Between Agency and Compulsion: On the Karnataka High Court’s Hijab Judgment

It is an old adage that the manner in which you choose to frame a question will decide the answer that you will choose to give yourself. In today’s judgment by the Karnataka High Court upholding a ban on the wearing of the hijab within classrooms, that giveaway can be seen at page 39 of the judgment, where the Full Bench frames four questions for consideration. The second question reads: “Whether prescription of school uniform is not legally permissible, as being violative of petitioners Fundamental Rights inter alia guaranteed under Articles, 19(1)(a), (i.e., freedom of expression) and 21, (i.e., privacy) of the Constitution?

It is notable that the Court asks itself a question that nobody else had asked, and indeed, nobody could ask, given how absurd it is: whether a school uniform is itself unconstitutional. But that framing allows the Court to elide the fundamental argument before it – i.e., that the wearing of the hijab alongside a school uniform is consistent with the broader goals of constitutionalism and education – with the sanctity of the uniform itself. A close reading of the judgment reveals how the uniform haunts the Court’s imagination on every page, topped off by the extraordinary remark on page 88, where the Court says that “no reasonable mind can imagine a school without a uniform.” The unarticulated premise of the judgment is that the claim to wearing the hijab is a claim against the very idea of a school uniform, and that allowing the former would destroy the latter. Respectfully, this elision leads the Court into misconstruing and misapplying a range of settled constitutional principles, and for those reasons, the judgment ought to be overturned on appeal.

Introduction

First, a quick summary: the Court’s decision to uphold the ban on the hijab rests upon three constitutional grounds. The first is that the wearing of the hijab does not constitute an “essential religious practice” under Islam, and is therefor not insulated from the regulatory power of the State (pp. 53 – 79, pp. 85 – 87); secondly, that to the extent that wearing the hijab is an aspect of the freedom of expression, or the right to privacy, the ban is reasonable restriction upon the exercise of those rights (pp. 88 – 112); and thirdly, as the Government Order under challenge is facially neutral and non-sectarian (i.e., does not single out the hijab), there is no unconstitutional discrimination against Muslim women students (pg. 96).

Essential Religious Practices

I do not want to spend too much time on the first argument. I have written before why framing the argument in terms of the essential religious practices test is unsatisfactory, both in general, but also specifically in this case, not least because it strips Muslim women of any agency in the matter, and essentially argues that the wearing of the hijab is not a matter of choice (no matter how situated, complex, or otherwise messy the context of that choice may be), but is objectively compelled by the tenets of Islam. Additionally, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the Court’s analysis of this point, either way: surveying the sources (in particular, the Qur’an), the Court finds that the Petitioners have failed to prove that wearing the hijab is essential to Islam – i.e., that is is mandatory, non-optional, and that Islam would lose its identity if women did not wear the hijab. Under the essential religious practices doctrine, these are broadly the parametres of the analysis (leave aside the fact – as most people have pointed out – that neither the Court, nor external commentators, are particularly well-placed to conduct this analysis). Having established this, the Court is therefore able to hold that, as a matter of religious freedom, the right to wear the hijab is not insulated from State regulation.

There is, of course, a problem with the analysis in that it effectively denies to the Muslim women the ability to frame their argument as one of religious choice, and requires, instead, for them to argue in the language of religious compulsion. This is particularly ironic when we think of the right as the “right to religious freedom”; the blame there, however, lies squarely with the essential religious practices test, as it has evolved over the last seventy years, and it is clear that there is no way out of this hall of mirrors until that test is overruled.

Freedom of Expression and Privacy

Let us now come to the argument where, in my respectful submission, the Court’s analysis is mistaken. Previously, on this blog, it has been argued that the freedom of expression and the right to privacy are important rights implicated by this case. To sum up the argument in brief: as held by the Supreme Court in NALSA v Union of India, dress can, on certain occasions, and depending upon the context, be a form of “symbolic expression” that is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution (why it should be treated as such in this case has been argued in the linked posts). The application of the right to privacy – in terms of decisional autonomy – is also evident. Note that the freedom of expression and privacy arguments are not cleanly separable from the religious freedom arguments: indeed, it could well be – in certain cases – that the very reason why wearing the hijab is a form of symbolic expression is because it is worn as a defence of a beleaguered identity.

Once the rights to freedom of expression and privacy are triggered, the analysis moves to restrictions, where the test of proportionality applies. Proportionality requires, among other things, that the State adopt the least restrictive method in order to achieve its goals. Thus, where something less than a ban would suffice, a ban is disproportionate. The proportionality framework provides the broad intellectual scaffolding within which multiple jurisdictions across the world, as well as India in the NALSA judgment, when dealing with cases involving dress codes and uniforms, have adopted the test of reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation requires the Court to ask whether, in a setting where a certain default exists, a particular claim for departing from that default, founded in constitutional rights, can be reasonably accommodated by the State (or private party), without the activity in question losing its character. In case of the hijab, the claim for reasonable accommodation is straightforward: that the wearing of the hijab (especially hijab that is the same colour as the uniform and is simply draped, like a shawl, over the head) can be reasonably accommodated alongside the uniform, without damaging or in other ways vitiating the overall public goal of education.

How does the Court respond to the argument? The reasoning is somewhat scattered in different parts of the judgment, but drawing it all together, this is how the Court’s argument goes:

  1. Dress is not at the “core” of free expression and privacy rights, but is a “derivative” right, and therefore weaker (page 99).
  2. The classroom is a “quasi-public space”, where the operation of rights is weaker (page 100).
  3. Given (1) and (2), and given the overriding salience of the uniform in a classroom, the proscription of the hijab is reasonable.

With respect, this analysis is flawed. It is true that in US jurisprudence – such as the O’Brien judgment – visible manifestations of expression (such as clothing) can be regulated by the State; however, that is in the context of the American First Amendment, which in cases of State restriction upon speech, is more or less “absolute”. O’Brien only says that where you move from speech to visible manifestation, that “absolute” protection goes. However, in a proportionality-focused jurisdiction such as ours, whether speech is verbal or a visible manifestation, the test remains the same. This flows from the Naveen Jindal case, where the flying of the Indian flag was held to be protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Secondly, it is unclear what exactly the concept of a “quasi-public space is”, since the Court does not undertake a genealogy of the phrase. At one point, it lists “schools, courts, war rooms, and defence camps” (page 104) as examples of quasi-public spaces, and you really have to wonder what on earth unites a classroom and a defence camp; but in my view, it is in any event a misreading of the NALSA judgment to argue that the salience of symbolic expression diminishes in a “quasi-public space”. Indeed, whether it is the public sphere or the quasi-public sphere, the whole purpose of recognising a right to symbolic expression – as manifested through dress – is to recognise that our “public” is diverse and plural, and that diversity and plurality (as long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights) is to be affirmed and not censored.

But it is the final part of the analysis where, in my view, the main error lies. The Court’s response to the reasonable accommodation claim is that the hijab cannot be accommodated because it would deprive the uniform of its uniformity. At page 107, it notes that:

The object of prescribing uniform will be defeated if there is non-uniformity in the matter of uniforms.

But that is patently circular: by definition, the doctrine of reasonable accommodation assumes the existence of a default uniformity, and argues that the default is insufficiently accommodating of a diverse and plural society; what the reasonable accommodation (and proportionality) analysis requires of the Court is to ask whether accommodation is such that it would undermine or otherwise destroy the purpose for which the default rule exists in the first place: which, in this case, is the purpose of education. The crucial error the Court makes is that it sanctifies the uniform instead of sanctifying education; instead of looking at the uniform as instrumental to achieving the goal of an inclusive and egalitarian right to education (and which would, therefore, require accommodation where accommodation would better serve that goal), it treats the uniform (and its associated values of sameness, homogeneity etc) as the goal itself. Thus, by mixing up levels of analysis, the Court’s proportionality and reasonable accommodation analysis is constitutionally incorrect. And the root of this error – as I have pointed out above – is the Court’s assumption that education is uniform – that “no reasonable mind can imagine a school without a uniform.”

Where the Court does attempt to move the analysis to education itself, its conclusions are suspect. For example, on page 96, it notes that by creating “one homogenous class”, the uniform “serves constitutional secularism.” But this is inconsistent with the Court’s own analysis in a previous part of its judgment, where it notes that the Indian concept of “positive secularism” does not require the proverbial “wall of separation” between religion and State, but is much more accommodating towards religious pluralism within the overarching public sphere. On page 97, the Court holds that the Petitioners’ argument that “the goal of education is to promote plurality … is thoroughly misconceived.” But the Court provides no citation or source that the goal of education – note, not the goal of a uniform, but the goal of education – is uniformity at the cost of pluralism. On page 101, the Court quotes this argument again, and this time – regrettably – chooses to ridicule it instead of engaging with it, noting that it is “hollow rhetoric” and redolent of the “oft quoted platitude” of “unity in diversity”. Ironically, after ridiculing this as a platitude, the Court immediately afterwards cites the Supreme Court judgment in Re Kerala Education Bill that uses the exact same phrase!

Even more ironically, in the same paragraph, the Court then cites the UK House of Lords judgment in Regina v Governors of Denbigh High School, where, in paragraph 97 of her speech, Lady Hale notes that “a uniform dress code can play its role in smoothing over ethnic, religious, and social divisions.” Unfortunately, however, the Court omits to cite what Lady Hale goes on to note in paragraph 98, which is this:

It seems to me that that was exactly what this school was trying to do when it devised the school uniform policy to suit the social conditions in that school, in that town, and at that time. Its requirements are clearly set out by my noble and learned friend, Lord Scott of Foscote, in para 76 of his opinion. Social cohesion is promoted by the uniform elements of shirt, tie and jumper, and the requirement that all outer garments be in the school colour. But cultural and religious diversity is respected by allowing girls to wear either a skirt, trousers, or the shalwar kameez, and by allowing those who wished to do so to wear the hijab. This was indeed a thoughtful and proportionate response to reconciling the complexities of the situation.

The judgment of the UK House of Lords in Denbigh High School, indeed, is a model of exactly the kind of analysis that the Karnataka high Court steadfastly sets its face against in its hijab judgment: Denbigh involves an extensive discussion about how schools in plural and diverse societies should accommodate difference instead of insisting upon uniformity; and the correct question to ask – which is always a contextual question – is at what point does reasonable accommodation tip over into a demand that is inconsistent with the goals of education (in Denbigh, it was the wearing of the jilbab). It is therefore somewhat extraordinary that the Court cited the judgment in support of its ruling, when the very next paragraph after the paragraph it cited explicitly noted that the wearing of the hijab in a school was a good example of reasonable accommodation!

