Round-Up: Constitution Bench Judgments on Assisted Dying and Parliamentary Standing Committee Reports

Ever since the present Chief Justice assumed office, he has been presiding over what is effectively a permanent Constitution Bench, that has been hearing – and is scheduled to hear – a total of thirteen cases. In the first half of the year, the Bench handed down two judgments that have constitutional implications. The first was Common Cause v Union of India (now better known as the “passive euthanasia” case) and the second one was Kalpana Mehta v Union of India (the “parliamentary standing committees” case).

I do not think that either of these cases require a granular examination; the questions before the Court were broad, and were answered in broad terms. I shall briefly summarise the holdings, but before I do so, I think it is important to note, in passing, that Common Cause clocks in at 538 pages, and Kalpana Mehta at 338 pages. The length of both these judgments could be significantly shortened if the Chief Justice resisted the temptation of spending reams of pages philosophising about life and death in the first case, and about democracy in the second case. They could also be significantly shortened if the judges – none of whom dissented in either case – resisted the temptation of writing 100+-page concurring opinions (Common Cause has four separate opinions, Kalpana Mehta three).

For example, in Common Cause, Justice A.K.. Sikri wrote:

“My purpose is not to add my ink to the erudite opinion expressed in otherwise eloquent opinions penned by my learned brothers. At the same time, having regard to the importance of the issue involved, I am provoked to express my own few thoughts, in my own way, which I express hereinafter.” (paragraph 8)

It is respectfully submitted that the eminently laudable purpose of not adding ink is best served by, well, not adding ink. The provocation to express one’s own thoughts in one’s own way is an understandable one, but judges are, after all, meant to be made of stuff stern enough to recognise and avoid such provocations. This is not to say that the concurrences shouldn’t exist – for example, in Common Cause, Chandrachud J. has a significant disagreement with the other judges on the issue of causation, a disagreement that can be expressed only through an opinion that concurs in the result, but sets out its own separate reasoning. That apart, however, in both these cases, the five judges agree on almost everything. In such circumstances, a single opinion of the Court would make everyone’s life much easier.

In Common Cause, the Constitution Bench unanimously held that passive euthanasia was legal, grounded in the “right to die with dignity” under Article 21 of the Constitution, and ancillary concepts, such as the freedom of choice (to refuse medical treatment), personal autonomy, bodily integrity. The Court only legalised passive euthanasia (that is, to put it simply, the removal of life-supporting machinery from a terminally ill patient), not active euthanasia (mercy killing) or suicide. Following the Vishaka model, the Chief Justice laid down detailed guidelines (which immediately proved controversial) to facilitate the right through the mechanism of “Advance Directives”, and to prevent abuse.

There are perhaps two interesting jurisprudential points that emerge from the judgment. Four of the five judges grounded the distinction between “active” and “passive” euthanasia in the philosophical distinction between acts and omissions:

In case when the death of a patient occurs due to removal of life-supporting measures, the patient dies due to an underlying fatal disease without any intervening act on the part of the doctor or medical practitioner, whereas in the cases coming within the purview of active euthanasia, for example, when the patient ingests lethal medication, he is killed by that medication. (Opinion of the Chief Justice, para 46)

Justice Chandrachud – in my view, correctly – recognised the incoherence of this distinction, especially in the context of something like euthanasia. As he observed:

Against the background of the duty to care, the moral and legal status of not saving a life due to failure to provide treatment, can be the same as actively taking that life.A doctor who knowingly allows a patient who could be saved to bleed to death might be accused of murder and medical negligence. The nature of the doctor-patient relationship which is founded on the doctor’s duty of care towards the patient necessitates that omissions on the doctor’s part will also be penalised. When doctors take off life support, they can foresee that death will be the outcome even though the timing of the death cannot be determined. Thus, what must be deemed to be morally and legally important must not be the emotionally appealing distinction between omission and commission but the justifiability or otherwise of the clinical outcome. Indeed, the distinction between omission and commission may be of little value in some healthcare settings. (paragraph 40)

I’m not quite sure how this split in the approaches towards the act/omission distinction will play out in future cases, but – for obviously reasons – it seems to me that Justice Chandrachud’s approach – which detaches justification from the analytical classification of an event into an act or an omission – is far sounder (later on in his judgment, he – again, correctly in my view – recognises that the distinction is nevertheless maintained in the penal law, and therefore, active euthanasia can only be legalised by the legislature (para 93); and then, still later – this time, wrongly, in my view – links it to mens rea (para 98)).

The second interesting feature that I want to highlight is a little more abstract. When you pare it down to essentials, Common Cause was about a right of refusal. At one level, it was the right to refuse life-prolonging medical treatment. At a second level, however, it was also a right to refuse unwarranted technological intervention into one’s body, or – to put it in another words – the right to refuse being conscripted into a technological system, whatever its beneficial purpose. All the judges recognised this – whether it was the Chief Justice with his striking question about whether an individual should be made “a guinea pig for some kind of experiment”, or Justice Chandrachud’s repeated use of the word “intervention”.

When you combine this with the judgment’s invocation of privacy and autonomy, you get the germ of a concept that I’d like to call “technological self-determination.” In a piece written soon after the judgment, I attempted a definition:

Individuals have the right to engage with technological systems on their own terms, the right to opt into or opt out of such systems without suffering for it, and the right not to be subjected to technological intervention without being given meaningful choice. Let us call this the principle of technological self-determination: or the right of every individual to determine how, on what terms, and to what extent, she will engage with technological systems.

In Common Cause, the stakes were relatively low; however, in the years to come, as technology becomes ever more ubiquitous and ever more intrusive, the idea of technological self-determination will become crucial. One does not even need to look to the future: technological self-determination is a key aspect of the Aadhaar constitutional challenge, presently awaiting judgment. Aadhaar is a complex technological system that operates at the stages of collection, storage and use of personal data; mandatory Aadhaar authorises the government to set the terms by which individuals must engage with this system.

Technological self-determination may or may not feature in the Aadhaar judgment, but it has, at least, made an incipient appearance in Common Cause, and gives all of us something to build on for the future.

The Constitution Bench’s second judgment dealt with the use of Parliamentary Standing Committee reports in Court. The reference arose out of a PIL, which is unsurprising: it is primarily in PILs – where broad and far-reaching (and often continuing) remedies are sought, and the Court takes on the role of an administrator – that the findings of Parliamentary Standing Committees become particularly useful.

In a forthcoming blog post, Karan Lahiri will critique the judgment in some detail; reading it, however, was a somewhat strange experience, because both sides appeared to agree on a lot of issues. Both sides agreed that the credibility of a member of Parliament could not be impugned in Court, through the production of a PSC, since the doctrine of parliamentary privileges and the principle of the separation of powers militated against it. Both sides agreed that a Parliamentary Standing Committee could be used in an interpretive enquiry – that is, while interpreting ambiguous statutory provisions, as a part of the legislative history and record. The Court accepted both these straightforward propositions. The Court also held that – in terms of the law of Evidence – a PSC could be treated as a “fact.” Broadly, this means that the existence of the PSC and the existence of its contents (including, presumably, which Minister said what) are factual, and can be relied upon in Court without dispute. However, the contents themselves cannot be relied upon. For example, if a PSC states that “x was the situation prevailing at y time”, then the fact that the PSC says can be cited in Court (say, to interpret a law, or for some other purpose), but the question of whether x was actually the situation at the time has to be demonstrated independently, and using the rules of evidence:

From the aforesaid, it clear as day that the Court can take aid of the report of the parliamentary committee for the purpose of appreciating the historical background of the statutory provisions and it can also refer to committee report or the speech of the Minister on the floor of the House of the Parliament if there is any kind of ambiguity or incongruity in a provision of an enactment. Further, it is quite vivid on what occasions and situations the Parliamentary Standing Committee Reports or the reports of other Parliamentary Committees can be taken note of by the Court and for what purpose. Relying on the same for the purpose of interpreting the meaning of the statutory provision where it is ambiguous and unclear or, for that matter, to appreciate the background of the enacted law is quite different from referring to it for the purpose of arriving at a factual finding. That may invite a contest, a challenge, a dispute and, if a contest arises, the Court, in such circumstances, will be called upon to rule on the same. (Opinion of the Chief Justice, para 117)

And:

“… whenever a contest to a factual finding in a PSC Report is likely and probable, the Court should refrain from doing so. It is one thing to say that the report being a public document is admissible in evidence, but it is quite different to allow a challenge.” (Opinion of the Chief Justice, para 124)

There is some doubt on this last point, as it appears that Justice Chandrachud and Sikri’s joint opinion envisioned a slightly more prominent role for PSCs, where it factual determinations could be impacted by virtue of being part of a PSC (this is my reading, and I am open to correction on this). However, even if that was the case, it would put them in a minority: on my reading, the majority holding in Kalpana Mehta is what I extracted in the paragraph above.

