Category Archives: Article 21 and the Right to Life

Guest Post: Against Natural Rights—Why the Supreme Court should NOT declare the right to intimacy as a natural right

(This is the third and final guest post by Professor Tarunabh Khaitan on the 377 Hearings, which concluded today.)

As the Supreme Court prepares to defang the provision of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, it might be tempted to rely on its recently-revived ‘natural rights’ jurisprudence in order to do so. It is not hard to imagine that some of the judges might be tempted to hold that the ‘right to intimacy’ is an inherent and irrevocable ‘natural right’ (or, simply, declare it to be a facet of the right to privacy, which in turn has been held to be a natural right—I do not doubt that intimacy is a facet of privacy, or that privacy is indeed a fundamental right—my only complaint is against their characterisation as natural rights).

The rhetorical implications of such a move could be significant—the Court would be saying that the ‘natural order’, far from condemning homosexuals, requires their protection. Unlike the two previous posts on these hearings (available here and here), which urged the Court to be expansive in its holdings, I will argue in this post that the Supreme Court should not rely upon the language of natural rights in its judgment in this case. In fact, it would do well to retreat from the expansive embrace of natural rights in Puttaswamy to the extent it is possible for a smaller bench to do so.

Let us begin with Golaknath, that famous precursor to Kesavananda Bharati, where the Supreme Court held by a majority in 1967 that fundamental rights in the Constitution were unamendable:

“fundamental rights … are embodied in Part III of the Constitution and they may be classified thus : (i) right to equality, (ii) right to freedom, (iii) right against exploitation, (iv) right to freedom of religion, (v) cultural and educational rights, (vi) right to property, and (vii) right to constitutional remedies. … ‘Fundamental rights’ are the modern name for what have been traditionally known as ‘natural rights’. … Our Constitution, in addition to the well-known fundamental rights, also included the rights of the minorities, untouchables and other backward communities, in such rights.” [Paragraph 22, Justice Subbarao]

Even as Justice Subbarao equated fundamental rights with natural rights, he noted that although the right to property counted as a natural right, the rights of disadvantaged minorities against discrimination did not (although the more general right to equality did). This is the nub of the problem with the natural rights discourse—it has traditionally had a libertarian orientation which robustly protects the right to property (including, arguably, intellectual property) and the right to life of a foetus, but becomes faint-hearted when it comes to the enforcement of socially transformative rights like the right against discrimination or the right to employment. And it has had an intellectual history in recent Western thought that has been hostile to LGBTQ rights.

In Kesavananda Bharati, the Court spoke in multiple voices on all sorts of questions, including on the place of natural rights in the Constitution. The rightly-overruled judgment of the Supreme Court in ADM, Jabalpur conducts a superficial exegesis of what the majority actually held in Kesavananda with regard to natural rights, claiming that 7 judges on the Kesavananda bench rejected the natural rights thesis [at para 548]. This reading of Kesavananda is confirmed in another Emergency-era case called Bhanudas Gawde [para 41-2]. I must confess to not having checked myself whether this reading of the meandering and complicated judgment in Kesavananda is correct, ie whether a majority in that case did indeed hold that natural rights jurisprudence has no place in Indian law.

At least according to Justice Khanna, however, whose judgment came to be seen as the opinion of the Court in Kesavananda:

“It is up to the state to incorporate natural rights, or such of them as are deemed essential, and subject to such limitations as are considered appropriate, in the Constitution or the laws made by it. But independently of the Constitution and the laws of the state, natural rights can have no legal sanction and cannot be enforced.” [para 1509]

This must be seen as the correct position on natural rights in Kesavananda. Any other reading of the case would suggest that there are two independent, if overlapping, limits on the power of amendment—the basic structure of the constitution and some pre-constitutional, irrevocable, natural rights. Such a reading would entail that Kesavananda merely added a new ground for reviewing amendments to Golaknath. We know, however, that the Court in Kesavananda expressly overruled Golaknath. Thus, the only reading of Kesavananda’s position on natural rights that is compatible with the basic structure doctrine as the sole ground for limiting the amending power is the one articulated in Justice Khanna’s judgment.

Recent cases, however, have resurrected the natural rights discourse. In Basantibai Khetan, the Bombay High Court held in 1983 that the right to property was a natural right [para 19]. In NALSA, a 2-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that “Article 19(1) guarantees those great basic rights which are recognized and guaranteed as the natural rights inherent in the status of the citizen of a free country.” [para 62]. Perhaps most crucially, in Puttaswamy, several judges on the 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court—some selectively citing passages from Kesavananda Bharati—declared the right to privacy to be an inherent, inalienable natural right [Chandrachud J, para 40-46, 119; Justice Bobde, para 12, 16; Nariman, para 92]. Justice Chelameswar was the only judge on the Puttaswamy bench who did not join the natural rights bandwagon.

Whatever individual judges in Kesavananda might have said, if my argument above that Justice Khanna’s position on natural rights is the most coherent reading of the case on this point is correct, Indian courts are permitted to note that an express or implied fundamental right embodies or recognises some natural right (as the courts in Khetan and NALSA do), but are not permitted to directly enforce or recognise any natural rights without the mediation of the constitutional framework. To the extent that Puttaswamy does this, it would be bad in law (caveat: I believe that Puttaswamy rightly held that the right to privacy is an implied right that flows from other fundamental rights, my only challenge is to any additional justification for the ruling supplied by relying on privacy as a natural right).

Apart from being potentially in breach of stare decisis, the resurrection of the natural rights discourse in Puttaswamy is unfortunate and unnecessary. It is unnecessary because everything the Court needs doctrinally and normatively is already available in the constitutional provisions and values, its historical ethos, and its basic structure. These constitutional resources are sufficient to hold that habeas corpus cannot be suspended, that transgender persons have a fundamental right to equality, non-discrimination and liberty, and that the right to privacy is a fundamental, irrevocable, constitutional right. Seeking additional support from a dubious notion of natural rights does no good, and has the potential to do harm.

The resurgence of the natural rights jurisprudence—rooted in a conservative Christian ethos—is unfortunate because of its traditionally regressive role in promoting libertarian values, including its hostility to the right to abortion, homosexuality and material redistribution. It will be particularly galling for the Court to use a philosophical concept that whose main intellectual proponent, John Finnis, advocated for the continued criminalization of homosexual conduct.

Apart from its conservative roots, the natural rights discourse is too amorphous to be entirely safe in the hands of the courts. True, the basic structure doctrine is also amorphous, but our constitutional text and history place limits on what a court can find as part of the basic structure of our Constitution. The natural rights discourse places no such limit—what is to prevent a court from saying that my interest in a copyright or in hate speech is my natural right?

