Category Archives: Non-discrimination

Personal Laws and the Constitution: Why the Tripal Talaq Bench should Overrule State of Bombay vs Narasu Appa Mali

(From this Thursday, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of the Muslim personal law practices of triple talaq, nikah halala, and polygamy. In this guest post, Praharsh Johorey argues that in doing so, the Court ought to overrule the long-standing precedent of State of Bombay vs Narasu Appa Mali, which exempts personal laws from constitutional scrutiny.)

On the 11th of May, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the petition concerning – among other things – the constitutionality of the Muslim divorce process commonly known as the ‘Triple Talaq’.

Before the Court, a number of interveners have canvassed a wide range of propositions. In this post, however, I shall focus on the specific issue of “instant Triple Talaq” (where a man can divorce his wife by unilaterally uttering the word “talaq” thrice in succession), and proceed on the assumption that such manner of divorce is illegal and unconstitutional. Now, in order to declare it unconstitutional, the Supreme Court can do one of two things. First, it can adopt a narrow approach in accordance with J. Krishna Iyer’s plea in A. Yousuf Rawther v. Sowramma, and hold that the instant Triple Talaq practice is not part of Muslim Personal Law and therefore excluded from the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937. Second, it can take the broader approach, and subject all personal law to the test of Constitutional validity, and principally determine the constitutional validity of the practice. To take the broad approach, however, it will have to overrule a 1951 Bombay High Court judgement State of Bombay v. Narassu Appa Mali, which held that personal laws are not subject to the rights enumerated under Part III of the Constitution.

In this post, I will be dealing specifically with the Narasu judgement, and the need for the Supreme Court to overrule this deeply problematic constitutional pronouncement.

Narasu Appa Mali

The central question in Narasu related to the validity of the Bombay Prevention of Bigamous Hindu Marriages Act, 1946. The primary contention against the Act was that it was in breach of Articles 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 15 (Prohibition of Discrimination), because the law discriminated between a Hindu and a Muslim male with respect to their respective rights (or lack thereof) to engage in polygamy. Article 25 (Right to Freedom of Religion) was also argued, on grounds that this Act infringed with the right of Hindus to practice polygamy, which was argued as forming part of Hindu custom.

However, under the Constitution only a ‘law’ or a ‘law in force’ as defined in Article 13, which invalidates all laws that are in derogation of fundamental rights, can be subject to the rights under Part III. Therefore prior to examining the aforementioned contentions, the Court undertook to answer the more fundamental question of whether Personal Laws (such as the Act in question) are ‘laws’ or ‘laws in force’ under Article 13.

The Division Bench of C.J. Chagla and J. Ganjendragadkar unanimously answered in the negative, with both judges giving somewhat distinguishable reasoning for their decision. I will examine both separately.

Personal Laws as ‘Laws in Force’

Justice Gajendragadkar’s justification is based on a narrow interpretation of Article 13, stated in paragraphs 19 and 20 of his separate opinion:

‘The expression ‘laws in force’..refers to what may compendiously be described as statutory laws. There is no doubt that laws which are included in this expression must have been passed or made by a Legislature or other competent authority, and unless this test is satisfied it would not be legitimate to include in this expression the personal laws merely on the ground that they are administered by Courts in India. 

His argument thus proceeds on two grounds. First, that Article 13(1) only contemplates statutory laws, and second, that personal laws cannot be considered statutory law and are therefore outside the scope of Article 13.

Now, to understand the scope of ‘laws in force’ under Article 13(1), we must first look to Article 13(3)(b), which defines the term:

“… ‘laws in force’ includes laws passed or made by a Legislature or other competent authority in the territory of India before the commencement of this Constitution and not previously repealed, notwithstanding that any such law or any part thereof may not be then in operation either at all or in particular areas.”

Respectfully, J. Gajendragadkar’s interpretation is in direct conflict with the wording of 13(3)(b), as it employs the term ‘includes’ in the definition of the term ‘laws in force’, thereby broadening its scope. J. Agarwal, in P. Kasilingam v. PSG College of Technology states that the word ‘includes’ enlarges the meaning of the expression defined so as to comprehend not only such things as they signify according to their natural import, but also the things as the clause says they shall include. More recently, J. Jain in Bharat Cooperative Bank (Mumbai) v. Employees Union agreed with the dictum of Kasilingam, by holding that ‘includes’ makes the definition enumerative, in that the term defined will retain its ordinary meaning but its scope will be extended to bring within it matters, which in its ordinary meaning may or may not comprise.

Applying this to the interpretation of the definition of ‘laws in force’ under Article 13(3)(b), the ‘ordinary’ or ‘natural’ import of the term must be given effect to. As per its dictionary meaning, a ‘law in force’ is any principle to which parties are legally bound, and which can be relied upon by a Court to resolve disputes. Interestingly, J. Gajendragadkar’s attributes all of these facets to ‘personal law’ in India, stating:

‘There can be no doubt that the personal laws are in force in a general sense; they are in fact administered by the Courts in India in matters falling within their purview.’ However, the expression ‘ laws in force’ is, in my opinion, used in Article 13(1) not in that general sense.’

It remains unclear what specific import he sought for the term ‘general’ to have in this context, and no clear reasoning as to why he resultantly narrows the scope of Article 13. This interpretation is plainly not supported by the enumerative wording of Article 13(3)(b), and it is his own characterisation of personal laws that places it well within the scope of the ordinary meaning of ‘laws in force’.

Even if one were to accept the contention that Article 13(1) is limited only to statutory pronouncements, for the Narasu dictum to withstand scrutiny, it must be established that there exists a clear distinction between ‘law’ under Article 13 and personal laws. To this end, J. Gajendragadkar states:

It is well-known that the personal laws do not derive their validity on the ground that they have been passed or made by a Legislature or other competent authority in the territory of India. The foundational sources of both the Hindu and the Mahomedan laws are their respective scriptural texts.

‘…the duty of a Judge who is under the obligation to administer Hindu law is not so much to inquire whether a disputed doctrine is fairly deducible from the earliest authorities, as to ascertain whether it has been received by the particular school which governs the district with which he has to deal. In fact, the different schools and sub-schools of Hindu law which are recognised by our Courts are distinguished solely on the ground of the different texts to which they owe allegiance.’

This argument proceeds on the contention that personal laws are based upon an untrammelled application of the scriptural texts ‘to which they owe their allegiance.’ However, this reasoning ignores the significant role played by the Judiciary and the Legislature in moulding religious texts in light of modern constitutional principles – which have in several instances been accepted by the schools that are responsible for their application. As a result, the High Court’s singular premise for excluding personal laws from Article 13 is unfounded.

