In the last three essays, we discussed the complex intersections between labour and service laws, and sex discrimination. Let us now return to our original line of cases, which present discrimination claims in a simpler and starker background. In A.M. Shaila vs Chairman, Cochin Port Trust, decided by the Kerala High Court in 1994, the question was whether the Cochin Port Trust’s decision to exclude women from working as shed clerks violated Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. The Court held that it did not, noting that “if women are excluded from employment of a particular category because of their physical structure and special susceptibilities, it means that women have been placed in a class by reason of the distinct circumstances. In such a case the denial of opportunity of employment, though it strikes at women ceases to be “solely” on the ground of sex.” In noting some of the differences in “physical structure” and “special susceptibilities”, the Court relied upon American cases that had referred to the “natural functions of motherhood” and “social and moral hazards, which had already been pointed out as having been overruled in Rajamma, twelve years before. Summing up, the Court held:
“The continuous work while standing or moving and the movement at the shipping wharf amidst the menacing movement of cranes and forklifts demand protective restriction on the right to employment. The policy of the Port Trust indeed protects women from the hazardous effect of such work on their well being. Therefore the policy is not based only on sex. A woman working at the shipping wharf away from the main office, isolated and alone can be an object of violence on her person-especially at night. That is why Curt Muller v. The State of Oregon (supra) used the words” protect her from the greed and passion of man”. The policy of the Prot Trust impugned in this case does not violate Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution of India for these reasons.”
The problems with this line of reasoning have been examined at length before, and need not be repeated. In the 2000s, however, numerous High Courts were moved against provisions of the Factories Act that allowed governments to prohibit women from working in certain kinds of employment between 7 PM and 6 AM. In 2001, in Vasantha vs Union of India, this was challenged before the Madras High Court. Much like in A.M. Shaila’s case, this was justified on the ground that it was a “benign” measure designed to protect women, so that they could avoid “strenuous work”, and fulfill their household duties. Rejecting the argument, the Court noted that “it is not always so easy to verify whether discrimination that is claimed to be “affirmative action” or “benign” whether really is and at times it is demonstrably established that such a discrimination actually reinforces a negative and untrue stereotype of them.” In other words, it was not enough for the State to simply claim that it was enacting measures to benefit women under Article 15(3) (as the Supreme Court had held earlier, in its adultery decision). The measure itself would be subjected to judicial review, to confirm whether it was based on negative stereotypes. The Court struck down the provision, and also issued guidelines by requiring employers to take steps in order to prevent sexual harassment, provide secure working conditions, separate canteen and transportation facilities for women, etc. That same year, in Triveni vs Union of India, the Andhra Pradesh High Court followed suit, expressly agreeing with the Madras High Court and disagreeing with the Kerala High Court. The Court also observed:
“We have been told that there is a G.O. by which certain safeguards have been provided to the women who are working in Fish industry during the night hours. The same safeguards shall be given to women workers in other industries during the night time.”
Recall Catherine MacKinnon’s observation that the judgment upholding the prohibition of women from working in jails took the viewpoint of the “reasonable rapist.” The Madras High Court’s guidelines, and the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s observation are important, because they make it clear that the State cannot invoke social realities as grounds to burden women, but rather, has a positive obligation to change that reality in order that the need for discrimination disappear. In A.M. Shaila, the Court held that the dangers to women from “the greed and passion” of man formed part of the immutable background conditions (along with the “physical structure” of the sexes), which, if taken into account by the State in classifying the sexes for differential treatment, would be constitutionally valid. In this case, however, those “immutable background conditions” were treated as human-made social structures, which were allowed to flourish through State inaction – consequently, placing a duty upon the State to remedy them. The difference between A.M. Shaila and Vasantha and Triveni reflects, yet again, that the analytical baseline chosen by the Court, which is a deeply political choice, will end up having a profound effect upon the final judgment, even though the assumptions remains hidden.
Three years later, however, when the same provision was challenged before the Kerala High Court, the Court adopted the opposite reasoning, once again invoking the place and role of women in society: “the very nature of their commitment to the family and the social environment require that they cannot be entrusted with all those duties which men may be asked to perform… The place of women has been recognized in the Indian society since the hoary past. The Constitution has made a special provision in Article 15(3). It is calculated to protect and promote the interest of women, The impugned provision clearly falls within the protective umbrella of Article 15(3). It does not embody a principle of discrimination on sex, but is calculated to save women from the hazards of working during night in factories.”