Lastly, LGBTQ activists have long challenged ideas of ‘naturalness’, a notion that has typically reflected values and mores of the powerful sections in a society. As noted queer theorist Judith Butler wrote in Gender Trouble, her “dogged effort to ‘denaturalize’ gender” emerged “from a strong desire … to uproot the pervasive assumptions about natural or presumptive heterosexuality that are informed by ordinary and academic discourses on sexuality.” It is hardly surprising that Butler sees denaturalization of gender and sexuality as a precondition for true liberation. The concept of a preordained natural order is, after all, status-quoist in its essence. Its naturalness is only evident to those who benefit from things as they are.

The petitioners have asked the Court to recognise their constitutional rights. The Court will do them a disfavour to insist that their rights are not just constitutional, but also somehow natural. The natural order of things has seemed unfair from the vantage point of those on its margins. Arguments invoking the natural order have a habit of getting in the way of things as they should be. Ours is a transformative rather than an acquiescent constitutional heritage. It is a tradition informed by voices from the margins of society, and not just its natural core. That is the tradition we need to invoke as we extend the ethos of inclusiveness to a long-excluded minority, rather than rely on an at-best elusive, at-worst reactionary, notion of natural rights.

(Dr Tarunabh Khaitan is an Associate Professor in Law at Oxford and Melbourne, and the General Editor of the Indian Law Review. The views expressed are his own, and not attributable to any of these institutions. I am grateful to Ira Chadha-Sridhar for her help with caselaw research.)

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Guest Post: Inclusive Pluralism or Majoritarian Nationalism: Article 15, Section 377 and Who We Really Are

(This is a guest post by Tarunabh Khaitan, who is an Associate Professor of Law at the Universities of Oxford and Melbourne.)

The guarantee of non-discrimination under Article 15 of the Constitution is not an essential weapon to fight the criminalisation of victimless consensual sexual acts between adults under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The ridiculousness of such criminalisation is so patent that even a deferential quest for reasonableness under Article 14 of the Constitution will find the criminal provision wanting. Nor is the provision likely to pass muster with the guarantee of personal liberty and privacy under Article 21. Indeed, there is even a view that no constitutional provision needs to be invoked—that s. 377 can be defanged through a mere statutory reinterpretation in light of changes social facts.

Judicial minimalism (and, the related notion of constitutional avoidance)—the idea that if a case can be decided on narrower grounds, courts should avoid bringing the big guns out—is usually wise counsel. The case before the Supreme Court, however, is unusual. This is an instance where the Court has a constitutional obligation to unrelentingly apply the full moral force of the antidiscrimination principle embedded in Article 15 against s 377, in addition to the arguments mentioned above. There are at least two reasons why judicial minimalism will be unwarranted in this case.

The first reason is institutional. The Court needs to atone for its own institutional sin in recriminalising homosexual conduct by overruling the constitutionally sound judgment of the Delhi High Court. This is an opportunity for the Court to apologise to the Constitution, for its abject failure to defend its values. The Court also owes an apology to millions of innocent Indians who it rebranded as criminals in 2013. It much acknowledge, loudly and clearly, the violence its judgment visited on so many lives. It needs to recognise that it acted as an organ of a colonial state when it criminalised people based simply on who the were, and mocked their quest for justice as a claim for ‘so-called rights’. The Court inflicted a material injury and an expressive wrong on the LGBTQ people of India. The correction must go beyond the material too, and include an expressive remedy. The Court must make sure that its apology is full-throated, and not muted. One way to do so is to un-condemn and celebrate the difference of those it hurt and insulted under the pluralistic ambit of Article 15.

The second reason for an expansive reasoning is provided by the current political context. In most cases, the primary judicial objective is to reach a just outcome under law. But some cases come to acquire an expressive significance far beyond the remedy the court orders. The litigation over s 377 has shaped our political discourse over the last two decades in ways that would have been unimaginable for activists who first challenged the provision at the start of the century. Within fifteen years, the country moved from not talking publicly about homosexuality to a general election where major political parties promised decriminalisation in their election manifestos. What the Court says in this judgment is going to matter as much as what it does through its order.

But the expressive salience of a case on discrimination against a politically disempowered minority, based purely on the prejudices of a majority, goes beyond the issue of LGBTQ rights. Indian constitutional democracy today is at a crossroads. Its constitutional commitment to an inclusive, composite, secular ethos has never been challenged more seriously than it is today. At a time when sectarianism and majoritarian nationalism are seeking to exclude all sorts of minorities from public life and equal citizenship, the Court has a duty to emphasise the inclusive and pluralist rather than majoritarian character of our democracy. Inclusiveness and pluralism lie at the heart of Article 15, which can be the surest vehicle for the Court to lend its institutional authority to the salience of these ideas in our constitutional identity.

A robust development of the Article 15 jurisprudence, along the path showed by the Delhi High Court in 2008, is more urgent than ever. The Court owes a promise to Rohith Vemula that the judiciary would rigorously examine exclusionary and discriminatory practices. It has a duty to all those who have been lynched, harassed or persecuted for being different that Article 15’s promise of defending their personal autonomy and dignity is not empty rhetoric. It is true that the Court alone cannot deal with rampant discrimination. But its strong endorsement of the antidiscrimination principle could provide a boost for political efforts to enact a comprehensive antidiscrimination law, at least in some states to begin with.

It is true that judicial minimalism and constitutional avoidance are not typical features of the jurisprudence of the Indian Supreme Court. The Court has often been jurisprudentially expansive, while being remedially minimalist. But, in politically sensitive cases, it has found judicial minimalism to be strategically useful (its judgment in the triple talaq case, eschewing all mention of Article 15, is a case in point). Such strategic minimalism can often be important for preserving a court’s legitimacy. In the 377 case, however, it is not just judicial legitimacy that is at stake, but the very nature of our constitutional identity.

In his excellent book on constitutional identity, Gary Jacobsohn identifies the phenomenon of disharmony in constitutional identity (p 87): “Sometimes [disharmony] exists in the form of contradictions and imbalances internal to the constitution itself, and sometimes in the lack of agreement evident in the sharp continuities that frame the constitution’s relationship to the surrounding society.” An inclusive pluralism has, largely, been the dominant narrative in India’s constitutional identity. But seeds of disharmony have always existed—internally, in the form of the cow slaughter directive of the Constitution, and externally in the deeply inegalitarian and sectarian social structure the Constitution has tried to transform. As Jacobsohn argues, constitutional disharmony carries within it the seeds of constitutional change.