In fact, the Denbigh judgment is an excellent example of why the fear that really seems to be animating the Court’s judgment is no fear at all. On page 105, the Court notes:

An extreme argument that the students should be free to choose their attire in the school individually, if countenanced, would only breed indiscipline that may eventually degenerate into chaos in the campus and later, in the society at large.

But nobody – nobody – ever really advanced this “extreme argument.” Denbigh in fact shows that it is actually fairly straightforward – and well within the domain of judicial competence – to examine cases on an individual basis, and draw principled lines based on context. Trotting out a hypothetical parade of horribles to deny a constitutional right is not good judicial practice.

Indeed, the fact that the Court is itself fully capable of drawing these distinctions when it wants to is made abundantly clear by the next case that it discusses: the South African judgment in MEC for Education, Kwa-Zulu Natal (discussed in previous blog posts), where the controversy involved the wearing of a nose-stud by a Hindu student. The Court distinguishes the case on the basis that “the said case involved a nose stud, which is ocularly insignificantly (sic), apparently being as small as can be.” (p. 108) Now in my respectful view this distinction is quite bogus (more on this below), but that is not the point I want to make here: the point I want to make is that the “extreme argument” that the Court articulates – where everyone would ask to choose their own attire, and there would be general chaos – is an argument that it doesn’t even seem to believe in itself, given how easily – almost facilely – it distinguishes between the hijab and the nose-stud.

Non-Discrimination

Earlier on this blog, detailed arguments were made about how the hijab ban violates the constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination. The Court addresses this argument very briefly, noting only that the proscription – based on the Government Order – was facially neutral and non-sectarian (pg. 96). Unfortunately, while this argument applies to direct discrimination, it does not apply to indirect discrimination, where facially neutral rules and regulations have a disproportionate impact on different people. The doctrine of indirect discrimination has long been accepted by the Supreme Court, and is therefore part of Indian jurisprudence.

In fact, it is the Court’s own analysis – in particular, its distinguishing of the South African case – that shows how indirect discrimination is squarely applicable to the present case. The Court’s distinction between the “ocularly insignificant” and (presumably) the “ocularly significant” is a classic example, in discrimination law jurisprudence, of a “facially neutral rule” (which, in the Court’s reading, would allow “ocularly insignificant” adornments to a uniform, but not others) that has a disproportionate impact, in this case, grounded at the intersection of religion and burden. In my respectful view, the Court’s failure to consider this ground at all provides another compelling reason for why this judgment should be set aside on appeal.

Addendum: A Case of Conscience

From pages 80 to 88, the Court undertakes a brief analysis of that forgotten cousin of the freedom of religion – the freedom of conscience. The main judgment, of course, is the iconic Bijoe Emmanuel case, where the right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses not to participate in the singing of the national anthem was upheld. The Court distinguishes Bijoe Emmanuel on two grounds. First, it argues that “conscience is by its very nature subjective. Whether the petitioners had the conscience of the kind and how they developed it are not averred in the petition with material particulars.” This is not entirely unreasonable, and perhaps offers valuable guidance to future cases (and indeed, this case on appeal). If indeed one is making a claim based on the freedom of conscience, then it needs to be specifically pleaded, with the acknowledgment – of course – that conscience is subjective. For example, an anti-war activist can refuse conscription by arguing that war conflicts with their pacifist beliefs – but they do have to spell that out in specific terms. In this case, perhaps, it may be necessary for the petitioners to spell out, perhaps in more concrete terms, the (subjective) reasons for wearing the hijab as a case of conscience – an argument that, of course, overlaps with the argument from symbolic expression.

What is less convincing is the Court’s attempt to show that Bijoe Emmanuel was not a case of conscience at all, but one of religious freedom, despite the fact that Bijoe Emmanuel specifically uses the phrase “matters of conscience.” It is important to note that conscience might flow from religious convictions (for example, I may be a pacifist because I am religious), but it need not do so. In that way, the clean-cut separation that the Court attempts between conscience and religious freedom is, in my respectful view, unsustainable – and might materially have altered the outcome of this case.

Conclusion

There are two important things to note, by way of conclusion.

The first is that the Court is explicit that its judgment applies to classrooms (i.e., not even school premises, but classrooms). It notes this specifically on page 124, after some rather (in my view) unfortunate remarks about how banning the headgear is emancipatory “for women in general, and Muslim women in particular”: it notes that:

It hardly needs to be stated that this does not rob off the autonomy of women or their right to education inasmuch as they can wear any apparel of their choice outside the classroom.

The scope, thus, is limited to classrooms.

Secondly, for the reasons advanced above, I believe that the judgment is incorrect, and should be overturned on appeal. It is incorrect for the following reasons: first, it mistakenly holds that the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy are diminished, or derivative, in this case; secondly, it misapplies the reasonable accommodation test, and does not show how allowing the hijab for those who choose to wear it, as a uniform accessory, is incompatible with the goal of education; thirdly, it fails to consider that the ban amounts to indirect discrimination against Muslim women; and fourthly, it wrongly elides freedom of conscience and religious freedom. This creates an overarching framework of reasoning where the sanctity of the uniform is placed above both the goals of education, and the exercise of constitutional rights. I submit that a correct calibration calls upon us to recognise that educational spaces in a plural and diverse society ought to reflect its plurality and diversity, and facilitating the freedom of choice and expression is one crucial way to achieve that. Such an approach is more consistent with our Constitution.

The Hijab Case: Round-Up

This is a round-up of blog posts that have discussed various issues in the ongoing hijab case before the Karnataka High Court, on which judgment has now been reserved.

  1. The Essential Religious Practices Test and the Inversion of Agency: Notes from the Hijab Hearing (see here).
  2. Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Article 19(1)(a) [by Hari Kartik Ramesh] (see here).
  3. Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Non-Discrimination – Lessons from Kenya [by M. Jannani] (see here).
  4. Guest Post: The Hijab Case Through the Lens of Proportionality [by Shreyas Alevoor] (see here).
  5. Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Intersectionality [by M. Jannani] (see here).

Direct and Indirect Discrimination: Conceptual Slippages in the Orchestra Bars Case

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances (e.g., the introduction of structural mechanisms to ensure accountability)]


The Office of the Mumbai Commissioner of Police appears to be a somewhat joyless one. Every two years or so, rules framed by the Commissioner of Police trying to restrict dance and musical performances in bars end up before the Supreme Court, and invariably they are struck down. On February 18, the Supreme Court decided Round Four of the interminable battle between the Police Commissioner and the bars and musical performers of Mumbai. In Hotel Priya v State of Maharashtra, the Police Commissioner’s Order that an Orchestra Bar could only have four male and four female artists upon the stage at any point, was challenged and struck down by the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s conclusion is largely unremarkable, the judgment moves between concepts of direct and indirect discrimination in a way that merits closer scrutiny. First of all, in paragraph 5 of the judgment, while recording the submissions of the Petitioners, the Court notes that the challenge was not only to the separate gender-caps of four male and four female performers, but also to “the impugned conditions restricting the establishments to engage only eight artists.” In paragraph 6, however, while still recording the submissions of the Petitioners, the Court notes that “while not disputing that the overall limit of eight performers on stage at any given point of time is reasonable, the insistence that limits the number of performers of either gender is unreasonable and manifestly arbitrary.” These are two diametrically opposite submissions, however, and which one of them is the actual argument affects the entire framework of analysis upon which the case is based. In the former case, the gender cap takes on an absolute form, and the argument – inter alia – can be framed in the language of gender discrimination (i.e, restricting how many women can perform at any given time). In the latter case, however, if it is accepted that the overall cap of eight is reasonable, then the challenge appears to be more an arbitrariness challenge than a gender discrimination challenge: that there is no rational basis for a strict gender division, given that orchestras could have men and women (not to mention members of sexual minorities) in different proportions.

This lack of clarity at the beginning affects the judgment as a whole, because the Court opts to frame its analysis within a gender discrimination framework. Starting at paragraph 42, it notes that “the impugned gender-cap (i.e. four females and four males, in any performance) appears to be the product of a stereotypical view that women who perform in bars and establishments, like the appellants, belong to a certain class of society.” But it is unclear why, if the gender-cap is indeed based on an intersection of gender and class stereotypes, that it symmetrically restricts the orchestra to four men and four women. For that to be the case, the unarticulated major premise of the rule would have to be that an orchestra of eight members with a majority of women was in some way problematic or exploitative. But that is not an argument that appears to have been made by the State, or indeed, analysed by the Court. In the absence of that, it is unclear how this symmetrical gender-cap is treated as gender and class discriminatory because it entrenches stereotypes about gender and class.

From paragraphs 43 to 46, the Court then cites various judgments that discuss the stereotyping analysis. Once again, for the reasons supplied above, the relevance of these judgments is unclear. In paragraph 47, the Court then notes that “the restriction is upon the gender, in the sense that it seeks to cap the number of performers on the basis of gender. This restriction directly transgresses Article 15 (1).” But the second sentence is a non-sequitur. Yes, the restriction is upon the basis of gender, but it is unclear how it discriminates directly on grounds of gender, since what it prescribes is an equal number of men and women, in the context of an overall cap of eight performers (the overall cap being gender-agnostic). Thus, we are once again taken back to how the initial confusion about what, really, was under challenge, affects the discrimination analysis.

In any event, it appears clear that whatever else it does, the restriction does not directly transgress Article 15(1). Does this mean that it is not gender-discriminatory at all? I do not think so, and indeed, we can see glimpses of the actual argument through the judgment: that a substantially greater number of women – as opposed to men – perform as part of these orchestras, and therefore a gender-cap that is symmetrical on its face will have an asymmetrical impact upon women. This, in my view, would then constitute a case of indirect discrimination, where a seemingly neutral rule has a disparate, gender-based impact. Furthermore, it would also be a case of intersectional discrimination, given the class angle involved. This analysis, however, would have required the Court to demonstrate the disparate impact, based on studies pertaining to the gendered distribution of performers within the industry. The Court does not do this.

For this reason, while the judgment of the Court is undoubtedly correct, in my view, it suffers from conceptual confusion about the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination – and indeed, misses a chance to further evolve the still-nascent Indian jurisprudence on indirect (and intersectional) discrimination.  

Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Intersectionality

[This is a guest post by M. Jannani.]


In my previous post, I had analysed judgments delivered by the Kenyan courts in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church and how they had applied of the doctrine of indirect discrimination to strike down a restriction on wearing Hijabs along with the uniform, issued by a school in Kenya. I had also discussed how the Kenyan courts had applied the indirect discrimination test laid down in the Sarika case. In this blog, I take a step further and argue why the Hijab case would benefit from the import and application of the Sarika test by Indian courts. The first part of my essay will discuss why the direction issued by the pre-university education department of the Karnataka government has the effect of intersectional discrimination upon female Muslim students. The second part will discuss why the indirect discrimination tests laid down in Fraser v. Canada or Griggs v. Duke Power Company should not be applied by the court to the Hijab case. In the third part, I examine how the principle of reasonable accommodation interacts with the doctrine of indirect discrimination and its relevance to the present case.

