) be protected, they can ensure the same by transferring a significant chunk of shares in those companies to me.

 

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Guest Post: Secret Laws and Retrospective Punishment – on the Unconstitutionality of the Official Secrets Act

(Previously on this blog, we have looked at the intersection between the Constitution, and criminal procedure. In this guest post, Abhinav Sekhri examines how the Official Secrets Act is constitutionally suspect by enabling the possibility of retrospective creation of offences. The post first appeared here, on the Proof of Guilt blog, and has been cross-posted with permission.)

Very little intelligent discussion happens concerning the Official Secrets Act [OSA] in India. You could say this lack of discussion is by design, and means the law is doing its job. Perhaps it is. What it also does is perpetuate a culture of secrecy surrounding decision-making by officials. With an increasing intensity surrounding the freedom of information movement, there was a spurt in questions being raised in the Rajya Sabha (see hereherehere and here. I am certain it was discussed in the Lok Sabha as well) about the Official Secrets Act. The tenor of government’s responses seemed consistently non-committal but implying that change is mooted. But this seems to have changed as momentum stilled (see here, and here). In the meanwhile, we had the Right to Information Act bringing its overriding clauses, and the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission recommending a repeal of the statute altogether. Obviously, that didn’t happen. This post takes up the argument that the criminalisation under the OSA is unconstitutional.
 
Context
The OSA is acknowledged to be a British legacy, dating back to 1923 (earlier variants existed as well). The statute’s context belie the imposing title. The phrase “official secrets” does not find any definition or mention; the law primarily attends to cases of espionage by using broad definitions of the potentially sensitive information involved. Offences are not designed simply, stating that one who steals “official secrets” shall be punished. Offences (such as Section 3), require individuals to act “prejudicial to the interests” of India, and these acts must be the unauthorised acquisition or dissemination of “secret official code, or password, or any sketch, plan, model or other information” that is useful to the enemy and/or prejudicial to India’s interests. Cases can only begin on a complaint by the authorised officer, and a sanction to prosecute the official must be granted before cognizance can be taken.
The Issue of Knowledge
Two questions become important here, (i) how do persons know that a a code or sketch, plan model etc is potentially useful to the enemy or affects the security and interests of India and  (ii) does it matter whether they know or not? Dealing with the second issue first, all hints point to a position of law that disregards the need for an accused to have knowledge. I argue this on the basis of the two primary offences, Sections 3 and 5. Section 3 was mentioned above, and sub-section (2) therein supports my claims. It allows a conviction simply on the basis of the ‘conduct or known character’ of the accused and allows the court to dispense with a need to specifically prove that the person had some prejudicial purpose. Not only does this go against the basic tenets of treating character evidence (which has been blogged about earlier), but in a unique manner disregards both actus reus and mens rea requirements. Nifty.
Section 3 is prefaced by a mental element (the acts must be “with a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State“), regardless of how it is rendered nugatory. Section 5 contains no such preface and so makes the knowledge issue more potent. It has three sub-sections, out of which only Section 5(2) uses the words “knowing or have reasonable ground to believe“. Does that mean the other offences do not require any knowledge element? A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court approves of this logic (seeRanjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1964 SC 881). It is nobody’s case that the accused is unconsciously in possession of the documents – possession is conscious. But does the accused need to know that the documents were, to wit, “likely to assist, directly or indirectly, an enemy“?
The statute clearly suggests that knowledge is not essential, nor is lack of knowledge a defence. Interestingly, the U.K. repealed its old statute (contemporary to ours) to insert lack of knowledge as a defence (UK Official Secrets Act, 1989). Thus it is a defence if the person did not know, or did not have reasonable cause to believe, that the material concerned was such that its disclosure was prohibited. This is not unconstitutional strictly speaking, but goes against a the basics of criminal theory that one could argue are part of substantive due process.
(Ed. Interestingly, in a judgment handed down yesterday, the Court of Appeals in the UK held that without an intent requirement as part of the definition of terrorism, the UK Terrorism Act was incompatible with human rights)
Classification and Clearer Unconstitutionality
I’m not a fan of the Article 21 is omnipotent school, and so try and make my case on clearer grounds by answering the first question I posed. The question was how do persons know whether documents are state secrets when the document hasn’t got TOP SECRET on its face. The answer exists, and is in the form of a Ministry of Home Affairs Manual on Departmental Security Instructions. After the RTI a request was made for disclosure of this Manual. This was denied by the Ministry, and contested right up to the Central Information Commission. The Commission upheld that decision to deny disclosure, reasoning that making the classification public would prejudice the safety of the state.
Since nobody but the State knows whether something was secret, and holding secrets is an offence, what stops the State from deciding something is secret after it goes public? Take an example. A journalist, X, gets his hands on a non-public pending legislative bill potentially legalising marijuana and makes it public. The Police arrest X, suspecting him of having secret information, and ask the Government whether such non-public legislative bills form information of the kinds barred by the OSA. Here is the problem. (A) Since I cannot know if the information I have is potentially secret, any determination made now is ex-post-facto and illegal. (B) Since nobody knows what information is secret, nothing stops the State from deciding how to treat papers ex-post-facto, rendering any offences which follow unconstitutional under Article 20(1).
(Ed. There are two issues here. One is the question of whether a secret law, by virtue of being secret, violates Article 20(1), since it enables the State to make (secret) changes to it after the commission of any act, by which that act can be criminalised. Now, it is well-established that the possibility of abuse under an Act is no ground for the Court to hold that the Act is unconstitutional. However, those cases are premised upon the assumption that you can go to Court against the abuse itself, and obtain a remedy. In case of a secret law, there’s no way of even knowing when abuse has taken place, in the form of a post facto modification of the secret law. In such a scenario, it would appear that the logic in Romesh Thappar’s Case – i.e., that a law that enables unconstitutional action is itself unconstitutional – is more apposite.
It seems to me, though, that a better argument would be to invoke vagueness. In Kartar Singh, and then in Shreya Singhal, the Court held that vagueness is a ground for striking down legislation, primarily because it does not allow people to plan their affairs in a manner so that the can comply with the law, and in the case of free speech, casts a chilling effect. A secret law is the vanishing point of vagueness – it’s the point at which you literally don’t know what’s legal or illegal. In such a situation, vagueness should be invoked to strike down the law.)
What’s the Point?
India, along with South Africa, remains the only prominent erstwhile colony to have not reworked its secrecy law in the wake of the freedom of information movement. The point, therefore, is that such a blanket secrecy law curbs journalistic expression and is fundamentally anti-democratic. The arbitrary noose of the OSA may be brought upon any unwitting reporter, making her think thrice about writing that story on Naxal rebels in the heartlands. This is an old, overused point, but it seems silly that we’ve retained a British law that Britain comprehensively repealed. They even make the classification public. If nothing else, Section 5 must go.
(Abhinav Sekhri is a Delhi-based advocate)