Make no mistake: the dominance of inclusive pluralism as the defining feature of our constitutional identity itself is at stake. Majoritarian nationalism is waging a spirited battle, not just for continued political relevance but for the very soul of our polity. It doesn’t just seek to win the game, it is trying to change the rules of the game. Which side the Court comes down on, and how robustly, may not determine, but will surely affect the outcome of this battle over defining who We, the people of India, really are.

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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.)

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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.
 

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Filed under Ambedkar, Article 12: Meaning of "State", Article 15 (general), Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Disparate Impact, Equal Pay for Equal Work, Equality, Horizontal Rights, Labour Law and the Constitution, Meaning of "State", Non-discrimination, Privacy, Regularisation, Reservations/Affirmative Action, Right to Health, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

The First and Final Tribunal: The Judge Loya Case and the Blurring of Judicial Functions

Judge Loya passed away on December 1, 2014, while presiding over the politically-charged Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, ostensibly because of a heart attack. In November 2017, The Caravan magazine published two articles raising doubts about whether Judge Loya had died of natural causes. There was considerable furore, and after a series of events, which are not relevant for the purposes of this post, various petitions were filed before the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, asking that the death be investigated. A bench presided over by the Chief Justice of India pulled up all the petitions to itself, and delivered its judgment last Thursday, dismissing the petitions, rejecting the request for an enquiry, and holding that “in so far as the circumstances relating to the death of Judge Loya are concerned, all issues raised in that connection in the present case shall stand governed by the judgment delivered by this Court.”

The tangled history of the Sohrabuddin trial (including how the Supreme Court dealt with some problematic aspects of it in its judgment), the Court’s decision to transfer a pending petition of the Bombay High Court to itself, the unavoidable political backdrop of this case, and the circumstances surrounding Judge Loya’s death itself, are all issues that have been debated elsewhere, and will continue to be debated. I do not intend to address any of them here. Nor do I intend to critique the substance of the Supreme Court’s judgment from a criminal law perspective – that too has been done elsewhere. I will also not critique the Court’s withering attack on the motivations of the PIL-petitioners, and on politically-motivated PILs in general – an attack that is justified in principle, but one that seems particularly jarring in view of the many absurd and politically-motivated PILs the Court indulges on a regular basis, including but not limited to the PIL for making the national anthem compulsory in cinema halls (which the Court entertained through multiple hearings for over a year). However, what I do want to address is the Supreme Court’s approach to this case, and the larger ramifications for its role as a constitutional court.

The relevant prayer before the Court was that an enquiry be ordered into the death of a judicial officer, that was, until now, believed to be natural. The petitioners argued that certain facts had come to light that raised a non-trivial possibility that the death was not of natural causes – and that this warranted an investigation. In response, the State of Maharashtra – which had conducted what it called a “discreet enquiry” after The Caravan articles came out – argued that there was nothing to suggest that the death was unnatural, and that whatever doubts had been raised by The Caravan’s stories were susceptible of an entirely innocent explanation. The State of Maharashtra also obtained the “say” of four judicial officers who were with Judge Loya during his last hours and after his death, and who affirmed that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death.

The evidence before the Supreme Court was entirely documentary in nature. On one side there were documents (articles, medical reports, etc.) highlighting a set of facts that cast doubt upon the nature of Judge Loya’s death; and on the other side, there were other documents (the “discreet enquiry” report, contrary medical reports etc.) that sought to rebut or explain away these doubts. Now, the Supreme Court might have done the following: it could have taken a prima facie view of the petitioners’ case, and found that the petitioners had failed to make out a threshold case for an investigation, and dismissed the Petitions. This approach would have involved the Court expressing no opinion on the cause of Judge Loya’s death, but simply noting that the evidence on record was insufficient for it to draw any conclusions.

However, this is not what the Court did. Acting in its capacity as a constitutional court, and as the Supreme Court, it went far deeper, and into the quality of evidence before it, presented by both sides. It delivered a 114-page long judgment that went into great factual detail, drew almost-definitive conclusions about what had happened, effectively closed the case for all time, and did it all on the basis of its interpretation of the documents before it, untethered from the existing rules of evidence. The judgment, therefore, reads less like a verdict on a plea for an investigation, and more like a criminal appeal that results in an acquittal, but without the benefit of a trial court judgment where the first trier of fact has returned detailed findings about the evidence, which the appellate court is then reviewing. Alternatively, it reads like a trial court judgment that has been delivered without a trial. This, I submit, is a very uncomfortable halfway-house for the Court to find itself in: it seems to be performing both the functions of a trial court, but without the statutory framework that is meant to govern the trial court in determining the truth, and of a constitutional court, but ruling on issues that a constitutional court is neither equipped nor meant to rule on.

Indeed, the Court was hardly unaware of this. In paragraph 7, Justice Chandrachud noted that:

“In view of the nature of the issue which has been raised in the proceedings, we have permitted learned counsel appearing on behalf of the petitioners as well as the intervenors to rely upon such documentary material as would enable them to advance their submissions without being bound by technicalities of procedure.”

However, the fact that the Court was excusing the petitioners and the interveners to advance documentary material “without being bound by technicalities of procedure” does not mean that the Court was absolved from ensuring that its findings were delivered within the framework of a procedure that is relevant to the nature of those findings. The most significant example of this occurred in the Court’s treatment of the “Discreet enquiry”, conducted by the State of Maharashtra, which recorded the “say” of the four judicial officers. The judicial officers broadly supported the State’s view that there was no reason to believe that Judge Loya’s death was unnatural. The question before the Court, then, was what evidentiary weight (if any) to accord to this.

To contrast what the Court did (which I discuss below), let’s imagine what would have happened had this been a normal criminal case pertaining to the death of Jude Loya.The Investigating Officer might have taken the statements of the four judicial officers as part of her initial investigation, and submitted them to the Magistrate along with the rest of the material. In the unlikely event that the Magistrate would have decided not to take cognisance of the case on the basis of these statements, and closed proceedings, it would still have been open to the kin of the accused to launch a private prosecution (they would also have had remedies if the police itself had sought a closure). This opportunity, however, has now been denied to them by the Supreme Court which stated that all issues are now closed. However, it is unlikely that the Magistrate would have closed the case, because the threshold for taking cognisance is a low one, and exculpatory evidence is normally left to be brought in at the stage of trial. This leads to the second situation: if, on the basis of the prima facie material produced by the Prosecution, a charge had been framed, then the four judicial officers would have been witnesses for the defence, and their evidence would have come in at the stage of trial (after the Prosecution had completed its evidence). There would have been no “discreet enquiry” and no “say”: rather, the four judicial officers would have been sworn in, their evidence taken, and then they would have been cross-examined by the Prosecution.