The Evolution of Personal Law in India

‘We ought not to be guided by Hindu law, which is a new introduction of our own.’

  • Mountstuart Elphinstone,

This contention can be demonstrated through an examination of how personal law came to be defined by religious practice in the colonial era. The British administration took upon itself the duty of both defining and adjudicating personal law, which required that it determine which practices would constitute law, and which would simply have social force. (Sturman, 2012) For this purpose, Courts, the Privy Council in particular, developed a three-step test to determine what constituted religious custom – that any principle must be ancient, invariable and supported by clear evidence. This made the establishment of any custom invariably difficult, leading to the greater homogenisation and enforcement of Brahmanical law by Courts, irrespective of the diverse religious leanings of parties to a dispute. (Sturman) The British insistence on ‘clarity, certainty and definitiveness’ was alien to Hindu and Islamic traditions, whose traditions and custom were ‘not of a nature to bear the strict criteria imposed by British lawyers.’ (Galanter, 1968) The establishment of the High Courts in India in 1864 also rendered null the position of ‘law officers’, like Shastris and Maulvis, who were responsible for offering textual interpretations and opinions pertaining to personal law.

This process also replaced the idea that socio-religious polities were based on changing beliefs and faith with the authority instead granted to objective experts, like Courts, to identify fixed beliefs determined at the time of the origins of such polity. For example, the Aga Khan case (High Court of Bombay, 1866), treated the Khoja community as Muslim and the Pushtimargis as Hindu instead of them being considered as independent polities within these larger faiths. The consequence of this was clear – polities that previously determined their own idea of the religious traditions in which they engaged were now subjected to the Western conception of Hindu and Islamic law. (Shodan, 2001)

Therefore, the idea that religious/personal law exists as it was written in the Smriti or the Quran ignores the intricate systems of ‘contractual governance’ within religious sects that enabled them to re-interpret text in light of changing societal norms. By taking away the ability of these local collective structures to make decisions for themselves, these structures were compelled to surrender all decision-making, concerning personal law, among other things, to the Imperial government which made decisions in light of international or a collective mode of logic – vastly different from the ones followed at the local level. The movement to bring the local community into the public sphere was thus not an organic one, and was done for the sole purpose of making them more amenable to coexistence with societal and religious norms defined by the British. Thus, J. Gajendragadkar’s notion of a clean and inextricable link between religious texts and personal law is deeply ahistorical and largely a colonial construct, as it denies entirely the crucial role played by customary law at the local level in developing this law, and subsequently shaping its application.

We can now turn to C.J. Chagla’s conception of the scope of law under Article 13, and where personal laws may be placed in this spectrum.

‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ under the Constitution

It was argued before the bench that personal law can even be considered as ‘custom or usage having the force of law’ under the definition of law under Article 13(3)(a). J. Chagla dismisses this contention:

‘.Custom or usage is deviation from personal law and not personal law itself. The law recognises certain institutions which are not in accordance with religious texts or are even opposed to them because they have been sanctified by custom or usage, but the difference between personal law and custom or usage is clear and unambiguous.’

Evidence of this difference, J. Chagla argues, can be found in the inclusion of various provisions in the Constitution that relate to state regulation of personal law, such as Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability), Article 25 (Freedom of Religion) and Article 372 (Power to Adapt and Modify laws); the implication being that the drafters did not intend to subject personal laws to Constitutional provisions, because otherwise it would be ‘unnecessary to specifically provide for them.’

This reasoning is flawed for a number of reasons. His distinction between custom and personal law is, in my opinion, based on a misguided reading of the Constitution. This can be proven through an examination of the very basis of the argument, the principle of expressio unius exclusio alterius, i.e. the expression of one excludes the other, and its present application.

This principle is used sparingly as a tool of interpretation, being described as a ‘dangerous master’ because the conditions in which it can be conclusively applied remain unclear. Guidance is provided by the Calcutta High Court in Union of India v. BC Nawn, which held that primary purpose of this principle is when a provision in a statute expressly mentions one or more particulars, but does not mention some others, then those others not mentioned are taken to have been excluded from the provision. J. Chagla stretches the application of this principle far beyond this contemplation to encompass all provisions of the Constitution – holding in effect that any Constitutional declaration specifically relating to personal law is further evidence of its exclusion as a ‘law’ under 13(3)(a). This reading cannot be reconciled with the actual wording of Article 13, because it does not define ‘law’ or ‘laws in force’ in an exhaustive manner, with the broad import of the word ‘including’ in the definition of both terms exemplifying the intent of the drafters not to subject them to restrictive tools like the exclusio principle. It should not be said, as a result, that Articles relating to personal law under the Constitution occupy a field independent of Article 13.

This underlying logic of this principle is made weaker in light of its problematic implications. Take for example Article 23, which establishes a right against discrimination on grounds of religion, caste or class. As per J. Chagla’s reasoning, the inclusion of a specific right against caste-discrimination would signify its exclusion from the scope of Article 14, which establishes a right to equality. However, this is apparently untrue, with the Supreme Court holding in a catena of decisions that certain provisions in the Constitution must be read together, due to the broad wording of certain provisions under Part III, and the ‘abundant caution’ of the drafters lead to the inclusion of certain provisions. A relevant example is that of the inclusion of Article 13 itself. C.J. Kania in his decision in A.K Gopalan v. State of Madras wrote that even in the absence of Article 13(1) and (2), Courts would still have the authority to strike down unconstitutional enactments; but the drafters still included Article 13. This inclusion, he argues, demonstrates the exercise of ‘abundant caution’ by the Constitutional drafters to ensure that all prospective laws and laws already in force were immediately invalidated, irrespective of subsequent litigation. Similarly, the inclusion of Article 17, which criminalises untouchability, can be said to have been included on similar grounds, to enable the State to impose adequate sanction upon those engaging in the practice, without having to wait for its declaration as being ultra vires.

Conclusion

Therefore, one would hope that the Supreme Court recognises this, and overrules Narasu, in light of both its incorrect reading of Article 13, as well as the ahistorical understanding of the distinction between personal law and ‘laws in force’ as recognised under the Constitution. Only if the Court undertakes such an exercise can we move beyond the current trend of judicial ‘cherry-picking’ in relation to what religious doctrines are and are not in fact personal law, and principally examine the legal validity of these principles in light of Part III. Here’s to hoping.

