Supreme Court to ‘consider’ restricting free speech on grounds of ‘constitutional compassion’

Bar & Bench reports that in light of UP Minister Azam Khan’s statement that a gangrape was a ‘political controversy’, the Supreme Court has framed the following four “questions” for consideration:

“(i)When a victim files an F.I.R. alleging rape, gang rape or murder or such other heinous offences against another person or group of persons, whether any individual holding a public office or a person in authority or in-charge of governance, should be allowed to comment on the crime stating that “it is an outcome of political controversy”, more so, when as an individual, he has nothing to do with the offences in question?

(b) Should the “State”, the protector of citizens and responsible for law and order situation, allow these comments as they have the effect potentiality to create a distrust in the mind of the victim as regards the fair investigation and, in a way, the entire system?

(c) Whether the statements do come within the ambit and sweep of freedom of speech and expression or exceed the boundary that is not permissible?

(d) Whether such comments (which are not meant for self protection) defeat the concept of constitutional compassion and also conception of constitutional sensitivity?”

It has now become almost tedious to repeat that under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, the freedom of speech can only be restricted by a “law”; so where exactly the Supreme Court receives the power to censor speech of its own accord is unclear.

That said, the four “questions” are paradoxically broad and specific at the same time. Is the Supreme Court going to pass an order prohibiting the usage of the words “it is an outcome of political controversy” every time a “heinous offence” occurs? Or is it going to pass an order prohibiting comments that create a distrust in the mind of the victim regarding “the entire system“?

Secondly, what on earth is ‘constitutional compassion’, and where is it found under the eight sub-clauses of Article 19(2)? And yet, perhaps, the question is a little silly. There was no stricter obscenity threshold for ‘historically respectable personalities’ – but the Court invented it in Devidas Tuljapurkar. ‘Constitutional fraternity’ was never a ground for restricting speech under Article 19(2) – but the Court invented it in Subramanian Swamy to uphold criminal defamation. No doubt, in its wisdom, the Court can invent a ‘constitutional compassion’ standard as well.

What that does (and keeps doing) to the sanctity of the constitutional text and structure is another matter.

Haji Ali Dargah: Bombay High Court Upholds Women’s Right to Access the Inner Sanctum

In an important judgment delivered today, the Bombay High Court upheld the right of women to access the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah, and also held that, consequently, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust’s decision to exclude them was illegal and unconstitutional. Previously, on this blog, we discussed some of the legal and constitutional issues arising out of this case, concluding that there were good constitutional arguments in favour of the right of access.

Coming in at 56 pages, the Bombay High Court’s judgment is a crisp and lucid elucidation of the existing state of religious freedom jurisprudence under the Constitution, as well as application of that jurisprudence to the facts of this case. The Court began by recounting the three reasons provided by the Trust for barring women’s entry; first, that “women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the Mazaar, thus showing their breasts… [secondly] for the safety and security of women; and [thirdly] that earlier they [i.e., the Trust] were not aware of the provisions of Shariat and had made a mistake and therefore had taken steps to rectify the same.” (paragraph 5) It is this last reason that needed to be considered in the greatest detail, since it went directly to the heart of the Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees, granted to both individuals and to religious denominations.

In dealing with this submission, the Court considered the minutes of the meeting which had led to the Dargah Trust passing the Resolution to exclude women. Four reasons emerged out of the minutes, which overlapped with (but were not identical to) the three submissions made in Court; first, that the women being in close proximity to the grave of a saint was a “sin” in Islam; secondly, that the Trust had the fundamental right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion under Article 26 of the Constitution; thirdly, that it was in the interests of the safety and security of women; and fourthly, at no point were women allowed to come within the proximity of the dargah (paragraph 22) This last issue was quickly disposed off by the Court, since the record made it clear that until 2011 -12, women were, as a matter of fact, allowed into the inner sanctum (paragraph 23).

This brought the Court to the core argument, which was based upon the Trust’s interpretation of Islam. The Trust argued that the Quran and the Hadith prohibited proximity of women to the tomb of a male saint, that menstruating women were ‘unclean’, and that men and women had to be separated at holy places. To substantiate this argument, it placed verses from the Quran as well as the Hadith before the Court. The Court found, however, that none of these texts stated that the presence of women in proximity to the tomb of a saint was a “sin”, and nor did they support “the absolute proposition” for banning the entry of women into the inner sanctum because of the need for “segregation”. While the Petitioners had also produced verses from the Quran in support of gender equality, the Court held that there was no need to go into these, since the Trust, on its own terms, had failed to show that the entry of women into the inner sanctum was a sin under Islam (paragraph 26).

The Court then turned to the arguments under Article 25 (freedom of religion), and Article 26(b) of the Constitution – namely, that every religious denomination, or section, had the right to mange its own affairs in matters of religion. On Article 25, relying upon the long-standing religious freedom jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, the Court first invoked the “essential religious practices test” – i.e., was the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of a shrine an “essential” or “integral” part of Islam? According to the Court, the test for an “essential practice” was that it must  “constitute the very essence of that religion, and should be such, that if permitted, it will change its fundamental character” (paragraph 29). This being the case, the Court found that the Trust had failed to demonstrate that Islam did not permit the entry of women into Dargahs/Mosques, a claim that was further weakened, given that women had been allowed entry up until 2011 – 2012 (paragraph 31). Of course, the Trust argued that it was only after 2011 that its attention had been drawn to what the Sharia actually required; to this, the Court’s swift response was that the Trust had placed nothing on record to show what specific aspects of the Sharia had been drawn to the Trust’s attention that changed the position so drastically (paragraph 31).