These are not simply “technicalities of procedure.” They go to the heart of the adverserial legal system: being sworn in is important, because it exposes a witness to a charge of perjury if she is later found to have lied. And cross-examination is absolutely critical, because it is a fundamental postulate of the adverserial system that the truth – or an approximation of it – cannot be arrived at in the absence of each party’s case being tested by its opponent. For this reason, courts across the common law world have held that even the word “evidence” has little meaning until it is put through the rigours of a cross-examination.

It is important to note that even though it is a constitutional court, where disputed factual questions are ordinarily not meant to be contested, the Supreme Court is vested with the power of conducting a cross-examination if, in its discretion, it believes that it is appropriate. And indeed, precisely this request was made by the counsel for the Petitioners, who asked that he be allowed to cross-examine the four judicial officers (paragraph 15). The Court record this submission, and then rejected it, noting that:

None of the persons whose cross-examination has been sought is a witness in the present proceedings. The court is essentially required to consider to whether a case has been made out on behalf of the petitioners (supported by the intervenors) for directing an inquiry into the circumstances leading to the death of Judge Loya. As part of this process, the court has to decide as to whether the inquiry which has been conducted by the state is vitiated and if circumstances have been brought to the notice of the court which cast a reasonable suspicion about the events leading upto the death of Judge Loya. (paragraph 63)

This, however, is circular: the whole point of the Petitioners was that the question of whether the “inquiry” was vitiated or not could not be decided without actually submitting the “evidence” of the judicial officers who participated in it to the rigours of cross-examination. Instead, what the Court did hold on the question of the “discreet inquiry” and the “say”, was the following:

Each of the judges has spoken in detail of the facts and events which were within their personal knowledge. The statements contain matters of detail which would be known to those who were present with Judge Loya. They have a ring of truth. They had nothing to conceal nor an axe to grind. Three of the statements are dated 24 November 2017 while the fourth submitted by Judge Rathi is dated 23 November 2017 and contains an endorsement of receipt by the Commissioner on 24 November 2017. The fact that two of the judges were respectively at Pune and Baramati is absolutely no ground to cast doubt. The statements were submitted with dispatch. Reading them it is clear that they have been submitted without pre-meditation. The four judicial officers acted responsibly. There was no reason for them either to hasten or to cause a delay in submitting their versions of what they knew. Each of the four judges has acted with a sense of duty. This is how they would be expected to conduct themselves, in answering to a call of duty. (Paragraph 46)

The whole point, however, is that the adverserial legal system is founded on the postulate that whether a statement has “a ring of truth” is to be determined by putting its maker on oath and subjecting her to cross-examination. People often have things to conceal, and people are often motivated by greed, or fear, or a combination of both. Judges are not somehow exempted from being human in this regard  (recall how it was noted, in the Constituent Assembly, that “judges have not got two horns; they are men like us”). The issue, of course, is not whether the judicial officers in this case had anything to conceal, but that nobody can come to a definitive conclusion about that without going through the processes that the legal system expressly envisages for exactly this purpose. Consequently, the Court could have done one of two things: disregarded the statements altogether while considering the question of whether there was an prima facie evidence to warrant an investigation – or, if it was not going to do so, then required them to be sworn in and allow a cross-examination. Instead, the Court passed a sweeping conclusion on the veracity of their statements purely by virtue of their position.

In fact, the judgment, on this point, is particularly unsustainable, because it takes judges and invests them with superhuman qualities by virtue of their office, in a context in which that office has no relevance to the issues at stake. This is not a case where, for example, a judgment is being attacked on the basis that its author was motivated by financial considerations, and where it makes sense to say that our constitutional system requires us to presume judicial good faith (in the absence of clear, contrary evidence). Rather, this was a case where judicial officers effectively happened to be giving statements as “witnesses”, in the common sense of the word.

Instances abound in the judgment where the Court went into detailed factual appreciation of conflicting evidence, and came to definitive conclusions without making use of the criminal legal system’s tools to address and resolve such conflicts. For the purposes of this post, one more example will suffice: Judge Loya’s father and sister alleged that the then-Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Mohit Shah, had offered him a substantial bribe to return a favourable verdict. The Court rejected this by noting, inter alia, that it was “hearsay” (paragraph 60). But this is a classic example of having your Evidence Act and eating it too: the exclusion of hearsay evidence is a technical rule of evidence (subject to a series of exceptions that may even have applied in this case). The Court cannot take a janus-faced approach to the Evidence Act – discarding it in order to accord the highest probative value to a judicial officer’s “say” in a “discreet inquiry”, but following it by the book to discard statements made by the relatives of the deceased. What this results in, at the end of the day, is three judges’ assessment of a set of documents, untethered and unbound by any rules that determine, or even guide, how that assessment ought to be made: the very antithesis of having a rule of law instead of a rule of men.

The broader point is this: for the last three decades, and predominantly in the Supreme Court, the rules and procedures that govern the appreciation of evidence have come to be viewed with skepticism, as though they are impediments to arriving at the truth, rather than facilitators of it. The primary driver of this approach has been public interest litigation, where the Court has increasingly relied upon affidavits to draw sweeping factual conclusions, brushing aside evidentiary concerns by noting that these proceedings are not really adverserial. What this has resulted in, in the year 2018, is a Supreme Court of Everything: of the Constitution, of legal issues, of factual disputes, of mixed questions of law and fact. It has become the Supreme Magistrate, the Supreme Investigating Officer, and the Supreme Additional Sessions Judge, the Court of First and Last Instance. In such a situation, there is an urgent need that the Court be even more careful of the evidentiary and procedural standards it applies, because when the same body acts as the first and the last tribunal, every error is compounded to a grievous degree. The Loya Judgment was an opportunity for the Court to begin its journey down that road. Unfortunately, it now remains a road not taken.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Access to Justice, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Public Interest Litigation, separation of powers

From a Culture of Authority to a Culture of Justification: The Meaning of Overruling ADM Jabalpur

The nine-judge bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs Union of India is now four-and-a-half months old. The verdict, which held that there exists a fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, has been analysed threadbare. Its implications for decisional autonomy, personal choice, State surveillance, informational self-determination, and many other facets of privacy, have been debated and discussed. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to cement the legacy of Puttaswamy, when it hears cases pertaining to almost all these issues. However, there is one aspect of the judgment that has received universal approbation, but no analysis. This is the Court’s decision to overrule its 1976 judgment in ADM Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla, the Emergency-era verdict that is widely accepted to mark the “lowest point” in the Court’s history.