 

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Filed under Article 14, Article 15 (general), Equality, Non-discrimination, Personal Law

Taxing Sanitary Pads and Article 15(1) of the Constitution: Some Clarifications and Responses

In the last post, I argued that taxing sanitary pads non-trivially disadvantages women, on the ground of their sex, and consequently, violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution. There have been a substantial number of responses to the argument, both in the comments section of the blog, and elsewhere, which have pushed me to clarify and refine some of my thinking that went into the original post. In this post, I shall attempt to respond to some of the points that have been made.

“Sex” is Not a Biological Fact

I should start by clarifying that my original post assumed “sex” to be both binary, and a given, biological fact. We now know that this framing of “sex” is just that: an assumption, or a social construction. Without getting into complex terminological debates about the difference between “sex” and “gender”, it was correctly pointed out in the comments that in NALSA vs Union of India, the Supreme Court has (at least implicitly) accepted that “sex” under Article 15(1) of the Constitution is as much a matter of personal identification, as it is a matter of biology. It was also pointed out that the argument bypasses the rights of transgender individuals.

I accept the thrust of these criticisms, insofar as there exist individuals who do not identify as women, but who also menstruate, and require sanitary pads. For the purposes of this post, however, while acknowledging this reality, I want to continue using “sex” in terms of a distinction between men and women – only for the reason that the argument depends on working within existing law and jurisprudence, both of which are committed to the binary, objective understanding of “sex”. Once we succeed in establishing the case for sex discrimination on the old, classic model, we can then explore how we might extend it to our present, more nuanced understandings of “sex” and “gender”.

The Gendered Implications of Taxation Regimes

At the heart of a lot of comments disagreeing with my argument, I think, lies a sense of unease with running together tax law and discrimination law. We are accustomed to thinking of taxation as a sovereign function, which conceptually depends upon the State having to make discretionary choices about how best to raise revenue, through a system of financial incentives and disincentives. Taxes, ultimately, are guided by economic considerations and an assessment of goods and services, not of people. Consequently, while it is possible that tax might be used as a weapon of discrimination (jizya is a classic example) – and indeed, both the American and the Indian Supreme Courts have noted the possibility of punitive taxation being used to stifle the free press – this is limited to exceptional cases where the State is clearly acting with hostile purpose.

I would suggest, however, that according taxation law a high threshold immunity from the norms of discrimination would be a mistake. On the contrary, taxation gives the State such a powerful weapon to mould behaviour, that we should be specially solicitous of testing a taxation regime against constitutional norms. Goods and services are intrinsically linked to peoples’ conduct, choices, and ways of living. In my last post, I took the example of a tax levied only on crucifixes: while this might be dismissed as a very obvious, and unlikely example, there are other, indirect ways, in which tax regimes can be discriminatory.

An excellent judicial example of this is the judgment of the Canadian Supreme Court in Symes vs Canada. In Symes vs Canada, it was argued that disallowing childcare expenses as “business deductions” under the Income Tax regime was discriminatory on grounds of sex. The Appellant argued that, in view of the fact that women bore a disproportionate burden of childcare within the family, and consequently, were far more likely to need to hire child-carers in order to pursue their business interests, refusing business deductions amounted to sex discrimination. More broadly, the Appellant’s argument attacked the central assumptions of the Income Tax regime, which had been enacted at a time when gender roles were more rigid, and it was presumed that businesspeople would be male. For instance, under existing precedent, expenditures on taking clients out to golf, or to dinner, were deductible as business expenses, on the ground that these expenditures bore a proximate relationship with promoting the assessee’s business. Under that logic, however, paying a child-carer to free up time to pursue business was equally proximate. The only reason why it was not allowed as a business deduction was that the Income Tax regime was founded upon the assumption of a clear separation between the home and the business world, and was unable to envisage a reality in which women would be primed to pursue business while continuing to be burdened with responsibilities of childcare.

We can therefore see how a seemingly innocuous element of tax policy – disallowing childcare expenses as business deductions – was based upon a set of assumptions that were presumptively sex discriminatory. Ultimately, by a 7 – 2 majority (interestingly, the only two women on the bench were also the two dissenters), the Supreme Court rejected the case of the appellant; but it did so on the technical ground that the appellant had not shown that women bore a disproportionate share of the expenses on childcare (as distinct from responsibilities of childcare). What remains important, however, is that both the Majority and the Dissent(s) agreed that the taxation regime could – and often did – impact gender equality in both direct and indirect ways.

Condoms, Aftershave Lotion, Lipstick, Underwear, and Disadvantage

Many of the objections to my arguments took the form of counter-examples: if I was resting my case against taxing sanitary pads on the proposition that only women used them, then by the same logic, (men’s) condoms, (men’s) aftershave lotion, (women’s) lipstick, and (women’s) underwear should also be exempt from taxation under Article 15(1).

I should start by clarifying that there are two responses to this that I am not relying upon. First, I am not relying upon Article 15(3) of the Constitution. As I have argued before on this blog, I do not believe that Article 15(3) provides a carte blanche to the State to pass any law benefiting women at the expense of men. Article 15(3)’s location within the broader anti-discrimination clause clearly indicates that it is limited to saving those laws that benefit women with a view to remedying historical and structural discrimination. Consequently, if the principles of my argument applied equally to sanitary pads and to aftershave lotion, then 15(3) could not be a ground to legitimately deny men the benefits of tax-free aftershave.

Secondly, I am not resting my argument purely on a distinction between essential items and luxury goods. That distinction is important, but – as I shall go on to show – it is better understood as an argument not about essentials/luxuries, but about disadvantage.

In the last post, I had argued that the key to my argument under Article 15(1) is a shift from understanding discrimination law as being about a strict comparison between two classes, to understanding it as being about remedying historical and structural disadvantages. These disadvantages – which could take the form of deprivation of goods and services, or humiliation and insult – were located around the sites – or grounds – set out by Article 15(1): sex, race, religion etc.

I should clarify what I mean by this: I do not mean that we should stop thinking of discrimination as a question of equality. However, the kind of equality that is at stake when we think of discrimination law is – in the words of the South African Constitution“the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.” The shift is a subtle, but important one: our enquiry is now not whether “X” action applies to “A”, but not to “B” (the strict comparator approach, under which sanitary pads do not raise a discrimination issue because – as a commentator pointed out – men do not menstruate); but rather, does “X” action affect “A’s” “full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” in a manner that it doesn’t affect “B’s”.

