‘Atypical’ Love: The Supreme Court’s Decision in Deepika Singh vs CAT

[This is a guest post by Karan Gupta.]


In a recent judgment delivered in Deepika Singh v. Central Administrative Tribunal and Ors., the Supreme Court of India granted relief to a woman, who had been denied maternity leave on the ground that she had previously availed child-care leave for her two non-biological children. Although it is a short judgment, the underlying premises and the observations recorded have far-reaching implications for the socio-legal understanding of parental-care as well as the traditional understanding of the ‘family unit’.

I argue that the line of enquiry adopted by the Court was informed by the target beneficiary of the provisions (women) and the manner in which gender-ascribed parental-care roles exclude women from the job market. The Court relied on these ascribed roles for the limited purpose of assessing whether twin-benefits of maternity leave and child-care leave may be extended. At the same time, the Court was cautious to avoid the trap of essentialising women with child-care responsibilities [I]. I assess how the Court’s expansion of the traditional parent-child paradigm as extending beyond biological children has implications for the traditional socio-legal understating of the ‘family’ as being a fixed and unchanging unit comprised solely of a married cis-heterosexual man (father/husband) and a cis-heterosexual woman (mother/wife), and children born to them. I explore the broader contributions of this to Indian jurisprudence [II]. I conclude that the Court recognised not just the myriad ways in which individuals assume parental responsibility, but also the myriad ways in which individuals forge familial ties. In doing so, the Court has invited a re-imagination which offers a significant contribution to broadening the ambit of a “right to love” from being restricted to the right to form intimate relationships with a limited set of individuals, to mean the right to form intimate relationships with anyone.

Facts

The case concerned a challenge to the denial of maternity leave to a woman (‘appellant’) for her first biological child. Under Rule 43(1) of the Central Services (Leave Rules) 1972 (‘1972 Rules’), a female government employee “with less than two surviving children” may apply for maternity leave for a period of 180 days. Under Rule 43-C, a female government employee with minor children may apply for child-care leave for a maximum period of two years to take “care of up to two children”. The Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (‘Institute’) denied the appellant’s maternity leave application on the ground that she had entered into the register and availed child-care leave for two children of her spouse from his previous marriage. Consequently, her first biological child, deemed by the Institute to be her third child, disentitled her to maternity leave under Rule 43(1), as she failed to meet the statutory condition of having fewer than two surviving children.

The court of the first instance (Central Administrative Tribunal) and the appellate court (High Court of Judicature) dismissed her challenge on similar grounds. The core question before the Supreme Court, centered around Rule 43(1), was whether a woman who availed child-care leave for two non-biological children was disentitled from availing maternity leave for a biological child.

Holding

The Court held that maternity leave and child-care leave constituted distinct entitlements, with the latter being available at any time (for instance, during the child’s education or sickness) and not just at the time of birth. The Court further held that merely because the appellant undertook child-care responsibilities “in ways that may not find a place in the popular imagination”, she was not disentitled from availing maternity leave. The Court concluded that “the fact that the appellant’s spouse had two biological children from his first marriage would not impinge upon the entitlement of the appellant to avail maternity leave for her sole biological child.” Thus, even though the Institute had permitted the appellant to register two non-biological children and avail child-care leave, she would be entitled to maternity leave under Rule 43(1) for her first biological child.

It is how the Court reached this conclusion that is worth unpacking in some detail.

Analysis

Framing the line of enquiry under a (beneficial) delegated legislation

Note that the 1972 Rules are silent on whether the word ‘children’ in Rules 43(1) and 43-C means biological children only. A focus on defining the word could have resulted in an anomalous situation. If the Court had concluded that ‘children’ in Rule 43(1) meant only biological children, the appellant would have been granted relief, but a strong argument could then be made to deny the grant of child-care leave under Rule 43-C for non-biological children (as both provisions use the word ‘children’). On the other hand, if the Court had concluded (as the Respondents argued) that the word ‘children’ in Rule 43(1) included non-biological children, the appellant would have been denied maternity leave on the ground that her first biological child is a deemed third child.