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Filed under Article 20(1), Criminal Law and the Constitution, Official Secrets Act

Sabrimala and the PIL

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear final arguments on the question of whether women between the ages of 10 and 50 can be excluded from the Sabrimala shrine – an issue that has gained a degree of notoriety in the last week. On the constitutional question, I think the arguments in this case, for the most part, track the ones in the Haji Ali Dargah case, which I wrote about on this blog early last year (I wrote a separate piece on Sabrimala for The Hindu a couple of days ago). I’m not as confident about the correct result in this case as I am about Haji Ali Dargah, especially because in the latter, the arguments of exclusion were based upon entirely non-religious, or even non-customary bases (such as the ‘inappropriate’ clothes worn by women).

I think it’s also worth pointing out that Sabrimala has taken the form of a PIL (unlike Haji Ali Dargah, where the petitioners are the women who are actually excluded from the inner sanctum of the dargah). The two petitioners here are lawyers, neither of whom is a female Sabrimala devotee (my understanding is that one of the petitioners is a man). The fact that the Court is hearing this case as a PIL tells us something about how standing simply doesn’t seem to be a question for the judiciary any more. Ssomething very similar happened in the Rajasthan High Court’s santhara judgment, which I had written about earlier, and I think it’s important to stress this fact every time this happens:

The loosening of standing rules [through the institution of PIL] was intended to ensure the representation of those who could not represent themselves. By now, it is used to  transform the Court into a super-legislature, where any social question might be agitated by any person. 

This is particularly stark in the present case, because matters of conscience, religious belief, and religious practice, are among the deepest and most personal issues for the individual. There seems to be something rather strange in one person agitating for the religious rights of a completely different person.