Now if we understand a sanitary pad tax as – effectively – a tax on menstruation, then the applicability of the second framing of discrimination (as disadvantage) should become easier to analyse. It is important to start by noting the well-documented social, cultural, and economic role played by perceptions of menstruation in upholding (unequal) gender roles in society: many societies have viewed menstruation as a symbol of impurity and inferiority; but perhaps more importantly for our purpose, the physiological effects of menstruation have serious economic ramifications upon women’s participation in the workplace on equal terms with men (consider the recent debates on paid menstrual leave, for instance), as well as upon their reproductive health.

I have only set out the form of the argument here: a complete argument would require a detailed scientific and sociological study of the societal affects of menstruation, and the role of sanitary pads in that context. It would also require dealing with an objection raised in the comments, namely, that in view of the fact that only 12% of Indian women use sanitary pads (and the other 88% have to make do with alternatives), in the Indian context perhaps sanitary pads are luxuries: to answer this objection, we would need to consider both women’s testimony, and scientific evidence, on how sanitary pads mitigate the debilitating effects of menstruation

Presumptively, however, I hope that this makes clear the distinction between sanitary pads on the one hand, and condoms, lipsticks, aftershave lotion, and underwear on the other (this is apart from the fact that neither condoms nor underwear is sex-specific): a tax on sanitary pads is effectively a tax on menstruation. It is discriminatory because it entrenches and perpetuates – both materially and symbolically – disadvantages (of different kinds) suffered by women in society because they menstruate. Now if a similar argument can be made for other items, then there is a ground for exempting them from tax as well.

Why Not Article 21? 

Many commentators were of the view that Article 21 – through arguments about the right to dignity and the right of access to health – might provide a better constitutional foundation for an argument against taxing sanitary pads. I would, however, prefer to maintain a focus on Article 15(1), for three reasons: first – for the reasons advanced above – I do actually believe that a tax on sanitary pads is predicated upon long-held assumptions that are basically gendered and discriminatory; secondly, an Article 15(1) argument helps us to move beyond the strict comparator bind that we’ve been in for the last six decades, and to think of fresh ways of conceptualising discrimination; and thirdly, I’m hesitant about an expansive reading of Article 21. As I have argued before on this blog, we should be wary of continuing to use Article 21 in a manner that both dilutes the core right (life and personal liberty), as well as risks taking us to a place where Article 21 begins to swallow up other rights under the new judicial fad of “balancing rights”. This does not, of course, take away from the fact that the sanitary pad tax does raise a core issue of access to health (as much as it raises an issue of discrimination), and under existing jurisprudence, Article 21 does include a right of access to health.

Specific and Holistic

One commentator raised an important point: would the tax on sanitary pads remain discriminatory if it was shown that overall, the tax regime as a whole was more favourable to women than men? In other words, what if it could be shown that the burden on sanitary pads was offset by other benefits in the IT Act, so that at the end of the day, women had a smaller overall tax burden?

In my view, I think this argument would have force if we continued to think about discrimination as centred around a strict comparative approach. On the shift to the disadvantage approach, however, it doesn’t matter if overall women are placed better off than men: the tax on sanitary pads – which is effectively a tax on menstruation – causes disadvantage that is of concern to discrimination law, even if that disadvantage is offset by advantage elsewhere. However, I am not entirely convinced of this response.

Conclusion

In conclusion, therefore, I think that despite some nuanced and important objections, the basic form of the argument – that a tax on sanitary pads presumptively constitutes sex discrimination under the Constitution – continues to hold. Whether it actually constitutes sex-discrimination depends upon producing the kind of evidence that I have outlined above, including – and especially – the personal testimonies of women.

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Filed under Article 15 (general), Article 21 and the Right to Life, Equality, Non-discrimination, Right to Health, Sex Discrimination

Does a tax on sanitary pads violate Article 15(1) of the Constitution?

The last few days have seen a campaign asking for a removal of the tax on sanitary pads (which is 5% in Delhi, and goes up to 14% in certain states). It has been argued that the premise of taxing sanitary pads is that they are luxury items; however, their impact on reproductive health and the overall well-being of women, at home and in the workplace, marks them out as essential items rather than luxury goods.

In this post, I will attempt to advance an alternative, legal argument: I will contend that a tax specifically on sanitary pads is unconstitutional, since it amounts to “discrimination on grounds… of sex“, which is prohibited by Article 15(1).  While the argument itself is simple, the possible objections to it are many and complex; consequently, I shall address them in some detail.

Sanitary Pads and Article 15(1)

Article 15(1) prohibits, inter alia, sex discrimination. Discrimination, both in its common usage, as well as in the understanding of the Supreme Court, broadly means to unequally allocate benefits and burdens among identifiable classes of people.

Sanitary pads, by definition, are used only by women. A tax on sanitary pads therefore amounts to a burden upon women. Or, to put it another way, but for being a (menstruating-age) woman, an individual would not be burdened by the sanitary pad tax. Under the classic definition, therefore, the tax discriminates on “grounds of sex.”

This probably sounds rather counter-intuitive. Perhaps the following analogy might help: would not a specific tax on crucifixes amount to discrimination on grounds of religion? If, intuitively, we think that it would, then there is every reason to hold that a tax on sanitary pads amounts to discrimination on grounds of sex: sanitary pads are, arguably, even more important for women than crucifixes are for Christians. That it does not intuitively appear to be so is probably because of a host of political and historical reasons, which have ensured that religious identity is salient in a way that sexual identity is not.

Let us now consider the objections.

Objection 1: The tax is on items, not on persons

The first, obvious, objection is that the tax in question is not a tax on women, but a tax on sanitary pads. Article 15(1) only prohibits discrimination “on grounds of sex“. It does not prohibit discrimination that will ultimately effect a particular sex only (readers will notice echoes of Koushal vs Naz, which held that Section 377 punished only acts, not people).

It is far too late in the day, however, to advance this argument. It is now firmly established, through more than six decades of constitutional jurisprudence (and indeed, pre-constitutional jurisprudence), that the correct test to be used in determining the constitutionality of a statute is not its object or form, but its effect upon rights. This was the holding of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Khandige Sham Bhat vs Agricultural Officer, in Prem Chand Garg vs Excise Commissioner, and – specific to Article 15(1) – in  Anuj Garg vs Hotel Association. Consequently, the fact that the tax is not a tax on women makes no difference; the fact that it affects women, and women alone, brings it within the ambit of Article 15(1).

