Coronavirus and the Constitution: XXXVI – The Supreme Court’s UGC Judgment [Guest Post]

Editor’s Note 1Posts about the contemporary Supreme Court may be read in the context of the caveats set out in this post (link).


Editor’s Note 2: 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 (link) 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)].


[This is a guest post by Ashwin Vardarajan.]


On 6 July 2020, the University Grants Commission (‘UGC’) released guidelines directing all colleges, universities and institutions of higher education to conduct final year/ terminal semester examinations before 30 September 2020 (‘Guidelines’). These Guidelines had been released at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases continued, and still do, to increase exponentially with every passing day; and have added to additional stress on universities, colleges and students across the country. Naturally, several petitions were filed before the Supreme Court (‘SC’) challenging these Guideline on several grounds, which were all collectively heard and decided by a three-judge-bench in Praneeth K and Ors. v. University Grants Commission [Writ Petition (Civil) No.724 of 2020] (‘Praneeth’) on 28 August 2020.

Among other things, two constitutional questions were raised against the Guidelines before the SC: first, whether the UGC demanding Universities to conduct examinations under Section 12 of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956 (‘UGC Act’) were referable to Entry 66, List I, Seventh Schedule (‘E-66’) of the Constitution of India (‘Constitution’); and second, whether the Guidelines violated the rights of students under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. Not only does the SC – in its 160-page judgment – fail in its duty to logically appraise the existing position of law, it also adopts a surprisingly un-empathetic approach towards the plight of the students . Furthermore, the judgment has also created friction within the existing framework of law. This essay examines the two constitutional questions enumerated above.

E-66 and ‘standards of education’

The first issue was whether the Guidelines prescribed under Section 12 of the UGC Act were beyond the UGC’s competence referable to E-66. E-66 reads as follows:

Co-ordination and determination of standards in institutions for higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions

The SC, inter alia, looked at the meaning of ‘standards for education’ – within the meaning of E-66 – through a catena of decisions and proceeded to determine whether the Guidelines also fell within the gamut of the entry. Section 12 of the UGC Act allows the UGC to undertake steps ‘for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities’, and the impugned Guidelines were issued under this provision. For the SC, use of the term ‘examination’ under Section 12 meant that the UGC is permitted by law to demand universities to conduct examinations through the Guidelines vide E-66 – as it stimulates coordination and determination of the ‘standards of education’, which also includes ‘standard of examination’. The SC understood Section 12 in light of the preamble of the UGC Act, and held that the phrase ‘standard of examination’, under Section 12, fell in line with the phrase ‘standard of education’ within the language of E-66, thus ruling in favour of the UGC (Praneeth, paras.57, 62).

Admittedly, a Constitution bench of the SC in Preeti Srivastava v. State of MP [(1999) 7 SCC 120] had set down several illustrations to define ‘standards of education’ under E-66. For them, ‘standards of examination’ – which included ‘the manner in which the papers are set and examined and the clinical performance is judged’ – was contained within the phrase ‘standard of education’. This remark, however, was made specifically in the context of how ‘examinations’ need to improve the ‘standards of education in an institution or college’ (Preeti Srivastava, SCC p.154-5).

This means that ‘standard of education’ under E-66 speaks of the ‘quality’ (as a synonym for ‘standard’) of examinations. Therefore, the standards of questions in an exam, their difficulty levels, who would correct and formulate the questions, and other aspects of like nature would ideally fall within the bracket of ‘standard of examinations’ as a taxonomy of ‘standard of education’ under E-66. But here, the Guidelines do not alter the examinations’ character to further ‘coordination or determination’ in ‘standards of education’. They merely mandated the Universities to organise and complete them before 30 September 2020. In this light, SC’s conclusion that the Guidelines are in consonance with E-66 through Section 12 of the UGC Act is far-fetched and, at best, incorrect.

The petitioners also relied on the SC’s decision in Modern Dental College v. State of MP [(2016) 7 SCC 353] (‘MDC’) – where it was categorically observed that ‘standard of education…would not include conducting  of  examinations’ as it does not affect any ‘standards’ – to establish that the Guidelines issued under Section 12 are not in referable to E-66. In MDC, the SC was, inter alia, tasked to determine whether ‘admissions’ were covered exclusively under E-66. While answering the question in the negative, the SC passingly noted that mere conduction of examinations would not be included under E-66 (MDC, para.101). However – and it is submitted, incorrectly – the SC rejected this assertion by the petitioners by distinguishing MDC on facts; and in their quest to do so, they observed the following:

62. The Constitution Bench in paragraph 101 has used the expression ‘not include conducting of examination etc.’  In the present case, there is no claim on behalf of the   UGC that it is the UGC which shall conduct the examination of the graduate and postgraduate students. The examinations are to be conducted by the respective Universities only. The above observations made by Constitution Bench in paragraph 101 as relied by learned senior counsel for petitioner, cannot be treated to be laying down any preposition that University Grants Commission has no competence to lay down any standards with regard to examination.

This clearly misses the point. Put simply, the petitioners never argued that the UGC could not conduct the exams. The petitioners rather argued against the Guidelines being in furtherance of coordination of determination of the ‘standards of education’ vide Section 12 of the UGC Act – which essentially meant that the UGC could not demand/force colleges to conduct examinations within a deadline. Demanding colleges and universities to merely conduct ‘examinations’ would not lay down the standards of how exams are to be conducted, in the sense that they do not alter the quality or determining principles surrounding the examinations. Thus, the SC’s misinterpretation (of arguments and law) led them to go beyond what E-66 has been historically interpreted to mean, and creates friction within the existing position of law. However, considering that the decision was specifically in regards to Section 12 of the UGC Act, a future bench might yet distinguish its reasoning on facts.

Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Omissions

The petitioners also contended that the Guidelines violates the students’ rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. For the petitioners, prescribing a single date deadline for examinations throughout India treated ‘unequals as equals’, which amounted to an Article 14 violation. And in light of the exponential rise in the number of COVID 19 cases, it was contended that ‘lakhs of students, teaching and nonteaching staff will be forced to risk their health and lives of their family members if they are asked to participate in the Final year/ Terminal examination’ (Praneeth, para.76). The SC rejected both the contentions as follows:

First, for them, the UGC ‘rightly’ fixed a common deadline to maintain uniformity in the academic calendar and that their decision was taken after careful assessment of the situation throughout the country, which ensured the ‘welfare of students’ and protected the ‘career prospect’ of final year students. To them the ‘criticism’ of the Guidelines ‘that they are unreasonable does not inspire any confidence.’ (para.74-5).

Second, clause 6 of the Guidelines required Universities to ‘carry out the academic activities following necessary protocols/guidelines/directions/advisories issued by the Central/State Governments and MHRD/ UGC from time to time, in view of COVID-19’. This took the SC to the official memorandum (‘OM’) released by the HRD Ministry on 6 July 2020, which laid down the standard operating procedures universities and colleges would follow while conducting examinations. Upon reading the Guidelines read with the OM, the SC found it to be ‘abundantly clear that UGC, MHRD … are fully concerned with the health of all stakeholders’ and led them to the conclusion that Article 21 was not in violation (paras.81-2).