Doctrinally, it is interesting to note that, in the course of extensive discussions by the three separate opinions on issues of parliamentary privileges, democracy, and the separation of powers, it was only Justice Chandrachud, in the joint opinion, who addressed the elephant in the room: that with PIL becoming such a dominant part of the Court’s docket – which includes, inter alia, the Supreme Court often assuming the role of the first and final trier of fact – the application of separation of powers and parliamentary privileges necessarily needs to change, just to maintain internal consistency. In cases where the Court issues a continuing mandamus and monitors government action on a hearing-by-hearing basis (such cases are legion by now across India), the entire approach that was founded on the Executive being the primary implementing authority, needs to be modified. As the joint opinion observed:

“In matters involving issues of public interest, courts have been called upon to scrutinize the failure of the state or its agencies to implement law and to provide social welfare benefits to those for whom they are envisaged under legislation. Courts have intervened to ensure the structural probity of the system of democratic governance. Executive power has been made accountable to the guarantee against arbitrariness (Article 14) and to fundamental liberties (principally Articles 19 and 21).

Committees of Parliament attached to ministries/departments of the government perform the function of holding government accountable to implement its policies and its duties under legislation. The performance of governmental agencies may form the subject matter of such a report. In other cases, the deficiencies of the legislative framework in remedying social wrongs may be the subject of an evaluation by a parliamentary committee. The work of a parliamentary committee may traverse the area of social welfare either in terms of the extent to which existing legislation is being effectively implemented or in highlighting the lacunae in its framework. There is no reason in principle why the wide jurisdiction of the High Courts under Article 226 or of this Court under Article 32 should be exercised in a manner oblivious to the enormous work which is carried out by parliamentary committees in the field. The work of the committee is to secure alacrity on the part of the government in alleviating deprivations of social justice and in securing efficient and accountable governance. When courts enter upon issues of public interest and adjudicate upon them, they do not discharge a function which is adversarial. The constitutional function of adjudication in matters of public interest is in step with the role of parliamentary committees which is to secure accountability, transparency and responsiveness in government. In such areas, the doctrine of separation does not militate against the court relying upon the report of a parliamentary committee. The court does not adjudge the validity of the report nor for that matter does it embark upon a scrutiny into its correctness. There is a functional complementarity between the purpose of the investigation by the parliamentary committee and the adjudication by the court….

… The extent to which the court would rely upon a report must necessarily vary from case to case and no absolute rule can be laid down in that regard.” (Joint Opinion authored by Chandrachud J., paras 65 – 66)

I do not know if this addresses the problem to the fullest extent – to be fair, I don’t know if the problem can be addressed within existing legal vocabulary, which simply doesn’t envisage the Court as permanent administrator – but it does, at least, acknowledge the misfit, and make a start towards addressing it. Justice Chandrachud’s invocation of the “transformative Constitution” at the end of the Opinion, as an anchoring principle, is interesting, and I shall examine it in some detail in a subsequent post.

(This ends the Round-Up Series, that dealt with important constitutional pronouncements in the first half of 2018.)

How to Read the Constituent Assembly Debates – II

(Part I is available here.)

By the end of August 1947, the Constituent Assembly had debated a significant part of the proposed Constitution for independent India. The actual grant of independence (earlier than expected) and all that it entailed, meant that the Assembly would not hold sustained sittings for more than a year. The action, therefore, moved backstage. On the basis of the draft texts debated and adopted by the Constituent Assembly in its first round of substantive sittings, the Office of the Assembly, under the direction of the Constitutional Adviser B.N. Rau, was tasked with drafting the constitutional text. This was significant, because thus far, the Assembly had dealt with issues piecemeal, considering texts sent in by various committees on various subjects. Rau’s task was to pull this all together, and come up with a single constitutional text.

In its session on 29th August 1947, the Constituent Assembly then nominated a seven-member Drafting Committee. The Drafting Committee’s remit was to scrutinise B.N. Rau’s text – again on the basis of the debates in the Assembly – and finalise the draft. This draft, then, would come back to the Assembly for ratification.

B.N. Rau prepared the draft Constitution by October 1947 (Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pp. 3 – 197). The draft contained marginal notes that specified the origins of various provisions (e.g., whether it had been borrowed from the American Constitution, or the Irish, or the Government of India Act, etc.). Provisions that had not yet been adopted by the Constituent Assembly were italicised, and at times, Rau made some additions (a particularly momentous insertion was that of the word “personal” before “liberty” in the “right to life and liberty”, which would become the foundation of the famous Gopalan-Maneka Gandhi debate). The draft Constitution, therefore, is best read as a culmination of the Constituent Assembly Debates that took place from May to August 1947. Rau appended a brief postscript, with explanatory notes to some of the clauses (Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pp. 197 – 205) which reveal, among other things, how deeply American judicial history influenced some of the choices that he made. K.M. Munshi, Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and D.P. Khaitan (all members of the drafting committee) also added written comments (Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pp. 205 – 216).

The Drafting Committee, under the Chairmanship of B.R. Ambedkar, worked from October 27, 1947 to February 21, 1948. The minutes of its proceedings can be found in Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pp. 315 – 506. To understand the proceedings of the Drafting Committee, and the nature of the choices they made, the minutes must be read alongside B.N. Rau’s constitutional text (which was what the Committee was considering). As we saw above, both sets of documents are conveniently available in Volume 3 of Shiva Rao, and therefore, the activity only requires a regular amount of page-turning. One major disadvantage of the Drafting Committee minutes – as opposed to the Minutes of the Sub-Committee – is their sketchy nature. With a few exceptions (such as the justification for adding “personal” to “liberty”), these minutes are, essentially, catalogues of the decisions taken by the Drafting Committee, but without any account of the discussions that went into them. For example, the fundamental freedoms clause was redrafted almost ten times in the Drafting Committee – clearly indicating the amount of care and thought the framers put into each word of the Constitution – but we are given no indication about what motivated these changes.

While the Drafting Committee was sitting, B.N. Rau traveled to USA, Canada, Ireland, and England, to consult with constitutional experts, and returned on December 2, 1947. His report and recommendations for further changes to the Constitution can be found in Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pp. 217 – 234.

On 21 February 1948, the Drafting Committee submitted its Draft Constitution – consisting of 315 articles and 8 schedules – to the President of the Constituent Assembly (Shiva Rao, Vol. 3, pages 510 – 677).  As Ambedkar explained in his letter to the President, wherever the Drafting Committee had felt it necessary to depart from the decisions of the Constituent Assembly, it had underlined the relevant provision, and added a footnote. Ambedkar also summarised the significant changes that the Committee had elected to make (Ambedkar’s letter, pp. 509 – 517). In my view, therefore, the Drafting Committee’s draft Constitution is best read beside B.N. Rau’s text, which was the template from which it worked; the departures are cleanly visible (for example, the Preamble, the citizenship clauses, the entire Directive Principles chapter, and even specific words, such as replacing “particular” with “backward” as a qualifying description of “classes”, in the reservation provision (see p. 521). Perhaps the most significant departure, as far as fundamental rights are concerned, is the substitution of “due process” with “procedural established by law”, in the phrase “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty without due process of law.” It is, of course, famously known that this came about as a result of B.N. Rau’s meeting with Felix Frankfurter, and the American judge’s strongly-worded advice that India avoid a due process clause in the Constitution.

The Draft Constitution was published on 26 February 1948, and opened up for suggestions and feedback from the Constituent Assembly, the provincial governments, as well as the general public. From March through October 1948, a large number of comments were sent in on every aspect of the Constitution. The range of commentators – from Constituent Assembly members to provincial legislatures, to bar associations, to private groups, and to individuals – is quite extensive.  Specific suggestions that were examined in some detail by the Drafting Committee are collated in Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 3 – 381. For each Article of the Constitution, first the proposals are set out, followed by the constitutional advisor’s written responses to them (“Note: ____“), the Drafting Committee’s response, and finally, the Drafting Committee’s decision. As the text that the amendments were responding to was the Drafting Committee’s text, this part needs to be read alongside the 26th February Draft Constitution, the text of which is found in Vol. 3 of Shiva Rao, as indicated above.

As with every other phase of the framing, here too are revealed some fascinating aspects of the framers’ thinking. For example, B. Pittabhi Sitaramayya and some other members of the Constituent Assembly wanted the fraternity clause of the Preamble to read as follows: “Fraternity assuring unity of the Nation and the dignity of the individual.” B.N. Rau’s response was that “the reason for putting the dignity of the individual first was that unless the dignity of the individual is assured, the nation cannot be united.” The draft clause was kept as it is – one among several instances where the framers’ commitment to placing the individual at the heart of the new constitutional order shines through. It also shows how certain recent judicial articulations of “fraternity” – as some kind of overarching collective obligation, as in the criminal defamation judgment – get things completely wrong.

