Section 377 Referred to a Constitution Bench: Some Issues

In an order passed today, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice, referred the correctness of the judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation to a Constitution Bench. Because of the complex history of this case, some background is essential to understand the implications of today’s order. Recall that on December 11, 2013, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in Koushal, had upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises carnal intercourse against the order of nature. In doing so, the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 judgment of the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation vs NCT of Delhi, which had read down Section 377 and decriminalised consensual same sex relations between adults. Although the Supreme Court did not specify what constituted “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, its judgment was widely understood to recriminalise homosexuality in effect, if not in so many words.

Soon after the judgment in Koushal, a different two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered judgment in NALSA vs Union of India, where it upheld and affirmed the constitutional rights of transgender persons under Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. As I argued at the time, Koushal and NALSA rested on mutually irreconcilable foundations – the exact arguments that had been rejected in Koushal had been accepted in NALSA, and so, the only way out was to review the correctness of Koushal.

In the meantime, review petitions contesting the correctness of Koushal had been dismissed. Petitioners then took the last route open to them: they filed curative petitions. A curative petition is an extraordinary remedy developed by the Supreme Court in its 2002 judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra. It is basically a remedy of the last resort: even after a review is rejected, the Court may still reconsider its judgment in certain exceptional circumstances. Hurra set out the exceptional circumstances:

“… this Court, to prevent abuse of its process and to cure a gross miscarriage of justice, may re-consider its judgments in exercise of its inherent power. The next step is to specify the requirements to entertain such a curative petition under the inherent power of this Court so that floodgates are not opened for filing a second review petition as a matter of course in the guise of a curative petition under inherent power. It is common ground that except when very strong reasons exist, the Court should not entertain an application seeking reconsideration of an order of this Court which has become final on dismissal of a review petition. It is neither advisable nor possible to enumerate all the grounds on which such a petition may be entertained. Nevertheless, we think that a petitioner is entitled to relief ex debito justitiae if he establishes (1) violation of principles of natural justice in that he was not a party to the lis but the judgement adversely affected his interests or, if he was a party to the lis, he was not served with notice of the proceedings and the matter proceeded as if he had notice and (2) where in the proceedings a learned Judge failed to disclose his connection with the subject-matter or the parties giving scope for an apprehension of bias and the judgment adversely affects the petitioner… we are of the view that since the matter relates to re- examination of a final judgment of this Court, though on limited ground, the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench (as far as possible) which may pass appropriate orders.”

The rarity of the curative remedy is reflected by the fact that in the fifteen years since Hurra, only four curative petitions have been allowed. However, in 2014, Petitioners won a significant victory when the Court agreed to hear the Naz curative in “open court” – most curative petitions are dismissed by circulation in judges’ chambers.

The Naz curative was then listed for hearing on the 2nd of February, 2016, before the three senior-most judges at the time – Chief Justice Thakur, and Justices Dave and Khehar. After some oral argument, the Court passed the following order:

“All that we need say is that since the issues sought to be raised are of considerable importance and public interest and since some of the issues have constitutional dimensions including whether the Curative Petitions qualify for consideration of this Court in the light of the Judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra’s case (Supra), it will be more appropriate if these petitions are placed before a Constitution Bench comprising five Hon’ble Judges of this Court.”

In other words, all questions – including the question of whether the curative petition could be admitted for hearing – were to be decided by a five-judge bench.

Later that year, however, a fresh petition was filed challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377.  Navtej Johar vs Union of India was filed by five LGBT individuals as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution (and not a public interest litigation, like Naz Foundation was), alleging direct violation of fundamental rights. When this petition came before a two-judge bench of the Court on 29th June 2016, the Court passed the following order:

“The issue pertains to the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. We are informed that the Constitution Bench of this Court is hearing the issue. Post this matter before Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India for appropriate orders.”