At the onset, one notes that the court rejected the argument by stating that the Guidelines were not ‘unreasonable’ or ‘manifestly arbitrary’. Article 14 concerns ‘equality’ before law, and courts must ideally acknowledge that the impugned law leads to unequal treatment before deciding whether such treatment was ‘reasonable’ or not; and they clearly did not do so although such treatment is violative of Article 14. Further, it is bewildering how setting one uniform date throughout the country for examinations was enough to treat unequals as equals in a reasonable way. UGC governs over thousands of colleges and several hundred universities throughout India, and not all those institutions would have students socially and economically capable of travelling to different cities for giving examinations, or afford safe means of transportation . This would, as the Delhi High Court in Madhu v. Northern Railway [2018 SCC OnLine Del 6660] has observed, have a ‘disparate impact’ on the disadvantaged students or lead to an operational inequality (also, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 431 (1971) and here). The SC inability to consider this issue through the aforementioned lens reflects a serious gap in reasoning, and a lost opportunity.

Further, the SC’s assessment of Article 21 was flawed, as their decision seems to have given precedence to the concerns raised by Government functionaries without actually appraising whether the life and personal liberty under Article 21 is at a threat of violation – which is an accepted ground for filing an Article 32 petition (and seems to have been the case here). Their reliance on the OM is further impeachable as it overlooks the risks students would be exposed to when they travel from one place to another to appear for the final year exams. The OM only lists the protocols colleges and universities are to follow after the students enter inside the campus to give their examinations. It does not consider the risks they would be exposed to before or after that – considering that many students would have to cross borders and cities to appear for their exams in person. The SC should have considered the ground realties that students would be confronted with – many of them have returned to their hometowns and would find it difficult to travel during times as transportation is a risky affair during an ongoing pandemic, thereby prima facie posing a threat to their lives and personal liberties.

Guest Post: On the Dangers of Reading Disparate Impact into Manifest Arbitrariness – a Response to Dhruva Gandhi

[This is a guest post by Shreyas A.R.]


Previously on this blog, Dhruva Gandhi had suggested that the Court in Navtej Johar attempted to read disparate impact analysis into the manifest arbitrariness test. In this piece, I will respond to Dhruva’s arguments by arguing why such a formulation is unnecessary, especially considering that the impacts analysis has been read into the reasonable classification test in Navtej itself, making the arbitrariness doctrine quite irrelevant for this purpose.

A brief recap is in order.

Reasonable classification and manifest arbitrariness are the two grounds which the Courts use to determine the constitutional validity of a measure when faced with an Article 14 challenge. Under the former test, a law will be held violative of Article 14 if it (a) classifies people without an intelligible differentia, and (b) the object sought to be achieved through the law has no rational nexus with the classification made. The manifest arbitrariness test, on the other hand, is well, arbitrary – in the sense that the Supreme Court itself has been unable to determine what the test really requires them to do. Indirect discrimination happens when a policy or a measure which appears neutral on the face of it puts members of a protected group at a disproportionate advantage as compared with the members of a cognate group. Disparate impacts analysis is the name given to the test to determine whether indirect discrimination has occurred.

For the purposes of this post, I will restrict myself to a specific question: does the test of manifest arbitrariness support a finding of indirect discrimination?

There are two reasons why it should not:

I. As Prof. Khaitan points out, indirect discrimination is structurally comparative, insofar as it disadvantages certain groups of people in relation to a cognate group. The arbitrariness test, on the other hand is a “test of unreasonableness of measures which do not entail comparison.” Take Nariman, J.’s framing of “manifest arbitrariness”, as laid down in Shayara Bano:

Manifest arbitrariness, therefore, must be something done capriciously, irrationally and/or without determining principle. Also, when something is done which is excessive and disproportionate, such legislation would be manifestly arbitrary.

None of the underlined words in the definition above seem to suggest that a comparative analysis could be possible under the test, which explains why manifest arbitrariness is also termed ‘non-comparative unreasonableness’. Seervai shares this suspicion, when he notes that the test “hangs in the air, because it propounds a theory of equality without reference to the language of Article 14”. Also note that when Navtej struck down Section 377 as being manifestly arbitrary, no equality analysis is done. Dhruva recognizes this objection, and argues that:

The words ‘excessive and disproportionate’ appear to refer to the impact of a measure and to that extent cover the disproportionate, adverse effect which constitutes disparate impact. The absence of an ‘adequate determinative principle’ is the absence of a justification necessary to sustain a measure of indirect discrimination. Therefore, it is possible for judges in Navtej to apply this doctrine to arrive at a finding of disparate impact.

What it means is this: in order to support a finding of indirect discrimination, the Courts will ask whether there is a reasonable justification, or an ‘adequate determinative principle’ for upholding the differentia, i.e. the disadvantaged and the cognate group. In Navtej of course, the Court does not ask what the differentia is while determining the arbitrariness – it does so when it is testing Section 377 under the classification test itself.

In my opinion, Dhruva’s interpretation of manifest arbitrariness resembles the rational nexus prong of the traditional reasonable classification doctrine, much less an entirely separate ground of review. Recall that under the rational nexus prong, the Courts will ask whether there exists a reasonable connection between the objectives sought by the impugned measure and the differentia. In the absence of a rational nexus, or an ‘adequate determinative principle’, the Court will strike down the law as being violative of Article 14.

II. Another objection I take to the manifest arbitrariness test is that it prescribes no thresholds for the test to be activated. This could possibly be attributed to Bhagwati, J.’s framing of equality as being antithetical to arbitrariness in Royappa:

Where an act is arbitrary it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Article 14…

My point is this: What capricious/ irrational/ without determining principle/ excessive/ disproportionate could possibly mean for the purposes of Article 14 has not been clarified by the Courts as yet. Why? By Royappa’s logic, the Court is not required to do so – the inequality is implicit in the arbitrariness of the measure itself. But even for the sake of playing the devil’s advocate, how do we determine what the implicit inequality is? There is no answer to this, and the Courts do not know either. This possibly explains why the Courts do not do much in terms of equality analysis while applying the manifest arbitrariness test. This enables individual judges to impose their own standards of morality to legislative review, which often results in the legislature’s wisdom being replaced by that of the judge, thus allowing the Court to enter into policy making under the garb of rights protection.

While this could occasionally have positive effects, such as Navtej where the Court applied constitutional morality to strike down a colonial law, it could easily go the other way as well. This objection is best exemplified by the Court’s judgement in the Bar Dancers case, where the Court chose to apply, and uphold the same colonial morality it had struck down in Navtej. (A detailed analysis by Anup Surendranath of all that was wrong with Bar Dancers is available here). This arbitrariness in application of the arbitrariness test does not bode well for equality jurisprudence, and can leave it at the mercy of the caprices of the judges who happen to be hearing the case.

Why does this matter?