This part of Shiva Rao, however, is not strictly chronological. The Drafting Committee held sessions on March 23, 24 and 27, 1948, to consider the suggestions they had received until then (Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 392 – 408). The President of the Constituent Assembly also constituted a larger “Special Committee” to look into the suggestions. This Committee met on April 10 and 11 (Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 408 – 415). Suggestions continued to come in until October, and it was on the basis of this complete record that the Drafting Committee took its final decisions on the wording of the Articles (this part of the record is not in Shiva Rao). However, these subsequent events all form part of Shiva Rao’s “Comments and Suggestions” section, indicated above. This phase of the framing, therefore, should be read keeping in mind that – for reasons of practicality – it has not been arranged chronologically.

By the end of October 1948, the Drafting Committee was ready to forward the Draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly. As the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar wrote a letter to the President of the Constituent Assembly, dated October 26, 1948 (Shiva Rao, Vol. 4, pp. 415 – 416). Along with the letter, he enclosed a reprint of the Draft Constitution, with an added column at places where the Drafting Committee had accepted – and decided to sponsor – an amendment that has been submitted to it between February – October 1948.

This, then, was Episode III. Let us call it Committee Drafting: Phase Two (August 1947 – October 1948). This phase can be summed up as follows:

Appointment of Drafting Committee – B.N. Rau (Constitutional Advisor) prepares the first Draft Constitution on the basis of the Constituent Assembly’s “First Reading” – Drafting Committee scrutinises and modifies the Draft Constitution – Drafting Committee Publishes the Draft Constitution – Feedback, comments and amendments received from institutions and the public – Drafting Committee meets to consider feedback – President of the Constituent Assembly appoints a larger, Special Committee to also consider the issue – Special Committee submits suggestions and amendments – Drafting Committee, on the basis of the complete record, finalises the draft text, and decides to sponsor some amendments – Draft text along with sponsored amendments forwarded to the Constituent Assembly for a “Second Reading.”

(To be Contd.)

How to read the Constituent Assembly Debates – I

For any student of the Indian Constitution, the Constituent Assembly Debates are both invaluable and indispensable. They are, however, difficult to read, as well as difficult to relate to the final constitutional text. This is not simply because of their volume, but because a significant part of the actual drafting took place outside the proceedings of the Assembly, and in Committees. A bare reading of the Debates, therefore, can often be confusing: the language of the draft articles changes, as does their numbering. The Debates frequently refer back to what happened in the Committees. Trying to understand the Debates without the Committee proceedings is bit like trying to swim with one arm and one leg.

Fortunately, the Committee proceedings are available in B. Shiva Rao’s six-volume edited collection titled The Framing of India’s Constitution: Select Documents. However, much like the Debates, the Select Documents cannot be read as self-contained volumes. This is because, as the Assembly drew on what was happening in Committee, the Committees discussed and revised the drafts that they received from the Assembly. A holistic understanding of the framing of India’s Constitution therefore depends on a (somewhat) careful exercise that involves reading together the debates and the committee proceedings. This process is equally important if you’re trying to trace the history of a particular clause or set of clauses. The various iterations of a draft clause can shed significant light on the best way to interpret it within the constitutional scheme. For example, Article 17 of the Constitution, which prohibits untouchability, places the word “untouchability” within quotes. This seemingly innocuous choice of form actually has a significant history, a history that becomes clear when we read the multiple rounds of debates – in Committee and in the Assembly – around the untouchability clause. In fact, the use of quotes around “untouchability”, when read in the context of the drafting history, go some way towards us telling us how Article 17 is to be understood in 2018.

What follows is a brief guide to reading the Constituent Assembly Debates, taking the example of the Fundamental Rights chapter (the approach to other parts of the Constitution will be broadly similar).

Volume 1 of Shiva Rao’s collection contains various constitutional documents that Indian nationalists came up with through the course of the early 20th century, and the build-up to the Constituent Assembly (including its establishment). That is interesting enough in its own right, but for the purposes of this exercise, it can be ignored. The action really begins in December 1946 and January 1947, when the Constituent Assembly held its first set of sittings. Volumes I and II of the Constituent Assembly Debates (all volumes are available online) cover this period. Most of it pertains to administrative details, but the highlight is the Objectives Resolution (moved by Nehru on December 13, 1946), which was meant to be a blueprint for the Constitution. Those minded to do so can wade through the debates around the Resolution; Shiva Rao’s documents have the relevant portions of Nehru’s speech, and Radhakrishnan’s speech commending the Resolution to the Assembly (Volume 2, pages 3 to 18).

After 25th January 1947, the Assembly had a three-month recess, and reconvened on 28th April. In the meantime, in accordance with the Cabinet Mission Statement (under whose auspices the Assembly was Constituted), an Advisory Committee was set up to consider the questions of fundamental rights, minority rights, and the administration of certain frontier areas. Sardar Patel was elected the chairperson of the Advisory Committee, and the Advisory Committee was then further divided into Sub-Committees to consider, inter alia, the issue of fundamental rights (Shiva Rao, Volume 2, pages 56 – 63). The Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee then had three sittings during which drafts of fundamental rights were written, circulated, and debated. The Sub-Committee produced its report on April 16, 1947 (with notes of dissent), and it was this Report that went to the Advisory Committee.  After further debate, the Advisory Committee submitted an (interim) report to the Constituent Assembly.

Therefore, in order to understand what it was that the Constituent Assembly discussed in its sessions from April 28 onwards, it is essential to first read the deliberations of the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee, and the discussion of the Report in the Advisory Committee, between January and April 1947. These can be found in Shiva Rao, Volume 2, pages 21 – 176, and 210 – 292. These proceedings are somewhat complex in their own right: B.R. Ambedkar, K.M. Munshi, and Harnam Singh all produced draft bill of rights. K.T. Shah and B.N. Rau – the Constitutional Advisor – submitted notes on fundamental rights. In its three sittings in March 1947, the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee took Munshi’s draft as its blueprint, while also discussing clauses from Ambedkar and Harnam Singh’s drafts from time to time, and referring to Rau and Shah’s work as well. At the end of its deliberations, the Sub-Committee produced an interim report on 3 April 1947, with a draft bill of rights. Members of the Sub-Committee then commented on the draft, and added notes of dissent. The Sub-Committee met on April 14 and 15, took these into account, and then produced a final report – to which the members added their final comments and notes of dissent.

This document was then forwarded to the Sub-Committee on Minorities, which was asked to comment on fundamental rights from the perspective of minorities (Shiva Rao, Volume 2, pages 199 – 209). Because of the paucity of time before the Advisory Committee met, the Sub-Committee on Minorities held a somewhat rushed set of meetings between April 17 to 19, and submitted an interim report. This report, along with the final report of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights, was sent to the larger Advisory Committee (consisting of seventy-two members), which met on April 21 and 22, 1947 (Shiva Rao, Volume 2, pages 210 – 292).

The Advisory Committee debated the draft bill of rights extensively. Proceedings in the Advisory Committee naturally referred to Clauses by their number, so when you read the Advisory Committee proceedings, you have to keep turning the pages and referring back to the Sub-Committee’s final report (Shiva Rao, Volume 2, pages 169 – 176) to connect the debate with the text of the provision that is being debated.  The Advisory Committee then came up with an Interim Report on April 23. Sardar Patel – the Chairperson of the Advisory Committee – forwarded this to the Constituent Assembly, along with the draft bill of rights hammered out in the Advisory Committee, for the sessions beginning on April 28, 1947.

As we can see, therefore, before the Constituent Assembly even met, three Committees, over a period of three months, had met, debated, and drafted a detailed bill of rights. In the interests of clarity, let us call this Committee Drafting: Phase One (February – April 1947). To sum up Phase One:

Constituent Assembly appoints Advisory Committee (seventy-odd members) —> Advisory Committee appoints Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee —-> Drafts and Notes on Fundamental Rights produced and sent to the Sub-Committee –> Sub-Committee deliberates and produces and Interim Report and Draft Bill of Rights —-> Comments and Notes of Dissent by Members —–> Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee Final Report —-> Comments and Notes of Dissent by Members —–> Final Report forwarded to Minorities Sub-Committee to examine from the perspective of Minorities —-> Interim Report of the Minorities Sub Committee —–> Both reports forwarded to the larger Advisory Committee —-> Advisory Committee deliberates —–> Advisory Committee produces an interim report and a modified draft bill of rights —–> Advisory Committee Interim Report and Draft Bill of Rights forwarded to the Constituent Assembly for consideration.

Many important things happened in the first phase. It was here that the enduring distinction between “justiciable” and “non-justiciable” rights (Directive Principles) was first mooted, much to the consternation of K.T. Shah. It was in the Sub-Committee that Minoo Masani, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur argued strongly for a right to inter-religious marriages and to a uniform civil code (with Ambedkar’s support), but were voted down. It was in the Advisory Committee that the right to privacy (secrecy of correspondence and prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures) was dropped from the draft bill of rights, as was the right to vote. Here you find Ambedkar’s eloquent arguments for the link between constitutional rights and the economic structure, and K.T. Shah’s radical proposals to make remuneration for housework a fundamental right. In short, endlessly fascinating stuff. The debates on citizenship – with the framers’ near-unanimous rejection of racial criteria for citizenship – are particularly relevant for the present times. And another interesting aspect of the debates is that they were conducted before Independence, Partition, and the integration of the princely states. So you have many instances where the framers refer to the possibility of the Muslim League “coming into the Assembly”, how to deal with princely states who may want to maintain a monarchical system of government, and how to frame a fundamental rights chapter in the shadow of the fact that the country for which it is being framed is not yet in existence, and nobody knows what it may look like.