Objection 2: “On grounds only of…

A second possible objection might point to the text of Article 15(1), which prohibits discrimination on “grounds only of… sex.” Focusing on the word “only“, the argument would then be that the tax does not burden all women, but only menstruating-age women who use sanitary pads. Consequently, it does not amount to discrimination on grounds only of sex, but “sex-plus”, as it were.

In the early years of Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence, various High Courts disagreed precisely on this issue. While some High Courts upheld putatively discriminatory laws on the basis that they took into account sex and other factors not within the ambit of Article 15(1), other High Courts held that Article 15(1) was applicable to discriminatory laws that were based on sex, and other factors “arising out of sex.” For our purposes, however, the controversy was put to rest by the judgment of the Supreme Court in Air India vs Nargesh Mirza, which held that pregnancy-based discrimination was hit by Article 15(1). The case of pregnancy, I would submit, is on all fours with the case of sanitary pads: not all women get pregnant, but only women get pregnant; similarly, not all women menstruate (and thereby need sanitary pads), but only women menstruate.

More broadly, jurisdictions world over are moving away from what the discrimination law scholar Tarunabh Khaitan calls the strict comparator test. In other words, it is no longer necessary to show, in order to make out a claim of discrimination, that a law must burden all members of one defined class, as opposed to the other. Discrimination law is shifting its focus, rather, to the question of whether laws disadvantage members of a class by virtue of their belonging to that class. That, as we have seen, is clearly the case here.

Objection 3: No Comparator

A more subtle form of the objection, however, might be as follows: given that there is simply no equivalent to sanitary pads for men, it makes no sense to say that a tax on sanitary pads discriminates against women; the whole point of discrimination law is that it is comparative. If, therefore, you cannot by definition tax men on the equivalent of sanitary pads, because such an equivalent doesn’t exist, then the act of taxing women might be problematic in other respects, but it is not an act of discrimination.

Readers will note that this argument restates the comparator claim in a more subtle form: the claim is no longer that the comparison must be between all women and all men, but that there must be something to compare to.

There are three responses to this argument. The first is that the logic of Nargesh Mirza covers this situation as well. In Nargesh Mirza, it was held that penalising pregnancy amounted to sex discrimination, notwithstanding the fact that men could not, by definition, get pregnant. Here, the State is penalising the use of sanitary napkins, notwithstanding the fact that men do not, by definition, use sanitary napkins. The analogy with Nargesh Mirza might not be immediately intuitive, perhaps because, on reflex, we think of pregnancy as a condition, and sanitary pads as an item of use. On the comparator logic, however, both are the same.

Secondly, we can restate Khaitan’s point that the focus of discrimination law is shifting from comparison to disadvantage. Discrimination law now sees as its focus the redressal of structural and institutional conditions that have been historically responsible for subordination on the basis of certain personal characteristics, such as race, religion, gender, etc. Placing a monetary premium upon menstruation fits within this particular understanding of discrimination.

Thirdly, let us go back to our hypothetical of a tax on crucifixes: there is no specific equivalent of a crucifix in other religions. Can we then say that a tax on crucifixes does not discriminate against Christians? The answer is no. Now, you might argue that the comparator there is other religious symbols, such as the Muslim skullcap, or the Sikh turban. Fair enough; but let us imagine that there are only two religions, Christianity, and Religion X, which has no “symbols“, but is an entirely abstract religion. Now, would we say that a tax on crucifixes does not discriminate on grounds of religion? I would submit that the answer would remain no, suggesting that the purpose of discrimination law is to remedy systemic disadvantage, and not necessarily search for comparisons.

Objection 4: After-shave lotions?

The last objection is a consequential one: there are many products used exclusively by women, and many products used exclusively by men: for instance, aftershave lotion. Holding a tax on sanitary pads unconstitutional would mean that none of those products could be taxed. This is an absurd consequence, and any interpretation that supports this consequence must be rejected.

While I am somewhat tempted to bite the bullet and say yes, a tax on aftershave lotion would be unconstitutional on grounds of Article 15(1), I think that there is a crucial distinction between sanitary pads and aftershave lotion, and that it is a distinction that is relevant to discrimination law. This distinction requires us to stress once more that the point of discrimination law is not to capture every instance of dissimilar treatment on the “grounds” set out under Article 15(1), but to remedy disadvantage. It is here that the arguments made by the political campaign – referred to at the beginning of the post – become relevant, because it has been shown that the use of sanitary pads is crucial to women’s reproductive health, as well as their participation in the workforce on equal terms with men. Placing a monetary premium on sanitary pads, therefore, is discriminatory because it disadvantages women, on grounds of their sex, in a non-trivial way. I am not sure if a similar case can be made for aftershave lotion.

Conclusion

Let me sum up my argument. A tax on sanitary pads burdens only women, and is therefore presumptively hit by Article 15(1) of the Constitution. The fact that it does not affect all women (only menstruating women) makes no difference from the perspective of Article 15(1). The fact that it does not, by definition, affect men at all, also makes no difference from the perspective of Article 15(1). And finally, Article 15(1) is attracted because discriminatory treatment, in this case, causes substantive disadvantage to women on grounds of their sex. This makes the initial, presumptive applicability of Article 15(1) absolute.

*I am grateful to Suhrith Parthasarathy and Jawahar Raja for helping me think through some of the issues in this piece.

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The Supreme Court’s Muslim Beard Judgment: A Missed Opportunity

Yesterday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld a Muslim airman’s discharge from the Indian Air Force for keeping a beard. At issue before the Court was Regulation 425 of the Armed Force Regulations, 1964, which prohibited the growth of hair by Armed Forces personnel, except for “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of face.” (425(b)) Although the Court referred to various policy directives issued by the Air Force from time to time, the case ultimately turned on whether the Airman was covered by Regulation 425(b). The Court held that he was not, although its reasoning on the point was rather brief:

“During the course of the hearing, we had inquired of Shri Salman Khurshid, learned senior counsel appearing on behalf of the Appellants whether there is a specific mandate in Islam which “prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of facial hair”. Learned senior counsel, in response to the query of the Court, indicated that on this aspect, there are varying interpretations, one of which is that it is desirable to maintain a beard. No material has been produced before this Court to indicate that the Appellant professes a religious belief that would bring him within the ambit of Regulation 425(b) which applies to “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting off the hair or shaving off the face of its members”.

Since the Court did not go into the question, it remains unclear what manner of evidence would have actually been sufficient to convince it that the airman’s case fell within Regulation 425(b). From the question that the Court put to the airman’s counsel, it appears that it was looking for some kind doctrinal evidence demonstrating that Islam prohibits the cutting of facial hair, regardless of the appellant’s own views on the issue. This is in line with the Court’s “essential religious practices” test, which I have criticised earlier.