Cases of indirect discrimination, and civil rights in general often involve inquiries into deeper questions on the moral goodness of a law, and what it means to be equal. On the other hand, the arbitrariness test divorces the content of equality from the inquiry. By characterizing discrimination as the mere result of an arbitrary state action, the Court loses an opportunity to afford judicial recognition to the various forms of structural inequality as they currently exist, (and as I will argue in the next section) update its jurisprudence accordingly, and possibly redeem itself. Navtej is transformative constitutionalism at its best– using constitutional morality to advance a notion of equality that could contribute in altering popular morality.

Having demonstrated the dangers of the arbitrariness test, I will now show that the reasonable classification test was used to make a disparate impact analysis in Navtej.

Typically, under the disparate impact test, when it is shown that a measure has led to disproportionate harm being caused to a group as against the cognate group, the Courts will hold that the right to equality has been prima facie infringed. It will then shift the burden to the defendant, and ask whether the measure nevertheless achieves its intended goals. In some jurisdictions, even if the defendant shows that there exists a legitimate justification for the practice, the plaintiff will prevail if it is demonstrated that there exists a better, alternate measure which can achieve the same goal without the disproportionate harm. On similar lines, Prof. Khaitan argues that the scope of inquiry under the nexus prong of the classification test could be expanded by asking the following questions:

Is the measure necessary to achieve the objective? Can the same objective be achieved using means that do not restrict fundamental rights?

I would suggest that Misra, C.J.’s reasons for finding Section 377 unconstitutional under the classification test employed the same analysis as well:

A perusal of Section 377 IPC reveals that it classifies and penalizes persons who indulge in carnal intercourse with the object to protect women and children from being subjected to carnal intercourse. That being so, now it is to be ascertained whether this classification has a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved. The answer is in the negative as the non-consensual acts which have been criminalized by virtue of Section 377 IPC have already been designated as penal offences under Section 375 IPC and under the POCSO Act.

Per contra, the presence of this Section in its present form has resulted in a distasteful and objectionable collateral effect whereby even consensual acts, which are neither harmful to children nor women and are performed by a certain class of people (LGBTs) owning to some inherent characteristics defined by their identity and individuality, have been woefully targeted. [paragraph 237]

Misra, C.J.’s reasoning here is quite simple: not only is the objective of protecting women and children from carnal intercourse already achieved by other laws (thereby making Section 377 unnecessary for that purpose), the measure also has the effect of excluding the LGBT peoples, thereby violating their fundamental rights. Therefore, it is my opinion that Misra C.J. read in a crude disparate impact analysis into the classification test, albeit without using the same words. Elsewhere on this blog, Gautam has analyzed how Chandrachud J.’s critique of the classification test recognized indirect discrimination for the first time in Indian equality jurisprudence. Navtej has been celebrated for several reasons – expanding our understanding of equality and its jurisprudence should be one of them.

Guest Post: Because of Sex(uality) [and Gender]

[This is a guest post by Surya Rajkumar.]


Introduction

The United States Supreme Court last week delivered its opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, where it held that protection against discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, 1964 (‘Title VII’) was available to lesbian, gay and transgender individuals. This the court did using the ‘but for’ test to rule that discriminating against an individual for being lesbian, gay or transgender necessarily involved discrimination because of that individual’s sex––sex being a protected characteristic under Title VII. The decision has rightly been hailed as a victory for the gay rights movement especially in the backdrop of the fact that it was legal to fire employees for being lesbian/gay/transgender in more than half of the states in the U.S. However, as I shall argue in this piece, the logic employed by the court is inadequate to deal with discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. As I will contend, the notions of gender and sexual orientation are fluid and as protected characteristics under anti-discrimination law, they will have to be treated distinctly and cannot be conflated with the notion of sex.

There are those who argue that the decision is not as broad in its scope as it left open the question of whether the right to religious freedom permitted individuals/organizations to circumvent their obligations under Title VII. This is of particular concern as the Court’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, delivered two years ago, held that it was legal for a person to not offer his services to gay individuals citing his religious convictions. On the other hand, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, the decision’s limited scope stems from extending the notion of sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity, as such an extension is accompanied by the exclusion of sexual orientations and gender identities such as bisexual and intersex individuals. It may be true that the Court has created a loophole in leaving open the question of religious freedom coming in conflict with Title VII. This however is beyond the scope of this piece. I shall also discuss the Indian approach to extending constitutional protections to sexual minorities, and how this may provide a viable model to treating discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

The logic of the Court

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Section 703) makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual because of (among other grounds) such individual’s sex. With reference to this, the Court in Bostock held that “[a]n employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.” According to the Court, “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” The Court demonstrates this using two separate examples for homosexual and transgender individuals. In the context of homosexual individuals, the Court examines a situation where there are two employees, one female and one male, both attracted to men. Here, “[i]f the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.” Hence the employer discriminates against the male employee based on his sex. Similarly, for transgender individuals, the Court considers an example of “a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female.” Here, “[i]f the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth.” Therefore, discriminating against someone for being trans necessarily involves a differentiation based on sex. Based on these examples, the Court, while agreeing that “that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex” holds that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.”

The inadequacies of the Court’s logic qua sexual orientation and gender identity

To the extent that Title VII extends to lesbian, gay and transgender individuals, the Bostock opinion is indeed correct and welcome. But it should occur to one that sexual orientation and gender identity are more than homosexuality and transgender status respectively. When we consider sexual orientations and gender identities other than the ones considered by the Court, the opinion in Bostock comes across as inadequate. Notably, the majority opinion makes no mention of bisexuality or intersex status which form part of sexual orientation and gender identity respectively. Unsurprisingly, if these categories were replaced in the examples proffered by the Court, one would reach radically different results, where discrimination based on such characteristic does not involve considerations of sex at all.

For instance, let’s say there are two employees, one female and one male, and that the female employee who is bisexual and is at present partnered to a member of the opposite sex, is discharged by her employer for being bisexual. Here, the bisexual employee is not being treated any differently based on sex, as the employer is not intolerant of her relationship with a person of the opposite sex but intolerant to her identification as a bisexual individual. The same could be said of an asexual person who isn’t attracted to any sex at all! Hence, in the context of sexual orientation, the example offered by the Court is insufficient in its coverage of alternate sexualities such as bisexuality and asexuality. Similarly, the example offered by the Court qua transgender individuals is also inadequate to address discrimination faced by individuals with other gender identities. For example, in the case of an intersex individual, there may be no comparable ‘sex’ in the male/female sense.