So surely, a PIL is a singularly inappropriate remedy for this kind of a claim? Was it right for the Court to have admitted the case without the actual affected parties (the excluded women) coming before it? More worryingly, is it right for the Court to decide the case without even hearing the excluded women?

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Filed under Non-discrimination, Public Interest Litigation, Sex Discrimination

T. Sareetha vs T. Venkata Subbaiah: Remembering a Revolutionary Decision

On July 1, 1983, Justice P.A. Choudary of the Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, which allowed the Court to pass an order for ‘restitution of conjugal rights.’ In simple language, if the Court was convinced that either a husband or a wife had ‘without reasonable cause, withdrawn from the society‘ of their spouse, then it could decree that the defaulting spouse was required to go back to the company of their partner – a decree that could be enforced by attaching the defaulter’s property. Justice Choudary held that Section 9 violated the rights to equality and privacy under the Constitution, and was accordingly void. Within five months, the Delhi High Court handed down a judgment disagreeing with this conclusion. And a little over a year later, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Delhi High Court, bringing the legal controversy to a close.

Sareetha remains as a footnote in family law courses, a passing reference in discussions about the restitution of conjugal rights. This is a pity. Sareetha was one of those rare cases in Indian constitutional history where a Court understood the Constitution as a radically transformative document, and struck out in a direction that was unfamiliar, bold, and creative – while remaining constitutionally tethered. Its interpretations of equality and privacy anticipated similar developments in other jurisdictions by years, or decades; and in some respects, it is still ahead of the time. Quite apart from the actual decision, it is its reasoning that constitutional lawyers should not forget; because even though the Supreme Court overruled the judgment, and perhaps closed off the window to a certain kind of legal change, Sareetha’s reasoning remains a template for other cases that might attempt to shape equality and privacy in an emancipatory and progressive direction.

Polis and Oikos: The Privacy of the Ancients

To understand the radicalism of Sareetha, we need to begin at the beginning. The distinction between the public and the private sphere, which is one of the most controversial issues today, and which was at the heart of Sareetha, had its origins in classical Athens.  As Don Slater writes, “The public sphere – the polis or res publica – was the realm of free association between citizens. Men [and only men] were deemed free in the polis not because it was unregulated, but because it was kept rigidly separated from the private sphere of the household and the domestic economy (oikos): the domestic sphere was regarded as the realm of mere physical reproduction, and therefore of the compulsion and slavery of needs.” In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt records that the public sphere (which Humphrey’s defines by its ‘impersonality’) was the arena of “equals” – men, who came together to debate and discuss issues affecting their City-State were neither “to rule, nor to be ruled.” In fact, the very idea of ‘rule’ was at odds with the idea of the polis. In the oikos, on the other hand, the male head of the household had absolute dominion over his slaves, the women, and the minor children. It was these who would ensure the satisfaction of his bodily needs, thus liberating him from ‘necessity’, and freeing him to participate in the public sphere with other, equally situated men.

The public/private divide, therefore, mapped on to the dichotomy between freedom and necessity, equality and inequality. The claims of equality were restricted to the public sphere (polis), and simply weren’t applicable to the household (oikos), which was defined by its inequality.

Public and Private: The Privacy of the Moderns

The public/private divide largely disappeared during feudal times (the manorial households, in a sense, came to embody characteristics of both spheres), and then made a reappearance after the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era. The modern era – Arendt argues – saw economic activities and market transactions taken out of the domain of the private sphere, which was now defined as the site of intimacy, or intimate relationships. At this time, as Seyla Benhabib records, the American and French Revolutions had brought into public consciousness the ideas of basic rights, and the idea of autonomy. Quoting the philosopher Lawrence Stone, she observes that:

“… from the beginning there were tensions between the continuing patriarchal authority of the father in the bourgeois family and developing conceptions of equality and consent in the political world. As the male bourgeois citizen was battling for his rights to autonomy in the religious and economic spheres against the absolutist state, his relations in the household were defined by nonconsensual, nonegalitarian assumptions. Questions of justice were from the beginning restricted to the ‘public sphere’, whereas the private sphere was considered outside the realm of justice.”