However, a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of religious claims. Most of the cases that have come before the Court have involved the status of practices that can be broadly understood as group or community practices (for instance, the Supreme Court’s 2004 judgment on whether the public performance of the tandava dance was an essential part of the Ananda Margi sect’s beliefs). Although the essential religious practices test remains deeply problematic, in such cases, it is understandable that the Court might want to look for authoritative sources to ascertain the status of the practice within the religion/sect. However, the present case did not involve determining the status of a community practice – it involved, centrally, an individual’s judgment of what was required by his faith. In such a case, the essential religious practices test seems even less defensible, because effectively, it prohibits any individual departure from the officially sanctioned tenets of the religion. And in such cases, the test that is followed in other jurisdictions, throughout the world – the test that asks merely whether the individual in question had a sincere and genuinely held belief in the validity of the religious claim – seems far more appropriate.

Although the distinction between community-oriented and individual-oriented religious claims has not yet been drawn by the Supreme Court, in my view, a three-judge bench was ideally placed to do it, and to limit the scope of the essential religious practices test. The case, therefore, represents a missed opportunity by the Court to develop its religious freedom jurisprudence in a more progressive direction.

It is also unclear to me why, after having held that Regulation 425(b) was not applicable to the airman’s case, the Court found it necessary to make the following observations:

“The Air Force is a combat force, raised and maintained to secure the nation against hostile forces. The primary aim of maintaining an Air Force is to defend the nation from air operations of nations hostile to India and to advance air operations, should the security needs of the country so require. The Indian Air Force has over eleven thousand officers and one lakh and twenty thousand personnel below officers rank. For the effective and thorough functioning of a large combat force, the members of the Force must bond together by a sense of Espirit-de-corps, without distinctions of caste, creed, colour or religion. There can be no gainsaying the fact that maintaining the unity of the Force is an important facet of instilling a sense of commitment, and dedication amongst the members of the Force. Every member of the Air Force while on duty is required to wear the uniform and not display any sign or object which distinguishes one from another. Uniformity of personal appearance is quintessential to a cohesive, disciplined and coordinated functioning of an Armed Force.”

This was unnecessary, because the argument from uniformity/cohesiveness would arise only if the Court had first found that the airman had a right to keep a beard, and was then assessing whether the Air Force was justified in curtailing the right. As the Court correctly pointed out, Article 33 of the Constitution expressly permits Parliament to modify the application of fundamental rights to members of the Armed Forces – which it did, for instance, through Regulation 425. Consequently, the Court’s enquiry should have begun and ended with Regulation 425 (where, I have tried to show, it ought to have applied a different test).

Additionally, the questioning of balancing rights, in such cases, is a complex one, and requires a more detailed analysis than what the Court undertook. In some jurisdictions, for instance, a distinction is drawn between ostentatious or very visible religious markers of identity, and more innocuous ones; some jurisdictions require employers to demonstrate that their restrictions serve a “bona fide occupational requirement“, and furthermore, are reasonably tailored towards achieving it. Admittedly, after its finding on Regulation 425(b), the Court did not need to address this question; however, it nevertheless chose to do so, in doing so, its observations about unity and cohesiveness unduly simplify a very complex issue.

Furthermore, during the course of its observations, the Court ended up making a statement that is incorrect as a matter of law, but could have unfortunate consequences going forward. Towards the end of its judgment, the Court remarked that:

“Regulations and policies in regard to personal appearance are not intended to discriminate against religious beliefs nor do they have the effect of doing so. Their object and purpose is to ensure uniformity, cohesiveness, discipline and order which are indispensable to the Air Force, as indeed to every armed force of the Union.”

While it is nobody’s case that the regulations intended to discriminate against religious beliefs, it is incorrect to also state that they do not have that effect. The only basis for that claim would be the assumption that religious dicta and personal appearance are entirely separate from each other; a quick look at the core tenets of Sikhism demonstrates that that assumption is false. Indeed, the Court’s reference to “object and purpose” in the next line was itself a statement about legislative intent; but by running together intent and effect, in my view, the Court conflated direct and indirect discrimination in a manner that could stifle the future development of indirect discrimination jurisprudence in India (a concept still in its infancy).

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The Bombay High Court’s S. 56 CPC Judgment and the State of Indian Sex Discrimination Jurisprudence

In a brief judgment delivered in late October, a division bench of the Bombay High Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Section 56 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Section 56 of the Code states:

“Notwithstanding anything in this part, the court shall not order the arrest or detention in the civil prison of a woman in execution of a decree for the payment of money.”

The challenge was on the basis of Articles 14 (equal protection of laws) and 15 (non-discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, sex) of the Constitution. On the Article 14 question, the Court held:

Taking into consideration the object of such provision, the classification between men and women is quite reasonable, and the classification has sufficient nexus with the object.” (paragraph 5)

However, the Court at no point actually spelt out what the object of the provision was. Consequently, assessing the validity of this argument is somewhat difficult. More importantly, the Court then went on to hold:

“That apart, whilst Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, Article 15(3), in terms provides that nothing in Article 15 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. According to us, Section 56 of the CPC, which makes special provision for women, is clearly a provision relatable to Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India, and therefore, there is no reason to declare the same as unconstitutional.”

I have argued before that the invocation of Article 15(3) as a carte blanche to uphold laws that impose differential benefits and burdens upon men and women, ostensibly to the advantage of women, is unjustified. Article 15(3) is not a stand-alone constitutional provision, but nestled within the Articles 14-15-16 equality scheme. The use of the phrase “nothing in this Article“, as a precursor to Article 15(3) suggests that where a legislative classification might otherwise have fallen foul of the non-discrimination guarantee of Article 15(1), Article 15(3) would save it. However, given that Article 15(3) is itself a part of Article 15 suggests that the goal of such classification must also fit within the concept of equality. For instance, reservations or quotas for women in Parliament, which serve to correct a historical wrong, caused by the structural inequality between the sexes for many generations, can be justified by recourse to Article 15(3) because the differential benefits/burdens are aimed at mitigating the effects of a concrete, historical and institutional inequality.

Consequently, laws making “special provisions” for women (and children) ought to be judicially reviewed for whether or not they bear some connection with remedying the historical and structural subordination of women. With the partial exception of Anuj Garg vs Hotel Association, however, this form of reasoning has been entirely absent from Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence.