The point I am seeking to make is that discrimination faced inter alia by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals is sourced not to their sex but their identity informed by sexual orientation and gender identity, however incidental such discrimination is to sex. The issue with conflating certain forms of sexual orientation and gender identity with sex is that it risks the exclusion of other such forms. The problem is compounded by the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are fluid notions that are ill-suited to be treated alongside sex especially when the latter is viewed rigidly as a male-female dichotomy. That sex cannot extend to mean sexual orientation and gender identity formed a large part of Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in Bostock. Yet this cannot seek to invalidate the majority opinion, as Alito J’s argument in his opinion only reinforces what I am seeking to argue here, namely that the majority judgment is not incorrect, but inadequate to combat discrimination based on certain forms sexual orientation and gender identity. The only way, I argue, to address this inadequacy is to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics in their own right under anti-discrimination law. In this regard the Indian approach offers a viable alternative in addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Indian approach as a viable alternative

Implementing protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through explicit statutory recognition, is in my view, the most suitable way to address the inadequacies discussed above. Had there been such statutory recognition, cases like Bostock would never come to be. It is in the face of such legislative reluctance, that the Indian approach shows the way in expanding the word ‘sex’ to include sexual orientation and gender identity, while also treating the latter categories distinctly. Two decisions of the Indian Supreme Court become relevant in this regard. They are NALSA v. Union of India and Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India.

Using Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination inter alia on the ground of sex, the Court in NALSA and Navtej has extended protection under Article 15 to gender identity and sexual orientation respectively. Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan in NALSA held that “discrimination on the ground of ‘sex’ … includes discrimination on the ground of gender identity.” He justified this on the basis that it was in line with the intent of the architects of the Indian Constitution who “gave emphasis to the fundamental right against sex discrimination so as to prevent the direct or indirect attitude to treat people differently, for the reason of not being in conformity with stereotypical generalizations of binary genders.”

Affirming the view mentioned above, Justice Indu Malhotra in Navtej held that ‘sex’ “is not merely restricted to the biological attributes of an individual, but also includes their “sexual identity and character”.” Given that sexual orientation is a ground analogous to ‘sex’ in light of the former’s immutable status and fundamental choice, Justice Malhotra held that the prohibition of discrimination based on sex encompasses “instances where such discrimination takes place on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.”

When compared to Bostock, one cannot overstate the amplitude of NALSA and Navtej in their coverage. Whereas Bostock extends anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender employees, NALSA and Navtej–using an evolutionary and emancipatory interpretation of constitutional text–extend such protection to gender identity and sexual orientation respectively as a whole. Consequently, those groups left out of Bostock’s ambit can claim protection under NALSA (ex: intersex individuals) and Navtej (ex: asexual and bisexual individuals).

Conclusion

The majority opinion in Bostock is remarkably precise in its conclusion that “[a]n employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” For an employer who fires an individual for merely being bisexual or intersex or any other category of sexual orientation and gender identity excluding gays and transgenders, may not be defying the law. Therefore, it is not misplaced to say that Bostock only offers a limited protection from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Instead, as we saw, the Indian approach in NALSA and Navtej offers a viable alternative to Bostock, as it treats gender identity and sexual orientation for what they are: not as incidental to sex but as distinct characteristics that merit seperate consideration however dependent they are on sex.

Gender Equality in the Armed Forces

[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.]


On this blog, we have discussed in some detail the judicial approach to gender discrimination under the Constitution. Two recent judgments of the Supreme Court – delivered by a bench of Chandrachud and Rastogi JJ – have made an important contribution to contemporary jurisprudence on the subject. Both concerned the intersection of service law and gender equality – and, in particular, gender equality in the armed forces, a particularly fraught and thorny topic.

Babita Puniya

Secretary, Ministry of Defence v Babita Puniya concerned the grant of Permanent Commissions in the Army. Section 12 of the Army Act prohibits the recruitment of “females” into the army except where – and to the extent that – the Central Government might allow. In 1992, the Union Government issued notifications allowing women to join certain branches/cadres of the army (all were non-combat roles). These notifications – which were intended to operate for a stipulated period of five years – were later extended in 1996, 2005, and 2006, along with promotional opportunities. Then, in 2008, the Ministry of Defence issued a Circular authorising the grant of Permanent Commissions [PCs] to women, but only prospectively, and only in certain cadres.

Adjudicating writ petitions challenging this, the High Court of Delhi held in 2010 that women who had entered the army on Short Service Commissions [“SSCs”], were entitled to PCs on par with their male colleagues. The Union of India appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. During the pendency of the hearing, it also proposed a separate policy for grant of PCs to women, which nonetheless was limited to staff positions, imposed different standards, as well as only applying prospectively.

Before the Supreme Court, the Union argued that this was a matter of policy – based on a consideration of “the inherent dangers involved in serving in the Army, adverse conditions of service which include an absence of privacy in field and insurgency areas, maternity issues and child care” (paragraph 28), and that in any event, Article 33 of the Constitution allowed for the fundamental rights chapter to be restricted when it came to the Armed Forces. It also argued that “the Army has to cater for spouse postings, “long absence on account of maternity leave, child care leave” as a result of which “the legitimate dues of male officers have to be compromised”.” (paragraph 31). In a Written Note, the Union of India added to these submissions by referring – once again – to “pregnancy, motherhood, and domestic obligations”, differences in physical capabilities, the “peculiar dynamics” of all-male units, and issues of hygiene.

These submissions were rejected by the Court. Chandrachud j. began his analysis by noting that while Article 33 did allow for restrictions upon fundamental rights in the Armed Forces, it also made it clear that these rights could be restricted only to the extent that it was necessary to ensure the proper discharge of duties and the maintenance of discipline. On the other hand, from 1991, there had been an “evolutionary process” towards inducting women into the armed forces (paragraph 50) – to the extent that in the 2019 Policy Document submitted before the Court, even PCs (in certain fields) had been opened up to women. In fact, this created an internal contradictions within the submissions of the union of India, as:

The decision of the Union Government to extend the grant of PC to other corps in the support arms and services recognizes that the physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution. (paragraph 52)

Going further, however, the Chandrachud J. noted that:

The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women. Underlying the statement that it is a “greater challenge” for women officers to meet the hazards of service “owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families” is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women. Reliance on the “inherent physiological differences between men and women” rests in a deeply entrenched stereotypical and constitutionally flawed notion that women are the “weaker‟ sex and may not undertake tasks that are „too arduous‟ for them. Arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women and on assumptions about women in the social context of marriage and family do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To deny the grant of PCs to women officers on the ground that this would upset the “peculiar dynamics” in a unit casts an undue burden on women officers which has been claimed as a ground for excluding women. The written note also relies on the “minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene” as a ground for suggesting that women officers in the services must not be deployed in conflict zones. The respondents have placed on record that 30% of the total women officers are in fact deputed to conflict areas. (paragraph 54)

On a similar basis, the Court also rejected the blanket prohibition upon the grant of PCs to women in command appointments (and restricted only to staff appointments), noting that the Army bore the burden of justifying such exclusion, and that in any event, it could only be done on a case to case basis (paragraph 67). In sum, therefore, it accepted the 2019 Policy, but (a) made it applicable across the board, and (b) removed its limited scope to staff appointments.

Annie Nagaraja

The case of Union of India vs Lt. Cdr. Annie Nagaraja – involving Permanent Commissions in the Navy – was somewhat more complex. According to Section 9 of the Navy Act, women are not eligible for enrolment in the Indian Navy, except where – and on such terms and conditions – that the Central Government might specify (Chandrachud J.’s judgment refers to an interesting piece of history – at the time of the drafting of the Navy Act in 1957, there was a strong dissenting note in the Parliamentary Joint Committee objecting to this exclusion of women).