Unlike the Ancients, who accepted that the private sphere was essentially inegalitarian, the moderns held that it was simply not subject to the claims of equality. Benhabib further points out that “power relations in the ‘intimate sphere’ have been treated as though they did not even exist.” It is this idea of privacy that culminated in judicial holdings in the 20th century that viewed privacy as a question of a space of seclusion, a space that the State could not enter. After Warren and Brandeis wrote their famous article at the end of the 19th century, viewing the right to privacy as a right to seclusion, or a right to be let alone, the American Supreme Court held that the right extended to “areas” where there was a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

It was this spatial concept of privacy that was strongly criticised by feminist legal scholars over the second half of the 20th  century. In light of the fact that the “private sphere” is itself a hierarchically structured space, Martha Nussbaum points out that “recognizing a sphere of seclusion into which the state shall not enter means that males may exercise unconstrained power.” A classic example of this is the marital rape exception which deems that forcible sexual intercourse within the marital relationship does not amount to rape.

Community and Individual: Privacy in Colonial India

In colonial India of the late nineteenth century, where – in the words of historian Tanika Sarkar, there first began to emerge a “pre-history of rights“, privacy took on yet another form: here, it became the right of communities to determine certain issues – including the treatment of women – free from the interference of the colonial State. Tanika Sarkar, Lata Mani, Partha Chatterjee, and other scholars recount the debates around the abolition of Sati, the raising of the Age of Consent, and indeed, on restitution of conjugal rights. Chatterjee notes, for instance, that “the so-called women’s question in the agenda of Indian social reform in the early 19th century was not so much about the specific condition of women as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and the supposed “tradition” of a conquered people.” In other words, community “traditions”, which centrally involved the rights, positions, and social roles of women, were deemed to be off limits, since they came to represent, or embody, the “inner life” of the community. So the idea of privacy (although it was not framed in so many words) became connected with group rights; or, it was groups that – as bearers of value in themselves – that became the holders of something like a right to privacy.

The Ambiguity of Gobind v State of MP

Therefore, when the Indian Supreme Court began to take up issues relating to the right to privacy, it was adjudicating in the context of a number of different – although somewhat complementary – traditions. The case that first held that there existed a constitutional right to privacy in India reflected this problem. In Gobind v State of MP,  the Supreme Court held, in sphinx-like tones, that:

“Any right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing.”

As I have noted before, part of the reason why this definition sounds confusing is that it was lifted by the Supreme Court from an American decision delivered in an entirely different context – that of adult theatres. In any event, a quick reading of this sentence reveals at least four possible underlying themes:

(a) A spatial idea of privacy, flowing from the use of the word “home”, and the fact that all the terms that follow it refer to activities normally undertaken within the home

(b) An institutional, or relational idea of privacy: the home (in the sense of a household), the family, marriage, and motherhood are all social institutions. The right to privacy, then, protects the sanctity of these institutions by insulating them against State interference.

(c) A functional idea of privacy: motherhood, procreation, and child-rearing, in particular, seem to suggest domestic activities (and the absence of ‘fatherhood’, in turn, suggests the gendered nature of the division).

(d) An individualistic idea of privacy that focuses upon bodily integrity and decisional autonomy: a few years before Gobind, the American Supreme Court in Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade  had upheld the right to contraceptives and the right to abortion, on grounds of privacy; privacy, here, refers to the right of the individual to make her own choices about decisions that directly affect her bodily integrity.

As we can see, while the first three interpretations reflect the various conceptions of privacy discussed above, the fourth marks something of a break. In Sareetha, the Justice Choudary would take this fourth idea, and use it to develop a transformative vision of privacy.

Sareetha; Reasoning and Outcome

A. Privacy as Individual Dignity

Justice Choudary held that “a decree of restitution of conjugal rights thus enforced offends the inviolability of the body and the mind subjected to the decree and offends the integrity of such a person and invades the marital privacy and domestic intimacies of such a person.” According to him, at the heart of the issue was the fact that the law, essentially, was a law compelling sexual intercourse. “The consequences of the enforcement of such a decree”, he observed, “are firstly to transfer the choice to have or not to have marital intercourse to the State from the concerned individual and secondly, to surrender the choice of the individual to allow or not to allow one’s body to be used as a vehicle for another human being’s creation to the State.” 