The Court then turned to Article 26(b), which guaranteed to religious denominations the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. The Court first went into the history of the Trust itself, and its operations. It noted that the Haji Ali Dargah stood on public land, leased to the Trust by the Government; a scheme for managing the Trust was drawn up by a government-appointed commissioner in 1936; the role of the Trustees was to prepare books of account, conduct business, maintain the properties, and so on (paragraph 33). This enquiry was important, because under the Supreme Court’s Article 26(b) jurisprudence, especially insofar as it concerns the rights of trusts or maths, a distinction must be drawn between religious activities on the one hand, and secular activities bearing the trappings of religion on the other (unlike the essential practices test, this distinction is actually grounded in the Constitutional text – for instance, Article 25(2)(a), which permits State intervention into secular aspects of religious practice – as well as the Constituent Assembly Debates). Consequently, the Court found that:

“The aims, objects and activities of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust as set out in the Scheme are not governed by any custom, tradition/usage. The objects of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust are in respect of purely secular activities of a non-religious nature, such as giving loans, education, medical facilities, etc. Neither the objects nor the Scheme vest any power in the trustees to determine matters of religion, on the basis of which entry of woman is being restricted.”

It’s important to note here that unlike many other cases before it, the Court did not here get into the question of whether the exclusion of women from the dargah was a “religious” question or not. It simply held that the Trust was never authorised to deal with matters of religion, and that therefore, Article 26(b) was not even attracted in the first place. And there was a further reason why Article 26(b) could not apply:

“Admittedly, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust is a public charitable trust. It is open to people all over the world, irrespective of their caste, creed or sex, etc. Once a public character is attached to a place of worship, all the rigors of Articles 14, 15 and 25 would come into play and the respondent No. 2 Trust cannot justify its decision solely based on a misreading of Article 26. The respondent No. 2 Trust has no right to discriminate entry of women into a public place of worship under the guise of `managing the affairs of religion’ under Article 26 and as such, the State will have to ensure protection of rights of all its citizens guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution, including Articles 14 and 15, to protect against discrimination based on gender.” (paragraph 36)

In other words, the Dargah’s public character took it out of the protective scope of Article 26(b), and made it subject to Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution. This is a fascinating point, especially given the long history of temple-entry movements in India. Ever since the time of Ambedkar, temple-entry movements have framed the basic question as being about access to public spaces, a right that could not be curtailed on grounds of caste etc. In this case, the form of the Trust – as well as the fact that the Dargah was “open” to all – allowed the Court to hold that the question of access was of a “public” character, and therefore, impliedly, outside Article 26(b).

The Court then went on to hold, however, that even if it was attracted, Article 26(b) could not override other constitutional provisions:

“Infact, the right to manage the Trust cannot override the right to practice religion itself, as Article 26 cannot be seen to abridge or abrogate the right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.” (paragraph 36)

With respect, this might not be correct. It is, in fact, Article 25 of the Constitution that contains the prefatory term “Subject to other provisions of this Part…” This suggests that when the framers wanted to subordinate one provision of Part III to the others, they did so expressly. The omission of this phrase in Article 26 would suggest, therefore, that it is 25(1) that is subject to 26 (in case of a clash), and that, at the very least, more work must be done before holding that Article 26(b) is subject to Articles 14 and 15.

Lastly, the Court swiftly disposed off the ‘women’s security’ argument, holding that it was for the Dargah (as well as the State) to take effective steps to guarantee the security of women, instead of banning them outright (paragraph 37). It ordered, therefore, that status quo be restored, i.e. “women be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men.”

The reader will note, at this point, that a final step in the argument appears to be missing. Even after holding that the arguments of the Dargah, based on Articles 25 and 26 failed, on what legal or constitutional basis were the women enforcing their right of access against the Dargah? The Dargah was not, after all, a State body, and consequently, there could be no direct relief against it under Articles 14, 15, or 25. The Court didn’t address this question separately, but the answer is found back in paragraph 18:

“… the State cannot deprive its citizens of the constitutional rights guaranteed under Articles 14 and 15. It would then be the Constitutional responsibility of the State to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution are upheld. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees that `the State shall not deny any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the law within the territory of India’ and Article 15 guarantees `the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. The State would then be under a constitutional obligation to extent equal protection of law to the petitioners to the extent, that it will have to ensure that there is no gender discrimination.”

In other words, what the Court held was that under Part III, the State did not merely have a negative obligation not to infringe fundamental rights. Rather, it had a positive obligation to prevent a private party from infringing upon another private party’s fundamental rights (this, I argued before, was a move open to the Court in light of the Supreme Court judgments in Vishaka and Medha Kotwal Lele). In technical terms, this is called “indirect horizontality” (discussed previously here). If a private party is infringing my fundamental rights, I cannot move the Court directly against that private party, and ask the Court for relief against it; I must make the State a Respondent, and ask the Court to direct the State to take necessary action in order that I may vindicate my fundamental rights (by deploying police, security, or whatever else). And interestingly the petitioners in this case did make the State a party – in fact, the State was the First Respondent.

Let us now summarise the structure of the judgment:

  1. The Haji Ali Dargah Trust justified the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum on the basis of the freedom of religion (Article 25(1)), and the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in the matters of religion (Article 26(b).
  2. The Court rejected the Article 25(1) argument on the basis that the Trust had failed to place any material on record to demonstrate that the exclusion of women from dargahs was an “essential feature” of Islam. The Dargah’s claims were thrown further into doubt by the fact that women had been accessing the sanctum up until 2011 – 12.
  3. The Court rejected the Article 26(b) argument on the basis that:
    1. The Scheme of the Dargah Trust did not allow it to adjudicate upon religious matters. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
    2. The Dargah Trust was a public charitable trust, and the Dargah was a public space open to all. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
    3. Even if Article 26(b) was attracted, it was overriden by Articles 14, 15 and 25(1)
  4. The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of the Dargah violated their rights under Articles 14 (equality), 15(1) (non-discrimination) and 25(1) (freedom of religion).
  5. Consequently, insofar as the Dargah Trust was impeding the women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights, they were entitled to call upon the State to perform its positive obligations under Part III of the Constitution, and vindicate their rights by taking appropriate enforcement-oriented action.