Now – simplifying the position somewhat – under the Navy Regulations, one of the qualifications for being inducted into the navy on a Short Service Commission [“SSC”] is that the applicant must be an “unmarried male.” SSC officers may subsequently be granted Permanent Commissions [“PCs”] on the basis of vacancies and suitability. In 1991, the Union Government issued a notification opening up certain branches of the Navy to women. Women, therefore, were entitled to take up SSCs, and it was noted that the policy for the grant of PCs would be formulated subsequently. Subsequently, in 1998, by another Notification under Section 9 of the Navy Act, more branches of the Navy were opened up to women. Soon after that in, in 1999, in a communication from the Ministry of Defence, it was clarified that women could serve on board ships, and that the policy governing PCs would be that which was already stipulated in the Regulations (see above).

Then, in 2008, the MoD issued another communication, stating that PCs to women SSC officers would be considered prospectively, and limited only to certain branches. In other words, women who had joined the Navy as SSCs following the opening up of recruitment after 1991, would not be considered for PCs. It was this that triggered the initial challenge before the Delhi High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal, before finally winding its way to the Supreme Court.

Chandrachud J. began his analysis by noting that both the 1991 and 1998 Notifications lifted the bar for enrolment of women into the Navy, in certain branches (without expressly limiting them to SSCs) (paragraph 60). Consequently, when in 1999 the Government stipulated that the normal Regulations would apply for grant of PCs (which made them conditional on vacancies, suitability, and a recommendation from the Chief of Naval Staff), it was obvious that this would “cover both men and women serving on SSCs (paragraphs 64 – 65, 67). Consequently, the 2008 communication – which did not refer to these previous notifications and communications – could not change that fact.

As with Babita Puniya’s Case, however, the judgment’s bite lay in the analysis that came after the hard work of service law was done. In a section called “The Stereotypical Sailor”, the Court noted that the government had attempted to justify its stand by arguing that sea-duties were ill-suited for women as “there is no return to base”, and that Russian naval vessels had no separate bathrooms for women (paragraph 72). These arguments were roundly rejected, with Chandrachud J. noting that “the contention that certain sea-going duties are ill-suited to women officers is premised on sex stereotypes that male officers are more suited to certain duties by virtue of the physiological characteristics.” (paragraph 74), and that:

arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To accept the contention urged by the ASG would be to approve the socially ascribed gender roles which a commitment to equal worth and dignity of every individual belies. (paragraph 74)

The Court concluded by moulding the relief in accordance with the different positions occupied by different sets of claimants, on the basis of the legal position that eligibility for PCs flowed from the 1991 and 1998 Notifications, and that the 2008 Communication making PCs prospctive from that date, was not valid (to that extent).

Analysis

Both judgments raise a few interesting issues. The first is that they add to the growing body of jurisprudence that brings the anti-stereotyping lens to issues of gender discrimination. In both cases, differential treatment of men and women in the armed forces was sought to be justified by invoking stereotypes about physical and psychological capabilities – broad generalisations that reflected deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions about gender roles in society. As we have argued before on this blog, Articles 14 and 15 rule out discrimination based on such stereotypes and generalisations. While the Court’s historical record on this front – especially in the domain of service law – has been patchy, at least since 2007, there has been a more consistent application of the anti-stereotyping principle. These judgments, with their clear invocation of the principle, will make it even more difficult in the future for stereotype-based arguments to be justified in Court.

Secondly, these judgments reiterate that in a constitutional democracy, the Armed Forces are not – and cannot be – a rights-free zone. While Article 33 admittedly authorises the restriction of fundamental rights to the Armed Forces, any such restriction must be “necessary” for allowing the Armed Forces to fulfil their goals, and the burden of sowing necessity lies upon those who want to exclude the operation of fundamental rights. In both judgments, the Court was careful in how it navigated this thorny area: it reiterated the need for Article 33 to exist, while also ensuring that it could not be used as a sword to cut down the rest of Part III.

Thirdly, these judgments demonstrate an oft-neglected truth: that the Court ought not to bear the sole burden of articulating and enforcing fundamental rights. What is notable about both these cases is – as the Court itself noted in Babita Puniya – that the induction of women into the armed forces had been an evolutionary process that had begun in 1992. The State’s sweeping arguments about the unsuitability of women to be granted PCs, therefore, were undercut by its own evolving policy decisions. This made the task of the Court substantially easier: instead of forcing gender equality down the throat of a recalcitrant institution, it could simply point to how the institution’s own logic was at variance with the exclusionary arguments that it now put forward. Thus, instead of ending up in an adverserial situation – where the Armed Forces justified discrimination and the Court opposed it – what happened here was that the Court engaged in an immanent critique, essentially requiring the Armed Forces to follow their own policies to a logical conclusion.

Fourthly – and relatedly – this also shows, perhaps, the limitations of the possibility of reform through adjudication. Notably, the relevant provisions of both the Army and the Navy Act, which bar the recruitment of women into the Forces except where the government allows it – were not under challenge, and the Court was at pains to point out that fact, apart from also noting that the suitability of women for combat roles was not an issue about it. What would happen, however, if those Sections were to be challenged? Logically speaking, the anti-stereotyping approach – and, more particularly, the Court’s explicit rejection of blanket prohibition of PCs to women in command areas – clearly rules out the blanket restriction on recruitment in the Armed Forces (except where the government permits). Would that be a step to far for the Court to take, especially if the State and the Armed Forces were to take the defence of national security considerations? That would be interesting to see, but at the same time, the Army’s own opening up over the years – combined with the Court’s incremental approach in these cases – probably obviates the immediate imperative for more radical challenges.

Notes From a Foreign Field: The Kenyan High Court’s Judgment on the National Biometric ID System

Earlier this week, the High Court of Kenya delivered a landmark judgment on the constitutional validity of Kenya’s biometric identification system (the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS)/Huduma Namba). In short, the High Court held that (a) the consensual collection of Kenyans’ biometric details for the purpose of identification and verification was constitutionally valid; (b) however, the collection of DNA and GPS details was unconstitutional; and (c) NIIMS itself would have to be halted until the Kenyan government implemented data protection legislation, as well as framed regulations in order to safeguard the data collected.

With this judgment, the Kenyan High Court becomes the third constitutional court in the world (after India and Jamaica) to rule on the constitutionality of centralised biometric ID systems. Before we analyse the judgment, two things must be noted. First, this judgment was delivered by a first-instance Court, following a formal trial and the taking of evidence. There are two further appeals within the Kenyan judicial system and therefore, this is unlikely to be the last word on the subject. And secondly, as indicated above and as will be seen below, the High Court’s decision – at least in part – is a conditional one, where the (legal) future of the NIIMS is expressly made dependant on what action the government will take. Thus, there remain a significant number of issues that remain open for (inevitable) litigation, even after the High Court’s judgment.

