The Delhi High Court on Pregnancy and Sex Discrimination

Recently, my attention was drawn to a fascinating judgment of a division bench of the Delhi High Court, delivered last month. Inspector (Mahila) Ravina vs Union of India concerned a challenge to the CRPF’s denial of promotion to a female inspector. The facts are somewhat complex. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the Petitioner, an inspector in the CRPF, was unable to attend a Pre-Promotional Course, conducted between July and August 2011, because she was pregnant. Consequently, after her pregnancy was over, she attended the next Course, conducted in July and August 2012, and qualified, thus fulfilling the requirements for promotion to the next-higher post. However, when the CRPF released its promotion list in 2014, the Petitioner’s name was not included, and consequently, she lost her seniority vis-a-vis her batchmates and juniors. When the Petitioner filed a representation before the CRPF, she was informed that she had lost her seniority because of her “unwillingness to attend the promotional course [held in 2011].” The Petitioner challenged this decision before the High Court.

The question before the High Court, therefore, was whether “the Petitioner’s pregnancy would amount to unwillingness or signify her inability to attend a required promotional course and if she is entitled to a relaxation of rules to claim seniority at par with her batchmates.” The Court upheld the Petitioner’s claim on two grounds, both of which merit close attention.

First, the Court held penalising the Petitioner for her pregnancy violated Article 21 of the Constitution. In paragraph 9, Justice Ravindra Bhat observed:

To conclude that pregnancy amounts to mere unwillingness – as the respondents did in this case- was an indefensible. The choice to bear a child is not only a deeply personal one for a family but is also a physically taxing time for the mother. This right to reproduction and child rearing is an essential facet of Article 21 of the Constitution; it is underscored by the commitment of the Constitution framers to ensure that circumstances conducive to the exercise of this choice are created and maintained by the State at all times. This commitment is signified by Article 42 (“Provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief- The State shall provide conditions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief”) and Article 45 (“Provision for early childhood care and education to children below the age of six years- The State shall endeavour to provide for early childhood care… ”)…”

There are two important points that need to be noted here. The first is that under the Court’s interpretation of Article 21, personal liberty is violated not only through coercive State action, but also State action that puts persons in a position where they must choose between availing a State benefit, or exercising a constitutional right. In other words, if “unwillingness” is to be construed as including absence due to pregnancy, then a woman is put in a position where she has to either forego her promotion, or forego her pregnancy. The State is therefore penalising women who exercise their constitutional rights by withholding the benefit of promotion from them. Readers will note the similarity between the argument here, and the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions discussed in the last post. The petitioner’s position here was even stronger, however, because denial of promotion is a more tangible and direct harm than withdrawal of a tax exemption.

The second is the Court’s use of the Directive Principles of State Policy – in particular, Articles 42 and 45. As I have attempted to argue before, a conceptually sound approach towards the DPSPs must respect the fact that the framers chose to make them unenforceable, while finding a textually and structurally relevant role for them in constitutional interpretation. There are two possible ways of doing this. One is that where a legal provision may be reasonably interpreted in two different ways, the interpretation that furthers the Directive Principles ought to be given precedence. The second is that the Directive Principles may be used to provide concrete content to the abstract concepts contained in Part III of the Constitution. In paragraph 9, the Delhi High Court does both. Referring to Articles 42 and 45, it holds that the guarantee under Article 21 is not merely a negative prohibition against coercive State action, but also casts a positive obligation upon the State “to ensure that circumstances conducive to the exercise of this [Article 21] choice are created and maintained by the State at all times.” In the instant case, this concretely translates into prohibiting the State from indirectly penalising a person if they choose to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to personal liberty. The Court also uses the DPSPs interpretively, by preferring an interpretation of the word “unwilling” that excludes pregnancy rather than one that includes it.

In its Article 21 analysis under paragraph 9, the Court stresses that pregnancy is a “deeply personal” choice. This is an ideal segue into the second part of the Court’s analysis. In paragraph 12, the Justice Bhat holds:

“It would be a travesty of justice if a female public employee were forced to choose between having a child and her career. This is exactly what the CRPF‟s position entails. Pregnancy is a departure from an employee‟s “normal” condition and to equate both sets of public employees- i.e. those who do not have to make such choice and those who do (like the petitioner) and apply the same standards mechanically is discriminatory. Unlike plain unwillingness – on the part of an officer to undertake the course, which can possibly entail loss of seniority – the choice exercised by a female employee to become a parent stands on an entirely different footing. If the latter is treated as expressing unwillingness, CRPF would clearly violate Article 21. As between a male official and female official, there is no distinction, in regard to promotional avenues; none was asserted. In fact, there is a common pre-promotional programme which both have to undergo; both belong to a common cadre. In these circumstances, the denial of seniority benefit to the petitioner amounts to an infraction of Article 16 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, which guarantee equality to all in matters of public employment, regardless of religion, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence etc. A seemingly “neutral” reason such as inability of the employee, or unwillingness, if not probed closely, would act in a discriminatory manner, directly impacting her service rights.

