As the dust settles over Navtej Johar v Union of India, attention must turn to the future. When, last year, the Supreme Court delivered the famous privacy judgment, it was immediately clear that it was both important in its own right, but also, equally important in the possibilities that it opened up for future expansion of civil rights. Navtej Johar – as I mentioned in my initial essay – was itself made possible by the privacy judgment. And Navtej Johar – in turn – now opens up a series of possibilities. Here are three of them:
A. “Manifest arbitrariness” as a ground for striking down laws
As readers of the blog are aware, we have previously discussed the long judicial tussle between the “classification” and the “arbitrariness” tests under Article 14 of the Constitution. To cut the long story short, the traditional rational classification standard under Article 14 has always been deferential towards the State, and incapable of addressing complex inequalities. Arbitrariness was introduced to mitigate the shortcomings of the classification standard, but has itself ended up being rather … arbitrary. Notwithstanding that, there has always been controversy over whether the arbitrariness standard is limited to invalidating executive action (which would, essentially, reduce it to a glorified Wednesbury principle), or whether it can be applied to invalidate statutes as well.
In the Triple Talaq judgment last year, at least two judges out of five held that “manifest arbitrariness” could, indeed, be applied by courts to invalidate statutes. It was unclear whether the “swing opinion” – that of Joseph J. – endorsed this principle. Subsequent judgments (delivered by two judges) appeared to believe that it did. However, the controversy has now been set to rest. In Navtej Johar – as Abhinav Chandrachud points out in his guest post – all five judges partially strike down S. 377 on grounds of manifest arbitrariness.
What does this mean for civil rights? There is one immediate implication. Three years ago, in Rajbala v State of Haryana (which I have analysed here), the Supreme Court upheld the State of Haryana’s amendments to the Panchayati Raj Act, which had imposed educational, debt and property-based restrictions upon the right to contest Panchayat elections. The judgment expressly held that the “arbitrariness standard” could not – and would not – be applied to test the law under Article 14. As Mihir Naniwadekar pointed out at the time, there was a strong argument that the Rajbala bench was bound to apply the arbitrariness standard, under existing precedent. Two judges out of five believed so in Triple Talaq, when they expressly stated that Rajbala stood overruled on this point. And that view has not been vindicated by the verdict of all five judges in Navtej Johar. Rajbala, therefore, requires reconsideration.
(N.B. I should add that, as previously discussed on this blog, I do not think the arbitrariness standard – as it stands, and without further development – is constitutionally defensible. However, it is what it is.)
B. Discrimination as a contextual enquiry
Justice Chandrachud’s concurring judgment in Navtej Johar argues at great length that the question of whether a law or a rule has a discriminatory effect must be answered by taking into account the background social context in which the law operates. In 2013, in its judgment upholding Section 377, the Supreme Court in Koushal v Naz Foundation had held that in criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, the section only penalized “acts”, and not persons; consequently, the question of discrimination did not arise. In a detailed repudiation of this facile argument, Justice Chandrachud examines how, when Section 377 interacts with the existing social and moral proscriptions, its effect is to confine the LGBT+ community to the proverbial closet, causing great harm to their individuality, personhood, and dignity. Whatever the form of the law, therefore, its effect – when placed within the social context – is discriminatory.
This focus on effect and context has the potential to significantly advance discrimination jurisprudence in India. As an example, take once again the judgment in Rajbala v State of Haryana. While upholding educational disqualifications in that case, the Court noted that it was only education that allowed people to distinguish between right and wrong. What the Court didn’t take into account, however, was that despite our legal and constitutional framework, access to education continues to be skewed along caste, gender, and economic lines, for a multiplicity of reasons (ranging from stereotypes about women’s role in the family, to simple economic stress that does not permit the luxury of sending children to school). This has been pointed out repeatedly, and is well-documented. For example:
A glimpse at Haryana’s background tells us how deeply it is entrenched in patriarchy. It has one of the most skewed sex ratios in India — 877 overall and 837 in the 0-6 year age group. Male literacy rate is 85 pc, against 66 pc for females, a significant gap.
Therefore, while the law in Rajbala appeared to be about incentivizing education (a laudable goal), its effect was to further marginalize from the political process those who were already most marginalised. If Chandrachud J.’s reasoning in Navtej Johar is followed, this background context cannot be ignored.
The Supreme Court has an immediate opportunity to correct its error in Rajbala: the State of Rajasthan passed a very similar law at around the same time, which is yet to be adjudicated upon by the Court.
It is, after all, never out of season to dream.
C. Analogous grounds
In her concurring opinion, Justice Indu Malhotra argues that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution. Article 15(1) prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, race, religion, caste, and place of birth. Justice Malhotra takes the view, however, that Article 15(1) covers not only these five stipulated grounds, but also “analogous” grounds: that is, characteristics that bear a family resemblance to sex, race, religion etc. What is common to the “grounds” under 15(1) – Justice Malhotra argues – is that they are either immutable (i.e., impossible or extremely difficult to change), and/or deeply linked to personal autonomy. Sexual orientation, thus, is an “analogous ground”, and therefore protected under Article 15(1).
Malhotra J.’s interpretation is difficult to sustain on the text of Article 15(1), which makes it clear that it refers to a “closed list of grounds” – i.e., the Court cannot add to the five grounds stipulated therein. However, if Justice Malhotra’s view is accepted in future judgments, it does open up Article 15(1) to a range of discrimination claims: for example, age, disability, political belief, and economic status are just a few of the possible “grounds” that can be invoked as analogous, and therefore, protected by a non-discrimination guarantee. Here, once again, the Court must tread carefully, and develop the law in an incremental and rigorous fashion.
For a long time now, the Indian Supreme Court’s thinking on issues of equality and non-discrimination has been static. This is contrary to other jurisdictions such as Canada and South Africa, where judges have deepened their understanding of these questions, over time. Navtej Johar’s judgment provides us with a gateway to updating our own understanding of Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution, to match with ever more sophisticated accounts of what constitutes inequality and discrimination. However, it is only the foundation stone: the future development of the law is now in the hands of the courts.