Because of the paucity of time, the Advisory Committee finally submitted what it called an “Interim Report on Fundamental Rights”, along with a draft bill of rights, and requested the Constituent Assembly for an extension of time to submit a final report. This was granted. The Assembly then took up the draft Bill of Rights for discussion starting April 29, 1947 (Vol. III of the Constituent Assembly Debates, available online – use the “Complete HTML file” option to view day-to-day proceedings). The debates were lively: as Patel (the chairperson of the  noted, more than 150 amendments were tabled).

The first set of debates spanned four full days – April 29 to May 2, 1947. A large part of the Advisory Committee’s draft Bill of Rights was accepted (for the draft bill of rights approved by the Constituent Assembly, see Shiva Rao, Vol. 2, pages 300 – 304), with various modifications. Some of the clauses that proved particularly contentious – or suffered from ambiguous drafting – were “remitted” back to the Committee (such as the clause prohibiting forced labour, where a dispute arose about whether it banned conscription as well, as well as the clause prohibiting fraudulent conversions and conversions of minors). The Advisory Committee considered these over the summer, and on August 25, it submitted a Supplementary Report to the Constituent Assembly, which contained two re-drafted clauses (primarily to do with religious instruction and admissions in schools), a recommendation to drop the prohibition on forced conversion from the list of fundamental rights, and finally, a list of non-justiciable rights, which would eventually go on to form part of the Directive Principles of State Policy (available online, bottom of page).

The Supplementary Report was taken up by the Constituent Assembly on August 30, 1947 (available online), and adopted. This ended the second phase, which we can call Constituent Assembly: Phase One (April – August 1947), and the draft bill of rights was forwarded to the Drafting Committee.

Constituent Assembly debates, modifies and adopts the Advisory Committee’s draft bill of rights – three clauses sent back to the Advisory Committee – Advisory Committee deliberates and produces a Final Report with redrafted clauses and a set of non-justiciable rights – Final Report forwarded to the Constituent Assembly – Constituent Assembly debates, modifies and adopts the Final Report – forwarded to the Drafting Committee.

The Constituent Assembly would not convene again until January 1948.

(To be Contd.)

Round-Up: The Delhi High Court’s Experiments with the Constitution

(This is the second part of three blog posts that round-up some recent judicial pronouncements. For work-related reasons, I did not have the time to write about them when they were delivered. – Ed.)

Benches of the Delhi High Court have issued a series of interesting rulings in the first half of 2018. A summary follows.

Article 14 and Genetic Discrimination

In United India Insurance Company v Jai Parkash Tayal, a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court invalidated a clause of an insurance contract that excluded “genetic disorders” from the scope of insurance. The judgment proceeded on multiple grounds, and makes for fascinating reading. In particular, Justice Pratibha Singh invalidated the clause on the grounds of Article 14 (equality before law), 21 (right to health), and the impermissibility of changing an insurance contract to the detriment of the insured. The Article 21 issue is not one I will discuss here: as readers of this blog will know, the reading in of broad socio-economic rights into Article 21, and their exceedingly uneven application on a case-to-case basis, is not something I am very comfortable with. This case, like so many others, tells us that there is a right to health, and then uses it to achieve a specific outcome, but somewhere along the way, the precise spelling out of the scope, contours and limits of this right, and the nature of the obligations it places upon the State, is lost by the wayside.

What I find much more interesting, however, is the manner in which the Court used Article 14. In paragraph D1, Justice Singh observed:

Article 14 of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination of any kind. This would include discrimination based on genetic heritage of an individual.

There is, however, something odd about this framing. Article 14 is the equality clause. The non-discrimination clause is Article 15(1), which prohibits the State from discriminating on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, and place of origin. Moreover, Article 15(1) is a closed list – unlike certain other Constitutions, no additional, analogous grounds can be brought within its ambit. Article 14, on the other hand, is a general equality clause that has been interpreted by the Courts to exclude irrational classification or arbitrary State action, on a case-to-case basis. Unlike Article 15(1), Article 14 does not – a priori – rule out specific grounds upon which differentiation may be based. The distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1) was expressed by Patanjali Sastri CJ in a classic exposition, in Kathi Raning Rawat v The State of Saurashtra (1952)

As we can see, Justice Singh’s observation that Article 14 prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic heritage appears to conflate Sastri CJI’s distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1).

In the latter part of the judgment, however, Justice Singh modulates the claim. In the context of insurance contracts, she concedes that there may be a class of narrowly defined cases (to be articulated by the policy-makers) where certain kinds of genetic diseases can be excluded by the insurer. Her specific problem is with the width of this exclusion clause (covering all “genetic disorders”) which – as she states in the operative part of the judgment – violates Article 14. Consequently, Justice Singh’s argument is not that “discrimination” on the basis of genetic characteristics will automatically violate Article 14, but rather, it will presumptively violate Article 14, unless strong reasons can be shown that justify the violation. In other words, differentiation based on genetic differences will be subjected to stricter judicial scrutiny than other classifications.

Is there any constitutional warrant for this reading of Articles 14 and 15? I have recently argued that there is, in a defence of the Delhi High Court’s Naz Foundation judgment (SSRN version here). Briefly, the argument is as follows: an analysis of the Constituent Assembly Debates shows that the framers did not intent Articles 14 and 15 to operate as separate silos. Rather, Article 14 was the general expression of the concrete commitment towards non-discrimination under Article 15(1). The framers took the five most publicly salient grounds at the time – race, religion, caste, sex, place of origin – and prohibited all discrimination involving those grounds. However, the framers also realised that forms and sites of discrimination evolve, and what is not salient today can become salient tomorrow (classic examples: sexual orientation, disability, and age, which are all present in some more recent Constitutional documents). For this reason, the framers included Article 14, whose more open-ended language would allow future Courts to develop new grounds of discrimination, and subject them to stricter scrutiny (something akin to a proportionality standard). Unfortunately, however, this possibility has never seriously been explored by the Courts, who have been caught between the classification and the arbitrariness standards under Article 14. Naz Foundation represented the first serious articulation of this vision of Articles 14 and 15(1). United India Insurance Company is another small, incremental step towards it.

Uncertainties over Horizontality

The Delhi High Court was very clear that Articles 14 and 21 applied to all insurance contracts, whether entered into by a State insurer or a private insurance company. This, however, is a problematic conclusion. Articles 14 and 21 very categorically apply to State action. “State”, under Article 12, is limited to government and entities under the “functional, financial, and administrative” control of government. Without some additional reasoning, a private insurance company cannot be brought within the ambit of the fundamental rights chapter.

The Court’s response was to argue that insurance contracts are unequal (like contracts of adhesion, although the Court did not use the term), and place the insurance applicant at a disadvantage. That is correct – and many jurisdictions recognise that such contracts are of a special kind, that cannot be interpreted in a normal way (see the recent decision of the UK Employment Tribunal involving Uber’s contracts with its drivers). However, the remedies for that are provided within contract law: interpret ambiguous terms in favour of the weaker party, and if the unconscionability is clear, void the contract on grounds of public policy. The Court could even have said – as it came close to doing – that such contracts had a public element, and therefore could be subjected to public law norms (which include norms of non-discrimination). There is no warrant, however, for making Part III of the Constitution directly applicable to private insurance contracts, and to the extent the Court did so, I submit that it erred.

The same issue arose in another Delhi High Court decision that made the news recently, Sanghamitra Acharya v State (NCT) of DelhiSanghamitra Acharya involved the commitment of an adult woman into a mental hospital at the instance of her parents. Justice Muralidhar, writing for the division bench, held that the woman’s rights to liberty, autonomy and dignity had been violated (especially in view of the Puttaswamy judgment), that the parents, police, and the hospital were in breach of their legal obligations, and ordered compensation. This is, of course, impeccable; in the course of the judgment, however, the Court expressly held that Articles 19 and 21 (along with Articles 15(2), 17, and 23) were horizontally applicable between private parties.

It is true that Articles 19 and 21 are not categorically framed as injunctions against the State. Article 19 stipulates that “All citizens shall have the right… to freedom of speech and expression…” and Article 21 states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Therefore, there is no express textual bar against reading Articles 19 and 21 horizontally. However, the reference to State restrictions under Articles 19(2) to 19(6), and the specific reference to “procedure established by law” under Article 21, strongly indicates that these Articles are meant to apply vertically, between State and individual. This is buttressed by the fact that where the framers did intend the horizontal application of fundamental rights, they were clear and unambiguous about it (Articles 15(2), 17, 23, 24). And lastly, this is how the Courts have almost uniformly understood and interpreted them (there are some exceptions, such as the Aruna Shanbaug judgment). It is, of course, open to the Delhi High Court to hold that this jurisprudence is misguided; however, such a radical change in the interpretation of Articles 19 and 21, it needed to provide strong reasons for that holding, and also to elaborate its own theory justifying the horizontal reading of Articles 19 and 21. With respect, the Court did not do that.