Could an alternate line of enquiry be framed which may avoid this anomalous situation? The Court shifted focus away from the ambit of the word ‘children’ to the target beneficiary of the two provisions – women. This involved an exercise in determining the objective with which the 1972 Rules were framed.

The Court examined similar provisions (under the Maternity Benefit Act 1961) and held that the objective of these provisions is to ensure that childbirth or child-care responsibilities do not disentitle an individual from being paid their wages during a period of leave for childbirth or child-care. In their logic, the 1972 Rules “entrench and enhance” the general non-discrimination principle of Article 15 of the Constitution and flow from the enabling provision in Article 15(3) to enact beneficial provisions for advancing the interests of women. Having reached this conclusion, the Court’s enquiry was further informed by the effect of gender-ascribed parental roles in preventing women from accessing the economic marketplace.

The Court opined that that in cis-heterosexual families (such as the present case), women often undertake a disproportionate share of child-care. The Court relied on statistics which found that women spend 577% more time on unpaid work than men (presumed to account for disproportionate child-care responsibilities), and held that “women continue to bear the primary responsibility for child-care”. Consequently, the 1972 Rules align with Constitutional postulate under Article 15 and cognate legislation and constitute socially beneficial delegated legislation.

An important question is apposite here – does this reliance on gender-ascribed parental roles unwittingly essentialise women with child-care? The Court avoided consciously falling into this trap. The Court noted that women are “pressed” to undertake a disproportionate share because of “gendered roles assigned to women and societal expectations”. Compelled by these social circumstances, they often find themselves excluded from the economic marketplace. The Court was careful in recognizing that child-care includes maternity leave, paternity leave and child-care leave. These observations are significant. The Court referred to gender-ascribed parental roles which operate in society to prejudice and stereotype women (de facto) to frame the nature of the 1972 rules as a beneficial delegated legislation. At the same time however, the Court carefully rejected an essentialisiation through an underlying reasoning that the idea of women as caretakers is not ‘natural’ but ascribed.

The recognition of de facto inequality or unfavorable treatment and employing it in extending a benefit to those at its receiving end itself promises broad implications beyond a case on maternity leave. Recall here that it is a common defense against indirect discrimination claims generally that as long as the law applies equally to all people (de jure equality), it is irrelevant how the same may perpetuate inequality in effect on the ground (de facto inequality). In this understanding, any interpretation of the law or action operates independently of the social current and on-ground realities. However, a fundamental problem with this acontextual interpretation is that it overlooks that the legal order, in fundamentally seeking to govern social relations, must be informed by social realities. For instance, it is odd to fix an arbitrary minimum wage without a complete understanding of present-day wages, the purchasing power of those wages, and the minimum standard of living required for a fulfilling life. There is a strong argument then social currents and power structures must be recognised and inform the interpretation of the law.

Here, the Court undertook two distinct steps – first, it recorded a finding on the objective of the 1972 Rules by focusing on women as the target beneficiaries and second, crucially, it recognised and relied on de facto inequality caused by gender-ascribed parental roles to inform its understanding of the 1972 Rules and conclude that it is a socially-beneficial delegated legislation. In the process, it affirmed that the law and its interpretation must be alive to social realities, including de facto inequality which operates in society. Further, it is possible to inform our understanding and the interpretation of the law by recognising de facto inequality, without essentialising/crystallising those identities (see Seigal’s excellent work on how a rejection of de facto inequality in informing law and policy has complicated the affirmative action debate of the SCOTUS).

Adopting the reasoning above enabled the Court to frame the core enquiry in the adjudication – whether an individual could be extended a twin-benefit (child care-leave and maternity leave) under a beneficial delegated legislation. This was a viable alternative to focusing on the ambit of ‘children’ and consequently adopting one of the two alternate paths which would frustrate one benefit. This sets the stage for the judgment to assume further significance in inviting a re-imagination of parental care and the understanding of ‘family’.