The Bombay High Court, in fact, relied upon the 1954 Supreme Court judgment that is the origin of the carte blanche approach to Article 15(3): Yusuf Abdul Aziz vs State of Bombay. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the adultery provision in the IPC, which is asymmetrical in that women cannot be prosecution for adultery. The Court upheld the law by a simple invocation of Article 15(3), ignoring the fact that the basis of the adultery provision was precisely the kind of stereotypical gender-based assumptions that the Constitution intended to do away with: i.e., that women are passive partners, lacking in sexual autonomy. This inattention to how Article 15(3) ought not end up becoming a shield to perpetuate sexual and gender-role based stereotypes has plagued the Court’s jurisprudence ever since.

An fascinating example of the rich and nuanced arguments that arise in cases of this kind is exemplified by the judgment of the South African Constitutional Court in President vs Hugo. In that case, Nelson Mandela granted a Presidential pardon to “all mothers in prison on 10 May 1994, with minor children under the age of twelve (12) years.” This was challenged on the basis that the refusal to extend a like pardon to fathers with minor children under the age of twelve years was sex-discriminatory, and based upon stereotypical assumptions that it was women’s primary responsibility to bring up children. By a majority, the Constitutional Court rejected the challenge. What is of particular interest is the debate between O’Regan J (concurring) and Kriegler J (dissenting). Both judges agreed that the affirmative action provisions of the South African Constitution could be invoked only where the ostensibly discriminatory legislation or executive act bore some connection with remedying a historical or current structural inequality; where they disagreed was the extent of fit that was required between the challenged provision or act, and the remedial goal. While O’Regan J. would grant the State a degree of leeway, Kriegler J. insisted on a tighter fit, and was suspicious of legislation or executive actions that relied upon stereotypes in order to achieve substantive equality.

The Bombay High Court’s judgment, unfortunately, represents a missed opportunity to break free of the carte blanche approach to Article 15(3), and to take steps towards a principled, equality-based interpretation of that provision.

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Notes from a Foreign Field: The Supreme Court of Belize Strikes Down its Anti-LGBT Law

Two days ago, in Caleb Oroczo vs The Attorney-General of Belize, the Supreme Court of Belize struck down Section 53 of the country’s Criminal Code, which penalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The Supreme Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, and non-discrimination. The judgment stands out for the brevity of its reasoning, its close attention to evidence of LGBT discrimination, and its humanity, three qualities which, experience has taught us, cannot be taken for granted in cases of this kind.

The Court began its scrutiny of the Section by a quick foray into the history of anti-sodomy laws. In paragraph 9, it observes that the antecedent of sodomy laws in the Caribbean was Section 377 of the colonial Indian Penal Code, brought into force in 1860. The Belize Criminal Code of 1888 penalised “unnatural carnal knowledge”, but only if it was non-consensual. By an amendment of 1944, the requirement of non-consent was removed, and the Section was given its present form.

The Court then went into the question of the interpretation of Section 53. Before the Supreme Court, a number of Churches had also impleaded themselves in support of the Section. These Churches argued that Section 53 did not only apply to homosexuals, but also covered anal sex as well as oral sex between men and women. On a consideration of the evidence, however, the Court found that Section 53 had been primarily used to target male homosexuals, and therefore, despite its ostensibly gender-neutral language, was unevenly applied to men.

The Claimant before the Court was a homosexual man. From paragraphs 27 to 33, the Court considered his evidence, extracting two paragraphs from it to demonstrate “constant harassment, mocking and stigmatisation”, as well as taking note of the fact that he had been subjected to abuse and threats of violence on multiple occasions. The Court also recorded his evidence to the effect that members of the LGBT community often shun tests for HIV/AIDS because of the stigma involved, as well as the threat of criminal prosecution. This evidence was buttressed by formal reports that had reached the same conclusion, as well as UNIBAM, an NGO representing LGBT persons.

After considering the Claimant’s personal evidence, the Court then took notice of expert reports by psychiatrists, which pointed out that homosexuality is not a mental disorder (it was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders), and that “conversion therapy” was damaging and dangerous. It also took notice of a report filed by Executive Director of the Belize Family Life Association, which showed that criminalisation had the effect of driving LGBT people underground, and was consequently a threat to their health (paragraph 38). This was corroborated by two other expert reports.

With the help of this evidence, the Court was able to find that the Claimant had locus standi to pursue this case, since by engaging in same-sex intercourse, he ran the “perpetual risk” of being charged and prosecuted under Section 53. The Court also swiftly disposed off another preliminary objection, based upon the separation of powers. Rejecting the argument that this was an issue best left to the Parliament, the Court clarified that “the Supreme Court is the designated guardian of the rights conferred under the Constitution. It cannot shirk from such responsibility by by asserting that any change to legislation is a matter best left to the legislature. To do so would be to act in defiance of the mandate of the Constitution itself.” (paragraph 53) The Court also addressed the issue of strong religious sentiments against homosexuality, noting that “[while] the respect and influence of the Churches in Belize cannot be ignored… Belize is a secular state that with a written Constitution that provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” (paragraph 56)

With these preliminary objections out of the way, the Court proceeded to consider the merits of the argument. Starting with the right to dignity, it adopted the language of the Canadian Supreme Court in understanding dignity as being about “self-respect” and “self-worth” (paragraph 63). Evidence of stigmatisation had already been placed on record earlier, and in light of this, the Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional right to dignity (paragraph 67). The Court made a similar finding with respect to the right to privacy which, it held “emanated” from the right to dignity (paragraph 68). Under the Constitution of Belize, the right to privacy could be curtailed under certain circumstances, one of which was public morality. The State argued that Section 53 legitimately curtailed the right to privacy on the basis of public morality. However, this argument was rejected by the Court, on the basis that it was “a bald assertion not supported by any evidence.” (paragraph 69) The Churches also raised “public health” as a ground, citing a study about the Belize Central Prison that had found that men having sex with men (MSM) led to a higher risk of HIV-AIDS. However, on considering the balance of evidence, the Court held that there was enough professional scientific material on record (referred to above) that demonstrated the opposite. It therefore rejected the public health argument on grounds of evidence as well (paragraph 73). Finally, the Court considered the public morality argument made by the Churches, who claimed, in detailed affidavits, that homosexuality went against the moral sentiments of the majority of the people of Belize. In paragraph 81, the Court rejected this argument in the following terms:

There can be no doubt that the Reverend gentlemen deposed to views that that they sincerely and conscientiously hold, and that are representative of a majority of the Christian community and perhaps of the population of Belize. However, from the perspective of legal principle, the Court cannot act upon prevailing majority views or what is popularly accepted as moral. The evidence may be supportive but this does not satisfy the justification of public morality. There must be demonstrated that some harm will be caused should the proscribed conduct be rendered unregulated. No evidence has been presented as to the real likelihood of such harm. The duty of the Court is to apply the provisions of the Constitution.”