Intersectional discrimination

In Navtej Johar v. Union of India , Justice Chandrachud’s concurring opinion recognized that claims of discrimination can be made on more than a single ground under article 15 of the Constitution of India. This view was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Ravinder Kumar Dhariwal v. Union of India.  In Patan Jamal Vali v. The State of Andhra Pradesh the Supreme Court discussed in length the difference between single axis discrimination and intersectional discrimination. It also specifically held that:

“When the identity of a woman intersects with, inter alia, her caste, class, religion, disability and sexual orientation, she may face violence and discrimination due to two or more grounds.(Emphasis mine)

The restriction on female Muslim students from wearing the Hijab is one that has the effect of discriminating against them on account of both their religious and gender identities. This is best captured by the following excerpt from an article by Maleiha Malik titled Complex Equality: Muslim Women and the ‘Headscarf’ which explains how the restriction imposed by different governments on headscarves worn by Muslim women is not only an attack on their religion but also a form of gender-based discrimination:

“One reason that the gender aspects disappears within the analysis is because it uses single axis definitions of equality which are designed to focus exclusively on one ground of inequality, e.g. sex or religion or race. However, the discrimination that Muslim women suffer through headscarf bans operates at the margins of race, religion and gender. It is a form of intersectional discrimination which leads to a quantitative increase in the amount of discrimination; as well as a qualitative change in how multiple discrimination undermines Muslim women’s agency. The structure of single-axis equality, with its focus on symmetry and comparison, is inappropriate where there is more than one ground for discriminatione.g. sex and religion and race. Methods that treat equality around a single axis as an either/or choice between criteria such as gender and religion are inadequate for addressing acute and subtle form of intersectional discrimination. The need for a single hypothetical comparator within single axis equality forces a stark choice. If gender is chosen then majoritarian definitions of woman may marginalise the needs of Muslim women. If religion is preferred then this often reflects the needs of the Muslim man as the representative of religion rather than Muslim women. Complex equality, unlike single axis equality, is an alternative formulation of the problem which changes the frame for analysing patriarchy. As well as examining gender oppression by Muslim men within minority Muslim communities, complex equality also takes into account the power of the state and majority women vis a vis Muslim women.” (Emphasis mine)

Therefore, the Karnataka notification which in effect restricts female Muslim students from wearing Hijabs along with their uniforms has a discriminatory effect that intersects at least with two personal identities- gender and religion. Hence, the restriction is one that has an effect of intersectional discrimination.

The courts should avoid the application of the tests laid down in Fraser or Griggs to the Hijab case

I will start by acknowledging that the doctrine of indirect discrimination is in its nascent stages of legal development in India. But that shouldn’t stop the courts from applying the doctrine of indirect discrimination to the Hijab case which is a textbook case of indirect discrimination – one where the restrictions may seem facially neutral, but has a disparate impact on female Muslim students who wear the Hijab. The Indian Courts on the question of indirect discrimination have relied on the Fraser v. Canada and Griggs v. Duke Power Company, as had been mentioned in a previous essay on this blog. I argue, why the courts should not apply the two tests in this specific case.

As I had mentioned in the previous section, the current case is one that involves a group of persons (female Muslim students) who face discrimination due to their intersecting identities. In Griggs v. Duke Power, the question before the Supreme Court of the United States of America was whether the employment requirements had a disparate impact on African-Americans because of their race. In the case of Fraser v. Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada evolved the indirect discrimination test in a case where a pension plan had an effect of adverse impact discrimination on women. Thereby, it can be observed that the courts in these two cases have evolved the test in the specific context where the individuals have been subjected to indirect discrimination on a singular aspect of their identity i.e., race or gender.

These tests have been applied by the Indian Courts primarily in cases of indirect discrimination where a group of persons or an individual has been subjected to discrimination on the basis of one factor of their identity. For example, in Nitisha v. Union of India (where the Supreme Court applied the Fraser test), the court looked into whether the requirement laid down for women to attain permanent commission in the Indian Army was one that had the effect of gender-based discrimination. Similarly, in Madhu v. Northern Railways (where the Supreme Court applied the disparate impact principles laid down in Griggs v. Duke Power) the Delhi HC looked into indirect discrimination where the discriminating factor was only gender.

On the other hand, In Patan Jamal Vali v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court remarked on the dangers of courts adopting a legal analysis which looks at discrimination only through a single axis in cases where an intersectional approach is required. The relevant parts of the judgment are as follows:

“A single axis approach to violence and discrimination renders invisible such minority experiences within a broader group since it formulates identity as “totemic” and “homogenous”. Laws tend to focus on a singular identity due to the apparent clarity a monistic identity provides in legal analysis where an individual claiming differential treatment or violence can argue that “but for” that identity, they would have been treated in the same way as a comparator. Therefore, their treatment is irrational and unjustified.

By exhibiting attentiveness to the ‘matrix of domination’ created by the intersecting patterns at play, the Court can more effectively conduct an intersectionality analysis. A legal analysis focused on delineating specific dimensions of oppression running along a single axis whether it be caste, disability or gender fails to take into account the overarching matrix of domination that operates to marginalise an individual.(Emphasis supplied)

Thereby, tests laid down in Fraser or Griggs which have been formulated in a context where the affected persons were subjected to discrimination on a single factor of their identity should not be applied to the Hijab Case wherein the persons are being exposed to indirect discrimination due to their intersectional identities. If either of the two tests are applied to the latter case it renders invisible the discrimination faced by the female Muslim students by putting them into a homogenous religious group of ‘Muslims’ and does not acknowledge the specific dimension of oppression that interacts with their religious and gender identity. 

The present case demands for the import of the test laid down in the Sarika judgment

In the case of Sarika Angel Watkins v. The Governing Body of Aberdare Girls’ High School , the England and Wales High Court examined whether a girl student from a minority religious community in the region i.e., the Sikh community, was subjected to indirect discrimination. As one can notice, the judgment begins with a recognition of how ‘school girls’ had lost cases before the court where they exerted their right to wear articles of faith along with their school uniform. The judgment also recognises her gender and religious identification, and addresses her as a ‘Sikh girl’ or ‘Sikh school girl’, resulting in acknowledging her intersectional identity. Similarly, the Kenyan Court of Appeals decision in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church looked into the question of indirect discrimination in a case where hijabs were restricted due to which a certain groups of students faced indirect discrimination. The group in this case were female Muslim students who were affected by the discrimination due to their intersectional identities (religion and gender). The Kenyan Court of Appeals applied the test laid down in the Sarika judgment. Though the courts may not have explicitly addressed the aspect of intersectional discrimination of persons in these cases, they have applied the specific test to recognise the indirect discrimination, where they have identified the groups with their intersectional identities as either ‘Sikh school girl’ or ‘female Muslim students’ as the case maybe. Thereby, Sarika test is more appropriate to cases where the doctrine of indirect discrimination is invoked with respect to persons who may be disparately impacted due to their intersecting identities since they formulated and applied in such contexts.

The Sarika judgment and the Essential Religious Practices Test

The judgment in Sarika referred to the following factors laid down in the case of R (Williamson and others) v Secretary of State for Education [2005] 2AC 246 to access whether a religious belief in the case was one that was genuine:

(a) …when the genuineness of a claimant’s professed belief is in issue in the proceedings, the court will inquire into and decide this issue as an issue of fact…”;

(b) …the court is concerned to ensure an assertion of religious belief is made in good faith ‘neither fictitious, nor capricious and that it is not an artifice’…”;

(c) …emphatically it is not for the court to embark on an inquiry into the asserted belief and judges its “validity” by some objective standard such as the source material upon which the claimant founds his belief or the orthodox teaching of the religion in question or the extent to which the claimant’s belief conforms to or differs from the views of other professing the same religion…”; and that 

(d) …the relevance of objective factors such as source material is, at most, that they may throw light on whether the professed belief is genuinely held.

It can thereby be seen that the third factor for accessing whether a religious belief is genuine expressly states that the court should not embark on an inquiry and judge such a practice on the metric of some objective standard such as the source of the material upon which the person based their religious belief on. Similarly, Kenyan Court of Appeals while applying the Sarika test in Mohamed Fugicha held:

“It is important to observe at this point that it is not for the courts to judge on the basis of some ‘independent or objective’ criterion the correctness of the beliefs that give rise to Muslim girls’ belief that the particular practice is of utmost or exceptional importance to them.  It is enough only to be satisfied that the said beliefs are genuinely held.”

Therefore, if the Sarika test is applied to the Hijab case, to prove the whether the belief is genuine in the case a claim of indirect discrimination is brought, the court will only need to look into whether the belief is genuinely held. It need not apply the Essential Religious Practices test.

Reasonable Accommodation and Indirect Discrimination

In NALSA v. Union of India, the Supreme Court recognized that the principle of non-discrimination goes beyond the prevention of discrimination and extends to remedying systemic discrimination that persons may suffer due to their identities. One such remedy is the notion of ‘reasonable accommodation’.  The following is the relevant portion of the judgment:

In international human rights law, equality is found upon two complementary principles: non-discrimination and reasonable differentiation. The principle of non-discrimination seeks to ensure that all persons can equally enjoy and exercise all their rights and freedoms. Discrimination occurs due to arbitrary denial of opportunities for equal participation. For example, when public facilities and services are set on standards out of the reach of the TGs, it leads to exclusion and denial of rights. Equality not only implies preventing discrimination (example, the protection of individuals against unfavourable treatment by introducing anti-discrimination laws), but goes beyond in remedying discrimination against groups suffering systematic discrimination in society. In concrete terms, it means embracing the notion of positive rights, affirmative action and reasonable accommodation.

In Madhu v. Northern Railways, while addressing the aspect of indirect discrimination the Delhi High Court referred to the following excerpt from the judgment in Jeeja Ghosh v. Union of India:

“Equality not only implies preventing discrimination (example, the protection of individuals against unfavourable treatment by introducing anti-discrimination laws), but goes beyond in remedying discrimination against groups suffering systematic discrimination in society.”

It is important to interpret this reference by understanding what the judgment in Jeeja Ghosh addressed. The Supreme Court in Jeeja Ghosh recognised the principle of reasonable accommodation for disabled persons (who were systematically discriminated in this case) in a bid to remedy discrimination that they had faced. It also mentioned that such reasonable accommodation has to be made in the interest of substantive equality.  Therefore, when the Delhi High Court in Madhu referred to this specific excerpt, it in effect recognised that remedying discrimination also includes within it allowing reasonable accommodation to those groups that face systemic discrimination beyond the realm of disability.