The Forms of Parental Care and Familial Love

In the traditional parent-child paradigm, parental care is assumed to be restricted to biological children. The Court recognised that this understanding ignores the myriad ways in which individuals come to assume parental-care responsibilities – either by choice or circumstance. Guardians and caretakers of children, who often occupy the roles of ‘mother’ and ‘father’, may “change with remarriage, adoption, or fostering.” Thus, individuals often assume parental-care responsibilities towards non-biological children as well.

For instance, in the present case, the appellant had transcended the traditional parent-child paradigm and assumed the role of a parent by caring for two children who were born to her husband from his previous marriage. Similarly, an individual may adopt a child and consequently assume the role of a parent. In both cases, the individual transcends the traditional parent-child paradigm and assumes parental responsibility for non-biological children. By reading the terms ‘guardian’ and ‘caretaker’ on one hand and ‘parent’ on the other as non-exclusive terms, the Court was alive to social realities and questioned the foundation of restricting the understanding of parental-care to only biological children. To the Court (and rightly so), parental-care manifests in numerous ways which extends beyond biological children. On the face of it, these observations are significant in recognising that individuals manifest their love towards both biological and non-biological children and step into the shoes of a parent.

What implications does this have for the conception of the ‘family’?

The traditional parent-child paradigm often informs and is informed by an understanding of the family as a fixed and unchanging unit comprising a married heterosexual man (husband/father) and a heterosexual woman (wife/mother), and children born to them. In this understanding, the family unit exists for the procreation and care of children and by extension, a family unit is definitionally a marital union between a man and a woman. In society and in law then, any other union is not considered a family, and individuals in such unions who assume child-care would be guardians at best, but not parents. This understanding of the family, coupled with the traditional parent-child paradigm, excludes from the popular understanding of a family and parental responsibility any non-conforming structures which may comprise loving partners (including queer relationships) and child-care responsibility (including non-biological children).  

However, as the Court broadened the traditional parent-child paradigm to include parent-care outside marriage (i.e., through remarriage, adoption, or fostering), this opened one door to interrogate and reject the assumption of the family as a fixed and unchanging unit comprising a union between a man and woman. Addressing this understanding of the family, the Court held:

“…This assumption ignores…the fact that many families do not conform to this expectation to begin with. Familial relationships may take the form of domestic, unmarried partnerships or queer relationships. A household may be a single parent household for any number of reasons, including the death of a spouse, separation, or divorce. Similarly, the guardians and caretakers (who traditionally occupy the roles of the “mother” and the “father”) of children may change with remarriage, adoption, or fostering. These manifestations of love and of families may not be typical but they are as real as their traditional counterparts. Such atypical manifestations of the family unit are equally deserving not only of protection under law but also of the benefits available under social welfare legislation.” [Emphasis added]

The above observations are significant. The Court recognised that unmarried partnerships or queer relationships, though outside popular imagination, are manifestations of a family and are equally deserving not only of protection under the law (say in the negative sense of non-discrimination), but also the benefit of the law (say in the extension of social benefits and entitlements). To the Court, the family is not a fixed and unchanging unit, but is fluid in being a manifestation of the many ways in which we express love.

This expanded understanding of the ‘family’ is significant for two reasons:         

First, in India, the beneficiaries of marriage legislation (and by extension divorce and maintenance legislation) are cis-heterosexual individuals, and the beneficiaries of adoption legislation are married couples or single individuals. Whilst some benefits have been extended to unmarried partnerships, this is largely confined to cis-heterosexual partnerships. Presently, as same sex marriage has no legal basis, queer relationships are denied legal recognition of marital ties as well as the right to adoption. For instance, under the Adoption Regulations, 2017, framed by Central Adoption Resource Authority, despite some ambiguity, only married couples having at least two years of stable marital relationship are eligible for adoption. Thus, while there is no direct prohibition to same-sex couples adopting children, the lack of a legal recognition of same-sex marriage means that adoptions by same-sex couples are indirectly barred. Keep in mind that this bars not only individuals who enter atypical familial relationships from adopting/or fostering but also children from receiving love and care from such individuals.