In other words, the Court rejected the notion of a free-standing, pure “moral harm”, contained solely in hurt feelings or outraged sentiments. Mere moral outrage could not be a sufficient ground for restricting basic rights, unless an accompanying harm could be demonstrated. Although the Court did not elaborate upon what it understood the term “harm” to mean, it was clear about what it did not mean.

Lastly, the Court held that Section 53 violated the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sex. Citing the famous Toonen vs Australia, that had interpreted “sex” in the non-discrimination clause of the ICCPR to include “sexual orientation”. The Court held that since Belize had ratified the ICCPR, it was bound by the authoritative interpretation of that instrument by the UN Human Rights Committee (paragraph 94). Consequently, “sex” under the non-discrimination clause of the Belize Constitution included “sexual orientation”, and Section 53 was therefore unconstitutional. As I have argued before, there are two ways of understanding this contention: one (which I find unconvincing) is that sexual orientation is an “analogous” ground to “sex”, and is therefore read into a non-discrimination clause as a separate right altogether. This seems to me to be textually insupportable. However, the other way of understanding this is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has its origins in sex: it is precisely the non-conformity to sexual roles that open up LGBT persons to legal and social persecution. Consequently (as has been argued by certain American scholars), discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation should be considered as part and parcel of sexual discrimination, since both are caused by the same set of underlying stereotypes.

Having found multiple constitutional violations, the Court then finished by reading down Section 53, stipulating that “this section shall not apply to consensual sexual acts between adults in private” (paragraph 99).

At 38 pages, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Belize is a model of crisp, lucid, and tightly-reasoned legal prose. There are a few salient features that I would like to quickly recap (and attentive readers will note that the structure of reasoning is virtually a mirror image of the judgments of other constitutional courts that have upheld sodomy laws as constitutional):

  • Although the language of the section is ostensibly gender neutral, the Court holds that it admits of uneven application, and has indeed been unequally applied; consequently, it gives rise to a constitutional cause of action
  • The Court rejects the argument that this is a matter best considered by Parliament, reasoning that its constitutional mandate is to uphold fundamental rights
  • The Court rejects justifications based purely on grounds of religion, on the basis that the Constitution commits the nation of Belize to being a secular polity. In other words, religious justifications for curtailing fundamental rights do not count as constitutionally admissible reasons
  • After the claimant has demonstrated prima facie infringement of his rights, the Court places the burden of justifying the curtailment upon the State. It engages with the evidence on record (especially with respect to the medical evidence), and finds that on its own terms, the State has failed to discharge the evidentiary burden upon it
  • In considering the public morality argument, the Court refuses to constitutionalise hurt moral sentiments, and insists upon demonstration of actual harm
  • The Court engages throughout with comparative constitutional jurisprudence in order to determine the meanings of fraught terms such as “dignity”.

In terms of legal clarity, intellectual rigour, and of course, in terms of humaneness, sensitivity, and empathy in dealing with the so-called rights of the minuscule minority, one probably could not ask for more. The Supreme Court of Belize has joined numerous other judiciaries in upholding one of the most basic human rights that there is. One can only hope that other constitutional courts will eventually follow it.

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The Kerala High Court on Pregnancy and Discrimination

In a judgment handed down last month, a single judge of the Kerala High Court refused to grant relief to a B.Ed student who was disqualified from appearing for her University’s annual examination, since she had been unable to secure the minimum mandatory attendance percentage. The reason for this was her being in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The outcome of the case is something about which reasonable individuals may differ; however, what is disappointing is the judgment’s refusal to situate pregnancy-based burdens within the context of discrimination law:

“It cannot also be said that the case of the petitioner is an exceptional one, since, pregnancy cannot be considered to be a medical condition visited on the petitioner unexpectedly. This Court is of the firm view that the petitioner ought to have definitely adjusted her priorities when continuing a higher education, especially in a course which trains her to be a professional teacher. Pregnancy was an optional choice and that cannot be a reason to permit a student to deviate from the requirements of a regular course of study, and the insistence to adhere to the course regulations cannot be termed to be, a negation of the preferential treatment to women enshrined under the Directive Principles or in derogation of the values of motherhood. The petitioner has chosen to expand her family and can only be deemed to have taken a sabbatical from regular studies; which is definitely permissible and laudable too. But that cannot be turned to her advantage for wriggling out of the terms and conditions of a regular academic course. The award of a degree is not a private affair concerning the awardee alone; when it also brings with it the stump of approval of a reputed educational agency, on which the society acts. Personal preferences and individual predilection should bow down to the larger public interest and societal obligations. The petitioner definitely will be entitled to continue the second semester in the next year and appear for the examination after securing the requisite attendance.”

The judgment’s choice of language is disturbing: “optional choice“, “personal preference” and “individual predilection” are words that sit ill with the kind of intimate, personal and life-changing decisions involved in pregnancy. Furthermore, the judgment ignores some key conceptual issues around pregnancy and sex discrimination, which have received significant scholarly and judicial treatment (in multiple jurisdictions) over the last few decades: that seemingly “neutral” institutional rules such as attendance requirements are framed from the perspective of the male participant who does not get pregnant (and thereby, in effect, perpetuate systemic discrimination). The judgment makes it out to be the individual’s responsibility to structure and adapt their lives around these (seemingly) “neutral” rules, treating the rules themselves as immutable facts of nature instead of human constructions. In this, the judgment is at odds with last year’s opinion of the Delhi High Court, which we had discussed on this blog; notable, the Delhi High Court’s observation that:

The choice to bear a child is not only a deeply personal one for a family but is also a physically taxing time for the mother. This right to reproduction and child rearing is an essential facet of Article 21 of the Constitution; it is underscored by the commitment of the Constitution framers to ensure that circumstances conducive to the exercise of this choice are created and maintained by the State at all times… A seemingly “neutral” reason such as inability of the employee, or unwillingness, if not probed closely, would act in a discriminatory manner, directly impacting her service rights.“

It seems that there is still a long way to go before indirect discrimination is acknowledged and acted upon on a consistent basis by the judiciary. A thorough, doctrinal development of equality jurisprudence by the Supreme Court (which is still to advance beyond the “arbitrariness” test of thirty-five years ago) would perhaps be helpful.

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