By way of conclusion, let me make two points. On this blog, I have strongly opposed the “essential features” test as being a doctrinal, historical and philosophical mistake (see here), and proposed an alternative interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 (see here). If, however, there is to be a change, that change must be initiated by the Supreme Court, sitting in a bench of appropriate strength (at least seven judges). Whatever the Bench’s personal views on the essential religious practices test, sitting as the Bombay High Court, they had no choice but to follow and apply it. This they did. What is important to note, however, is that they applied it in a narrow, circumspect, and sensitive manner, and to the extent that they necessarily had to. They limited themselves to examining only the material placed on record by the Trust. Even though the Petitioners had placed on record material arguing that Islam mandated gender equality, the bench refused to make observations on that point, one way or another. Unlike far too many previous cases, they refrained from making grand, overarching claims about the religion before them. Given that the whole problem with the essential practices doctrine is that it allows judges to impose an external view upon the lived practices and traditions of the community, the Bombay High Court’s reticence in doing that must be applauded.

This brings me to the second, related point. Over the past few years, cases of this sort – which involve issues of fundamental rights, religion, and gender equality, among others, have seen much judicial grandstanding. There have been broad and sweeping statements, which do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, very little attention to the Constitution and to legal doctrine, and the privileging of rhetoric over reason. The Bombay High Court’s judgment is the exact opposite of all this. The bench decided the case on closely-reasoned legal grounds (as any court must) refused the obvious temptation of buccaneering into the political and religious thicket, and avoided doing anything more than was absolutely necessary for deciding the case. If we criticise the judiciary when it plays to the galleries, we must also praise it when it abstains from doing so. For that reason, apart from everything else, today’s judgment deserves much praise.




The BCCI Controversy, Public Functions and Cultural Goods, and the Return (?) of the Functional Test

Last month, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Board of Control for Cricket vs Cricket Association of Bihar. The Court accepted most of the recommendations of the Lodha Committee, which it had established through its previous order in the same case, in January 2015, and directed their implementation. These recommendations included extensive restructuring of the BCCI (e.g., age limits, conflicts of interest, and so on). Unsurprisingly, this has proven controversial. Markandey Katju, the BCCI’s ‘legal advisor’, has strongly criticised the judgment for violating the separation of powers, and also for contravening the Tamil Nadu Societies’ Registration Act (under which the BCCI is registered) by judicially altering the terms of association of a private society.

There are, however, two separate questions here. The first is whether the BCCI’s structure and functioning is subject to judicial review at all, and if so, on what basis and under which principles. The second is whether the kind of systematic overhaul recommended by the Lodha Committee ought to be implemented by the judiciary, or by Parliament (Katju’s separation of powers argument). The two questions are tangled up, because it is only after providing a principled basis (if any exists) justifying judicial intervention into the workings of a (technically) private society such as the BCCI, can we then ask whether the manner in which the Lodha Committee did it was justified or not. For this, we need to go back to the Supreme Court’s January 2015 order.

The facts that led up to the passing of that order are rather complex, but very briefly, allegations of match-fixing had dogged the Indian Premier League (IPL). In response, the BCCI constituted a probe panel. The Cricket Association of Bihar filed a writ petition against this in the High Court of Bombay, and also filed another writ praying for the removal of the BCCI President as well as the cancellation of the franchise of two IPL teams. And in yet another proceeding, the Association challenged Rule 6.2.4. of the BCCI Regulations, which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL. After the Bombay High Court passed various orders on these proceedings, the matter reached the Supreme Court. On 8th October 2013, ‘with the consent of the parties’, the Supreme Court constituted a ‘probe committee’ to look into the allegations of match-fixing. The Probe Committee returned damning findings against both players and officials. On 16th May 2014, the Supreme Court then constituted an investigation team to help the Probe Committee conduct an enquiry into the specific accusations. Its report was placed before the Court towards the end of 2014. The Supreme Court then framed seven questions, including whether allegations of match-fixing stood proven, the quantum and nature of punishment, the legality of Rule 6.2.4., and consequential orders.

Before the Court could do any of that, however, it had to work out the exact relationship between the judiciary and the BCCI, an ostensibly private body. Consequently, the first question that the Supreme Court framed was:

“Whether the Board of Cricket Control of India is ‘State’ within the meaning of Article 12 and if it is not, whether it is amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India?”

The Court’s discussion of this question is contained in paragraphs 20 – 30 of the judgment. Previously on this blog, we have discussed the history of the Supreme Court’s Article 12 jurisprudence. Very briefly, for a few decades, the Court fluctuated between a ‘functional test’ (i.e., looking to the functions a body is performing in order to determine whether it could be equated to ‘State’ under Article 12, and therefore subject to fundamental rights claims), and a ‘legal’ test (i.e., whether the legal form of the body can be equated with that of the State). In Pradeep Kumar Biswas, and then in Zee Telefilms, the Court finally – and decisively – adopted the legal test, holding that a body fell within Article 12 only if it was “functionally, financially or administratively” under the control of the State.

However, while the Supreme Court ultimately decided upon a narrow interpretation of Article 12, in a parallel set of cases, it began to develop a jurisprudence around ‘private bodies dealing with public functions’. The genesis of this was Justice Mohan’s concurring opinion in Unnikrishnan, where he held that educational institutions discharged a public duty, which require them to “act fairly“. This approach saw its culmination in the Zee Telefilms Case – which, as a matter of fact, was about the Article 12 status of the BCCI (!). After holding that the BCCI was not State under Article 12, on an application of the control test, the Court then went on to observe that ““it cannot be denied that the Board does discharge some duties like the selection of an Indian cricket team, controlling the activities of the players and others involved in the game of cricket. These activities can be said to be akin to public duties or State functions and if there is any violation of any constitutional or statutory obligation or rights of other citizens, the aggrieved party may not have a relief by way of a petition under Article 32. But that does not mean that the violator of such right would go scot-free merely because it or he is not a State. Under the Indian jurisprudence there is always a just remedy for violation of a right of a citizen. Though the remedy under Article 32 is not available, an aggrieved party can always seek a remedy under the ordinary course of law or by way of a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution which is much wider than Article 32.”