There are some crucial points here that need to be unpacked. The first is the express acknowledgment of pregnancy-based discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, which brings it within the non-discrimination guarantees under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. As we discussed recently on this blog, the Supreme Court in Nargesh Mirza’s case (1981), dealt a serious blow to Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence by failing to consider pregnancy on the touchstones of Articles 15 and 16, and instead considering it under the “arbitrariness” prong of Article 14. Bizarrely, in Nargesh Mirza, the Supreme Court held that termination on a first pregnancy would be unconstitutional because arbitrary, but termination on a third pregnancy wouldn’t be (since it helped the nation’s family planning program and helped women become good mothers!). The discontents of the arbitrariness approach under Article 14 are legion, and I do not need to recount them here. The Court’s analysis of pregnancy discrimination under Article 16 represents a significant advance.

What is even more important, however, is how the Court does it. Justice Bhat observes that “a seemingly “neutral” reason such as inability of the employee, or unwillingness, if not probed closely, would act in a discriminatory manner, directly impacting her service rights.” This is the language of indirect discrimination: facially “neutral” provisions have a discriminatory impact because they end up reproducing existing social inequalities and hierarchies. As we have seen in our discussion of the evolution of Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence, indirect discrimination still has only a tenuous hold upon the imaginations of our judges. A large number of cases have chosen to interpret the word “grounds” in Articles 15 and 16 as referring to the reasons, or motives, behind a law, and have consequently refused to find discrimination even when there is a clear case of differential impact. In my analysis of the text of Articles 15 and 16, I advanced an alternative reading of the word “grounds”, one that referred not to the motive of the law, but to the characteristics that were protected from adverse impact (sex, race, caste etc.). An effect or impact-based test was accepted by the Supreme Court in Anuj GargHowever, even in Anuj Garg, the law itself was directly discriminatory: it prohibited women from working as bartenders. The Delhi High Court, however, applies the framework of indirect discrimination to a facially neutral law, which discriminated not on the basis of sex, but on the basis of pregnancy. In this, it follows an analytical tradition, the finest exemplar of which is the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s judgment in 1983, which struck down the restitution of conjugal rights provision under the Hindu Marriage Act as discriminatory, because of its strongly adverse impact upon women.*

It is also fascinating to note that Justice Bhat places the word “normal” within quotation marks. In the first part of the paragraph, he notes that “pregnancy is a departure from an employee’s “normal” condition…” This reveals the crucial understanding that our intuitive ideas about the existing baseline, the “normal” from which we judge deviations, is a political and social construct. In other words, the “normal” is constructed form the perspective of a privileged subject position. Previously on this blog, I have cited the work of Joan Williams, who makes the point in the context of workplace discrimination:

“... society is structured so that everyone one, regardless of sex, is limited to two unacceptable choices – men’s traditional life patterns or economic marginality. Under the current structure of wage labor, people are limited to being ideal workers, which leaves them with inadequate time to devote to parenting, and being primary parents condemned to relative poverty (if they are single parents) or economic vulnerability (if they are currently married to an ideal worker). Wage labor does not have to be structured in this way… [the recent] massive shift in the gendered distribution of wage labor has produced intense pressures to challenge the assumption that the ideal worker has no child care responsibilities. But this pressure is being evaded by a cultural decision to resolve the conflicts between home and work where they have always been resolved: on the backs of women. In the nineteenth century, married women “chose” total economic dependence in order to fulfill family responsibilities.’ Today, many women with children continue to make choices that marginalize them economically in order to fulfill those same responsibilities, through part-time work, “sequencing,” the “mommy track” or “women’s work.” In each case, the career patterns that accommodate women’s child-care responsibilities often are ones that hurt women’s earning potential.

The “normal” worker, therefore, being male, is not expected to become pregnant, and consequently, the baseline rules (penalisation for “unwillingness” to attend the promotional course) are constructed from his perspective. It is this edifice of exclusion that the Delhi High Court’s judgment interrogates, and then finds to be inconsistent with the Constitution.

By de-mythologising “normalcy”, the Delhi High Court has made another significant advance towards a jurisprudence of discrimination that is true to the Constitution’s commitment of ensuring social justice. In his dissenting opinion in Volks vs Robinson, Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court observed that “the purpose of constitutional law is to convert misfortune to be endured into injustice to be remedied.” The Constitution guarantees not only formal equality, but also promises that entrenched power structures which, over decades, even centuries of sedimentation, have attained the status of facts of nature, will no longer be treated as immutable in the very existence of things, but as human-caused instances of injustice, and will be dismantled. In a very profound sense, this judgment implements Justice Sachs’ vision of the transformative Constitution.

(*NB: The case before the Delhi High Court was an easier one than the one before the AP High Court, because while only women can get pregnant, both men and women can invoke the restitution of conjugal rights provision. The AP High Court rested its decision upon the unequal power relations within the family, which would mean that restitution of conjugal rights would adversely impact wives to an enormous degree, while having very little impact upon the lives of husbands. That judgment was reversed in one year by the Supreme Court. Perhaps it was too far ahead of its time. One hopes that thirty years later, as indirect discrimination continues to struggle for a foothold within Indian discrimination jurisprudence, the Delhi High Court has not also committed the error of being far ahead of its time.)

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Filed under Article 15 (general), Article 21 and the Right to Life, Equality, Non-discrimination, Right to Health, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

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