Notice, however, that the law itself does not require sexual intercourse. It only authorises a decree for cohabitation, which can be enforced through attachment of property. This is why Justice Choudary spoke of the consequences of enforcing a decree – and it is here that we see the first major break with traditional conceptions of privacy. Because Justice Choudary was not content simply to end his enquiry at the point of cohabitation – but to go further, to find that given the deeply unequal structure of the family, and given the myriad pressures – not simply physical, but of every other kind – that could be brought to bear upon a woman who is shorn from the protection of her own family, a decree for cohabitation would, in all likelihood, lead to compelled intercourse. Taking the example of a Madhya Pradesh High Court decision where a woman called Tarabai was required by decree to go back to her husband, Justice Choudary observed that “what could have happened to Tarabai thereafter may well be left to the reader’s imagination.” This, for him, was completely unacceptable, because:

Sexual expression is so integral to one’s personality that it is impossible to conceive of sexuality on any basis except on the basis of consensual participation of the opposite sexes. No relationship between man and woman is more rested on mutual consent and freewill and is more intimately and personally forged than sexual relationship.”

And for a women, who would be the one to conceive, “in a matter which is so intimately concerns her body and which is so vital for her life, a decree of restitution of conjugal rights totally excludes her.” Here, for the first time, we see a vision of privacy that focusses upon a combination of bodily integrity and decisional autonomy. Soon afterwards, Justice Choudary cited Gobind, and then focused on one particular line in Gobind:

“There can be no doubt that privacy-dignity claims deserve to be examined with care and to be denied only when an important countervailing interest is shown to be superior.”

Latching upon the concept of privacy-dignity (and dignity, it will be noticed, speaks to the individual), Justice Choudary then noted “any plausible definition of right to privacy is bound to take human body as its first and most basic reference for control over personal identity… [the] right to privacy belongs to a person as an individual and, is not lost by marital association.”

This is a crucial observation, since it completely rejects the view that the site of privacy claims are social institutions, such as the marriage or the family, and accepts, instead, the opposite claim that the right-bearer is the individual. Privacy, therefore, is to be understood not as an exalted space within which the State cannot enter (no matter what happens within that space), but as a right accorded to each individual, which guarantees her autonomy in all fundamental decisions concerning her body.

B. Justice Brandeis and the Balance of Power

Interestingly, during the course of his argument, Justice Choudary also referred to Justice Brandeis’ dissenting opinion in the case of Olmstead vs New York.  Olmstead was a 1928 American Supreme Court decision concerning the admissibility of evidence obtained through a wiretap. The majority held that the wiretap did not offend the Fourth Amendment, which was limited to  prohibiting illegal searches of “persons, houses, papers, and effects”. Justice Brandeis, however, refused to read the Fourth Amendment in such a literal way. He observed:

“When the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were adopted, “the form that evil had theretofore taken” had been necessarily simple. Force and violence were then the only means known to man by which a Government could directly effect self-incrimination. It could compel the individual to testify — a compulsion effected, if need be, by torture. It could secure possession of his papers and other articles incident to his private life — a seizure effected, if need be, by breaking and entry. Protection against such invasion of “the sanctities of a man’s home and the privacies of life” was provided in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments by specific language. But “time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes.” Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.”

Justice Brandeis’ basic point was that as invasive State technologies increase in scope and reach, the law must correspondingly evolve to continue effectively protecting the individual. Underlying this is the idea that there must, at all times, remain a balance of power between State and individual. The more power the State acquires, the further must the law reach to constrain its use, lest we arrive at a totalitarian society in which State power has completely overwhelmed the individual.

The innovation in Sareetha is that it takes Brandeis’ idea of a parity of power between individual and State, and extends that to apply horizontally, in the private realm. The link between cohabitation and compelled intercourse is based upon a difference in power: and Sareetha’s striking down of S. 9 is a Brandeisian attempt to restore the balance. In a truly radical fashion, therefore, Justice Choudary’s attempt was to bring about – in the smallest of ways possible – a democratisation of the private sphere.

C. Article 14 and Indirect Discrimination

Justice Choudary’s last argument was with respect to Article 14. Section 9, of course, was facially neutral: the remedy, in theory, was open to both husbands and wives. But, Justice Choudary held, ” “Bare equality of treatment regardless of the inequality of realities   is neither justice   nor homage to the constitutional principle”… the question is how this remedy works in life terms In our  social reality, this matrimonial remedy   is found used almost exclusively by the husband  and is rarely resorted to by the   wife. A passage in Gupte’s Hindu law in British India’ page 929 (second edition) attests to this   fact…  the reason for this mainly lies in the fact of the differences between the man and the woman. By enforcing a decree for restitution of conjugal rights the life pattern of the wife is likely to be altered irretrievable whereas the husband’s can remain almost as it was before this is so because it is the wife who has to beget and bear a child. This practical but the inevitable consequence of the enforcement of this remedy cripples the wife’s  future  plans of life and prevents her from using that self-destructive remedy… The pledge of equal protection of laws is thus inherently incapable of being fulfilled by this   matrimonial remedy in our Hindu society. As a result this remedy words in practice only as an engine of oppression to be operated by the husband for the benefit of the husband against the wife.”