Legal Interpretation in the Shadow of the Constitution

What the Court did do very well, in my opinion, was bring the Constitution to bear upon the interpretation of the Mental Health Act, which was the relevant legislation at issue. The Court was examining whether the “involuntary admission” into a mental hospital was consistent with the scheme of the Act. Under Section 19, a person could be involuntarily admitted into a mental hospital by their relative or friend, if the medical officer in-charge was “satisfied” that it was in the interests of the patient. The Court held that although Section 19 was a “stand-alone” provision, the rights under Article 21 required that the word “satisfaction” be read as “objective satisfaction”; that is, the medical officer would have to follow the legal definition of “unsoundness of mind” (which is narrow and circumscribed) before allowing involuntary admission. On facts, it was found that the medical professional had not even attempted to apply any objective standards in his determination.

The form of interpretation that the Court engaged in here is one that Indian Courts have attempted in the past, but only sporadically: borrowed from German law, it is called “the radiating effect” put broadly, holds that a Constitution is not merely a set of rights, but an objective “order of values”, and these values “radiate” through the legal system. In concrete terms, a Court is to interpret laws – including private law – in a manner that advances and promotes the constitutional order of values. By interpreting “satisfaction” (an ambiguous word) to refer to “objective satisfaction”, and to justify that reading by specifically pegging it to constitutional rights, the Sanghamitra Acharya is an important judgment in the context of the theory of the radiating effect.

Traces of this are visible in two other judgments the Delhi High Court delivered, on the subject of labour law. In Indu Munshi v Union of India, a division bench of the Delhi High Court ordered the regularisation of a batch of Kashmiri Pandit schoolteachers. The schoolteachers had been forced to flee from the Valley in 1993, and had come to Delhi. They had been given contractual jobs as schoolteachers in 1994 – and then kept on contract for the next twenty-four years. The issue of regularisation is a fraught one, and any Court that wishes to order regularisation has to content with the challenge of the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench judgment in Uma Devi’s Case, which invoked the constitutional right to equality of opportunity to hold that contractual employees who had been appointed by the “back door” could not later be regularised “at the cost of” other employees. Uma Devi’s ratio has, however, been subsequently whittled down (the High Court discussed some of these judgments), and here Justice Bhat, writing on behalf of a Division Bench, held that, on facts, there was no “back door appointment.” One of the crucial features that weighed with Justice Bhat was the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits had arrived as refugees, and were compelled to accept whatever offer of employment was open to them, without any genuine choice or bargaining power. When combined with the fact that the process of appointments was competitive, and that the teachers had worked against regular (unfilled) vacancies for twenty-two years, as well as a number of other technical factors, Justice Bhat held that, notwithstanding Uma Devi, the case for regularisation was unanswerable. The Court also held that the contractual teachers deserved remuneration that was equal to the sanctioned remuneration for regular schoolteachers. It adopted a broad version of the “equal pay for equal work” doctrine (which focused on the nature of work) rather than a narrow version (which made technical factors such as cadres and sources of appointment – which could easily be undermined – determinative), and again, framed the issue as a right against exploitation:

Turning to the issue of equal salary and remuneration, the Govt of NCT of Delhi had argued that the teachers could not question their emoluments, because they had accepted their contractual status and functioned in that capacity for over a decade and a half. The teachers’ argument is that they had practically no choice; the alternative to accepting the job with reduced emoluments was starvation or no employment. Such a Hobson’s choice is not meaningful. This court agrees with the contention and holds that there cannot be any estoppel in such situations, barring claims to parity. Long ago, in Sanjit Roy v State of Rajasthan, AIR 1983 SC 328, the Supreme Court characterized as forced labour the acceptance, under compulsion of circumstances, by a person without employment, remuneration that was lower than the minimum wage and stated “that it may therefore be legitimately presumed that when a person provides labour or service to another against receipt of remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, he is acting under the force of some compulsion which drives him to work though he is paid less than what he is entitled under the law to receive.”

And:

In the facts of the present cases too, the court is of the opinion that the mere nomenclature of “contract teachers” is an artificial one given to the teachers who approached this court through the writ petitions that have led to these appeals; they were appointed against regular vacancies, their services are unbroken and have not been continued on account of any stay or court directed interim order; their appointments were pursuant to a constitutionally recognized and acceptable procedure of advertisement and calling names from employment exchange; they each held and hold the requisite qualifications, including B.Ed; all of them were interviewed before their appointment. For these reasons, having regard to their unbroken employment for over two decades, in line with the decision in Umadevi (supra) as understood in Pratap Kishore Panda (supra), Malati Dass (supra) and Sheo Narain Nagar (supra), the said Kashmiri migrant teachers are entitled to be treated as regular appointees. They shall also be entitled to provident fund benefit, gratuity and pension upon attaining the age of superannuation. If any of the petitioners or any other Kashmiri migrant teacher has already attained superannuation or has died in the interregnum the Govt of NCT of Delhi shall calculate their entitlement and release them to such retired employees, and in the case of death, release such amounts to the legal representatives of such deceased employees.

Of course, the Constitution was not directly involved in this case, in the sense that there was no legal provision under challenge. However, it is obvious that the Constitution – and especially, its egalitarian and anti-exploitative ethos – permeated each of the choices the judges had to make. Uma Devi had invoked the doctrine of equality of opportunity to set up “regular” and “back door” appointees in conflict with each other, competing for the same scarce public good (jobs). The Delhi High Court rejected this race-to-the-bottom vision of equality and, instead, focused upon an understanding of equality that was sensitive to exploitation and disparities in bargaining power, to hold that Uma Devi was inapplicable to the present case, and furthermore, the the constitutional principle of equal pay for equal work would also apply.

The Constitution was more directly at play in M/s Metrro Waste Handling v Delhi Jal Board, a brief judgment concerning manual scavenging, and bookending its holding by quotes from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The Delhi Jal Board issued a tender for mechanised sewer cleaning, where it did two things: first, it stipulated that only one machine would be issued per bidder; and second, it stipulated that preference would be given to the families of deceased manual scavengers and ex-manual scavengers. The first condition – it argued – was to encourage small entrepreneurs and the underprivileged class to apply. The justification for the second is obvious. The Petitioner challenged the first condition as being arbitrary, and the second as imposing a “100 percent reservation”, which was unconstitutional.

The Court rejected both arguments. On the first, it found that the DJB had set up an elaborate system of loans and other forms of aid to genuinely enable underprivileged sections to effectively bid for the tender; the argument from arbitrariness, therefore, was dismissed. From a constitutional point of view, however, the second issue is more interesting. The Court rejected the argument that the DJB’s order of preference was establishing 100 percent reservation. This was not – it observed – a system of “quotas”:

What is in issue, however, in this case is the attempt of the state, uniquely to ensure that the livelihood and lives of sewage workers performing manual scavenging tasks are meaningfully uplifted. The system of preference is not reservation, in any sense of the term. The court recollects what was held in Government of Andhra Pradesh v Vijaykumar1995 (4) SCC 520 that the wording of Art. 15(3) enables “special provisions” is wider than Article 16(4) which enables a special provision by way of reservations. Article 15(3) is wider and includes “positive action programmes in addition to reservations”.

However, if what was involved was not reservation, then the provisions of Articles 16(4) (since it specifically mentions reservation). Nor could 15(3)’s “special provisions” be invoked, since they are limited to women and children. The only alternative, therefore – as the Court noted – was that preferential treatment of underprivileged classes was itself consistent with the guarantee of equality of opportunity under Article 16(1). Or, in other words – as the concurring opinions of Justices Mathew and Krishna Iyer had famously held in NM Thomas, but which were not subsequently developed in detail – the constitutional vision of equality is a substantive vision, which factors in structural and systemic discrimination, and views the overcoming of structural barriers as part of the very meaning of equality. As Justice Bhat – again, writing for a division bench – held:

Seen from the context of the decisions quoted previously, the NIT conditions are not meant to exclude the “general” class of citizens. They afford an opportunity to an utterly marginalized section a “step up” (or to use the expression in Nagaraj (supra), “catch up”) with the other citizens. The object of such preference is plainly to enable the meaningful participation of the most marginalized section, i.e. workers involved in manual scavenging, and scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities (who are so chosen, having regard to what the Constitution framers stated as “a backward section of the Hindu community who were handicapped by the practice of untouchability”). The state, i.e., DJB, in our opinion, had a compelling interest in promoting the welfare of these class of citizens, while conceiving and implementing this system of preferences, in the impugned NIT.