A private body discharging public functions, therefore, could be subject to the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under Article 226, for the vindication of the rights of citizens (for a discussion of what exactly this might mean, see the comments to this post).

Let us come back to the BCCI judgment. From paragraph 20 to 29, Thakur CJI recounted the judicial history of Article 12, with its culmination in Zee Telefilms. In paragraph 30, he explained why, in his view, the BCCI was performing a ‘public function’. The reasons can be broadly summarised as follows:

  • The BCCI had complete control over the game of cricket in India (including control over the careers of players)
  • The BCCI’s activities were of considerable financial scope (infrastructure, expenditure on coaches, pension schemes, selling broadcast and telecast rights)
  • The BCCI was exercising these functions with the “tacit concurrence” of the government, which had chosen not pass any law diluting the BCCI’s monopoly.

For this reasons, Thakur CJI held that the BCCI would be subject to “the standards generally applicable to judicial review of State action.” Later in the judgment, he noted that the setting up of the Probe Committee “was issued in exercise of appellate powers vested in this Court in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution” – thus linking the Court’s actions to the public function test, via Article 226.

After an extensive discussion of the match-fixing itself (which need not concern us here), the Court moved on to the validity of Rule 6.2.4., which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL and other T20 tournaments. Note that, technically, Rule 6.2.4. was an internal regulation of a private society, something that the Court had repeatedly held was (more or less) beyond judicial scrutiny (see, e.g., Zoroastrian Cooperative and other cases). In paragraph 69, this was Thakur CJI’s response:

We have, while dealing with question No.1 above, held that BCCI is amenable to writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution as it discharges “Public Functions”. The natural corollary flowing from that finding is that all actions which BCCI takes while discharging such public functions are open to scrutiny by the Courts in exercise of their powers under Article 226 of the Constitution. It also implies that such actions shall when under scrutiny be judged by the standards and on principles that govern similar actions when taken by the State or its instrumentalities. The approach which a Court exercising powers of judicial review of administrative action adopts will remain the same irrespective of whether the action under review is taken by the State or its instrumentality or by any non statutory non government organisation like the BCCI in the case at hand. It follows that Rule 6.2.4 will be subject to the same tests and standards as would apply to any similar provision emanating from a statute or the general executive power of the State.”

There is, however, a crucial elision in the two underlined portions. In the first, the Court made the (uncontroversial) claim that when adjudicating upon the performance of a public function, it would exercise its jurisdiction following principles of judicial review of administrative action (that is, the Wednesbury standards, or one of its variants, most of which are marked, to different degrees, by judicial deference). However, at the end of the paragraph, the Court equated judicial review of Rule 6.2.4. to that of a statute, or executive action. This, however, is an entirely different standard altogether. When considering a challenge to a statute or to an executive act, the Court, far from employing standards governing judicial review of administrative action, tests the statute for compliance with legislative competence, and with Part III. In other words, if Rule 6.2.4. is akin to a statute, then Part III would apply to it directly, in the same manner as if the BCCI was State under Article 12 – which, as we have already seen, it is not.

The waters were further muddied in paragraph 73, when Thakur CJI noted that “in the light of the Articles of Association, we find no infirmity in the amendment to Rule 6.2.4 in so far as the legislative competence (if we may use that expression) of the authority that brought about the amendment is concerned.” Surely, this usage is not innocuous!

Subsequently, considering Rule 6.2.4. on its merits, the Court invalidated it on two grounds: first, that in allowing a man to be a judge in his own cause, it violated principles of natural justice, noting specifically that “the significance of the principles of natural justice visa-vis Article 14 of the Constitution is no longer res integra. The principles have been held to be a part and parcel of the guarantee contained in Article 14.” Secondly, it struck the Rule down on grounds of public policy, holding that it defeated the “high ideals of fairness and objectivity in the discharge of public functions.”

Bracketing out the second argument for the moment, if we read paragraph 69 alongside the Court’s examination of Rule 6.2.4., then I would suggest that it is at least strongly arguable that the Court held that private bodies performing public functions are directly subject to Part III of the Constitution. It treated the BCCI’s internal regulations as a statute, and then applied Article 14 to it. This would seem to mark a return of the functional test through the back door, with the rider that since private bodies performing public functions are (technically) not ‘State’, you cannot go straight to the Supreme Court under Article 32, but must first go to the High Court under Article 226.

Such a position (I would submit) requires a close and careful definition of what, precisely, constitutes a ‘public function’. It is here that the Court’s analysis is not entirely satisfactory. The three reasons – complete control over cricket, large-scale financial stakes, and State concurrence – are indicative of public functions, but they are surely not determinative. Without any examination of what it is about cricket that makes a monopoly over it public in nature, or that gives financial transactions a public character, the analysis is incomplete; and the State concurrence point could be applied to any other field of work as well, where there is no existing statute.

In a recent article, Suhrith Parthasarathy provides an important justification. He writes that “in India, where cricket plays such a pervasive role, the sport would therefore have to necessarily be seen as a primary cultural good, one which, to borrow from another American, the philosopher John Rawls, is critical to the fulfilment of a person’s conception of a good life.” As Rawls (and many other scholars) have noted, human beings need access to a basic set of goods to be able to lead a dignified and full life. At a basic level these include access to food, shelter, and so on, but at a more abstract level, they also include intangible goods such as cultural and social membership. Communal participation in events such as popular sports constitute an important manner in which people establish meaning in their lives. Consequently, bodies that act as gatekeepers of access to cultural goods must be deemed to be performing public functions.