Recall that ADM Jabalpur concerned the question of whether individuals who had been preventively detained by the State had the right to approach the Courts in a habeas corpus petition. The background context was the existence of a Presidential proclamation of a State of Emergency; this Proclamation also suspended the the locus standi of all individuals to move the Courts for relief, in case they were detained. A majority of the Supreme Court held that the Presidential Proclamation had validly suspended the remedy of habeas corpus under the Constitution; and because there existed no rights or remedies outside the confined of the Constitution, the Presidential Proclamation acted as a complete bar to exercising the fundamental right to life and liberty. Consequently, a detained person could not approach the Courts arguing that his detention was illegal or unconstitutional.

In Puttaswamy, Justice Chandrachud (writing for a plurality of four judges), Justice Nariman and Justice Kaul all categorically overruled ADM Jabalpur. Their reason was that there were certain basic rights that were recognised by the Constitution, but not conferred by it. These rights were inalienable, and inhered in all human beings simply by virtue of their being human. Specifically, therefore, Puttaswamy overruled the finding in ADM Jabalpur that the Constitution was the sole repository of the rights of citizens.

A narrow view of Puttaswamy would limit it to doing only so much. I think, however, this would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because ADM Jabalpur’s ruling on the character of rights under the Constitution cannot be taken in isolation. It was part of a larger judicial logic that, following the South African Constitutional scholar Etienne Mureinik, I shall label the “culture of authority.” And the repudiation of ADM Jabalpur in Puttaswamy, I will argue therefore, was a repudiation of the culture of authority itself; Puttaswamy is best understood as providing a bridge – a bridge from ADM Jabalpur to a new understanding of the Constitution, an understanding that is based on the “culture of justification.”

ADM Jabalpur and the Culture of Authority 

Recall that in ADM Jabalpur, there were two issues. The first was whether the Presidential Proclamation of Emergency acted as a complete bar to the enforcement of the individual right to life and personal liberty in the courts. The second was the constitutional validity of Section 16(9A) of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, that allowed for a detenu not to be given access to the grounds of his detention. The broader political context, of course, was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose an Emergency on the basis that there was a grave internal disturbance that threatened the life of the nation.

Consequently, ADM Jabalpur was delivered during a “state of exception” – that is, a situation where the Executive has suspended the normal functioning of the state, ostensibly to deal with an existential threat. The four majority opinions reflect this in granular detail. The reasoning that culminated in the majority holding that the detenus could not approach Court challenging their detention was based on four principal prongs, each of which reflected the logic of the state of exception.

A. The State of Exception 

The first prong was based on the proposition that the questions of when circumstances arose that justified the imposition of a state of exception (“Emergency”), and what rights and remedies citizens were to be allowed during a state of exception, were to be decided solely by the Executive. As Justice Beg observed:

Laws and law Courts are only a part of a system of that imposed discipline which has to take its course when self-discipline fails. Conditions may supervene, in the life of a nation, in which the basic values we have stood for and struggled to attain, the security, integrity, and independence of the country, or the very conditions on which existence of law and order and of law courts depend, may be imperilled by forces operating from within or from outside the country. What these forces are, how they are operating, what information exists for the involvement of various individuals, wherever placed, could not possibly be disclosed publicly or become matters suitable for inquiry into or discussion in a Court of Law.

Similarly, Justice Chandrachud wrote that “the facts and circumstances leading to the declaration of emergency are and can only be known to the Executive… Judge and Jury alike may form their personal assessment of a political situation but whether the emergency should be declared or not is a matter of high State policy and questions of policy are impossible to examine in courts of law.” He went on to state that:

The mind then weaves cobwebs of suspicion and the Judge, without the means to knowledge of full facts, covertly weighs the pros and cons of the political situation and substitutes ins personal opinion for the assessment of the Executive, which, by proximity and study, is better placed to decide whether the security of the country is threatened by an imminent danger of internal disturbance. A frank and unreserved acceptance of the Proclamation of emergency, even in the teeth of one’s own pre-disposition. is conducive to a more realistic appraisal of the emergency provisions.

At the heart of this articulation is not only the idea that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but also that the determination of when extraordinary times have come upon us, and what extraordinary measures are needed, are for the State to decide. As the Nazi legal theorist Carl Shmitt wrote, “the sovereign is he who decides the State of exception.” According to the Jabalpur majority, this aspect of sovereignty lay solely with the Executive. So, Justice Chandrachud was able to write:

The people of this country are entitled to expect when they go to the ballot-box that their chosen representatives will not willingly suffer an erosion of the rights of the people. And the Parliament, while arming the executive with great and vast powers of Government, may feel fairly certain that such powers will be reasonably exercised. The periodical reviews of detention orders. the checks and counter-checks which the law provides and above all the lofty faith in democracy which ushered the birth of the Nation will, I hope, eliminate all fear that great powers are capable of the greatest abuse. Ultimately, the object of depriving a few of their liberty for a temporary period has to be to give to many the perennial fruits of freedom.

The same logic was at play in the Majority’s decision to uphold Section 16(9A), with Chief Justice Ray noting that:

The reason why Section 16A has been enacted is to provide for periodical review by Government and that is the safeguard against any unjust or arbitrary exercise of power… the grounds of detention and any information or materials on which the detention and the declaration were made are by Section 16A(9) of the Act confidential and deemed to refer to matters of State and to be against public interest to disclose.

A corollary to this was that the very act of vesting such extraordinary power with the Executive raised no constitutional concern. Justice Bhagwati, for example, held that the mere possibility or hypothesis that power might be abused was no ground to deny the existence of the power itself. And Chief Justice Ray noted that:

People who have faith in themselves and in their country will not paint pictures of diabolic distortion and mendacious alignment of the governance of the country. Quite often arguments are heard that extreme examples are given to test the power. If there is power, extreme examples will neither add to the power nor rob the same. Extreme examples tend only to obfuscate reason and reality.

B. Rights and Remedies

Secondly, ADM Jabalpur stood for the proposition that the removal of a remedy did not affect the existence of a right. The Presidential proclamation in question provided that the right of any person including a foreigner to move any Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by Article 14, Article 21 and Article 22 of the Constitution would remain suspended for the period of the Emergency. All four judges in the majority held that by virtue of the Presidential Proclamation of Emergency, it was not that Article 21 was removed or ceased to exist; it was simply that a detenu could not approach the Court under writ proceedings to enforce his right under Article 21.

C. Jurisdiction of Suspicion 

Thirdly, ADM Jabalpur endorsed and authorised what Justice Beg referred to as a “jurisdiction of suspicion”:

Provision for preventive detention, in itself, is a departure from ordinary norms. It is generally resorted to either in times of war or of apprehended internal disorders and disturbances of a serious nature. Its object is to prevent a greater danger to national security and integrity than any claim; which could be based upon a right, moral or legal, to individual liberty. It has been aptly described as a “jurisdiction of suspicion.”