Recall here my observations above that the Court’s recognition of de facto inequality and unfavorable treatment has broad implications beyond this case. Pending and future cases which either challenge the exclusion of certain forms of companionship or parent-care from legal recognition can bring to fore and rely on how the lack of legal recognition furthers de facto inequality and unfavourable treatment. In backdrop of multiple petitions pending before the Delhi High Court seeking the recognition of same-sex marriage and the opposing stand of the Union Government that ‘spouse’ means only a husband and wife, the observations on de facto inequality invite an interpretation which extends the protection under and benefit of the law, rather than denies the same. Further, the marked observations on unmarried partnerships and queer relationships as a manifestation of family assume significance in setting the basis for a precedent-backed argument for legal recognition.

Second, these observations contribute to the rising stream in Indian jurisprudence which broadens the understanding of a “right to love” from being restricted to the right to form intimate relationships with a limited set of individuals, to mean the right to form intimate relationships with anyone. Recall here that in decriminalising consensual sexual relations between same-sex individuals and also recognising the right to love as extending beyond sexual acts, the Supreme Court in Navtej Johar had opined that the battle against:

“…the limits imposed by structures such as gender, caste, class, religion and community makes the right to love not just a separate battle for LGBT individuals, but a battle for all.”

The Court also held that:

“…decriminalisation is a first step. The constitutional principles on which it is based have application to a broader range of entitlements.” [Emphasis added]

This steady stream has seen other recent inflows from different quarters. In 2019, the Madras High Court upheld a marriage between a cisgendered man and a transgender woman, thus legitimising the validity of marriage across different genders. In Shafin Jahan v Ashokan, the Supreme Court opined that:

“The choice of a partner whether within or outside marriage lies within the exclusive domain of each individual. Intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy, which is inviolable. The absolute right of an individual to choose a life partner is not in the least affected by matters of faith.” [Emphasis added]

This stream hints that the time is ripe to interrogate the socio-legal barriers which reduce the right to love to demarcated and pre-defined patterns of companionship. In Deepika Singh, not only did the Court recognise manifestations of love which cut across the traditional parent-child paradigm and the traditional understanding of the ‘family’, it also concluded that equal benefit of the law (here maternity leave) may not be denied on such basis. This advocates for a step further than the mere removal of legal barriers and extends to the benefits provided under law.

It appears that the Court did not record a definitive finding on the meaning of ‘children’ in the Rules 43(1) and 43-C. It appears to have avoided the anomalous situation noted above by expanding the traditional parent-child paradigm to include child-care for non-biological children whilst also opining that the Institute’s decision to grant child-care leave for the appellant’s non-biological children may be a matter on which the Institute took a compassionate view at the relevant time. Informed however by its understanding that the 1972 Rules facilitate the continuation of women in the workplace and that an interpretation which extends the twin-benefits of child-care leave and maternity leave should be adopted, the Court held that appellant should not be denied maternity leave merely because she entered into a parent-child relationship or undertook child-care responsibilities “in ways that may not find a place in the popular imagination”.

Conclusion

At first glance, the extension of the maternity leave benefit to the appellant appears to be a work-around explicit statutory text making maternity leave conditional to having fewer than two surviving children. However, as I have argued above, it is in the underlying premises and the reasoning adopted by the Court in reaching its conclusion, that the judgment assumes significance. By recognising gender-ascribed parental stereotypes and extending a twin benefit under the 1972 Rules on its basis, the Court advanced gender justice and also invited a more inclusive reimagination of the family. In recognising the numerous ways in which individuals manifest love towards children (remarriage, adoption, and fostering), and the atypical ways in which individuals manifest love towards one another (unmarried partnerships or queer relationships), the Court recognised not just the myriad ways in which individuals assume parental responsibility, but also the myriad ways in which individuals forge familial ties. In doing so, Deepika Singh marks a significant contribution to broadening the ambit of a right to love from being restricted to the right to form intimate relationships with a limited set of individuals to mean the right to form intimate relationships with anyone.


Disclosure: the author is a former judicial-law-clerk of the judgment-author.

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