The access-to-basic-goods approach, I would suggest, ought to be the blueprint upon which the Supreme Court builds its private-bodies-public-functions approach. Arguably, we claim and enforce fundamental rights against the State primarily because of the power that it exercises over us, a power that gives it the ability to control access to the most basic human goods (such as life). Similarly, when non-State bodies wield and exercise such power (including power over cultural goods), then the too must be subjected to similar standards. Note that the kind of standards to which it would be subjected to would have to have a relevant link to the question of access (for instance, if a private body controlled the entire water supply of a community, we would impose standards of Article 15 non-discrimination upon it as far as distribution of water went; but would we also directly, and in the absence of a statute, impose the same standards upon its hiring policies?)

All this, of course, is independent of what the Supreme Court actually did, finally, which was to impose a whole new structure upon the BCCI through the Lodha Committee Report. I do not claim here that the access/public functions argument justifies such intervention (in fact, I do not think that it does). It is one thing to say that the BCCI is subject to public law or Part III standards, and quite another for an external authority to so fundamentally transform it. The debate on this second aspect will continue; on the first, however, the BCCI judgment provides us with an important platform upon which to further think through issues of public functions and public standards; and – arguably – it sets a precedent for applying Part III of the Constitution directly to private bodies performing public functions.

Notes from a Foreign Field: The Supreme Court of Belize Strikes Down its Anti-LGBT Law

Two days ago, in Caleb Oroczo vs The Attorney-General of Belize, the Supreme Court of Belize struck down Section 53 of the country’s Criminal Code, which penalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The Supreme Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, and non-discrimination. The judgment stands out for the brevity of its reasoning, its close attention to evidence of LGBT discrimination, and its humanity, three qualities which, experience has taught us, cannot be taken for granted in cases of this kind.

The Court began its scrutiny of the Section by a quick foray into the history of anti-sodomy laws. In paragraph 9, it observes that the antecedent of sodomy laws in the Caribbean was Section 377 of the colonial Indian Penal Code, brought into force in 1860. The Belize Criminal Code of 1888 penalised “unnatural carnal knowledge”, but only if it was non-consensual. By an amendment of 1944, the requirement of non-consent was removed, and the Section was given its present form.

The Court then went into the question of the interpretation of Section 53. Before the Supreme Court, a number of Churches had also impleaded themselves in support of the Section. These Churches argued that Section 53 did not only apply to homosexuals, but also covered anal sex as well as oral sex between men and women. On a consideration of the evidence, however, the Court found that Section 53 had been primarily used to target male homosexuals, and therefore, despite its ostensibly gender-neutral language, was unevenly applied to men.

The Claimant before the Court was a homosexual man. From paragraphs 27 to 33, the Court considered his evidence, extracting two paragraphs from it to demonstrate “constant harassment, mocking and stigmatisation”, as well as taking note of the fact that he had been subjected to abuse and threats of violence on multiple occasions. The Court also recorded his evidence to the effect that members of the LGBT community often shun tests for HIV/AIDS because of the stigma involved, as well as the threat of criminal prosecution. This evidence was buttressed by formal reports that had reached the same conclusion, as well as UNIBAM, an NGO representing LGBT persons.

After considering the Claimant’s personal evidence, the Court then took notice of expert reports by psychiatrists, which pointed out that homosexuality is not a mental disorder (it was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders), and that “conversion therapy” was damaging and dangerous. It also took notice of a report filed by Executive Director of the Belize Family Life Association, which showed that criminalisation had the effect of driving LGBT people underground, and was consequently a threat to their health (paragraph 38). This was corroborated by two other expert reports.

With the help of this evidence, the Court was able to find that the Claimant had locus standi to pursue this case, since by engaging in same-sex intercourse, he ran the “perpetual risk” of being charged and prosecuted under Section 53. The Court also swiftly disposed off another preliminary objection, based upon the separation of powers. Rejecting the argument that this was an issue best left to the Parliament, the Court clarified that “the Supreme Court is the designated guardian of the rights conferred under the Constitution. It cannot shirk from such responsibility by by asserting that any change to legislation is a matter best left to the legislature. To do so would be to act in defiance of the mandate of the Constitution itself.” (paragraph 53) The Court also addressed the issue of strong religious sentiments against homosexuality, noting that “[while] the respect and influence of the Churches in Belize cannot be ignored… Belize is a secular state that with a written Constitution that provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” (paragraph 56)

With these preliminary objections out of the way, the Court proceeded to consider the merits of the argument. Starting with the right to dignity, it adopted the language of the Canadian Supreme Court in understanding dignity as being about “self-respect” and “self-worth” (paragraph 63). Evidence of stigmatisation had already been placed on record earlier, and in light of this, the Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional right to dignity (paragraph 67). The Court made a similar finding with respect to the right to privacy which, it held “emanated” from the right to dignity (paragraph 68). Under the Constitution of Belize, the right to privacy could be curtailed under certain circumstances, one of which was public morality. The State argued that Section 53 legitimately curtailed the right to privacy on the basis of public morality. However, this argument was rejected by the Court, on the basis that it was “a bald assertion not supported by any evidence.” (paragraph 69) The Churches also raised “public health” as a ground, citing a study about the Belize Central Prison that had found that men having sex with men (MSM) led to a higher risk of HIV-AIDS. However, on considering the balance of evidence, the Court held that there was enough professional scientific material on record (referred to above) that demonstrated the opposite. It therefore rejected the public health argument on grounds of evidence as well (paragraph 73). Finally, the Court considered the public morality argument made by the Churches, who claimed, in detailed affidavits, that homosexuality went against the moral sentiments of the majority of the people of Belize. In paragraph 81, the Court rejected this argument in the following terms:

There can be no doubt that the Reverend gentlemen deposed to views that that they sincerely and conscientiously hold, and that are representative of a majority of the Christian community and perhaps of the population of Belize. However, from the perspective of legal principle, the Court cannot act upon prevailing majority views or what is popularly accepted as moral. The evidence may be supportive but this does not satisfy the justification of public morality. There must be demonstrated that some harm will be caused should the proscribed conduct be rendered unregulated. No evidence has been presented as to the real likelihood of such harm. The duty of the Court is to apply the provisions of the Constitution.”