Similarly, in Nitisha v. Union of India, the court mentioned, while referring to the judgments in Jeeja Ghosh v. Union of India and Vikas Kumar v. UPSC, that the Supreme Court has recognised reasonable accommodation as a ‘substantive equality facilitator’ while discussing indirect discrimination. Thereby it can be noticed that the courts have acknowledged the need for the principle of reasonable accommodation to be applied to cases involving indirect discrimination for the realisation of substantive equality.

The Supreme Court in Ravinder Kumar Dhariwal v. Union of India held that the initiating disciplinary proceedings against a mentally disabled person (in the said factual background) amounted to indirect discrimination. The judgment referred to the case of the Supreme Court of Canada in British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU, and recognised that in case prima facie discrimination exists, the burden shifts on the person or entity who discriminates to justify the discrimination and to prove that it did indeed provide for reasonable accommodation. The Supreme Court used this three stage test while discussing indirect discrimination. The relevant extract is as follows:

In British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU 83, the Canadian Supreme Court held that once it is established that prima facie discrimination exists, the burden shifts on the employer to justify the discrimination, which involves proving that it provided reasonable accommodation. The court developed a three-stage test based on proportionality to determine whether an employer may use the bona fide occupational requirement.

Thereby, the burden in the present case, will fall on the relevant authorities of the Karnataka government to prove that measures to allow reasonable accommodation were provided for the students who are at the receiving end of the discrimination. It must however be kept in mind that Indian Courts have explicitly recognized the principle of reasonable accommodation, for the most part, in cases relating to disability rights.

Conclusion

The judgments delivered by the Indian courts on indirect discrimination are a testament to transformative constitutionalism, one where the courts have not hesitated to borrow from other jurisdictions in order to ensure that there is not a formalistic interpretation of equality. Even though the Supreme Court of India has commented in certain judgments (such as Nitisha v. Union of India) on how the doctrine of indirect discrimination is at its nascent stages, one can observe that that hasn’t stopped the courts from using the doctrine in those cases or expanding the contours of the doctrine’s application with due regard to the specific nature of each case. Such a commitment to substantive equality, in my opinion, is only strengthened, when the unique nature of the interaction between indirect discrimination and intersectional discrimination is recognized in the Hijab case.

Guest Post: The Hijab Case Through the Lens of Proportionality

[This is a guest post by Shreyas Alevoor.]


Previously on this blog, a case was made for the application of the disparate test to challenge the ban on Hijab. However, the indirect discrimination test ought to be applied with caution, and with awareness of the fact that Indian jurisprudence on indirect discrimination is still nascent. In Part I of this piece, I argue that arguments founded on indirect discrimination test may not be entirely effective. In Part II, I argue that the ban on Hijab, being a violation of Art. 19(1)(a) is better off being challenged on grounds of proportionality.

Let us return to the Karnataka government’s directive. The directive states that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity, and public law and order should not be worn”, and cites the Supreme Court’s judgement in Asha Ranjan vs. State as justification for this. The invocation of Asha Ranjan is problematic for several reasons, one of them being that its factual matrix makes it irrelevant to this controversy. But more on that later.

Indirect Discrimination and its Discontents

In the landmark US case of Griggs vs. Duke Power Company, disparate impact was said to occur when a policy, which is neutral at the face of it:

  1. Puts members of a protected group at a disproportionate disadvantage compared with members of a cognate group, and
  2. Fails to satisfy a means-end justification test.

The two-factor test for indirect discrimination that the Canadian Supreme Court developed in Fraser vs. Canada, also recognized by the Indian Supreme Court, is as follows:

  1. Whether the impugned rule disproportionately affects a particular group;
  2. Whether the law has the effect of reinforcing, perpetuating, and exacerbating a disadvantage (social, political, and economic exclusion, psychological and physical harms).  

I submit that, under this test, the government order [“G.O.”] does not have the effect of indirectly discriminating against a particular group. The first prong of both the Griggs and Fraser tests requires that the protected group face a disproportionate impact compared to a comparator/cognate group. The evidentiary standard used in the United Kingdom to determine the disproportionality is that of the deliberately vague ‘particular disadvantage’. This is done to ensure that the parties or the courts do not get caught up in an empirical exercise, but rather employ an intuitive assessment of disparate impacts. The Court in Fraser similarly notes that the “disproportionate impact on the members will be apparent and immediate”, and will “show such strong association with the [group’s] traits.”

The State government’s directive requires the school to act against anyone who violates the dress code of the institution – which applies not only to Hijabs, but also any other articles of clothing with religious connotations. The disadvantage suffered is not ‘particular’, but universal. Indeed, Hindu boys wearing saffron scarves were barred from entering the classroom. Hence, the impacts of the measure does not show an association with the protected group’s traits.

Note that indirect discrimination is said to occur to when a measure that appears to uphold equality in treatment results in an inequality of outcomes, due to the systemic nature of discrimination. One can understand this with the example provided in Jones vs. Chief Adjudication Officer: in a large children’s party, the host announces that presents will be divided equally between all the girls and boys. Later, he announces that only the girls shall be given presents, and the boys will have none. After a while, the host discovers that the presents have been misplaced and thus nobody will receive a present. While there is discrimination in the first case, there is none in the second case as “the disadvantage to girls is not mirrored by any corresponding advantage to boys”. 

An Alternative Argument for Indirect Discrimination

How should the Court determine if a ban on Hijab perpetuates a disadvantage under the second prong of the Fraser test? It might have to investigate whether the Hijab is essential to the Muslim community – at which point it may again be drawn into the minefield of the Essential Religious Practice (ERP) test as it currently stands. Notwithstanding the principled arguments against the test, there are also practical difficulties in proving Hijab as an ERP.

Before I conclude this Part, I must recognize that a claim for indirect discrimination could exist, but not in the way previously discussed on this blog. In Fraser, the Court had noted that indirect discrimination not only results from headwinds against protected groups built into facially neutral laws, but could also arise from an “absence of accommodation for members of protected groups”. The refusal to accommodate Hijab may be construed as an absence of accommodation.

One can find a tiny sliver of the accommodation argument in the Delhi High Court’s judgement in Inspector (Mahila) Ravina vs. Union of India. Here, a female CRPF officer was denied promotion because she was unable to attend a pre-promotion course in 2011 due to her being pregnant at the time, even though she did complete it successfully in 2012. S. Ravindra Bhat, J. (as he was then), held that the State could not make her choose between the pregnancy and a promotion. It was held that such a choice, while made under a “seemingly neutral reason of inability of employee” would be discriminatory. Here, the dispute results not from built-in headwinds, but from not making an accommodation for pregnancies. However, the difficulty with the accommodation argument is that the Supreme Court’s nascent indirect discrimination jurisprudence as developed in Navtej Johar and Lt. Co. Nitisha does not explicitly recognize claims of accommodation as yet.

Proportionality Challenge

In a previous blog post, Hari Kartik makes an excellent argument for clothes as symbolic speech. I further argue that the Karnataka government’s directive and its grounds for the ban (equality, integrity, and public law and order) fail on proportionality grounds in so far as it violates Art. 19(1)(a).  

A proportionality test at its simplest consists of the following four prongs: Legitimate Aim, Rational Nexus, Necessity, and Balancing.

Equality as a Justification

It is difficult to understand how religious expression can undermine equality if the right to such expression is available to people of all religions. In any case, ‘equality’ (as cited in the directive) is not a ground for restricting free speech and expression under Art. 19. Neither is it a “legitimate interest of sufficient importance” in this case, for reasons I will explain shortly.

Tests of indirect discrimination also prescribe proportionality. The measure should “correspond to a real need and the means must be appropriate” to achieve the stated objectives, as stated in Bilka Kaufhaus GmbH vs. Weber von Harz. A reasonable accommodation of religious items of clothing does not result in inequality by abolishing uniforms. In this case, the demand is for a Hijab over the uniform. In Navneethum Pillay, the Court rightly pointed out that religious and cultural displays in public “[are not] a parade of horribles, but a pageant of diversity”.

Integrity and Public Law and Order

Whatever the possible arguments for a short-term prohibition in light of a sensitive situation, it is difficult to justify the ban as a long-term measure as it prohibits potentially every form of religious expression. There exists no rational nexus between such a ban and protecting law and order. The ban is not only limited to the Hijab, but also other articles of clothing of religious significance. In MRF Ltd. vs. Inspector Kerala Government, the Court held in the context of reasonableness that that the restriction imposed by a measure should not be “arbitrary or of an excessive nature so as to go beyond the requirement of the interest of the general public.” There exist better alternatives to an outright ban – that of making accommodations on a case-by-case basis after careful scrutiny.

The final Balancing prong, as Mark Tushnet notes, requires a determination of “whether the government’s goals are important enough and are advanced enough by the statute so as to justify the actual impairment of liberty”. The ‘equality’ objective of the directive fails here as it is not important enough. While ‘integrity and law and order’ is an important objective, a ban does not fulfill it.

The directive by invoking Asha Ranjan also tries to fulfill the Balancing requirement (albeit unintentionally) but doesn’t really succeed at it:

Larger public interest prevails upon the individual interest not by negating individual rights but by upholding larger interests and to ensure relationship between the institution and the students.

Let us compare the following formulations:

Proportionality: Government’s goals and measures taken should be important enough to justify the impairment of liberty.

Directive: Larger public interest (i.e., government goals of law and order) and measures taken (i.e., the ban) are important to ensure relationship between the institution and the students.

This is the first problem: for reasons explained above, the government goals and the measure taken do not justify the impairment of liberty, but only justify a “relationship between the institution and students”. What this relationship is, no one really knows. 

The other problem is that this attempt at a balancing act draws a false dichotomy between a larger State interest (education, and public order) on the one hand, and individual rights (freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of faith and conscience) on the other. It claims that it does not wish to “negate individual rights”, but that is precisely the effect of the ban – a veritable Tacitus’ desert.  In Serif vs. Greece, the European Court of Human Rights held that the role of the State is to “not remove the cause of tension by eliminating pluralism, but to ensure that the competing groups tolerate each other”. This was relied upon in Sarika Watkins-Singh vs. Aberdare Girls’ High School to hold that schools had a ‘very important obligation’ to ensure that its students are tolerant as to the beliefs of other people, and respect other people’s religious wishes.

For these reasons, the G.O. – and the hijab fan – fail the test of proportionality.

Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Non-Discrimination – Lessons from Kenya

[This is a guest post by M. Jannani. Previous posts on the Hijab Case can be found here and here.]