Examples need not be multiplied. But by now, the deep conflict in the basic understanding and interpretation of Article 15(1) should be evident, across time and place. In 2007, however, it would appear that the Supreme Court finally definitively settled the issue, in favour of the anti-stereotyping principle. In Anuj Garg vs Hotel Association of India, which we have discussed previously on this blog, the validity of Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act, which prohibited the employment of women (and men under 25 years) in premises where liquor or other intoxicating drugs were consumed by the public, was challenged. The Delhi High Court struck down the statute, which was carried in appeal. Before the Supreme Court, it was defended by the State on the grounds of maintenance of security, akin to the arguments in A.M. Shaila and Triveni. The Court rejected the argument, holding – as in Triveni – that “new models of security must be developed, if necessary.” In a separate paragraph titled “Stereotype Roles and Right to Options”, it then quoted with approval the judgment in Frontiero vs Richardson, USA vs Virgnia, and Justice Marshall’s dissent in Dothard vs Rawlinson, all of which were based upon the anti-stereotyping analysis, and observed:
“The impugned legislation suffers from incurable fixations of stereotype morality and conception of sexual role. The perspective thus arrived at is outmoded in content and stifling in means.”
The High Court’s judgment in striking down the Section, therefore, was upheld.
There has been some controversy over whether the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg incorporated a standard of “strict scrutiny” in dealing with sex discrimination claims. In paragraph 44, the Court stated that “strict scrutiny should be employed” in cases assessing the validity of sex-based legislation. In paragraph 47, however, the Court seemed to adopt a proportionality test: “the legislative interference to the autonomy in employment opportunities for women is justified as a legitimate aim and proportionate to the aim pursued”, before going on to cite cases from the ECHR. It is important to note that strict scrutiny in sex discrimination claims is not the existing position of law, even in the United States. Such claims are adjudicated under a less exacting, “intermediate scrutiny” standard of review, which is fairly close to the proportionality review employed by the ECHR. It is therefore unlikely that the Supreme Court meant to adopt the standard of strict scrutiny as followed in the United States, given the rest of the tenor of its judgment.
It is also unlikely for another reason: the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg did not merely settle the controversy about whether or not stereotypes about women’s sexual and social roles could be invoked to justify a discriminatory law on “sex-plus” grounds. It also settled the controversy about whether an Article 15 enquiry was limited to the motive, or purpose of law, or whether it also included its effects. The Court held:
“Legislation should not be only assessed on its proposed aims but rather on the implications and the effects.”
“No law in its ultimate effect should end up perpetuating the oppression of women.”
In Anuj Garg, the law at issue was directly discriminatory – i.e., the law, in its very wording, created two categories (men and women), that were composed entirely and exclusively by the two sexes. However, note that the effects test necessarily includes both direct and indirect discrimination: a pregnancy-based classification, for instance, has the effect of disproportionately burdening women, even though the classification is not along the lines of sex. This is extremely important, since – as we have seen before in this series – it tracks an interpretation of the word “grounds” in Article 15 that qualifies not the motive/intent of the law (or lawmakers), but protected personal characteristics. Although the Court did not follow this analysis in Anuj Garg, it is clear that an effects-oriented interpretation of Article 15 must necessarily be based on the second meaning of “grounds”.
In most other jurisdictions, indirect discrimination is analysed within a proportionality framework, making it more likely that the Court’s invocation of strict scrutiny was not in its technical sense.
However, if the framework within which Article 15(1) is to be analysed is an effects-based one, then where does anti-stereotyping come in, which is concerned with motivations? In Anuj Garg, while responding to the State’s contention that the purpose of the law was to protect women, the Court noted that two conditions would have to be satisfied in such cases:
“… (a) the legislative interference (induced by sex discriminatory legalisation in the instant case) should be justified in principle, (b) the same should be proportionate in measure.”
The anti-stereotyping principle is relevant insofar as it rules out certain kinds of principled justifications (i.e., those based on stereotypes). In other words, at the first stage of enquiry, the effect of a statute will be analysed, to ascertain whether Article 15(1) is infringed. At the second stage, if the State then advances a justification (whether based on Article 15(3) or otherwise), it will be prohibited from relying upon stereotypes.
Anuj Garg, therefore, is authority for two crucial interpretive propositions: first, that both direct and indirect discrimination are covered under Article 15, within the framework of a broad, effects-based test; and secondly, the State may not rely upon stereotypes to justify prima facie discriminatory legislation. While there are many issues it does not deal with (and did not need to), such as whether different standards apply for direct and indirect discrimination, it nonetheless lays the foundation for a conceptually solid jurisprudence on sex equality. Whether and how it will be followed remains to be seen.