On this blog, we have often discussed the question of whether, to prove discrimination, once must show that the law was intended, or had a motivation to, discriminate; or is it adequate to show that the law, although neutral in its terms, has a disproportionate impact upon a certain group of people. The former views discrimination as a result of a discrete, intentional act; the latter, as the result of long-standing structures and institutions. The former understands social realities as independent of law, providing a neutral background within which law operates; the latter insists that these social realities are always constructed by, and complementary to, the legal system – and that therefore, laws which reproduce or endorse such social realities are equally suspect (or, in the words, of Justice Albie Sachs, the purpose of a Constitution is to transform “misfortune to be endured into injustice to be remedied“). In his analysis of the differential effects of Section 9 based upon a social reality that placed the cost of child-bearing and rearing disproportionately upon women, Justice Choudary firmly endorsed the latter, more nuanced understanding, of equality.

The Radicalism of Sareetha

We are now in a position to understand the full extent to which Sareetha was a transformative and radical judgment. In specifically applying Article 14 to the private sphere, Justice Choudary repudiated the privacy of the Ancients, according to which equality was a value only in the public sphere. In specifically invoking the power hierarchies and inequalities in the private sphere to justify his decision, he repudiated the spatial conception of the privacy of the moderns, that turns a blind eye to the realities of domination and subordination within the home. In invoking Justice Brandeis, he brought the idea of maintaining an egalitarian balance of power between State and individual into private relationships, and took a small step towards the democratisation of the private sphere. And in finding an Article 14 violation, he advanced a view of equality that was grounded in structures and institutions, rather than individual acts. One may disagree with his final conclusion – and in fact, Flavia Agnes, among others, has made arguments defending S. 9 – but the reasoning remains powerful, and a clarion call for a progressive vision of privacy and equality.

Aftermath

Soon after Sareetha, the Delhi High Court came to the opposite decision. In Harvinder Kaur v Harmender Singh Chaudhary, it held that:

“Introduction of constitutional law in the home is most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china shop. It will prove to be a ruthless destroyer of the marriage institution and all that it stands for. In the privacy of the home and the married life neither Article 21 nor Article 14- have anyplace. In a sensitive sphere which is at once most intimate and delicate the introduction of the cold principles of constitutional law will have the effect of weakening the marriage bond. That the restitution remedy was abolished in England in 1970 by Section 20 of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Properties Act 1970. on the recommendation of the Law Commission headed by Justice Sharman is no ground to hold that it is unconstitutional in the Indian set-up. In the home the consideration that really obtains is that natural love and affection which counts for so little in these cold courts. Constitutional law principles find no place in the domestic code.” 

In its blanket refusal to apply equality and privacy to the “home”, the Delhi High Court reinstated the traditional, spatial view of privacy, that closed off a physical space from State intervention. This was upheld by the Supreme Court, which also added that “the right of the husband or the wife to the society of the other spouse is not merely creature of the statute. Such a right is inherent in the very institution of marriage itself” – thus reinforcing the position that the sanctity of privacy is accorded not to the individual, but to the institution of marriage.

Conclusion

Sareetha, undoubtedly, was buried thirty years ago, and cannot be brought back to life. But while a judgment remains in ashes, its arguments can certainly become phoenixes and rise again. Justice Choudary’s insights are relevant for the ongoing struggle against the non-criminalisation of marital rape, against numerous inequitable provisions in personal law codes, and for the continuing efforts to persuade the Court to understand Articles 14 and 15 in structural terms (another, abortive, effort was made in Naz Foundation, which was also overruled). At the very least, Sareetha should not be forgotten: it should remain in historical memory as a landmark of Indian constitutional law, taught and discussed as a brilliant – if unsuccessful – attempt at radically transforming our constitutional jurisprudence of privacy and equality.

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Filed under Article 14, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Disparate Impact, Equality, Marital Rape, Non-discrimination, Privacy, Sexuality