Recently, the Karnataka State Government pre-university education department issued a direction invoking 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1933 which in effect restricted female Muslim students from wearing hijab in educational institutions that are under the its jurisdiction. The order reportedly stated that:

“Invoking 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act-1983 which says a uniform style of clothes has to be worn compulsorily. The private school administration can choose a uniform of their choice”

Though on the face of it, the notification may seem neutral, the point lies in disparate impact it has had on female Muslim students whose self-expression and religious practices have been jeopardised. This piece discusses the judgment of Fugicha v. Methodist Church in Kenya which used the doctrine of indirect discrimination to strike down a restriction on wearing Hijabs along with the usual uniforms prescribed by a school in Kenya. It also aims to contextualize the judgment’s relevance to the doctrine of indirect discrimination, which has already been recognized by Indian courts.

Background

On the 22nd of June 2014, there was a request made by the Deputy Governor of Isiolo county to allow Muslim girl students to wear hijab and white trousers in addition to the already prescribed uniform in St. Paul’s Kiwanjani Day Mixed Secondary School (“the school”). Approximately a week after the request was made, Muslim girl students wore both the hijab and white trousers along with the school uniform that was prescribed by the school. They were then asked to revert back to the dressing in the uniform that they had to wear before the request was made. The county director passed a decision that Muslim girl students should be allowed to wear the hijab and white trousers along with the school uniform. However, the Methodist Church in Kenya (“the Church”) opposed it and argued that this particular move allowed for preferential treatment of female Muslim students. It also termed the move as a violation of natural justice and the rule of law, while supporting the dress code that did not (according to it) permit the exhibition of religious symbols.

At the outset it is important to note that Constitution of Kenya expressly recognizes the right against indirect discrimination in article 27 which states as follows:

“27 (4) The state shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.

(5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (4)”.

Given this background, the Kenyan Courts, among other questions in the present case, were tasked with the role of examining whether the banning of hijabs in schools amounted to an act of indirect discrimination, which violated article 27 of the Kenyan Constitution.

Decision of the High Court

The High Court observed that the Republic of Kenya is a secular country and since article 8 of the Kenyan Constitution states that there cannot be a state religion, the school was not justified in allowing female Muslim students to wear a hijab. It also stated that they should revert back to the uniform. The judgment further held that not having such restrictions on the uniform for female Muslim students would amount to preferential treatment over their non-Muslim peers.

In my opinion, the court terming the move to allow female Muslim students to wear hijabs being called special or preferential treatment was erroneous and ran contrary to the principles of indirect discrimination. These principles were, for instance, laid down by the judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in MEC for Education: Kwazulu-Natal v. Navaneethum Pillay. In this case, a girl student wore a nose stud (which formed a part of her cultural belief as a Hindu) to her school. Her school found it to be a violation of the uniform dress code and objected to her wearing the nose stud. This restriction was constitutionally challenged. The Constitutional Court of South Africa held that such restrictions would have an effect of indirect discrimination on those whose cultural practices are compromised. The relevant extract of the judgment is as follows:

“It is those learners whose sincere religious or cultural beliefs or practices are not compromised by the Code, as compared to those whose beliefs or practices are compromised. The ground of discrimination is still religion or culture as the Code has a disparate impact on certain religions and cultures. The norm embodied by the Code is not neutral, but enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms of adornment, such as ear studs which also involve the piercing of a body part, at the expense of minority and historically excluded forms. It thus places a burden on learners who are unable to express themselves fully and must attend school in an environment that does not completely accept them. In my view, the comparator is not learners who were granted an exemption compared with those who were not. That approach identifies only the direct effect flowing from the School’s decisions and fails to address the underlying indirect impact inherent in the Code itself.”

Decision by the Kenyan Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church in Kenya looked into whether the restriction on wearing hijabs was a violation of article 27 of the Kenya’s Constitution. To determine whether the restriction on female Muslim students wearing hijabs on their uniforms was an act of indirect discrimination, the court imported the test that was laid down in the case of Sarika Angel Watkins v. The Governing Body of Aberdare Girls’ High School. In the case of Sarika, the English and Wales High Court looked into whether a Sikh girl student could be restricted from wearing a Kara, which was of immense significance to her faith. The following four step test was laid down in the Sarika judgment, and was affirmed by the Kenyan Court of Appeals :   

“(a)  to identify the relevant ‘provision, criterion or practice’ which is applicable;

(b) to determine the issue of disparate impact which entails  identifying a pool for the purpose of  making a  comparison of the relevant disadvantages;

(c) to ascertain if the provision, criterion or practice also  disadvantages the claimant personally;

(d) Whether this policy is objectively justified by a legitimate aim; and to consider, if the above requirements are  satisfied, whether this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

When applying the above test, the Kenyan Court of Appeals firstly stated the relevant practice to be considered was the restriction imposed by the school on female Muslim students wearing hijab along with their uniform. The court then observed that the ‘pool’ in this case comprised of the female Muslim students and the ‘comparator group’ consisted of the non-Muslim student body. In this context, it made the observation that unlike the ‘pool’, the comparator group’s compliance with the school’s uniform rules did not subject them to disadvantage which was violative of their religious practices and beliefs. While looking into whether the criterion or practice disadvantages the claimant personally, the court held that the ban on wearing hijabs that existed in the school was one that compromised and curtailed their religious beliefs that were of exceptional importance to the individual. While upholding that the restriction constituted an act of indirect discrimination under the Sarika test, the court expressly stated that:

“It is important to observe at this point that it is not for the courts to judge on the basis of some ‘independent or objective’ criterion the correctness of the beliefs that give rise to Muslim girls’ belief that the particular practice is of utmost or exceptional importance to them.  It is enough only to be satisfied that the said beliefs are genuinely held.”

The Court of Appeals also referred to the judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in City Council of Pretoria v. Walker to hold that though the rules on the uniform dress code may be perceived as neutral, the still may have a discriminatory effect. The relevant portion of the judgment states as follows:

“The inclusion of both direct and indirect discrimination, within the ambit of the prohibition imposed by section 8(2) of the Constitution, evinces a concern for the consequences rather than the form of conduct.  It recognizes that conduct which may appear to be neutral and non-discriminatory may nonetheless result in discrimination and, if it does, that it falls within the purview of section 8(2) [our Article 27(4)] of the Constitution.”

It was therefore held even though the uniform dress policy was one that appeared to be neutral, by not allowing female Muslim students to wear the Hijab, it amounted to an act of indirect discrimination. This constituted a violation of article 27, Constitution of Kenya. The Kenyan Court of Appeals, thereby, proceeded to outlaw the restriction on wearing hijabs on uniforms.

Decision by the Kenyan Supreme Court

The decision given by the Kenyan Court of Appeals in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church was appealed before the Supreme Court of Kenya. The majority set aside the judgments of both the High Court and the Court of Appeals on the procedural ground that there was no proper cross-petition to be determined by the courts. The minority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Ojwang termed the view of the Appellate Court in the interpretation of indirect discrimination as ‘appositely pragmatic and rational’ while also holding that it reflects the desirable judicial stand.

Recognition of Indirect Discrimination by Indian Courts

Last year, the Supreme Court in Nitisha v. Union of India applied the doctrine of indirect discrimination while holding that women army officers being denied Permanent Commission (“PC”) by the Indian Army was discriminatory. Through the judgment it acknowledged that though certain rules or laws appear to be neutral they may have a disparate impact on certain groups/ communities of people due to their identities. While doing so, the Supreme Court of India, similar to the Kenyan Court of Appeals, referred to the Constitutional Court of South Africa’s judgment in City Council of Pretoria v. Walker. A similar reference to the decision of the South African court was made in the decision of Madhu v. Northern Railways. which also looked into the doctrine of indirect discrimination.  Thereby, it can be observed that the Indian courts have not hesitated in borrowing the interpretation of the indirect discrimination from jurisdictions that have expressly recognised. However, to determine whether an act constituted indirect discrimination, the Supreme Court in Nitisha had adopted the Fraser v. Canada test as opposed to the test laid down in Sarika which had been adopted by the Kenyan Court of Appeals.

Conclusion

Though the Kenyan Court of Appeals judgment in Methodist Church in Kenya v. Mohamed Fugicha was set aside by the Supreme Court of Kenya (albeit not on the merits), it can be seen that the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the doctrine of indirect discrimination in the specific context of the restrictions on wearing hijabs over uniforms is one that is extremely relevant. The doctrine of indirect discrimination plays an important role in opposing state action that may have a perversely disproportionate impact on those who face intersectional discrimination as has been demonstrated by the Kenyan Court of Appeals. The application of this doctrine by the Indian Courts in the way the Court of Appeals did to outlaw the restriction on hijabs will, in my opinion, be of critical importance to the realization of substantive equality.

Notes From a Foreign Field: The Botswana Court of Appeal’s Judgment Decriminalising Same-Sex Relations [Guest Post]

[This is a guest post by Karan Gupta.]


Earlier this week, a full Bench of the Botswana Court of Appeals (CoA) in Attorney General v Letsweletse Motshidiemang partly upheld the High Court’s (HC) judgment (analysed here) which decriminalised same-sex relations. Commending the ‘erudite’ and ‘searching’ judgment of the HC, the judgment inducts Botswana into a group of countries such as India (here), and Angola (here) which have recently struck down similar provisions criminalising same-sex relations and away from the judgments recently issued by the High Courts of Kenya (here and here) and Singapore (here). In so doing, the CoA affirmed the equal moral membership under the Botswana Constitution of individuals who identify with same-sex relations. The judgment is commendable for its careful navigation of the arguments raised, which I explore, in seriatim.

Setting the context

The case concerned criminal provisions germane across former British colonies. The impugned provisions of the Penal Code 1964 [Sections 164(a); 164(c)] criminalised relations ‘against the order of nature’ which had been judicially interpreted to outlaw same-sex anal intercourse. Both sides presented now familiar arguments in cases concerning the decriminalisation of same-sex relations. The appellant (Botswana Government) argued that the provisions were not enforced, were gender-neutral (and was hence not discriminatory), prohibited only certain sexual acts limited to anal intercourse and did not cause or perpetuate prejudice, stigma and oppression. The Respondents (and the Amicus  – Legabibo) urged that though the provisions were gender neutral, the effect was discriminatory in singling out same-sex relations for criminalisation, they violated the fundamental rights to liberty, dignity, privacy and equality before the law, did not constitute permissible restrictions of these fundamental rights, and amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex.