The crucial point was that the validity or reasonableness of the suspicion was entirely up to the Executive to decide. Since the right to move Court stood suspended, no detenu could approach a judicial authority and attempt to prove that the “suspicion” on the basis of which he had been detained was actually groundless, or illegal, or motivated by mala fides. Here again, the overarching justification was that of national security.

D. Salus Populi Est Supreme Lex

Lastly, ADM Jabalpur stood for the proposition that the liberty of the individual was not a paramount value under the Constitution, but simple one among many values to be weighed in the scales – and, in particular, always to be overriden by the principle of “salus populi est supreme lex” (“regard for public welfare is the highest law”). For example, Justice Beg warned against “a too liberal application of the principle that courts must lean in favour of the liberty of the citizen, which is, strictly speaking a principle of interpretation for cases of doubt or difficulty.” This, in turn, was drawn from the belief that individual liberty was a “gift” bestowed by the Constitution and the State, which could be withdrawn during a state of exception. For this, all for judgments of the majority relied upon the wartime British judgment in Liversidge vs Andersen, which had upheld the untrameled power of the Home Secretary to detain people, free from the constraints of judicial review. As Justice Beg wrote:

Clearly the question whether a person is of hostile origin or associations so that it is necessary to exercise control over him, raises, not a justiciable, but a political or administrative issue.

Let us now sum up the elements of the “culture of authority” that was at the foundation of the majority opinions in ADM Jabalpur.

  • There exists a state of normalcy and a state of exception (the paradigmatic example of which is an Emergency).
  • The Executive has the sole prerogative of determining when circumstances exist that a State of Exception ought to replace the default state of normalcy, and what is to happen with respect to citizens’ rights during a State of Exception.
  • The Executive is guided by the principle of “salus populi est supreme lex” (regard for public welfare is the highest law). It is not for the Courts to ask whether:
    1. The conditions requiring the state of exception to be called really exist or not (summed up by defining Court defining the preventive detention powers as a “jurisdiction of suspicion”, and disclaiming the need for showing proximity.
    2. Whether the Executive’s actions actually serve public welfare or not.
  • During the State of Exception, the Executive can suspend rights, suspend remedies, and be the sole arbiter both for the content of the right and for the remedy.
  • The fact that such a power is vested in the Executive and is capable of abuse is no ground for the power not existing. The Executive is always presumed to act in good faith.
  • In sum: “salus populi est supreme lex” is like the Ninth Schedule of constitutional interpretation.

The Foundations of Justice Khanna’s Dissent

In his sole dissenting opinion, Justice Khanna launched a fundamental challenge to this entire way of thinking. Justice Khanna’s dissent was not based merely on a difference with the majority about the question of whether rights existed outside the Constitution or not. Rather, his different was more fundamental, and went to the root of what it meant to live under a Constitutional republic. According to Justice Khanna, at the heart of a constitutional republic was the maintenance of a balance of power between State and individual. The issue was not whether the State may or may not abuse its powers, and the manner in which it might abuse its power in order to violate individual liberty. The issue, rather, was that the very existence of certain kinds of power with the State was a violation of liberty. As he noted:

“…experience should, teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion-of their liberty by evil-minded persons. Greatest danger to liberty lies in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but lacking in due deference for the rule of few.”

And:

Whether such things actually come to pass is not the question before us; it is enough to state that all these are permissible consequences from the acceptance of the contention that Article 21 is the sole repository of the right to life and personal liberty and that consequent upon the issue of the Presidential order, no one can approach any court and seek relief during the period of emergency against deprivation of life or personal liberty. In order words, the position would be that so far as executive officers are concerned, in matters relating to life and personal liberty of citizens, they would not be governed by any law, they would not be answerable to any court and they would be wielding more or less despotic powers.

Constitutionalism meant curtailing what the State was able to do its citizens. To give the State power to both determine the state of exception, and then also to determine what rights and remedies citizens had during such a period, simply on the invocation of salus populi, was to make a mockery of the very idea of a constitutional republic. Consequently, Justice Khanna rejected the argument that, in the interests of public safety and public welfare, the Executive could be left to solely determine the scope and ambit of rights enjoyed by citizens, noting that “the power of the courts to grant relief against arbitrariness or absence of authority of law in the matter of the liberty of the subject may now well be taken to be a normal feature of the rule of law.”

A corollary of this was Justice Khanna’s rejection of the “jurisdiction of suspicion” – that is, the idea that during the state of exception, the Executive was vested with the sole power of curtailing the liberty of any individual it suspected of being a threat to the established order:

Normally, it is the past conduct or antecedent history of a person which shows a propensity or a tendency to act in a particular manner. The past conduct or antecedent history of a person can, therefore, be appropriately taken into account in making a detention order. It is indeed largely from the past events showing tendencies or inclinations of a person that an inference can be drawn that he is likely in the future to act in a particular manner. In order to justify such an, inference, it is necessary that such past conduct or antecedent history should ordinarily be proximate in point of time. It would, for instance, be normally irrational to take into account the conduct an activities of a person which took place ten years, before the date of ins detention and say that even though after the said incident took place* nothing is known against the person indicating ins tendency to act in a prejudicial manner, even so on the strength of the said incident which is ten years old, the authority is satisfied that ins detention is necessary. It is both inexpedient and undesirable to lay down an inflexible test as to how far distant the past conduct or the antecedent history should be for reasonably and rationally justifying the conclusion that the person concerned if not detained may indulge in prejudicial activities. The nature of the activity would have also a bearing in deciding the question of proximity. If, for example, a person who has links with a particular’ foreign power is known to have indulged in subversive activities when hostilities broke out with that foreign power and hostilities again break out with that foreign power after ten years, the authorities concerned, if satisfied on the basis of the past activities that it is necessary to detain him with a view to preventing him from acting; in a manner prejudicial to the security of India, might well pass a detention order in respect of that person. The fact that in such a case there is a time lag of ten years between the activities of the said person and the making of the detention order would not vitiate such an order. Likewise, a remote prejudicial activity may be so similar to a recent prejudicial activity as may give rise to an inference that the two are a part of chain of prejudicial activities indicative of a particular inclination. In such an event the remote activity taken along with the recent activity would retain its relevance and reliance upon it would not introduce an infirmity. If, however, in a given case and in the context of the nature of activity the time lag between the prejudicial activity of a detenu and the detention order made because of that activity is ex facie long, the detaining authority should explain the delay in the making of the detention order with a view to show that there was proximity between the prejudicial activity and the) detention order. If the detaining authority fails to do so, in spite of an opportunity having been afforded to it, a serious infirmity would creep into the detention order.