In other words, the Court rejected the notion of a free-standing, pure “moral harm”, contained solely in hurt feelings or outraged sentiments. Mere moral outrage could not be a sufficient ground for restricting basic rights, unless an accompanying harm could be demonstrated. Although the Court did not elaborate upon what it understood the term “harm” to mean, it was clear about what it did not mean.

Lastly, the Court held that Section 53 violated the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sex. Citing the famous Toonen vs Australia, that had interpreted “sex” in the non-discrimination clause of the ICCPR to include “sexual orientation”. The Court held that since Belize had ratified the ICCPR, it was bound by the authoritative interpretation of that instrument by the UN Human Rights Committee (paragraph 94). Consequently, “sex” under the non-discrimination clause of the Belize Constitution included “sexual orientation”, and Section 53 was therefore unconstitutional. As I have argued before, there are two ways of understanding this contention: one (which I find unconvincing) is that sexual orientation is an “analogous” ground to “sex”, and is therefore read into a non-discrimination clause as a separate right altogether. This seems to me to be textually insupportable. However, the other way of understanding this is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has its origins in sex: it is precisely the non-conformity to sexual roles that open up LGBT persons to legal and social persecution. Consequently (as has been argued by certain American scholars), discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation should be considered as part and parcel of sexual discrimination, since both are caused by the same set of underlying stereotypes.

Having found multiple constitutional violations, the Court then finished by reading down Section 53, stipulating that “this section shall not apply to consensual sexual acts between adults in private” (paragraph 99).

At 38 pages, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Belize is a model of crisp, lucid, and tightly-reasoned legal prose. There are a few salient features that I would like to quickly recap (and attentive readers will note that the structure of reasoning is virtually a mirror image of the judgments of other constitutional courts that have upheld sodomy laws as constitutional):

  • Although the language of the section is ostensibly gender neutral, the Court holds that it admits of uneven application, and has indeed been unequally applied; consequently, it gives rise to a constitutional cause of action
  • The Court rejects the argument that this is a matter best considered by Parliament, reasoning that its constitutional mandate is to uphold fundamental rights
  • The Court rejects justifications based purely on grounds of religion, on the basis that the Constitution commits the nation of Belize to being a secular polity. In other words, religious justifications for curtailing fundamental rights do not count as constitutionally admissible reasons
  • After the claimant has demonstrated prima facie infringement of his rights, the Court places the burden of justifying the curtailment upon the State. It engages with the evidence on record (especially with respect to the medical evidence), and finds that on its own terms, the State has failed to discharge the evidentiary burden upon it
  • In considering the public morality argument, the Court refuses to constitutionalise hurt moral sentiments, and insists upon demonstration of actual harm
  • The Court engages throughout with comparative constitutional jurisprudence in order to determine the meanings of fraught terms such as “dignity”.

In terms of legal clarity, intellectual rigour, and of course, in terms of humaneness, sensitivity, and empathy in dealing with the so-called rights of the minuscule minority, one probably could not ask for more. The Supreme Court of Belize has joined numerous other judiciaries in upholding one of the most basic human rights that there is. One can only hope that other constitutional courts will eventually follow it.

Guest Post: On the Supreme Court’s Encounter Killings Judgment

(In this post, Anupama Kumar, a practicing advocate based in Chennai, raises some questions about the recent Supreme Court order on alleged extra-judicial killings in the state of Manipur)

Recently, the Supreme Court passed an order in Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association vs Union of India [“EEVFAM”]. The petitioners, the Extra-judicial Execution Victims’ Families Association of Manipur, had compiled a list of “encounter killings” that had been carried out by the armed forces in Manipur. The short point before the Court related to the establishment of a Special Investigation Team to inquire into these killings. In this order, the Court made no observations on the formation of this SIT, but concluded that the petitioners did indeed have a “right to know” the truth under Article 21. As a result, while an inquiry can be carried out into the killings, the question of who is to carry it out remains open. The Court then examined the question of whether the Army enjoyed impunity for encounter killings under the AFSPA. I submit that this analysis of the powers of the Army under AFSPA remains unsatisfactory, and I explore this in greater detail below.

Lokur J began by analysing the scope of Entry I, List II (“public order”) in relation to Entry 2A, List I (“Deployment of any armed force of the Union or any other force subject to the control of the Union or any contingent or unit thereof in any State in aid of the civil power; powers, jurisdiction, privileges and liabilities of the members of such forces while on such deployment.”). He reasoned that the two entries used the term “internal disturbance,” which is also found in Article 355 of the Constitution. Lokur J noted that, while the term “armed rebellion” had been substituted for “internal disturbance” in Article 352, it continued to be used in Article 355. He further noted that the implication of this has been examined in Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights by four judges as follows:

“The expression `internal disturbance’ has a wider connotation than `armed rebellion’ in the sense that `armed rebellion’ is likely to pose a threat to the security of the county or a part thereof, while `internal disturbance’, thought serious in nature, would not pose a threat to the security of the country or a part thereof. The intention underlying the substitution of the word `internal disturbance’ by the word `armed rebellion’ in Article 352 is to limit the invocation of the emergency powers under Article 352 only to more serious situations where there is a threat to the security of the country or a part thereof on account of war or external aggression or armed rebellion and to exclude the invocation of emergency powers in situations of internal disturbance which are of lesser gravity . This has been done because a proclamation of emergency under Article 352 has serious implications having effect on the executive as well as the legislative powers of the States as well as the Union.