Section 3 of the Botswana Constitution guarantees to every person in the Country (whatever their ‘sex’), the fundamental right to life, liberty, security and privacy of their home and property. Section 7 guarantees that no individual shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment. Section 15 stipulates the fundamental right against discrimination on enumerated grounds (including ‘sex’). Though arguments were urged before the High Court of Section 7, the CoA restricted itself to the other fundamental rights on the basis that no finding was returned by the High Court on the provision, nor was any appeal filed on this ground (paragraphs 8, 10)

At the arguments before the CoA, the appellant restricted its arguments to three principal grounds (35, 110): First, that the High Court ignored stare decisis in that it was bound by the 2003 CoA decision in Kanane, where a constitutional challenge to the same provisions was squarely rejected (22, 37); Second, a change in law is essentially a policy matter within the exclusive domain of the democratically elected legislation. Any adjudication amounts to impermissible judicial law-making (10, 74); and Third, the High Court erred in failing to apply Section 15(9) – a ‘saving’ constitutional provision which preserved and protected from discrimination-scrutiny statutory provisions which existed at the time the Constitution came into force (35, 36, 91). Consequently, the CoA dedicates a significant part of its judgment addressing these arguments.

Kanane and the tides of change

In Kanane, the CoA rejected a constitutional challenge based on Section 3 and 15 of the Constitution to the impugned provisions. The High Court distinguished the CoA decision in Kanane on the ground that the judgment delivered in 2003 had explicitly noted that Botswana was not then ready for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations. The CoA, on a careful reading of its earlier decision, agrees with the High Court (57). As such, the constitutional findings in Kanane were not categorical, but conditional i.e., the CoA in Kanane, though supportive of the ‘rights of the gay community’ (64), had expressly stated that “the time had not yet arrived” to strike down the provision “at this stage”. Thus, there was no need to distinguish a case, which had left open a window for future evidence to be lead which may point to a different conclusion (55-58). As for the evidence, the CoA reproduces and notes that judicial opinions and public opinion (including statements by Heads of State) since 2003 reflected a ‘progressive change’ (62) which indicated that the ‘tide has turned’ (65). Given the ‘adequate evidence of the change of attitude’, ‘sex’ in Sections 3 and 15(3) was held to include ‘sexual orientation’ as well as gender identity. Consequently, the CoA holds that the HC’s judgment under appeal reflected a logical progression (71) and did not contravene the principles of stare decisis.

The holding of the CoA on this count is broadly in line with the constitutional interpretive technique in Botswana committed to living-tree constitutionalism. Broadly speaking, this asserts that constitutions do not reflect stable and fixed pre-commitments and legitimate constitutional interpretation involves development and change in constitutional law through interpretation by judges, in a manner keeping it abreast of changes in society, politics, culture and legal systems. The CoA had earlier affirmed in Attorney General v Dow (1992) that the Constitution is not a “lifeless museum piece” but a living constitution which should “meet the just demands and aspirations of an ever-developing society”. Similarly, the High Court below had held that the “living and dynamic charter of progressive human rights, serving the past, the here and now, as well as the unborn constitutional subjects.” (HC, 76).

Interestingly however, whilst the doctrine is often employed to interpret constitutional provisions in their application to circumstances unforeseen/unimaginable to the drafters (for instance, privacy in an emerging digital age), the CoA employs it to interpret the substance of constitutional rights on the basis of changing public opinion. Such approach beckons obvious caution – public opinion, is by its very nature, in a state of flux and influenced by majoritarian tendencies. Constitutional principles cannot be subject to the vicissitudes of public opinion. The CoA, in then recognising that public opinion cannot on its own be grounds for striking down provisions (66), finds support for its conclusion in the ‘proper independent evidence’ which to it demonstrates the effect of such provisions – the perpetuation of stigma and exclusion, which undermines the constitutionally guaranteed rights to liberty, privacy, dignity and the equal protection of law (67). To distinguish its earlier holding in Kanane, the CoA is pushed to build on the window left open by it. Despite this, it carefully reiterates common-place principles of constitutionalism – that it is rights-violation and not public opinion which invites judicial review.

Separation of Powers and democracy deficit

Perhaps the most interesting observations are in CoA’s rejection of the Government’s argument that the separation of powers reserves to the legislature exclusive power in matters of policy. It is the sole prerogative of a democratically elected legislature, it was argued, to amend or repeal the impugned provisions.  The CoA decisively rejects this and holds that policy matters, though within the domain of the legislature, are tested against the anvil of constitutional provisions and principles (86, 90). Where fundamental rights are breached, it is the role and responsibility of courts to ‘tweak’ the meaning of legislation to bring it in line with the Constitution (81, 83). So far as constitutional principles go, this is now fairly well-settled. It is the observations thereafter that are significant in inviting attention to political processes and judicial review.

The CoA effectively observes that that political process by which legislation is enacted is often tainted by the will of the majority and may not be suited for the protection of minorities (82). It observes:

“82…the views and concerns of individuals, or of minority or marginalised groups will carry as little weight as their voting power dictates”

“88. It is most unlikely that the popular majority as represented by its elected members of Parliament, will have any inclination to legislate for the interests of vulnerable individuals or minorities, so the framers, in their wisdom, allocated the task and duty to the judiciary.”

These observations are significant. In recognising that legislative reform may take two distinct paths (one through the democratic mandate of the elected parliament, and second, through judicial review of legislation by courts in a bid to protect minority rights (89)), the CoA squarely positions itself to give effect to the constitutional guarantee of equality by addressing and remedying majoritarian democratic deficit in legislative and political processes. Where elected legislatures may represent majoritarian desires, the political process is ill-suited for the protection of certain identities and minorities. To argue then that the protection of identities and minorities is a policy matter within the domain of the elected legislature alone, is to subject such protection to purely majoritarian impulses and insulate it from principles of equality enshrined in the Constitution.

Recall here a similar observation in the infamous ‘fn 4’ in United States v Caroline Products by the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Stone noted that a more ‘searching judicial enquiry’ (which was later interpreted to mean strict scrutiny)may be required where prejudice against minorities curtail the operation of the very political process relied upon for their protection. In such cases, it is futile to assert that the judiciary has no role whatsoever. In making the above observations, the CoA sets up a normative defense of judicial review of legislation which arises from a specific role attributed to it – a role informed by the equality guarantee in the constitution. In rejecting the Government’s contention, the CoA affirms that constitutional values prevail over majoritarian politics.

Section 15(9) and the ghost of a colonial past

The Government argued that the Penal Code 1964 was promulgated prior to the coming into force of the 1966 Constitution. Section 15(9), a saving clause, insulated from challenge these laws against discrimination claims arising from Section 15. The CoA recognises that these statutes are ‘legislation for the people, not by the people (93), and noted that this form was common to former British Colonies.

The CoA notes that whilst the Botswana judiciary has frowned upon blanket insulation of these laws from constitutional scrutiny, two reasons peculiar to the impugned provisions are grounds to reject the arguments – first, prior to rape laws being made gender-neutral to include men as potential victims/survivors, the impugned provisions protected men and boys from the act (101). Thus, the ‘public interest’ role earlier served by the impugned provisions was subsumed by virtue of the amendments to the rape law. What remained then was ‘ancient biblical condemnations’; second, the saving clause protected laws vis-à-vis the discrimination scrutiny at a time when neither sex nor sexual orientation were its part. (103). Given their inclusion, the impugned provisions are not protected by Section 15(9). The CoA rightly notes that where legal provisions derogates from fundamental rights, the saving clause must be accorded a restricted and narrow interpretation (103, 108). Consequently, Section 15(9) could not be read to protect from scrutiny the impugned provisions.

Privacy beyond a closet (spatial sense)

As the arguments urged orally were restricted to three grounds, the CoA briefly marks its agreement with the High Court’s reasoning on liberty, privacy and dignity vis-à-vis Sections 3 and 15 (110). Here however, the judgment is worthy of commendation for another reason. Despite its short approval of the observation by the HC, it rightly sets an expansive idea of privacy by noting that the ‘full scope and reach’ of the constitutionally guaranteed right is not restricted to a spatial sense, but extends to personal choices (112). What this means is that the right to privacy is not limited to the private confines of the bedroom, but more broadly to decisional autonomy.

This is crucial because as I have argued before, provisions such as those impugned do not criminalise specific acts, but a set of identities.  Many times, the HC errs in reducing the right to privacy to a spatial sense in its constitutional scrutiny of the impugned provisions (HC, 3, 126, 127, 189, 214, 215, 223. “Should private places and bedrooms be manned by sheriffs to police what is happening therein”). This is because the HC also reduces sexual orientation from an identity to merely a sexual act (HC, 144, 151, 164, 169, 206. “…only mode of sexual expression is anal penetration”). Though the CoA falls to a similar reduction occasionally (7, 15, 54), the brief observations on privacy towards the end rightly set the ground for a more expansive jurisprudence which could argue that the public assertion of identities by those who identify with same sex relations are just as crucial to ensuring the equal moral membership of these individuals. Recall here that the move from acts to identities and from private (spatial) to private (decisional autonomy) animated the entire judgment of Justice DY Chandrachud in Navtej. Though the CoA sometimes falls to the trap of brief in these observations, the observations of CoA are bound to progressively inform and influence the development of jurisprudence in Botswana.

Conclusion

In carefully navigating the arguments urged by the Government as well as its previous decision in Kanane, the CoA explicitly recognises the stigma, prejudice, vulnerability and exclusion faced by same-sex relation individuals by relying on expert evidence filed by the Amicus as well as studies authored by the Botswana government itself (15-17). It calls to attention the fear of arrest and the exclusion from access to public health facilities. Crucially, it notes that such sitgmatisation persists ‘at all levels of society’ which will continue even after the striking down of the impugned provisions (16). In so doing, the CoA signals that ensuring the equal moral membership of these individuals is not restricted to circumscribing state action alone, but must be informed by a broader cultural permeation of constitutional rights in the horizontal and inter-personal relations between individuals. The recognition of this aspect rightly brings to attention that judicial intervention is but a first step towards ensuring equality, not conceptualised merely as the absence of legal barriers but as creating an environment sans social barriers as well in which these identifies can foster, thrive, and be afforded the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution. In political theory that is oft-dominated by the jurisprudence of western courts and authors, the judgment of the CoA promises to ring loud. The judgment is worthy of commendation.

Guest Post: Deconstructing the Paternalism in Section 66(1)(b) – Treasa Josfine v. State of Kerala

[This is a guest post by Unnati Ghia.]


On 9th April 2021, the Kerala High Court in Treasa Josfine v. State of Kerala directed the State authorities to consider an application submitted by the petitioner (a female trainee engineer) for the post of a Safety Officer in Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd, on the grounds that she had been denied opportunity on the basis of her sex.

The petitioner’s grievance was that the notification published by the State inviting applications for the post applied only to male candidates, which was discriminatory under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. The counter affidavit filed by the State argued that the notification was in compliance with Section 66(1)(b) of the Factories Act, 1948. Section 66(1)(b) states that “no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6 A.M. and 7 P.M”. The submission of the State was that the post of a Safety Officer required the person so engaged to work round the clock, even during the night if required. Therefore, women could not be hired for this position under the provisions of the Factories Act. 