The Issues

National biometric identification systems – and constitutional challenges to them – are, by now, familiar. Indian readers will immediately recall Aadhaar (although, funnily – as the judgment records – Kenyan government lawyers went to some extent to distinguish NIIMS from Aadhaar). Kenya’s NIIMS bears some similarities with Aadhaar, in that it too is a centralised, biometric identification system, that its purpose is to grant a “unique identification number” to registered purpose, and then to use this for the purposes of future verification of identification (see paragraph 3 of the judgment). There are also some differences: NIIMS does not, at this point, appear to have a procedure for authentication of transactions (the heart of Aadhaar); unlike Aadhaar, its use is (so far) open-ended, in that it is not specified that it will be required for a set of purposes, such as subsidies, tax-paying, and so on; the legal framework for NIIMS explicitly envisages “harmonising” of information in different existing databases; and – until the Court struck it down – NIIMS aimed to collect DNA and GPS details.

These differences notwithstanding, as in the case of India as well as Jamaica, the constitutional challenge took a similar form. Apart from a number of procedural issues that we shall not discuss in this post, there were two core issues: privacy/surveillance/data protection on the one hand, and exclusion/equality/discrimination, on the other.

Privacy, Surveillance, and Data Protection: The Analysis

The High Court’s analysis of the privacy issues began at paragraph 705, where it framed the core issues for consideration. As we have discussed previously on this blog, for clarity of understanding, it is helpful do divide the issues into three distinct phases (although there is, of course, overlap between them): data collection (Phase I), data storage (Phase II), and data use (Phase III). It can then be asked: is there a violation of rights at each stage, and if so, whether it is unconstitutional.

Data Collection

In summary – and apart from DNA and GPS collection, which the Court found disproportionately intrusive per se, and struck it down – it was held that (a) collection of biometric data for the purposes of identification was valid, but that its storage or use without an implemented data protection legislation was unconstitutional. The government, thus, was found in breach of its constitutional obligations with respect to Phases II and III, and the project was ordered to be halted until – and unless – the government complied.

It is important to note, however, that the validity of data collection was upheld on the premise that it had been done consensually (paragraph 765). This was the government’s case, and the Court held that the petitioners had not sufficiently established that the data had been taken under compulsion. Interestingly, the Court had another opportunity to rule on whether making enrolment into NIIMS mandatory in order to access entitlements or services would breach the Constitution later in the judgment, while assessing the equality challenge. There, again, it did not issue a finding on the subject. Consequently, while the Court found that (a) there was a strong privacy interest that individuals head in their biometric information (paragraph 760), but that (b) collection of biometric data for the purposes of identification was valid and proportionate, the question of whether compelled collection of biometric details for the same purpose violated the Constitution, was left open. This, of course, raises important issues in its own right, such as the principle of technological self-determination, which grants to individuals the choice of whether and to what extent they will engage with pervasive technological systems, and more specifically, provides them with a choice in how they will choose to identify themselves to the government.

Data Storage and Use

This brings us to the second and third questions: that of data storage and use, or, in simple terms, the actual working of the NIIMS (paragraphs 772 & 773). Once again, for the sake of conceptual clarity, we can divide the challenges into three broad heads. First, there was a foundational challenge to the design of the system itself; as Petitioners’ witness, Anand Venkatanaraynan, pointed out during his evidence, “the law cannot fix what technology has broken.” It was argued, therefore, that the technical architecture of NIIMS – in particular, the decision to have a centralised system – violated constitutional rights. Secondly, there was a more concrete challenge to the legal design: it was argued that NIIMS’ legal framework was open-ended and did not specify the uses that it would be put to. This, therefore, violated the principle of purpose limitation. And thirdly, of course, there was the direct and specific challenge to the functioning of NIIMS in the absence of any data protection framework.

How did the Court answer these three questions? On the first, it held that the design of the system was not subject to judicial review, and therefore, ventured no opinion on it. On the second issue, it held that purpose limitation was indeed built into NIIMS’ legal framework: the purpose of data collection was identification and verification of individuals, and that was why the biometric data had been picked. And on the third, issue, the Court did indeed hold that the absence of a data protection framework made the project unconstitutional (indeed, the Court rapped the government for going forward with the project “in a rush”).

In this context, after the initial hearings had been concluded, the Kenyan Parliament had indeed passed a Data Protection Act. The Court took judicial notice of the Act, and observed that its provisions were “broadly” in line with data protection best practices (the Court sourced these from the OECD) (paragraph 852). Notably, however, that wasn’t enough for the Court: it insisted that until the DPA 2019 was actually implemented on the ground – that is, the Data Protection Authority was established, started functioning, and so on – the project couldn’t go ahead. It also held that until specific statutory regulations were enacted dealing with storage and sharing of data (it cited the Aadhaar Regulations for an example of how this could be done), the project would be halted.

I shall come back to points (a) and (b) later, as I feel that – with respect – the Court’s analysis on both counts was flawed. On point (c), however, two things must be noted: the first is the stark difference between the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, and the Indian Supreme Court’s Aadhaar Judgment. Recall that a “Data Protection Law” was promised by the government as far back as May 2017, even before Puttaswamy-I (privacy) was decided. In both Puttaswamy I (privacy) and II (Aadhaar), the Supreme Court took note of the government’s promises – but to this day, we do not have a Data Protection Act in India (despite Aadhaar now entering its tenth year). By expressly halting NIIMS until the Data Protection Act was implemented (note: not just “enacted”), the Kenyan High Court ensured that there would be no repeat of such bait-and-switch tactics. That said, however, there is a second point: while the Court did observe that the DPA broadly conformed to constitutional standards, a quick look at its provisions suggests that there are some concerning aspects to it. For example, the Kenyan DPA does not require the proportionality test to be satisfied in cases of non-consensual data processing, as long as “public interest” can be shown. Of course, the constitutional validity of the DPA was not itself before the High Court, and therefore, it did not return any detailed findings on the issue. Presumably now, however, if the Kenyan government implements the DPA and then goes ahead with NIIMS, the DPA itself will become the subject of constitutional litigation sooner rather than later.

Equality and Non-Discrimination: The Analysis

In a somewhat disappointing outcome, the High Court held that the challenges on grounds of equality and non-discrimination did not succeed. These challenges had been brought by groups representing Kenya’s Nubian population, which had been historically subjected to exclusion and discrimination – including discrimination in access to IDs. The High Court found that the NIIMS framework was neutrally worded, and did not impose any additional onerous requirements on Nubians as far as access to documentation was concerned. And on the issue of exclusion in case NIIMS enrolment was made mandatory for access to government services, the Court noted – in somewhat anodyne terms – that while exclusion was a matter of concern, there was no going back to the paper age; consequently, issues of exclusion would have to be tackled through “appropriate regulatory mechanisms”, but that was not adequate ground for holding NIIMS itself unconstitutional.

Perhaps the Court here was hampered by the lack of direct evidence of exclusion, as – unlike Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act – NIIMS is not at present mandatory for accessing entitlements or government subsidies. That said, with respect, the issues of equality and non-discrimination are more nuanced and layered than the Court gave credit for, and in due course, this issue will – hopefully – be revisited.