The provisions of the Central Act have been enacted to enable the Central Government to discharge the obligation imposed on it under Article 355 of the Constitution and to prevent the situation arising due to internal disturbance assuming such seriousness as to require invoking the drastic provisions of Article 356 of the Constitution. The Central Act does not confer of the Union the executive and legislative powers of the States in respect of which a declaration has been made under Section 3. It only enables the personnel of armed forces of the Union to exercise the power conferred under Section 4 in the event of a notification declaring an area to be a disturbed area being issued under Section 3. Having regard to the powers that are conferred under Section 4, we are unable to appreciate how the enactment of the Central Act can be equated with the exercise of the power under Article 356 of the Constitution.”

The Court, in that case, then went on to conclude that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was constitutional, to the extent  that the Union forces were to be used in aid of civil power.

The expression “internal disturbance” was then considered by three judges of the Supreme Court in Sarbananda Sonowal, which arrived at a curious test for what might amount to “external aggression.”  The Court in that case considered the constitutionality of the IMDT Act, and the alleged failure of the Union to stop large scale migration into Assam from Bangladesh. In concluding that even non-violent migration could amount to “external aggression.” In doing so, the court did not rely on the text of the Constitution, but on a speech made by Dr. Nagendra Singh at the United Nations, with respect to the influx of refugees into India from erstwhile East Pakistan.

Admittedly, the Court in EEVFAM was bound by decisions of higher benches in both Sarbananda Sonowal and Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights. However, these decisions raise the larger issue of the fact that there is no clarity with respect to when Union forces can be deployed, and what the role of the Union is in such cases.

A similar confusion exists with respect to the scope of the word “war”. The Court concluded that there was no material on record to show that the situation in Manipur had escalated into a war, and that in any case, there had been no declaration by the Union to this effect. (Paras 110-118). In doing so, the Court distinguished the case at hand from Navjot Sandhu, on the grounds that “war” required the presence of an animus to strike against the sovereignty of the Indian State. On fact, the attack in question was to the Parliament, i.e., to the very heart of Indian democracy. In sum:

Therefore, animus to wage a war or any other similar activity is important before a non-conventional war or war-like situation can be said to exist. Every act of violence, even though it may be directed against the armed forces or public officials would not lead to an inference that a war is going on or that war-like conditions are prevailing. Similarly, sporadic but organized killings by militants and ambushes would not lead to a conclusion of the existence of a war or war-like conditions. Were such a blanket proposition accepted, it would reflect poorly on our armed forces that they are unable to effectively tackle a war-like situation for the last almost six decades. It would also reflect poorly on the Union of India that it is unable to resort to available constitutional provisions and measures to bring a war-like situation under control for almost six decades. We cannot be expected to cast or even countenance any such aspersions on our armed forces or the Union of India. All that we can and do say is that in such a situation, our Constitution recognises only an internal disturbance, which is what the situation in Manipur is and that ought to be dealt with by the civil administration with the services of the armed forces that are available in aid of the civil power.

 Such reasoning raises several concerns. First, the decision in Navjot Sandhu  did not refer to the term “war” in Article 352, or anywhere in the Constitution, but to s. 121 of the IPC, i.e., waging war against the State. Second, in any event, the scope of s. 121 was also discussed in Kasab, where the attack was on privately owned structures in India. In that case, the Court found that the ingredients of s. 121 had been satisfied, as the attack was “against Indians,” “by foreigners”  and with the intention of creating “internal strife and insurgency.” However, in this case, Lokur J had noted that there had been insurgency in Manipur, and that the perpetrators were plainly terrorists. It therefore appears that, third, the Court’s conclusion that this was not a situation of “war” or “armed rebellion” was arrived at simply because any other result would be unpalatable.

It is noted that the question of when Central forces may be deployed within India has been examined by both the Sarkaria and Puncchi commissions on centre-state relations. In both cases, the Commissions concluded that the deployment of the Union forces should only take place in the rarest of cases, and that the deployment should be for the shortest period possible. The Puncchi Commission went as far as to suggest an amendment to Article 355, in order to clarify the proper scope of the powers of the Union. However, until these steps are taking, several questions continue to be left open. What is the scope of Entry 2A, List I, and to what extent can the Centre act independently of the States? When can the Union classify a situation as being serious enough to require classification as not simply “public disorder,” but “internal disturbance” or indeed, “armed rebellion,” of a nature that would require the invocation of Emergency under Article 352? How should the government now classify movements such as the Naxalite movement in Central India, or the movement for independence of Kashmir, and which of these would call for the deployment of Central forces not “in aid of civil power.”? And where the civil power is unable, or unwilling to restore order – as noted by the Court here – what is the correct scope of the powers of the Union?

Words, words, words

‘Words have a limited range of meaning; and no interpretation that goes beyond that range is permissible.’ 

Words can never attain precision since they are as intrinsically dynamic as they are inexact. T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton eloquently stated: . . . Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still . . . .’

ICLP Turns Three :: Thoughts on Legal Scholarship and Access to Courts

The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog turns three years old today. In its first year, I wrote this blog from the splendid isolation of a foreign country. Over the last two years, however, I have written it from the vantage point of a practicing lawyer, embedded within the legal system. The purpose of this blog has always been to contribute towards building a constitutional culture, and to initiate and participate in constitutional conversations. My time back in India has revealed to me several structural barriers standing in the way of this goal. This time last year, I wrote about academia’s abandonment of serious doctrinal scholarship, and how that is at least partially responsible for the breakdown of communication between the bar/bench and the academy. This time, I want to focus on access.

The Supreme Court has often spoken of our open and transparent justice system, something which is central to a well-functioning democratic republic. It stands to reason that constitutional conversations can only take place in an environment where the legal system is accessible. In that sense, the default language of the Courts (English) already excludes a very significant segment of our country’s citizens. Without minimising the seriousness of that issue, however (and its far too layered a problem to discuss in a blog post), here I want to highlight two very specific problems of access.