Towards the Culture of Justification 

Justice Khanna’s dissenting opinion in ADM Jabalpur, reminiscent of Lord Atkins’ dissent in Liversidge vs Andersen, exemplified the “culture of justification”. Mureinik writes thus:

If the new Constitution is a bridge away from a culture of authority, it is clear what it must be a bridge to. It must lead to a culture of justification –a culture in which every exercise of power is expected to be justified; in which the leadership given by government rests on the cogency of the case offered in defence of its decisions, not the fear inspired by the force at its command. The new order must be a community built on persuasion, not coercion.

The phrase “every exercise of power is expected to be justified” is at the heart of this vision of constitutionalism. In particular, it is a complete repudiation of salis populi supreme est lex. The State cannot simply decide to compel its citizens by invoking the larger goal of public welfare. The State must, rather, justify every act of compulsion. It must justify, for example, that its exercise of power will actually serve public welfare. It must explain how it will do so. It must explain that the only way of doing so is through the route of force and compulsion. It must prove that there is no other non-coercive way of achieving that goal, and that it is not imposing any more compulsion than is strictly required in the interests of public welfare. It must show that the amount of power it arrogates to itself in order to carry through its coercive action is proportionate to the importance of the goal it seeks to achieve. And the State cannot impose a regime of permanent suspicion: a regime in which the only justification for the exercise of coercion is that all citizens are potential criminals, and preventive compulsion is the only effective mechanism of preserving the public good. The culture of justification prohibits the State from presuming criminality and law-breaking.

And most importantly, the State cannot be the sole judge and arbiter of these questions. It is the constitutional courts that must carefully examine and scrutinise each of these issues, where the exercise of power is concerned. The courts need not attribute bad faith to the State, or assume the existence of abuse; rather, as Justice Khanna pointed out all those years ago, the Court must be “most on… guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.” Therefore, it is precisely when the State claims salus populi, and asks the Court to back off so that it can freely exercise compulsion in order to secure public welfare, that the Court must be at its most vigilant. It is then that the hardest and most searching questions must be asked of the State, and the State put to strict proof in answering the questions outlined above. To adopt a hands-off approach on the basis that these are questions of “high State policy”, and that it is not for judicial authorities to enter into the realm of policy-making and second-guess the State on issues of general welfare, would be only to repeat the mistake of ADM Jabalpur, and ignore the lesson of Justice Khanna.

In the coming months, the Court is scheduled to hear a number of constitutional cases that have far-reaching effects on individual freedom and State power. When it decides those cases, the shadow of Puttaswamy and of Justice Khanna will loom large. It is now for the Court to complete the transformation from the culture of authority to the culture of justification, which was the promise of the Constitution, the hope of Justice Khanna when he dissented, and the beginning of the path outlined in Puttaswamy.

This is, after all, a Constitution that chose to make the individual its basic and most fundamental unit.

 

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Guest Post: The Trans Bill and Its Discontents – II

(In this Guest Post, Vasudev Devadasan concludes his analysis of the Transgender Bill.)

In the last post (here) we defined transgender persons as individuals who experience a conflict between the ‘gender identity’ assigned to them at birth, and ‘gender identity’ they develop through the course of their lives. Thus, an individual may be designated ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth, but over time may come to identify with the opposite sex, or even outside the male-female binary as a transgender. In NALSA v UoI (NALSA) the Supreme Court affirmed both the right of the individual to choose their own gender and the existence of a third gender (transgender). The Court also ruled that discrimination against transgender persons for failing to conform with gender stereotypes (by choosing an alternative ‘gender identity’) amounted to discrimination on the grounds of ‘sex’ and was prohibited by Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Lastly the Court held that transgender persons were members of ‘backward classes’ deserving of reservations under Articles 15(4) and Articles 16(4) of the Constitution.

When making these statements the Court had the benefit of speaking in the abstract. In implementing these guarantees the government faces the task of conferring benefits on a group whose membership is based on a subjective determination of conflicting ‘gender identity’ experienced only by the individual in question. How does the government provide reservations to ‘transgender persons’ when the only way to know whom a ‘transgender person’ is, is an internal conflict experienced by the transgender person?

In this post, I examine the anti-discrimination provisions in the new Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill and explore the difficulty of securing equality and affirmative action for a group whose membership cannot be objectively determined. I also examine the current Bill’s provisions on begging and residence (prohibiting transgender persons from being separated from their families) and question whether they are in tune with the developing concept of ‘autonomy’ under the Constitution.

Non-Discrimination

The current Bill provides a procedure for the ‘Recognition of Identity of Transgender Persons’. While we discussed the shortcomings of this procedure on the last post, the rationale for having a recognition procedure is clear. Non-discrimination rights arise when citizens belong to a class or category of citizen as distinguishable from other citizens. A claim to non-discrimination will be acknowledged when a citizen can demonstrate belonging to this class or category and then show that such belonging is the “ground” for the discrimination in question. Therefore, the current Bill provides a definition of ‘transgender person’, provides a procedure to recognise a ‘transgender person’, and then Section 3 of the Bill states, “No person shall discriminate against a transgender person…” by denying education, unfair treatment in employment etc. The provision thus protects individuals who are recognised as transgenders under the scheme of the Bill.

Before moving on, two points should be noted. Firstly, the Bill does not create reservations for transgender persons in education or employment. While the National Commission for Backward Classes did formally recommend that transgender persons be included in the category ‘Other Backward Class’, and while these recommendations are ordinarily binding on the Government, the current Bill does not create reservations for transgender persons. Secondly, the Bill does not define the term “discrimination”. By not defining “discrimination” the Bill is silent on how and when the protection guaranteed by Section 3 would be violated. In contrast, the 2014 Rajya Sabha Bill defined discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of gender identity and expression which [restricts the exercise of human rights] on an equal basis with others.” Just as the Supreme Court did in NALSA, this definition states that where a person is treated differently because of their ‘gender identity or expression’, and such different treatment affects their enjoyment of rights, discrimination is deemed to have occurred.

The problem facing the government is that by creating a recognition procedure that the State controls, they have severely restricted the individual’s ability to self-identity with the gender of their choice (a choice the Court in NALSA held to be protected by Article 21). There are two seemingly conflicting goals here: (a) to fix and regulate the categories of sex (male, female and transgender), and (b) to allow individuals to freely move between these categories by choosing their own ‘gender identity’. The current Bill seeks to filter the subjectivity so essential to the transgender identity through a lens of legal certainty. The question is therefore whether the actual or potential mobility of ‘gender’ that NALSA and the very definition of transgender espouse can be accommodated within a regulatory non-discrimination framework.