Design and Purpose Limitation: Two Flaws

While many parts of the High Court’s judgment are persuasive and strongly reasoned (as indicated above), there are two areas where, with respect, the Court got it wrong, in my view. I discuss these below.

Design

The first is the Court’s refusal to go into the question of the design of NIIMS (paragraphs 875, 876, and 882). The Court’s hesitation is entirely understandable: this is a technical issue, and the judiciary does not necessarily have the expertise to rule on technology. That, however, is neither here nor there: expert evidence was led on both sides, and the Court records the evidence of the witnesses with great facility.

More importantly, however, the Court cannot evade addressing questions of design, because when you have technological system like India’s Aadhaar or Kenya’s NIIMS, design and fundamental rights are inextricably bound up with each other (a point made by Chandrachud J. in his dissenting judgment in Aadhaar). This was also a point I highlighted a little earlier, while examining the Hague District Court’s judgment on SyRI: the choices that system designers make at the time of design have a direct impact upon how and to what extent the system, in its final form, will impact civil rights. For example, a centralised biometric identification system allows for seeding and profiling in a way that a decentralised system (Estonia’s example was specifically taken) does not. This was, of course, argued by petitioners in the Aadhaar case as well, where smart cards were put forward as a less intrusive alternative to the centralised database (as we know, the Supreme Court dodged the issue there as well, by pretending that it was never argued).

Why is this important? This is important because under the proportionality standard (applicable in both India and Kenya), the State is required to select – out of a range of choices open to it – the method that will infringe rights to the least degree, in pursuit of its goals (the “necessity” step). Thus, if I – as the system designer – have before me two design choices (say, centralised and decentralised), and I choose the one that enables or facilitates a greater degree of rights violations, then at the moment at which the State approves that design choice, it violates the proportionality standard.

Now of course, a Court may find that the choice of a centralised system does not violate proportionality. The point, however, is that a Court cannot avoid engaging with – and answering – that question. To do so is to implicitly endorse the State’s choice of design, and, by implication, take design questions out of the purview of constitutional reasoning altogether. Therefore, when the High Court itself noted just after declaring that it would not be looking at design, that it would be “confining” itself with issues of “privacy and data protection” (paragraph 876), it necessarily followed from that that it would have to deal with issues of design as well: because it could not deal with privacy and data protection without factoring in how the choice of design impacted both issues. In such a situation, to abstain would amount to an abdication of the judicial role.

Purpose Limitation

Secondly, it is respectfully submitted that the Court misapplied the requirement of purpose limitation. To put it very simply, purpose limitation – in the context of data protection – requires that information collected be used only for the purpose for which it is specified, and nothing beyond. Petitioners had argued that as NIIMS was entirely open-ended, and did not specify what the information was going to be used for, purpose limitation had been violated. To this the Court responded that the purpose was “verification”, and therefore, there was no violation (paragraph 787).

This, however, is flawed. Let me explain with the help of a hypothetical. Suppose I am a police officer, and I go to the Magistrate for a warrant to search a specific house. The Magistrate asks me, ‘what is your purpose in searching this house?’ I answer: ‘to find out what is inside.’ If the Magistrate has any sense, he will refuse the warrant. The point is simple: if “purpose” is defined in the very terms of the activity itself, then all you get is a tautology. ‘Why have you jailed this person?’ ‘To deprive them of liberty.’ ‘Why are you collecting identifiable biometric data?’ ‘To identify people.’ etc.

Purpose limitation, therefore, is not satisfied by holding that identifying data is being collected with the purpose of identifying people: the correct question is what are people being identified for. In the Indian context, for instance, there were a set of defined purposes for which Aadhaar was supposed to be used as an identifier, that were set out in legislation (the efficacy of that is something I will not get into here): accessing government subsidies, banking, buying a SIM card, and paying taxes. When we look at it this way, we also see another reason why purpose limitation is important: there needs to be an opportunity to challenge the collection and use of biometric data with respect to the specific purpose that it is being put to. In the Aadhaar case, for example, the Supreme Court found that it was proportionate for accessing subsidies and paying tax, but disproportionate for buying SIM Cards and opening bank accounts. A general, open-ended “purpose” of identification (as is set out in the NIIMS statutory framework) would have made these specific challenges impossible.

The “purpose”, therefore, has to be set out in concrete terms: why, specifically, is this data being collected, and what specific use is it going to be put to? With respect, the High Court’s framing of the issue betrayed the very assumptions that would lead it to the wrong answers.

Conclusion

The judgment of the High Court of Kenya provides us with a strong and well-reasoned analysis of the NIIMS framework, and has some important findings: in particular, on the strong privacy interests in biometric data, as well as the necessity to implement data protection laws before taking on a nation-wide data collection exercise. That said, on issues of design and purpose limitation, the High Court’s conclusions may need reconsideration. And on a third set of issues (the data protection framework itself), the field remains open. What is certain is that this is only the first salvo in a long struggle, and the progress of this case through the Kenyan courts will be fascinating to watch.


(Disclaimer: The author provided research assistance to some of the petitioners in this case).

Notes from a Foreign Field: The Dutch Court on Privacy, Surveillance, and Welfare Fraud

In an interesting judgment (in Dutch; use Google Translate) delivered by the Hague District Court earlier this week, the Dutch government’s Risk Indication System [“SyRI”] was found to violate the European Convention on Human Rights (read summary). SyRI was an algorithmic system designed to “prevent and combat fraud in the field of social security and income-related schemes, tax and social insurance contributions and labor laws.” It involved using data held by various government departments, and linking it in order to generate a “risk report.” The data then collected would be processed against certain “risk indicators”, and according to a “risk model”, in order to produce the “risk report”. And the “risk report”, in turn, would flag a person as potentially involved in possible fraud (in relation to access to welfare benefits, tax payment etc.), and a possible subject of further investigation. That data that could be processed included information about work, taxes, property ownership, trade, demographic details, and multiple other categories. Therefore:

Collection of Data from Different Government Departments —-> Encryption and Pseudonymising of Data —-> Processing of Data against Risk Indicators and through the Risk Model (First Phase) —> Decryption and De-Anonymising of Data that is Flagged as an “Increased Risk” —-> Further Analysis —–> Preparation of Risk Report —-> Potential further action on the basis of the Risk Report.

The enabling legislation that authorised SyRI was challenged by a group of petitioners and privacy organisations, on the now-familiar grounds of privacy and discrimination. The State defended it on the – also familiar – ground that it was of overriding importance to identify fraudulent claimants, so that the welfare system could continue functioning.

The Framework

As we have seen on multiple occasions by now, the outcomes of such cases – involving dense factual disputes – often hinges upon the initial analytical framework set out by the Court. In this case, the Court began by setting out two important principles. First, it noted that the “development of new technologies also means that the right to the protection of personal data is increasingly important.” An implicit rebuke to the “move fast and break things” school of technological utopianism, the Court emphasised that the greater the scope for technology-enabled intrusion into private life, the greater the importance that must be given to issues of privacy and data protection. Secondly, the Court set out in advance that whatever the stated benefits of SyRI in combating welfare (and other kinds of) fraud, its deployment would have to comply with the data protection standards of transparency, purpose limitation, and data minimisation (see paras 6.31 – 6.33) in a “clear and verifiable way.” This put the burden firmly upon the State in establishing compliance with these fundamental principles, an ensuring, in turn – as we shall see – that unresolved factual disputes would mean a verdict in favour of the citizen and against the State, rather than the other way round.