Both the curative petitions and this petition then went into cold storage. In late August 2017, however, the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court handed down the famous “Privacy Judgment”. As we have discussed before, the a majority of judges in the privacy judgment directly held that sexual orientation was a facet of privacy, and very publicly doubted the correctness of Koushal. In his plurality, Justice Chandrachud observed:

…  we disagree with the manner in which Koushal has dealt with the privacy – dignity based claims of LGBT persons on this aspect. Since the challenge to Section 377 is pending consideration before a larger Bench of this Court, we would leave the constitutional validity to be decided in an appropriate proceeding.” (para 128)

While, therefore, judicial propriety and discipline prevented the nine-judge bench from overruling Koushal, there was little doubt that the bottom was entirely knocked out of that judgment – and it was only a question of when – not if – Koushal would be overruled.

It is in this context that we must understand today’s referral order. The order was made in the Navtej Johar petition, which had been filed after the initial curative hearing, and had not been tagged with the curative petitions. In the order, the Court observes the existence of the NALSA judgment, and also Puttaswamy. It then notes:

“… the said decision [Puttaswamy] did not deal with the constitutional validity of Section 377 IPC as the matter was pending before the larger Bench. The matter which was pending before the larger Bench is a Curative Petition which stands on a different footing.”

After noting that the issue of consensual same-sex relations “needs to be debated”, the Court concludes as follows:

“Taking all the aspects in a cumulative manner, we are of the view, the decision in Suresh Kumar Kaushal’s case (supra) requires re-consideration. As the question relates to constitutional issues, we think it appropriate to refer the matter to a larger Bench.”

A few questions arise from this. The first and most important is: what is status now? In Puttaswamy, the Court specifically declined to overrule Koushal on the basis that it was already being considered by a Constitution Bench. Today’s order effectively authorises the Chief Justice to set up a parallel Constitution Bench that will also consider Koushal. In that case, what happens to the curative proceedings? Today’s order observes that the curative proceedings “stand on a different footing”; that is, of course, true. The curative petitions have to be argued according to the very strict Hurra standard (see above), and cannot also invoke NALSA or Puttaswamy. A judgment asking for reconsideration of Koushal, however, is not bound by the Hurra standard.

That, however, leads to a conceptual problem: given that a curative petition in Koushal is pending and has been specifically referred to a Constitution Bench, clearly, Koushal is already under reconsideration. Or, to put it another way, the judgment in Koushal has not yet attained finality – it is subject to the outcome of the curative proceedings. From that perspective, today’s order appears to either mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is already being reconsidered (if you take the judgment itself as final), or to mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is not yet final (if you take the conclusion of curative proceedings as the point of finality).

The situation is further clouded when you consider the fact that – as the Court held in Hurra “the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench.”

In other words, the task of a curative bench, if the curative petition succeeds, is to send the matter back for a fresh hearing (and not to decide the case on merits itself). That is, if a curative petition succeeds, then the judgment under challenge is to be reconsidered.

But that is exactly what today’s order, in effect, achieves, when it says that “the decision in Suresh Kumar Koushal’s case requires reconsideration.” Or, in other words, today’s order effectively allows the curative petitions by a side-wind. Suddenly, the most difficult hurdle before the original petitioners – to meet the threshold requirements under Hurra – has been swept away.

The upshot, therefore, is this: the pending curative petitions have now been made effectively infructuous (by that I mean that while the curative petitions are still pending, and technically due to be heard, their subject matter – crossing the Hurra threshold – has effectively been decided separately now, so in substance, there is nothing that remains to be argued when they do come up for hearing). By virtue of today’s order, the issue of the constitutional validity of Section 377 is to be heard afresh, and the correctness of Koushal to be reviewed from scratch. There will of course be some procedural issues to untangle – the petitioners in the curative petitions will now have to either get those petitions tagged with Johar or file fresh intervention applications. The basic point, however, is that today’s order marks a very significant advance in the legal struggle against Section 377.

One last point: today’s order calls for a reconsideration of Koushal primarily by invoking the judgments in NALSA and PuttaswamyPuttaswamy, of course, was entirely about the right to privacy, and the relevant portion of NALSA cited by the Court also refers to privacy (in the context of Article 21). This should not result in the future Supreme Court hearing reviewing Koushal only on the grounds of privacy; Koushal‘s analysis of Articles 14 and 15 was every bit as wrong-headed as its “understanding” of Article 21. If the Court is now going to hear the case afresh, then it will, hopefully, rule not only on Article 21, but on issues of equality and non-discrimination as well.

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Filed under Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Decisional Autonomy, Equality, Privacy, Sex Equality, Sexuality

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