Victoria and New South Wales for example dispense with the requirement of having a fixed legal identity when determining whether transgender persons have been discriminated against. The Victorian legislation (the Equal Opportunity Act) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ‘gender identity’ which is defined as:

…the identification on a bona fide basis by a person of one sex as a member of the other sex (whether or not the person is recognised as such):

  1. by assuming characteristics of the other sex, whether by means of medical intervention, style of dressing or otherwise; or
  2. by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the other sex.

Thus, what matters is not whether the individual is recognised in law as a transgender person. Rather, whether they are perceived by society as being a transgender person. Thus, rather than the law having to recognise an immutable characteristic of ‘transgender’ which both violates the principle of self-identification and aims to ‘normalise’ transgender persons by creating a fixed gender/legal identity, discrimination occurs when an individual is discriminated against because they are perceived to be transgender, irrespective of whether they are actual transgender. For example, if an individual is denied employment on the ground that they are perceived to be transgender, a valid claim for discrimination can be made against the employer. Sharpe terms this the “interplay of performance and gaze” and this provides a framework within which the law is able to comprehend the fluid nature of the transgender identity and yet protect transgender persons from discrimination. Conferring rights without requiring a fixed legal identity.

While this solution may work for non-discrimination simpliciter, it still leaves the question of affirmative action open. Where legal benefits are positively conferred on a group, the State has a legitimate interest is ensuring that the individuals who are availing of these benefits belong to the group. The current Bill creates a ‘screening committee’ which includes medical personnel to verify and recognise an individual as a transgender person. This is likely to expose individuals to unwanted and intrusive scrutiny. Thus, a balance needs to be struck between the State’s interest to curb the abuse of affirmative action benefits, and an individual’s freedom to change genders with dignity.

In Secretary, Department of Social Security v HH, Justice Brennan moves the needle away from biological verification, to a slightly more holistic test. In determining an individual’s gender, he notes, “the respondent’s psychological and social/cultural gender identity are the matters of primary importance not sex chromosomal configurations or gonadal or genital factors…” The understanding that ‘sex’ is not a determinant factor, and that “psychological, social and cultural” factors can determine gender seems to be a step in the right direction. This ties in with the Indian Supreme Court’s understanding that an individual’s psyche is part of ‘sex’ within the meaning of Articles 15 and 16. If the ‘screening committee’ that the Bill creates was to examine this, a balance maybe struck.

Provisions on Residence

The current Bill also seeks to secure the right of transgender persons to stay in their own home. Section 13(1) states that, “No transgender person shall be separated from parents or immediate family on the ground of being a transgender, except on an order of a competent court…” Sub-clause 3 of the same Section goes on to note, “Where any parent or a member of his immediate family is unable to take care of a transgender, the competent court shall […] direct such person to be placed in a rehabilitation centre” The framework created by the Bill compels a transgender person to either continue living with their family, or be placed in a rehabilitation centre. The section makes no distinction between a ‘minor’ and an adult and creates a rather intrusive mechanism of regulation where a transgender person cannot choose where to live.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee raised concerns that the two options provided by the Bill would not guarantee protection given the realities present on the ground. Several transgender persons face significant abuse at the hands of their own families who deny them the right to self-identity with a gender of their choosing and restrict their gender expression. The nature of the rehabilitation centres is also unknown. The Committee noted that several transgender persons choose not to live at home, but rather within transgender communities where they form an alternative network of friends and family.

The Committees observations on Section 13 raise interesting constitutional questions given the understanding of ‘autonomy’ articulated in the Right to Privacy (Puttaswamy) earlier this year. At the core of the Court’s rationale in Puttaswamy was the idea that privacy protects an individual’s liberty by securing ‘dignity’ and ‘autonomy’. Privacy in the Court’s articulation is the right to determine how one should exercise the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Thus, ‘autonomy’ guarantees the right of every person to make essential choices which affect the course of life.” (⁋113) The State cannot interfere with an individual’s decisions concerning several core areas that the Court describes (non-exhaustively) as including family, marriage, procreation, and even what to eat and drink.

By compelling transgender persons to either live at home or in a State run rehabilitation centre Section 13 seems to deny them the right to choose the community they wish to live in. Deciding to live at home or not would fall within an ‘essential choice’ relating to ‘family’. And by denying transgender persons the third alternative (of living within a transgender community) the case could be made that the State is interfering with their ‘autonomy’ as protected under Puttaswamy.

Provisions on Begging

Lastly, Section 19(a) of the Bill makes it an offence to ‘compel or entice a transgender person’ to commit the act of ‘begging’. Transgender persons have a well-documented history of suffering abuse at the hands of anti-vagrancy provisions such as this, simply because begging is often the only choice of income generation available. As the Standing Committee noted, transgender persons are often booked under analogous ‘begging’ provisions merely because they are present in public places. While the provision only penalises the offence of compelling a transgender person to beg, there is a thin line between criminalising an individual for begging out of their own volition and compelling another to beg, with the latter often being used against the former.

In Ram Lakhan v State, Justice Ahmed examined this distinction in the context of the implicit defences to the offence of ‘begging’. He noted that when an individual begs out of the sheer compulsion to stay alive, he is protected under the defence of ‘necessity’. Where an individual is compelled to beg he does so under threat of violence and even death and is thus protected under the defence of ‘duress’. In both cases, the individual has no real choice, and it is this involuntariness that provides the basis for both the defence of ‘necessity’ and ‘duress’ making it a “distinction without a relevant difference”. In the course of practical policing there may be obvious benefits to the distinction between a begging racket and a person begging to prevent the onset of starvation. However, the inclusion of the legislative provision as it is currently framed may be counter-productive, especially given the existence of parallel anti-begging laws.

Conclusion

We have seen how the current Bill fails to understand the core principle of ‘self-identification’ in defining a transgender person, how it struggles with the question of non-discrimination, and takes an approach to residence and begging that doesn’t appreciate the nuances of the law and its relationship with the ground realities faced by transgender persons. Creating a regulatory framework for transgender persons is undoubtedly a complex and delicate task. Certain questions, such as legal recognition for transgender persons, and the prevention of discrimination pose questions that expose the limits of law as crafted within the male-female binary. On the points of residence and begging however, the Bill seems to lack an understanding of ground realities required to upturn generations of neglect towards transgender persons. Even in their best possible forms, these provisions would require sensitive administration to have a meaningful impact in the long run. Perhaps what is most troubling is that none of the criticisms raised in this piece or the last are new. Given the excellent platform created for the government with the NALSA verdict, the original Rajya Sabha Bill and the various committee reports, the fact that the Bill remains in its current form is lamentable.

 

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Filed under Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Decisional Autonomy, Equality, Non-discrimination, Privacy, Sexuality