Reasoning of the Court

The Court in Treasa Josfine relied on two key decisions of the Kerala High Court. The first decision was that of Hindustan Latex Ltd. v Maniamma, which, in my opinion, does not appear to be a case under Section 66(1)(b). In Hindustan Latex, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court observed that special provisions for women under Article 15(3) constituted an exception to sex discrimination under Article 14.

In Leela v State of Kerala, another Division Bench took the view that Section 66(1)(b) was a beneficial provision under Article 15(3). The Bench held that Section 66(1)(b) ensured that women were not taken away from their families, and they were protected from the “hazards” of working at night.

The Court also relied on Vasantha R v Union of India, where the Madras High Court held Section 66(1)(b) to be discriminatory under Articles 14, 15 and 16. Interestingly, the Madras High Court observed the validity of Section 66(1)(b) must be tested under Articles 14 and 15(1) because it was a restriction on women, as opposed to being a protective provision under Article 15(3).

In Treasa Josfine, Justice Anu Sivaraman agreed that Section 66(1)(b) is a beneficial provision intended to protect women. However, the Court observed that the Factories Act was enacted at a different time and in a different socio-economic context, particularly with respect to the roles played by women in society. Given this context, Section 66(1)(b)’s force could only be utilised to protect women, but would not constitute a reason to deny them engagement and opportunity if they are fully qualified [paragraph 15]. On this basis, the Court set aside the notification and held it to be violative of Articles 14, 15 and 16. 

The premise of the Court’s decision in Treasa Josfine is that the change in the roles played by women as they shift from domestic labour to wage labour warrants a different interpretation of Section 66(1)(b) [paragraph 14]. The Court relies on the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya, which held that justifications founded in stereotypical assumptions about women do not constitute a valid basis for denying opportunity. In light of this, the Kerala High Court held the denial of opportunity to the petitioner under Section 66(1)(b) is “completely untenable and unacceptable”. 

Within this reasoning, it is not clear which stereotype has caught the scrutiny of the court and rendered the notification unconstitutional. The Court refers to the fact that women capably work round the clock jobs in several industries today. From this, one may infer that the assumption that qualified women cannot work in a night shift or beyond 7 p.m. is the problematic stereotype in this case. If so, the application of Babita Puniya to this case is valid. 

However, this does little to detract from Section 66(1)(b) as it stands — that women cannot be employed for tasks beyond 7 p.m. The issues identified by Sivaraman J. in the notification therefore stand equally true for the main provision. Yet, the constitutionality of Section 66(1)(b) vis-à-vis the decision in Babita Puniya was not examined by the Court. 

There are two reasons as to why the Kerala High Court in Treasa Josfine may have refrained from entering into this discussion. First, the Judge sitting singly was bound by the previous Division Bench decisions in Hindustan Latex and Leela, and was obligated to follow the position taken in those decisions. Second, the petitioner appears to have challenged the constitutionality of Section 66(1)(b) only to the extent that it impacted her participation in the selection process. 

In this post, I now present reasons for why Section 66(1)(b) cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny under Article 15, in light of the same principles as identified by the High Court. 

Unconstitutionality of Section 66(1)(b)

The premise of Section 66(1)(b) is that women do not have the capability to protect themselves in a job that requires them to work at night. Thus, the denial of opportunity to women under Section 66(1)(b) is justified on the basis of a need for security. What are the issues with this approach?

First, it presumes women to be hapless victims requiring robust protection from the State. This is not to say that the workplace cannot be an unsafe environment for women, but this could be addressed without victimising them. Second, the approach under Section 66(1)(b) places the burden of this protection on women themselves by completely removing them from a “dangerous” work environment, as opposed to taking steps to remedy the threat therein. 

Another rationale behind Section 66(1)(b) was highlighted by the Kerala High Court in Leela — the provision ensures that women would be able to take care of their families and that their children would not suffer. A similar argument was made before the Madras High Court in Vasantha R v Union of India. The Madras High Court held that women holding household duties is not a universal phenomenon, and did not constitute a reason for denying a night shift. 

Interestingly, this rationale was also explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in Babita Puniya. There, Chandrachud J. observed that the argument that women could not meet their requirements of service due to domestic obligations was itself predicated on the stereotype of such obligations resting solely on women. Women are often pushed into and limited to the domestic sphere by the patriarchy itself. This is why it is problematic to deny employment opportunities or benefits on the basis that women have to devote time to the home, because it further entrenches the public-private divide. 

On the basis of the anti-stereotyping principle in Babita Puniya then, Section 66(1)(b) cannot pass muster. An obvious response to this argument is that even if it employs a stereotype, it is a special provision permitted under Article 15(3). For instance, the Kerala High Court maintains that Section 66(1)(b) is a special and beneficial provision for women, intended to protect them from exploitation. Admittedly, provisions such as Section 66(1)(b) have posed a legal conundrum, because courts generally conflate provisions protecting or prima facie in favour of women as necessarily being materially beneficial to them. 

The perils of this form of “protective discrimination” in favour of women have already been acknowledged by the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg v. Hotel Association. In Anuj Garg, a law prohibiting women from being employed in establishments serving intoxicants was struck down because it ended up “victimizing its subject in the name of protection”. Such laws presume that women inherently lack agency, and thus are examples of State sponsored paternalism. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pointed out a similar phenomenon in the United States in the aftermath of Muller v Oregon. In Muller, the US Supreme Court upheld a statute that prohibited women from working for more than 10 hours a day, due to the “unique vulnerability” of women. The decision in Muller resulted in a series of “protective” labor laws for women, which prohibited night shifts, limited the loads they could carry and excluded them from certain jobs completely. According to Ginsburg J., these laws prevented women from competing with men, resulting in lower paying jobs, and also reinforced traditional gender roles — all in the name of “protection”. Subsequently, in the first case Ginsburg J. argued before the US Supreme Court, Justice Brennan observed that protective labor laws placing women on a pedestal were, on closer inspection, often a cage.

Similar forms of gender discrimination are justified by Indian courts under Article 15(3). In response, Gautam Bhatia for instance has argued that “special provisions” must bear some relation to the historical and structural subordination of women. This would ensure that the State must identify and attempt to remedy specific forms of disadvantage, as opposed to provisions that pay lip service to equality and limit the agency of women. 

Conclusion

Notably, states such as Maharashtra and Kerala have altered the position under Section 66(1)(b) by permitting the employment of women post 7 p.m. provided that all safety and security safeguards are met by the employer. This leaves the employment of women entirely to the option of the employer, but does little to incentivise them, especially given the benefit of a statutory justification to deny employment in the first place. In light of these reasons, Section 66(1)(b) must not be understood as a “special or beneficial” provision for women. Instead, laws that mandate safeguards and security for women at the workplace without removing them from the workplace altogether would be better suited to the objective of a “beneficial provision” for women. 

Notes from a Foreign Field: In Re Humphrey – A Case Against Cash Bail [Guest Post]

[This is a guest post by Kieran Correia.]


The Supreme Court of California (“the Court”), in a unanimous ruling, held that detaining defendants solely because they are unable to afford bail was “unconstitutional.” This judgement marks a rupture from the routine of requiring defendants — even indigent defendants — to post large, often outrageously high amounts of cash bail, a practice that results in the disproportionate incarceration of people of colour in America.  

Some background to this case is in order. Humphrey, an African American sixty-six-year-old man, allegedly committed theft against a seventy-nine-year-old Elmer J. who lived in a senior home. Humphrey reportedly barged into Elmer’s home and, after threatening him, robbed $7 and a bottle of cologne. At arraignment, the prosecution demanded bail be set at $600,000 — more than 4 crores in Indian rupees — an astronomical figure, especially in comparison to the amount Humphrey stole from Elmer. Humphrey’s request to be released on his own recognizance — essentially, without posting bail — was denied and the amount was set at $600,000. Humphrey challenged the decision, pointing to the racism inherent in California’s criminal justice system and his rehabilitation from drug addiction among several other ameliorating aspects. However, the court dismissed his release request yet again, whilst reducing the bail amount to $350,000 — an amount still unaffordable to Humphrey.

Humphrey then filed a habeas corpus petition in California’s Court of Appeal. The appeals court granted his petition after the Attorney General reversed his decision of contesting bail. The appeals court ordered a new bail hearing, and Humphrey was subsequently released on certain nonfinancial conditions. The case was not appealed, but, at the request of certain authorities, the California Supreme Court took up the matter to settle the constitutionality of money bail in California.

Cash/money bail is still the dominant condition courts world over impose on defendants if they want to secure pretrial release. The bail amount can be egregiously high, as it was in this case, especially so in California, something the Court notes as well. This has led to the commercialization of furnishing bail in the United States: bail insurance companies and bail bond agents take advantage of the system, lining their pockets in the bargain.

The United States Supreme Court — most notably in Bearden v. Georgia — has, in the past, indicated its unwillingness to allow an indigent defendant’s probation to be revoked because of their being unable to pay a fine. The Supreme Court opined that the state could only imprison the probationer if “alternatives to imprisonment [were] not adequate in a particular situation to meet the State’s interest in punishment and deterrence,” as long as he has made efforts to pay the fine. Though this ruling has rarely been upheld in practice, it nonetheless indicated the Supreme Court’s opinion vis-à-vis imprisoning probationers solely because of lack of money: that it was “fundamentally unfair.”

The Court draws on this broadly similar case to argue that it is not “constitutional to incarcerate a defendant solely because he lacks financial resources.” This is because, the Court argues, to do so would violate the defendant’s substantive due process rights to liberty as well as her equal protection rights — a similar argument made in Bearden. Substantive due process is an American constitutional law principle that argues that due process, a notion that finds a place in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to protect against arbitrary action on the part of the state on certain issues, also protects certain substantive rights — such as the right to liberty.

The Court acknowledges that bail is set to ensure the defendant appears in court proceedings and to protect the victim and the public. However, whilst setting bail, courts often ignore the accused’s financial situation; a high bail order can, therefore, in effect, become a “pretrial detention order.” As a corrective, the Court posits:

An arrestee may not be held in custody pending trial unless the court has made an individualized determination that (1) the arrestee has the financial ability to pay, but nonetheless failed to pay, the amount of bail the court finds reasonably necessary to protect compelling government interests; or (2) detention is necessary to protect victim or public safety, or ensure the defendant’s appearance, and there is clear and convincing evidence that no less restrictive alternative will reasonably vindicate those interests. Pretrial detention on victim and public safety grounds, subject to specific and reliable constitutional constraints, is a key element of our criminal justice system. Conditioning such detention on the arrestee’s financial resources, without ever assessing whether a defendant can meet those conditions or whether the state’s interests could be met by less restrictive alternatives, is not. (Emphasis supplied)

Thus, two things can be understood from this. First, the court does not entirely do away with the concept of cash bail, as some have reported: defendants who have the means — as determined by the court — to post bail but fail to do so will not benefit from this judgement. And second, the test of “clear and convincing evidence” by the state in order to deny bail has been reinforced: pretrial detention can only be an option where less restrictive alternatives cannot satisfy the state’s interests.