Indirect Discrimination

This provides an ideal segue into the last case: Madhu v Northern RailwayMadhu involved the interpretation of certain Indian Railways rules. The dispute centred around a railway employee taking his wife and daughter “off” his list of “dependents” entitled to free medical treatment, on the ground that he had “disowned” them. The Railways argued that for a person’s dependents to avail of treatment, he had to make a “declaration” that they were part of his family; in this case, since the employee had refused to do so, the Railways was justified in denying them medical treatment. The Division Bench, speaking through Justice Bhat – yet again! – rejected this argument, arguing that not only was such an interpretation textually untenable, but also that accepting it would perpetuate indirect discrimination:

The Northern Railways contends that the Appellants are not denied the medical card because they are women, but rather because their husband and father had not made the requisite declaration. However, this explanation is not enough. It is not sufficient to say that the reasoning of Northern Railways did not intentionally discriminate against the Appellants because they were women. Law does not operate in a vacuum and the reasoning and consequent decision of Northern Railways must be examined in the social context that it operates and the effects that it creates in the real world. Even a facially neutral decision can have disproportionate impact on a constitutionally protected class.

The reason that the drafters of the Constitution included Article 15 and 16 was because women (inter alia) have been subjected to historic discrimination that makes a classification which disproportionately affects them as a class constitutionally untenable. The Northern Railways decision to not grant the Appellants medical cards clearly has such a disproportionate effect. By leaving an essential benefit such as medical services subject to a declaration by the railway officer/servant, the dependents are subject to the whims and fancies of such employee. The large majority of dependents are likely to be women and children, and by insisting that the railway officer/servant makes a declaration, the Railway authorities place these women and children at risk of being denied medical services.

It is irrelevant that the Railways did not deny them the medical card because the Appellants were women, or that it is potentially possible that a male dependent may also be denied benefits under decision made by the Railways. The ultimate effect of its decision has a disparate impact on women by perpetuating the historic denial of agency that women have faced in India, and deny them benefits as dependents.

The concept of indirect discrimination – discussed in some detail on this blog previously – has been incorporated into the jurisprudence of many other constitutional courts (the High Court cited some of them). Indian Courts have taken tentative steps towards it, but Madhu represents perhaps the first full-blooded articulation and defence of indirect discrimination as a form of discrimination prohibited by the Constitution. It will, hopefully, be the first of many instances.
 

Guest Post: The Absence of Deliberative Democracy – The Fetters of the Anti-Defection Law

(This is a guest post by Udit Bhatia. It is based on the article, Cracking the Whip: The Deliberative Costs of Strict Party Discipline in the journal, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy).

The anti-defection law, introduced by the 52nd amendment to the Indian Constitution, prohibits legislators from voting against their party’s whip on any legislation, or voluntarily giving up membership of their party. Legislators who violate their party’s whip stand to lose their place in parliament. Much of the rationale for such law – indicated by the Parliamentary Debates that went into its framing – seems to have been the prevention of horse-trading. This was evidenced in recent fears about corruption in the aftermath of the Karnataka election. But the scope of the amendment is wider than that, since it does not just forbid legislators from voting against their party during a trust motion or no-confidence vote. Rather, it also seeks to stop them from voting against the party line on any legislative matter where a whip is issued. Following the Supreme Court’s 1996 ruling in G. Viswanathan vs The Honourable Speaker, Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, the law binds a member of parliament (MP) to her party’s directives even if that party has expelled her. India is among a handful of states—the others being Pakistan, Bangladesh and Fiji—that bind MPs to the will of the party leadership in this manner.

The anti-defection law, thus framed, has important negative effects on parliament’s capacity for discussion. Why, one might ask? After all, the anti-defection law merely prohibits legislators from voting against the party. But this would ignore ways in which restrictions on the vote affect legislators’ voices as well. Constraints on how legislators vote can restrict the formation of opinions contrary to their party’s line. If the only position that an MP is required to endorse is the one mandated by their party, this leaves them with little incentive to engage in the demanding task of scrutinising alternative ideas. Fetters imposed by the anti-defection law can also restrict the expression of dissent through their chilling effect on backbench MPs. If a legislator criticised her party’s stance and publicly expressed disagreement, she would ordinarily be expected to demonstrate consistency by voting against it. This is particularly true where disagreement runs deep or revolves around an issue considered central to her political project. But if one criticises the party on a wide range of issues, or vehemently so on some particular issue, electors might ask why one yet continues to remain member of that party and vote in accordance with its whips. ‘Why not just vote against your party if you disagree that much’, electors could ask. Party leaders could raise the cost of cross-voting by penalising dissenting voters. At the same time, legislators do not wish to be viewed as hypocrites. As a result, putting up a façade of consistency means that one is unlikely to express opinions contrary to that one is required to vote for. Finally, the anti-defection law also restricts the uptake that legislative dissent is likely to receive. In well-functioning parliaments, even when backbenchers ultimately vote with their party, they can exercise considerable influence behind the scenes. Party leaders have to anticipate their backbench’s reaction, and put effort into allaying their concerns so as to secure their consent. In India, on the other hand, the anti-defection law takes away any such incentive for party bosses to do so, by enabling them to rely on whips rather than discussion with their backbench colleagues.

Such constraints on legislation have important implications for legislative discussion. In the first instance, they undermine the benefits of the legislature’s numerical size. There is a reason why parliaments, compared to judiciaries, are large-sized bodies. With their total strength of 545 and 250 members, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are considerably larger institutions than the highest court in the country. This is because legislatures are supposed to pool information widely dispersed across a society. Their role is to ensure that varied interests in a large, heterogeneous country like India’s find representation through an appropriately sized body of persons. Following recent innovation in the social sciences and political theory, we conceive the primary strength of parliaments as their ability to manifest the wisdom of the multitude. For instance, following Scott Page and Lu Hong’s experimental work, Helene Landemore’s book, Democratic Reason draws upon their ‘diversity trumps ability theorem’, and argues that inclusive groups of diverse decision-makers outperform small groups of expert ones. However, the anti-defection law undermines the numerical benefit of the legislative chamber, restricting effective decision-making to a small, relatively homogenous group of party leaders.

Further, the anti-defection law can also deprive us of the benefits of having two chambers. There is a reason why the framers of the constitution insisted on establishing two legislative houses: the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. One of the primary thrusts behind this design was that law-making bodies, like any other collective, are fallible. They can make errors, pass laws in haste, or fail to adequately consider some relevant interests. Bicameralism offers the opportunity to obtain a second opinion on legislative affairs. At the moment, the ruling party lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha. But what if this were not the case? In that case, the government, with its majority in parliament, could enact laws in the Lok Sabha, and issue a whip to see those measures through in the Rajya Sabha as well. In such cases, second chambers cannot really offer a second opinion on decisions adopted by the first chamber. For second chambers to serve this purpose, they must be constituted of a distinctive set of persons. To see why, imagine that all members of the ruling party in the second house were chosen from that party’s MPs in the first house. In this hypothetical case, some legislators would serve a dual role as members of the first and the second chamber of Parliament. This situation would be deemed unacceptable as a way of offering a second opinion rather than allowing members of the first chamber to re-affirm their own decision. After all, MPs already do so in the course of multiple readings of a bill in the first chamber. Deliberative autonomy and the ability to form independent judgments is crucial for the distinctiveness of legislators. But distinctiveness cannot be simply about the physical presence of two different sets of legislators. If the only permissible view they can voice is the one sanctioned by the party’s leadership, and if they lack the capacity to form opinions that differ from that view, then distinctiveness no longer obtains. We, then, lose, an important benefit that bicameral division of the legislature offers.

Finally, there is a third negative cost that the anti-defection law imposes on legislative discussion. Part of the role of a well-functioning legislature is to clarify for the wider public the different shades of opinion that exist on any topic. Parliamentary discussion should be oriented at demonstrating the underlying dimensions on which various political disagreements exist, locating different political parties on the space of political reasons. By stifling the expression of dissenting views, the anti-defection law undermines parliament’s ability to offer this map of opinion. In doing so, it can also foster sharp polarisation, because we fail to see how internally variegated parties are, and how there are political actors across the aisle who might actually agree with us. Consider, for example, a debate on a healthcare policy. It is valuable for us to see how, despite the opposition party leaders’ criticism of that policy, there are members within that very party who agree with the government.

In India, the deliberative costs of the anti-defection law are exacerbated by its lack of adequate intra-party discussion. Were parties to offer vibrant internal mechanisms for deliberation, we might think that the constraints they impose within are parliament are less troublesome. However, the dictatorial state of our parties precludes such a stance. So far, much of the commentary on the Indian parliament has focused on the lack of adequate discussion caused by frequent disruptions. This is understandable. The scale of disruptions and the rowdy scenes we have come to witness in recent years are worrying symptoms for the health of our democracy. But we should not assume that all our legislators need to do is behave themselves and conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. As I have tried to show, the problem lies much deeper. What they can and are likely to say is conditioned by the anti-defection law. Even if disruptions stopped, and legislators could speak more freely, parliamentary discussion is likely to fall short of deliberative ideals.

Guest Post: Navigating Gubernatorial Discretion: The Riddle of a Hung Assembly

(This is a guest post by Riddhi Joshi).