The first is physical access. To enter the Supreme Court, an ordinary person (who is neither a lawyer, nor a litigant) needs to have a pass that is signed off by an Advocate-on-Record (and the pass is issued only for one courtroom). This seems to me to be a complete negation of the principles of open justice. Why have a small group of lawyers been made the gatekeepers of the highest court in the country? Why cannot a citizen of the country get up one morning, and say to himself, “let me see how the Supreme Court dispenses justice“, and proceed to the Supreme Court to observe matters being argued (like you can do in the UK and the US)? If open justice is to mean anything, then surely it means that physical access to the Supreme Court ought to be a matter of right, and not a matter of whether I know an Advocate-on-Record.

An immediate objection to what I have just said is to point out the problem of overcrowding. This is admittedly a problem, but it is a problem that can be resolved in ways that do not involve this kind of iniquitous exclusions. The US Supreme Court, for instance, follows a first-come-first-serve pass-issuance system, and on the days of big-ticket cases, people queue up from early in the morning. Why can’t the Supreme Court do the same? If the further issue is the number of matters heard by each bench during the course of the day, then there are other ways (once again) of solving that; for instance, recently, someone suggested that each day’s cause list be divided into two, with the first half (to the extent possible) being heard in the morning, and the second half being heard in the afternoon. This suggestion was made in the context of preventing lawyers’ overcrowding, but is equally applicable to issuing passes (e.g., issue separate passes for the morning and the afternoon session).

There is, of course, the simplest solution: live video streaming of courtroom proceedings, on a dedicated Supreme Court online channel, as well as published transcripts of hearings. The courts have always been resistant to this proposal, however, and it seems a very long way away.

I fully accept that resolving the overcrowding-access issue is not an easy task. But surely the present system is makes the problem worse. It is a matter of some surprise to me how much this system has been internalised: I have never heard a judge or a senior counsel mention it as a problem that needs to be solved. If you take a step back and think about it, it seems (at least to me) obvious that – to repeat – making a small group of lawyers gatekeepers of the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land, the embodiment of the republic’s justice system, is really at odds with the ideals of the Constitution.

Physical access is one side of the problem. The other side is lack of access to court documents. At this point, as a general rule, all we have access to is the final judgment of the Court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has taken to recording the submissions of counsel in great detail (part of the reason for the increasing length of judgments), but this is not adequate. Judgments often fail to record submissions, or mis-record them. I have examples of both. The recent criminal defamation judgment, for instance, ignored several crucial legal arguments against the constitutionality of criminal defamation (its history as a public order offence and the inconsistency between the civil/criminal standards, to name just two). And during the hearings in the NJAC case, Mr Arvind Datar argued that Article 124C of the 99th Amendment violated the basic structure by converting a constituent power into a legislative power. This submission is recorded in the leading opinion, but in a manner that the core of the argument appears as something else entirely. However, even with the best will in the world, and with neither error nor avoidance, if a case is a conversation between the bench and the bar, what we have right now is a monologue that makes a feeble pretence at a conversation. Counsels’ submissions are, ultimately, only refracted through the lens of the judge’s understanding.

Compare this with the American SCOTUSBlog, for instance (and other linked sites), through which you can access briefs of the parties. And it makes a difference. Recently, while researching on some judgments delivered by the South African Constitutional Court, I also read the “Heads of Argument” submitted by counsel for the petitioners and the respondents. It immediately enriched my understanding of the case: I could see where both sides were coming from, how the Court responded to them, what arguments it found persuasive, and which it didn’t engage with.

The situation has improved somewhat in this past year, with the advent of websites such as LiveLaw, which have, on occasion, made petitions available in soft copy. It is nowhere near satisfactory, though. And in the absence of access to written briefs, it is scarcely surprising that reporting on Supreme Court proceedings is so problematic, and so inaccurate. I am not blaming the media here – in fact, it has happened to me as well. I once happened to be in Court during the hearing of an interesting case. I took notes, came back, and blogged about it. My notes turned out to be full of errors, and I had to hurriedly take down the post, with some degree of embarrassment. But what else do you expect? There will invariably be a lot that is lost in translation. Once again, you could remedy this with transcripts and/or video recordings. But with neither that option on the table, nor access to written documents, the conversation that we are having around our courts (and not just in constitutional cases) is, and will remain, severely impoverished.

Furthermore, it is not simply a matter of access. It is also a matter of democratisation. Presently, almost all constitutional matters are argued by a very small pool of senior counsel. I don’t want to get into the reasons for that here, but the conversation surely needs to be taken beyond twenty lawyers speaking to thirty judges.

Once again, there is a simple solution. Make the petitions available online, after they are filed in court. They are, after all, public documents. We shouldn’t need to file an inspection slip in the Supreme Court for an hour-long glimpse at the file (something only that lawyers engaged on the brief can do in any case). And after written submissions are handed over in court, and become part of the record, make them available online as well. Let us see what was argued. And let us also see how the Court chose to respond to those arguments, how it engaged – or didn’t engage – with them.

It is probably too much to expect an overburdened Registry to do this. However, it could be very easily done by briefing counsel and senior counsel chambers. They could put up their submissions online on Google Drive, or on Scribd, or on any other platform where it can be accessed and downloaded. For my part, I have created a new page on this blog called “Court Documents”, and I invite lawyers working on constitutional cases (if any of them comes across this post!) to send me links to soft copies of their submissions, after they have been filed in court (my email address is on the “About” page). I hope that, by this time next year, that webpage will not be as desolate as it is now, at the moment of its birth.

In many ways, it has been a deeply frustrating year for Indian constitutionalism (as was the last year, and the year before that, for that matter). But it remains, as ever, a pleasure and a privilege to think and write about the Constitution on a regular basis, and as ever, I remain deeply grateful to readers, commentators (both on the blog and through email), and of course, to the guest posters that I have hounded relentlessly, for helping me build the conversation. May it continue and get better.