This is a welcome change from the status quo on cash bail. Cash bail in the United States has played an unenviable role in incarcerating around 700,000 people pending trial, ensuring the United States has the largest jail population in the entire world. Releasing defendants who were only detained because of their inability to post bail will also disproportionately benefit Black Americans who bear the brunt of the carceral state.

However, this ruling, welcome as it is, does not go all the way in reforming California’s money bail system. Illinois, for example, recently became the first state to completely abolish money bail from the criminal justice system, and the State of New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have already nearly abolished the money bail system. Keeping the cash bail system partially intact, as this judgement does, only allows the continuation of the funnelling of enormous amounts of money into bail insurance corporations. What is more, is that bail will continue to be set by a rigid schedule — the same schedule that recommended bail be set at $600,000 for the crimes committed by Humphrey; though many may have the means to pay those amounts of bail, they are still immense amounts of money that are taken away from a potentially innocent defendant.

Nonetheless, progress, wherever made, should be heralded. The lessons here for India’s criminal justice system cannot be ignored. Like the United States, marginalized sections in India are disproportionately incarcerated: Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, whose share of the population is 39%, comprise a little over 50% of the imprisoned population in India. Though India’s Supreme Court has held, on numerous occasions, that bail is the exception rather than the rule — encapsulated quite succinctly by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer’s “[t]he basic rule may perhaps be tersely put as bail, not jail” — Indian courts have rarely lived up to this ideal.

Moreover, as in California, judges in India set bail at a high amount, leading to several thousand indigent defendants languishing in jail even as wealthier defendants who commit the same offence are let off. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, hundreds of arrestees were in jail because they could not meet their surety conditions. These problems with bail had prompted Justice P.N. Bhagwati in Hussainara Khatoon to remark that it was “imperative that the bail system should be thoroughly reformed so that it should be possible for the poor, as easily as the rich to obtain pretrial release without jeopardizing the interest of justice.” The reason for eliminating high sureties as conditions for bail for indigent defendants in India is, thus, clear. Indeed, the California court’s judgement can serve as a useful roadmap. The right to liberty, for instance — a cornerstone of the California court’s judgement — is a core feature of the Indian constitution as well, enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India, as is the right to equal protection before the law, codified in Article 14. Reading these articles together underscores the unconstitutionality of mandating cash bail even for poor defendants — a practice that, in effect, results in what Justice Cuéllar of the California court dubbed a “pretrial detention order,” when other conditions of release could have worked.  

The California Supreme Court’s judgement is certainly promising. The inclusion of cash bail in the justice system was always bound to incarcerate poor arrestees whilst acting as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the wealthy. This ruling shows us a way out of this.

Lt. Col. Nitisha vs Union of India: The Supreme Court Recognises Indirect Discrimination

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


In early 2020, the Supreme Court delivered judgment in Secretary, Ministry of Defence vs Babita Puniya, holding that the Indian Army’s policy of denying women officers a permanent commission [“PC”] was discriminatory. Following this judgment, the Union Government put into place a procedure for the grant of PCs to eligible women officers. The results of this process – that involved 615 eligible women officers – spurred a second round of litigation before the Supreme Court. In a judgment delivered yesterday, Lt. Col Nitisha vs Union of India, the Supreme Court – speaking through a bench of Chandrachud and Shah JJ – held that the implementation of the Babita Puniya judgment had also been discriminatory. In particular, the importance of Lt. Col. Nitisha lies in the fact that the criteria for grant of PCs to women were facially neutral, but found to be indirectly discriminatory. This marks the first occasion that the Supreme Court has categorically held indirect discrimination to violate the Constitution, and set out an account of what indirect discrimination entails.

As in Babita Puniya, the facts of the case are somewhat complicated, and this post must necessarily present a somewhat schematic account. Broadly, there were three contentious criteria of assessment for the grant of PC: first, that the women officers had to clear a certain percentage score, as well as score higher than the lowest scoring male officer who had been awarded a PC; secondly, that Annual Confidential Reports [“ACRs”] were to form part of the grading; and thirdly, certain medical requirements had to be fulfilled.

On the face of it, these criteria were neutral, i.e. they did not, on their face, discriminate between male and female officers. On digging a little deep, however, it was found that the very fact that for all these years, women had not been eligible for the grant of PCs, had a direct bearing on some eligible candidates’ failure to fulfil the criteria. For example, ACRs were prepared with a view to recommendations for the grant of a PC. Given that female officers had not been eligible for PCs, in their case, the reports were more lackadaisical than those of their male counterparts; these were also affected by the fact that women officers had not applied for a range of opportunities, or courses, that were supposed to be considered in the ACRs. This was because their career options had hitherto been blocked – thus, effectively, leading to a cycle of discrimination that now meant that they applied with relatively unfavourable ACRs. Similarly, with respect to the medical criteria, the Court found that male officers took their medical tests at the time they applied for PCs (and once granted PCs, they were not required to maintain the same levels of fitness). However, female officers – who had been ineligible all these years – were now required to prove the very level of fitness that otherwise similarly situated male officers were no longer required to prove (as they had been granted PCs many years before).

Of course, other than the requirement of scoring higher than the lowest-scoring male candidate, none of the eligibility criteria required any facial comparison between women and men. For this reason, the Supreme Court was required to reach further, and articulate an alternative model of equality and discrimination. It did so by drawing a distinction between intention and effect, and discrimination wrought by individual acts on the one hand, and by the impersonal workings of institutions and structures on the other. Chandrachud J. held that the concept of substantive equality – to which the Constitution was committed – required accounting for both systemic and indirect discrimination (paragraph 45). After an extended comparative examination (paragraphs 51 – 65), Chandrachud J. held that the two-step test for discrimination evolved in the Canadian Supreme Court case of Fraser (discussed on this blog here) was the most appropriate. The Fraser test – as set out by the Supreme Court – requires that:

First, the Court has to enquire whether the impugned rule disproportionately affects a particular group. As an evidentiary matter, this entails a consideration of material that demonstrates that “membership in the claimant group is associated with certain characteristics that have disadvantaged members of the group”. However, as such evidence might be hard to come by, reliance can be placed on evidence generated by the claimant group itself. Further, while statistical evidence can serve as concrete proof of disproportionate impact, there is no clear quantitative threshold as to the quantum of disproportionality to be established for a charge of indirect discrimination to be brought home. Equally, recognizing the importance of applying a robust judicial common sense, the Court held: “In some cases, evidence about a group will show such a strong association with certain traits—such as pregnancy with gender—that the disproportionate impact on members of that group will be apparent and immediate” … Second, the Court has to look at whether the law has the effect of reinforcing, perpetuating, or exacerbating disadvantage. Such disadvantage could be in the shape of: “[e]conomic exclusion or disadvantage, [s]ocial exclusion…[p]sychological harms…[p]hysical harms…[or] [p]olitical exclusion”, and must be viewed in light of any systemic or historical disadvantages faced by the claimant group.” (para 65)

The Court also noted that while statistical data would aid in establishing a finding of indirect discrimination, it would not necessarily exist in every case (paragraph 68); and that while due deference ought to be accorded to employer arguments around suitability criteria for the job, the Court would have to be vigilant to avoid endorsing the same stereotypes or generalisations that were responsible for the discrimination in the first place (paragraph 70). Effectively, the Court indicated that it would have to check whether the employer had acted proportionately – ensuring, for example, that there were no other measures that could have been taken that did not have the same discriminatory effect. The Court correctly noted, as well, that structural discrimination would often require structural remedies (paragraph 73).

Applying this analytical framework to the case at hand, indirect discrimination was easily made out. It was the very fact that female officers had been formally denied a set of opportunities for all these years, that now ensured that a seemingly neutral set of criteria – neutral in that the same set of criteria was applied to eligible male candidates – was discriminatory in effect (note that the female candidates were not competing against male candidates in this case, so this judgment also shows that a finding of discrimination does not need a comparator group). The quality of the ACRs, the limited consideration of awards or achievements attained only as on the 5th or 10th year of service, and so on, were all indications of this. Thus, as Chandrachud J. pointed out: “A formalistic application of pre-existing policies while granting PC is a continuation of these systemic discriminatory practices. WSSCOs were continued in service with a clear message that their advancement would never be equal to their male counterparts.” (para 96). The same was the case with the medical fitness criteria, as explained above: while there was nothing wrong with the criteria per se, it was their application that was indirectly discriminatory. Female officers, who were not eligible for PC for all these years, were asked to pass a medical test now that their similarly situated male counterparts had been entitled to take at a substantially younger age (and then not required to maintain). Thus the Court held:

The WSSCOs have been subject to indirect discrimination when some are being considered for PC, in their 20th year of service. A retrospective application of the supposedly uniform standards for grant of PC must be modulated to compensate for the harm that has arisen over their belated application. In the spirit of true equality with their male counterparts in the corresponding batches, the WSSCOs must be considered medically fit for grant of PC by reliance on their medical fitness, as recorded in the 5th or 10th year of their service. (para 112)

While the facts of this case are undoubtedly complex, it will be easy to see what the Court was trying to remedy by looking at another similar case, but with much simpler facts. In Australian Iron and Steel Co v Bankovic, a company imposed a “last in, first out” retrenchment policy (i.e., you got retrenched based on how short a time you spent in the company). It turned out, however, that the company had only recently begun to employ women, and that therefore, the retrenchment policy was much more likely to target women, simply for this reason. This was found indirectly discriminatory. Thus, this was the sequence: first, there was formal and direct discrimination, that put women at a disadvantage. Then, formal discrimination was ended, but criteria were put in place that failed to account for that prior disadvantage – and thus ended up entrenching and perpetuating it, indirectly. In a very similar way, in this case, for the longest time, women faced formal and direct discrimination by not being eligible for the grant of PC. This formal discrimination was struck down by the Court in Puniya – but the policy that was framed for implementing it failed to account for the disadvantage that had been caused (directly) all these years. Thus, by the very fact of its “neutrality”, the policy was indirectly discriminatory.

Of course, not all such examples of indirect discrimination will be as clean-cut – that is, effectively piggybacking off former direct discrimination. Importantly, however, as we have seen above, Chandrachud J.’s formulation was detailed enough to address those more complex cases when they do arise. The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating, but for now Lt Col Nitisha’s Case marks an important advance in its acknowledgement, recognition, and articulation of indirect discrimination under the Indian Constitution.