Over the past 68 years, there have been many controversies regarding the role of the Governor and the discretion accorded to her ‘by or under this Constitution’. The most recent example of this was the controversy in Karnataka, which began with Mr. Yeddyurappa of the BJP being sworn in as Chief Minister, and ended instead with the Congress-JD(S) alliance winning the floor test. While it appears that the worst of the political crisis has passed, a petition in the case of G. Parameshwara v. Union of India on the question of exercise of the Governor’s discretion in the appointment of a Chief Minister is pending before the Supreme Court.

On the face of it, it appears that there are two main questions which the Supreme Court must address- a) Whether, despite Articles 163(2) and 361, the Court can hear a challenge to a Governor’s decision inviting a party or combination of parties to form the government, taken in the exercise of her constitutional discretion; and b) Whether the Court has the authority to circumscribe such discretion, specifically in the appointment of a Chief Minister under Article 164(1) in the case of a hung assembly.

Through this post, I aim to analyse past judicial pronouncements and the bearing they will have on the outcome of G. Parameshwara v. Union of India.

Understanding the Scope of Gubernatorial Discretion

Unlike the President, the Governor has been accorded some discretion in the exercise of her duties by way of Article 163-

  1. Council of Ministers to aid and advise Governor

(1) There shall be a council of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions, except in so far as he is by or under this constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion;

(2) If any question arises whether any matter is or is not a matter as respects which the Governor is by or under this Constitution required to act in his discretion, the decision of the Governor in his discretion shall be final, and the validity of anything done by the Governor shall not be called in question on the ground that he ought or ought not to have acted in his discretion;

(3) The question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the Governor shall not be inquired into in any court.

While the President is bound to act in accordance with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, the Governor exercises three kinds of powers

  1. executive power taken in the name of the Governor;
  2. power exercised by her on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, headed by the Chief Minister; and
  3. power exercised by her in her sole discretion.

In the case of Samsher Singh v. State of Punjab (para. 153), the Supreme Court recognised some situations in which the Governor acts in her own discretion. Through a merely indicative and not an exhaustive list, the appointment of a Chief Minister where the paramount consideration is that she should command a majority in the House, the dismissal of a government which has lost majority but refuses to quit office, and the dissolution of a House, were seen as part of the Governor’s discretionary power. That, however, leaves one question unanswered: are there any circumstances in which the Courts can review the Governor’s exercise of her discretionary powers?

On Judicial Review

Judicial review is the power of the judiciary to examine the actions of the co-ordinate branches, ie., the executive and legislature, under the Constitution or statutes. Judicial review, especially in instances of formation of government, presents a distinct dilemma in India. Considering that India is a nation with a quasi-federal structure as well as the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, there have been recurring conflicts between Parliamentary Sovereignty and Judicial Supremacy.

A.V. Dicey defined Parliamentary Sovereignty as the right of the Parliament to make or unmake any law whatever; and further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament. This is a feature prevalent in the unitarian system followed in the United Kingdom. However, as far back as in 1861, J.S. Mill observed that there can be no true federal spirit without the power of judicial review. Amongst the various organs and levels of the government, there must be an independent umpire to settle disputes. The supremacy of the Constitution, and the authority of the Court to interpret it, can never be questioned.

Applying this in the Indian scenario, it means that the conduct of Parliament is not immune to questioning by the Court. In fact, in In Re., Keshav Singh (para. 38), the Supreme Court clearly observed that the dominant feature of the British Constitution, ie., parliamentary sovereignty, has no place in a federal constitution as in India.

In view of this, it can be inferred that the Court can also look into questions pertaining to formation of government. Yet, if one were to go by the bare text of the Constitution, there is no scope to challenge a decision taken by the Governor in her discretion, one of the many such decisions being the appointment of a Chief Minister. In fact, there is an explicit bar against this, expressed in Articles 163(2) and 361, stipulating that the Governor shall not be answerable in any court of law for the exercise and performance of her powers and duties.

There already exists jurisprudence on the issue of judicial review of the Governor’s sole discretion. Beginning with the landmark case of B.R. Kapur v. State of Madras (para. 51), the Court struck down the appointment under Article 164(4) of Ms. Jayalalitha as Chief Minister while she was still a non-legislator, on the ground that she suffered from disqualifications under Article 191. While placing some constitutional limitations on the powers of the Governor (a point discussed later in this post), the Court also took cognisance of Article 361. Here, the Court judicially reviewed the Governor’s discretionary action on the ground that the immunity under Article 361 does not extend to the appointee. Therefore, while the Governor herself cannot be held responsible, the Court can still go into the question by making the appointee prove the constitutionality of her own appointment.

Notwithstanding that Rameshwar Prasad (VI) v. Union of India (para. 173) is a case pertaining to the declaration of Emergency under Article 356, the Court still had to navigate the immunity granted by way of Article 361. In this case, the Governor had acted in his sole discretion by claiming a breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state of Bihar, as no single party had been able to secure a majority in the Legislative Assembly, and thereby, the Governor had been unable to appoint a Chief Minister. In this case, the Court’s approach was that the personal immunity from answerability provided in Article 361 did not bar the challenge that may be made to the actions of the Governor. In such a situation, it becomes incumbent on the respondent state government to defend the exercise of gubernatorial discretion.

The momentous decision in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (para. 118) expanded the scope of judicial review and held it to be a basic feature of the Constitution, which could not be done away with even in exercise of constituent powers. In this case, when the support to the ruling party in Karnataka was declining, the Governor recommended a proclamation of Emergency to the President. The Court held that in cases where the Governor’s decision smacked of mala fides, arbitrariness, or irrelevant considerations, the Court had the power to strike it down.

Lastly, the position regarding justiciability of a Governor’s discretion was cemented in Nabam Rebia and Bamang Felix v. Deputy Speaker, Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly (para. 148). Here, the Court applied the doctrine of harmonious construction by analysing the provisions surrounding Article 163 to conclude that if the decision of a Governor in her discretion were to be final, she would be converted into an all-pervading super-constitutional authority. To avoid this, the Court would have to be conferred the power of judicial review.

Hence, in light of the above considerations, it is likely that the Court will permit judicial review of the Governor’s sole discretion in G. Parameshwara v. Union of India.

 On Gubernatorial Discretion: Three Possibilities

There could be three possible outcomes of this petition. The Court could (a) uphold full discretion to the Governor in the aspect of appointment of a Chief Minister, or (b) circumscribe the discretion with judicially enforceable guidelines, or (c) completely restrict the Governor’s power to exercise his discretion in this regard.

Complete Discretion

The consequence of upholding full discretion of the Governor in the appointment of a Chief Minister is that the Court would not have the power to review any exercise of such sole discretion. There are a number of High Court decisions that have ruled so in the past. From S. Dharmalingam v. Governor of Tamil Nadu to Sapru Jayakar Motilal C.R. Das v. Union of India, the common reasoning appeared to be that the Governor acting under Article 164(1) exercised absolute, final discretion and that there was no possibility in the Constitution to read into Article 164(1) any restriction or condition.

This view, however, has been rejected by the Supreme Court when it overruled the cases of M.P. Sharma v. P.C. Ghose and Pratapsingh Raojirao Rane v. State of Goa in Nabam Rebia v. Speaker, Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly (para. 155.6). Both M.P. Sharma and Pratapsingh upheld the view that the appointment of a Chief Minister fell within the ambit of exercise of the Governor’s discretion, and that the same could not be questioned in any Court.

Hence, it is highly improbable that the Supreme Court will decline to intervene in the matter, considering that the prevailing view seems to be that the exercise of pleasure under Article 164(1) does not lie solely in the domain of the Governor’s discretion.

Limited Discretion

If the Court were to adopt this approach, it would uphold the Governor’s discretionary power, yet temper it with enforceable guidelines, to be applied specifically in the situation of a hung assembly. Therefore, while the Governor would still act without the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, she would be bound by these guidelines.

In B.R. Kapur v. State of Madras (para. 72), it was held that the Governor was not bound by the will of the people, but rather by the spirit of the Constitution. Consequently, a Governor cannot permit, nor be party to, any subversion of the law. ‘Government, or good governance, is a creature of the Constitution’. The Governor, being the topmost executive functionary in a state, bears the responsibility of preserving and maintaining the democratic framework.

In this regard, guidelines have already been stipulated by the Sarkaria Commission in 1988, the recommendations of which were echoed by the M.M. Punchhi Commission in 2010. In its report, it recognised that in choosing a Chief Minister, the Governor’s guiding consideration should be to call that party/alliance which commands the widest support in the Legislative Assembly to form the government. If there is no such party, the Governor should select a Chief Minister from among the following parties or group of parties by sounding them, in turn, in the order of preference indicated below:

  1. An alliance of parties that was formed prior to the Elections.
  2. The largest single party staking a claim to form the government with the support of others, including ‘independents’.
  3. A post-electoral coalition of parties, with all the partners in the coalition joining the Government.
  4. A post-electoral alliance of parties, with some of the parties in the alliance forming a Government and the remaining parties, including ‘independents’ supporting the Government from outside.

