Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – XII: Indirect Discrimination in Sareetha vs Venkatasubbaiah

Before ending our discussion on sex discrimination under the Constitution, it would be interesting to take note of two (overruled) High Court cases that pushed interpretive boundaries in their understanding of Article 15(1). The first is the Delhi High Court’s judgment in Naz Foundation vs NCT of DelhiAs is well-known, the High Court invalidated Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (read: homosexuality), on grounds of Articles 14, 15 and 21. One of the things the High Court did was to read “sexual orientation” into the word “sex”. In a guest post last week, Vansh Gupta examined this issue in some detail, so I won’t reiterate the argument in full. Briefly, there are two ways of understanding the Court’s interpretive move. The first – which is what the Court itself seems to say – is that sexual orientation is read into Article 15 as a ground “analogous” to sex. This, I believe, is a mistake, since the text of Article 15(1) makes it clear that the “grounds” stated therein constitute a closed list (compare, e.g., with the anti-discrimination provisions of the South African and Canadian Constitution). However, the other – more acceptable – reading is that the criminalisation of homosexuality constitutes sex discrimination, properly understood. This is because, at its heart, it rests upon the same gender stereotypes (including assumptions about sexual roles) that form the basis of sex discrimination.

Let us now consider the judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in T. Sareetha vs Venkatasubbaiah. The constitutionality of S. 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, which provides for the “restitution of conjugal rights”, was challenged. According to Section 9, “when either the husband or the wife has without reasonable excuse withdrawn from the society of the other, the aggrieved party may apply by petition to the district Court for restitution of conjugal rights and the Court, on being satisfied the truth of the statements made in such petition and that there is no legal ground why the application should not be granted, may decree restitution of conjugal rights accordingly.” According to an Explanation, the burden of proving reasonableness lies upon the party who has withdrawn from the society of the other. Under the CPC, a decree under S. 9 may be enforced through attachment of property, or detention in a civil prison.

A full history of this concept would be beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say here that the “restitution of conjugal rights” is a common law doctrine, introduced into India by the British, and the subject of some notorious court battles in the late-19th century, at the dawn of the women’s movement.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down Section 9, primarily on the ground that it violated the right to privacy. The judgment’s conception of privacy is novel and fascinating, and repays close study. What is of particular significance, however, is that towards the end of its judgment, the Court also invalidated the provision on the grounds of Article 14. This seems prima facie counter-intuitive, since Section 9 clearly applies to “the husband or the wife“, and makes no distinction between the two. It is, therefore, facially neutral. The Court observed, however:

“… by making the remedy of restitution of conjugal rights equally available both to wife and husband, it apparently satisfies the equality test. But the requirements of equal protection of laws contained in Article 14 of the Constitution are not met with that apparent though majestic equality at which Anatole France mocked… 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 learned author recorded that although the rights and duties which marriage creates may be enforced by either spouse against the other and not exclusively by the husband against the wife; a suit for restitution by the wife is rare”.

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 irretrievably 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. Thus the use of remedy of restitution of conjugal rights in reality becomes partial and one-sided and available only to the husband. 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.”

There are two important aspects of this analysis. The first is a factual finding that a facially neutral statute has a disproportionate effect upon a certain class (although one would have liked statistical evidence beyond a quotation from Gupte’s Hindu Law in British India!) The technical term for this is “disparate impact”. The second is that the reason for the disparate impact cannot be linked with any constitutionally justifiable purpose. Here, the Court finds that, in light of the deeply unequal familial power structures prevailing within Indian society, a textually neutral legal remedy operates to the severe disadvantage of women. The two findings together constitute the vice of indirect discrimination (in other jurisdictions, a finding of disparate impact shifts the burden upon the discriminator to show that his or her actions could be justified by a legitimate and proportional purpose).

It is important to acknowledge indirect discrimination as a form of constitutionally proscribed discrimination, since statutes and policies are not always consciously designed to exclude groups and classes. As we have seen before, prejudices can be subconscious or unconscious, and entire exclusionary social and economic structures can be erected without the intention of harm anyone. Anuj Garg’s focus on the effect of policies upon protected groups, and the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s factual and normative analysis of Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, together constitute a powerful foundation from which to place indirect discrimination at the heart of the non-discrimination guarantee.

Two things remain to be noted. The first is that T. Sareetha examined indirect discrimination within the context of Article 14, and not Article 15. The logic, however, remains exactly the same, especially when coupled with the effects test under Article 15. Secondly, Sareetha was quickly overruled by the Supreme Court, which warned against bringing constitutional law into the domestic sphere. Whatever the merits of that ruling, Sareetha is no longer good law. However, much like Koushal and Naz on “sex” and “sexual orientation” under , there was no specific finding by the Supreme Court on the issue of indirect discrimination. Neither of these two propositions, therefore, have been expressly rejected by the Court. As such, their normative power and attractiveness makes them ideal candidates to be adopted in some future time.

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Article 15 (general), Disparate Impact, Equality, Non-discrimination, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

2 responses to “Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – XII: Indirect Discrimination in Sareetha vs Venkatasubbaiah

  1. Aditi

    After the Code of Civil Procedure (Second Amendment) Act, 1923 neither husband nor wife can be sent to civil prison for disobeying a decree for restitution of conjugal rights. Only enforcement technique is attachment of property.

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