This appears to be the most likely outcome of the pending petition in question. While retaining a semblance of the constitutional discretion accorded to the Governor, the Court would still exercise ultimate authority over it, by laying down parameters similar to those prescribed in the Sarkaria Commission Report and permitting review of the discretion, should the Governor divert from these guidelines.

Negation 

The third option is that the Court could completely restrict the exercise of the Governor’s discretion in the appointment of the Chief Minister. Article 164(1) merely states that the Chief Minister and other ministers shall be appointed by the Governor. No where in the text of the Constitution is it mentioned that the Governor must invite the leader of a party/alliance who will then take oath as Chief Minister after which she, in the case of a hung assembly, would display her strength on the floor of the House.

Instead, the Court could rule to discard all the intermediary steps, and order a speedy floor test (in order to prevent horse trading) after every election verdict which produces a hung assembly. It is accepted (para. 119) that the proper test for the strength of the government is on the floor of the House, and not dependent on the subjective satisfactions of Governor. The floor test would automatically show which party/alliance enjoys the support of the majority of the House. In such a situation, the role of the Governor would simply be limited to just appointing the Chief Minister, thereby not requiring any exercise of her discretion. In fact, this possibility has already been recognised in the case of K. A. Mathialagan v. Governor of Tamil Nadu (para. 11).

This would be in accordance with principles of parliamentary democracy as envisaged in S. R. Chaudhuri v. Union of India (para. 21). Here, the Court observed that representation of people, responsible government, and accountability of the Council of Ministers to the Legislature form the pillars of a parliamentary democracy. There can be no better way to ensure this than by reducing Executive interference and omitting this aspect of the Governor’s discretion. ‘In a democracy governed by rule of law, the only acceptable repository of absolute discretion should be the courts.’

The concerns regarding the abuse of gubernatorial discretion were raised even in the Constituent Assembly. H.V. Kamath, Shibban Lal Saxena, and Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, all expressed apprehensions that the discretion accorded to the Governor would be wrong in principle and contrary to the tenets of constitutional government. It was considered all the more serious as the Governor was to be nominated and not elected. The view was that the discretion under Article 143 (as it then was) was a colonial relic that should have been done away with. To this, B.R. Ambedkar’s only response was the Article should be retained as the constitutions of Australia and Canada had similar provisions and there had been no need to delete them even after nearly a century.

In today’s times, the concerns of abuse of discretion are valid. Yet, this radical approach of negating discretion completely appears to be an unlikely path for the Court to follow. It, however, poses an interesting academic question.

Conclusion

The judgment in G. Parameshwara v. Union of India is highly awaited as it will finally lay to rest issues pertaining to the Governor’s role in a hung assembly. This will have consequences on the health of the federal democracy and constitutional spirit in the country.

Freedom of Speech: A Round-Up of Recent Judicial Pronouncements

(Editor’s Note: Over the last few months, I have been unable to write here as frequently as I would have liked to. Over the course of this month, I will try to post a series of round-up pieces summarising some broad developments since January ’18. The first of these posts is about the freedom of speech.)

The Supreme Court’s right to privacy judgment was meant to be about expanding the individual rights against State (and private) power. However, as the last few years have shown, our Courts are experts at turning shields that are meant to guard rights into swords to cut them down. An excellent example of this is the Madras High Court’s judgment in Thiru P. Varadarajan v Kanimozhi, which imposed a gag order upon a Tamil magazine with respect to articles about the “private life” of Kanimozhi. The High Court was hearing an application to vacate an injunction against a magazine that had been granted four years ago. In refusing to vacate the injunction, the Court relied upon the right to privacy judgment – citing copiously from it; the core of its reasoning was this:

“The concluding remarks of Hon’ble Mr. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul [in the privacy judgment] are as follows:

‘Let the right of privacy, an inherent right, be unequivocally a fundamental right embedded in part-III of the Constitution of India, but subject to the restrictions specified, relatable to that part. This is the call of today. The old order changeth yielding place to new.’

Therefore, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had while recognising the right of privacy is a fundamental right, in fact called for a new order, which would offer a preeminent position to the right to privacy.”

This is a standard of legal “reasoning” that would get you a failing grade in Legal Methods 101. The High Court cites the closing line of the concurring opinion of one judge out of nine – a line that is self-evidently pure rhetoric, and uses that to invent a mythical “new order” in which privacy has been given “pre-eminence” (over the freedom of speech). The High Court seems to be unaware of the operative part of the privacy judgment, which affirms all the cases that have elaborated upon the scope of the right to privacy after Gobind, including cases where the balance between privacy and free speech was discussed (such as R. R. Rajagopal). The question of whether the balance is to be struck by granting (everlasting) injunctions has been a fraught one, and there is at least one detailed and well-reasoned High Court judgment (Khushwant Singh) that holds that the correct remedy is not to gag speech, but to provide for damages in case privacy is breached.

There is, therefore, no warrant for the High Court’s free-floating conclusion that “the theory that there cannot be a prior restraint or a gag order upon the press or Media stands diluted… after Puttaswamy’s Case.” Puttaswamy has absolutely nothing to say about prior restraint or gag orders. Puttaswamy was never dealing with the issue of balancing competing rights (in this case privacy and the freedom of speech), and did not change the law in this regard in any manner. Mercifully, the High Court does not, in the end, grant a blanket injunction, but a qualified one (albeit with entirely vague contours, banning any articles about the “private life” of Kanimozhi), along with a blanket right of reply.

Unfortunately, the Madras High Court’s order is not even the worst of the gag orders in recent times. That prize is jointly shared by two Delhi High Court orders: the incoherent, four-page stream-of-consciousness order gagging Cobrapost from reporting its sting on Dainik Bhaskar, and the order restoring the gag upon the publication and sale of Ramdev’s biography; as well as the Gujarat High Court order gagging The Wire from publishing about Jay Shah. Notably, the latter two examples are of High Courts stepping in to restore gag orders after trial courts hearing the cases have vacated them.

These “interim” orders, which have the luxury of being virtually unreasoned because they are granted before any kind of substantive hearing, effectively kill the speech in question, given how long legal proceedings take in India. They are effectively decisions on the merits without any kind of examination of merits, and they choke off the marketplace of ideas at the very source. In developing a philosophy of “gag first, ask questions later“, the High Courts seem to be blissfully oblivious of the fact that what is at stake is a foundational fundamental right (Article 19(1)(a)); this is not some civil suit where you direct “status quo” pending final resolution. The more that “gag first, ask questions later” becomes standard judicial practice, the more Article 19(1)(a) will be reduced to a dead letter – and the doing of the deed will not be by the executive, but by the judiciary.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has tended to be as careless with words as the gagging High Courts. A recent example of this is Bimal Gurung v Union of IndiaThe case was about transferring FIRs to an independent investigation agency. While the FIRs were, in part, based on violent demonstrations, there was no need for the Court to go into the constitutional status of demonstrations in the first place. However, it chose to do so, and then came up with this:

“Demonstrations are also a mode of expression of the rights guaranteed underArticle 19(1)(a). Demonstrations whether political, religious or social or other demonstrations which create public disturbances or operate as nuisances, or create or manifestly threaten some tangible public or private mischief, are not covered by protection under Article 19(1).”

The Constitution is a carefully-drafted document. The framers agonised over the fundamental rights chapter, and in particular, there were long and stormy debates about the restrictions that were being placed upon fundamental rights. Every word that finally made it into the Constitution was debated extensively, and there were many words that were proposed and dropped. This is why Article 19(2) has eight very specific sub-clauses that list out the restrictions on speech. They include “public order”, “the sovereignty and integrity of India”, and “incitement to an offence” (among others). They do not include “nuisance”, “disturbance”, or “private mischief.” Apart from the fact that these are very vague terms that a judge can apply in a boundlessly manipulable fashion to shut down speech that he doesn’t like (recall that similarly vague provisions were struck down as unconstitutional in Shreya Singhal), there is an excellent constitutional reason why “nuisance” and “disturbance” are not part of 19(2). That is because if only acceptable speech was legally permitted, you would never need to have a fundamental right guaranteeing it. It’s only speech that is, in some ways, a nuisance or a disturbance, which a government (or powerful private parties) would like to curtail. This is especially true for demonstrations: the whole point of a demonstration is to put your point across by causing a degree of nuisance and disturbance (short of violence or incitement to offences). What that degree is, is a matter of judicial determination, by applying a reasonable time-place-manner test.

It may be argued that we should not make much of these stray observations, made in a case that was about an entirely different issue (a transfer of FIRs). However, that misses the point: words matter, and they matter especially when the Supreme Court is the author. The normalisation of “disturbance” and “nuisance” as invented restrictions on free speech can have a creeping effect on the scope of 19(2), especially given how stray Supreme Court paragraphs are regularly cited before lower Courts, and regularly applied by judges. In that context, there is an even greater obligation upon the Supreme Court to be careful with words.