The Analysis 

The Court began by noting that:

…the State has not made the risk model and the indicators that make up or may consist of the risk model public. In these proceedings, too, [it] did not provide objectively verifiable information to the court in order to enable it to test the views of the State on what SyRI is. The reason given by the State for this is that citizens could adjust their behavior accordingly. This is a conscious choice by the State. (paragraph 6.49)

In this context, the Court noted that the SyRI process involved the use of large data sets (from different sources), their inter-linking, and the potential use of data mining and predictive analysis. The linking of data made it a clear case of profiling (indeed, both parties were in agreement on this). The Court therefore held that while no civil or legal consequence immediately flowed from the preparation of a risk report, it did nonetheless “have a significant effect on the private life of the person on who the report relates to.” Article 8 of the ECHR (the right to privacy) was therefore attracted.

In sum, therefore, SyRI involved profiling individuals on bases that were “secret”, in a manner that impacted their right to privacy, and whose results were not communicated to them. The question then was whether this interference with the right to privacy could be justified as being “necessary in a democratic society.”

During the course of this – essentially – proportionality analysis, the Court accepted the government’s contentions that tackling welfare fraud was both a legitimate State purpose, and a pressing social need. However, it went on to find that SyRI violated all three prongs – transparency, purpose limitation, and data minimisation – of the data protection principles. On the first prong, the Court observed that the “legislation in no way provides information about the factual data that can justify the presence of a particular circumstance, or which objective factual data can justifiably lead to the conclusion that there is an increased risk.” In other words, both the indicators and the risk model – as observed above – were secret. Thus, the Court held:

…it is impossible to check how the simple decision tree that the State is talking about comes about and what steps it consists of. It is thus difficult to see how a person concerned can defend himself against the fact that a risk report has been made with regard to him or her. It is equally difficult to see how a data subject whose data have been processed in SyRI, but who have not led to a risk report, can be aware that his or her data has been processed on the right grounds. (paragraph 6.92)

This, the Court found, was a clear breach of the principle of transparency. The Court did not – as certain other Courts might have done – ask for the indicators and the risk model in a “sealed cover”, so that it could consider their validity for itself. Rather, it straightforwardly held that consequential State decisions involving a violation of the right to privacy could not be made in a non-transparent fashion.

The Court also went on to note that transparency was crucial because of “the risk that (unintended) discriminatory effects will occur.” In fact, relying upon a report submitted by the UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty, the Court noted that “areas that are already known as problem neighborhoods are being investigated further. As a result, the chance that irregularities are found is higher than in other neighborhoods, which in turn confirms the image of a problem neighborhood, encourages stereotyping and a negative image of the residents who live in the neighborhood is reinforced, even though there is no question of them. risk reporting” (paragraph 6.92). This, of course, is a standard issue with all such algorithmic procedures: recall that it has repeatedly been found, for example, that the use of DNA databanks in crimefighting has a discriminatory effect, as the the composition of the databank is already likely to overrepresent marginlised populations (the known example is that of black people in the USA) – thus leading to a greater chance of false positive, false negatives, and wrongful convictions of members of those populations.

Crucially, in light of this, the Court found that “it is not possible to assess whether this risk [i.e., of discrimination] has been adequately addressed, in the absence of verifiable insight into the risk indicators and the (operation of) the risk model, including the method of analysis by the Inspectorate SZW” (paragraph 6.94). This is a crucial point, that takes us back to the issue of framing. Here – as in other similar cases, such as the litigation around Aadhaar in India and the Huduma Namba in Kenya, the Court had to deal with an information gap on a crucial issue (in this case, the non-disclosure of the indicators and the risk model). Now, there are two ways a Court can respond to this: first, to say that as these are issues of technological design, they are not fit for judicial review, and that therefore, in the absence of adequate information, they will presumptively be decided in favour of the State, in accordance with the principle of judicial deference. The second way, however – and this is how the Dutch Court responded – is to say that given that crucial rights are involved, and given the well-known potential of exclusion and discrimination that comes with such algorithmic systems, the onus lies upon the State to affirmatively demonstrate that there is no violation of rights. This is the role played by the data protection principles of “transparency and verifiability”, and this is how the Court was able to conclude that:

without insight into the risk indicators and the risk model, or at least without further legal safeguards that compensate for this lack of insight, provides insufficient guidance for the conclusion that with the use of SyRI the interference in private life in the light of the abuse and the fraud that is intended to combat is always proportional and therefore necessary. (paragraph 6.95)

The Court then went on to hold that the principles of data minimisation and purpose limitation had also not been complied with. This was because there was no provision for a “pre-test” to determine “whether the interference in private life due to all files linked to that project is necessary, proportionate and subsidiary in view of the specific objective of that project.” (paragraph 6.99)

Conclusion

Questions involving the interface of technology and fundamental rights will – as discussed above – necessarily take Courts into the technical domains. In such situations, the easy thing for the State to do is to engage in information asymmetry, withhold key factual details, and claim that the Court is neither competent, nor authorised, to get into question of technological design. Giving in to these arguments by invoking judicial deference is an easy answer for the Court as well.

The easy route, however, is not the correct one. This is because when you are dealing with technology and fundamental rights, issues of design are crucial: the manner in which a technological system will affect fundamental rights is dependent upon how it is designed (is the data collection centralised? Federated? Can information silos be linked? etc.) Therefore, adjudicating upon issues of design is unavoidable: even when the Court is refusing to engage with those questions, its very non-engagement is an active decision that then grants to the State a kind of impunity to violate fundamental rights by not being constrained in the design of the systems that it deploys.

In that context, the judgment of the Hague Court is crucial, because it squarely takes the bull by the horns, and categorically holds that the absence of information is a reason to hold against the State. This, as we have seen, is possible only with a certain kind of framing: a framing that neither takes technological utopianism at face value, and nor does it take the role of technology in the State’s pursuit of “social goals” such as fraud prevention as an unmitigated good. Rather, it is a framing that takes seriously the potential of technology to violate rights – both privacy and equality – and insists that it is the role of the State to ensure that those concerns are adequately addressed before it can proceed with its project of harnessing technology into the service of its goals. This, I would submit, is far truer to the judicial role of safeguarding fundamental rights.

 

The Constitutional Challenge to the Transgender Act

On 5th December, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act came into force. As is well-known, the Act – that had been in the pipeline for four years – was passed over sustained protests and objections by the trans and intersex community. Among other things, critiques of the Trans Bill (as it then was) focused upon its inadequate definitions, its reification of the gender binary, its failure to recognise different forms of sexual identity, the denial of the right to self-determination, its non-recognition of chosen families, the absence of affirmative action provisions, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Act has swiftly been challenged before the Supreme Court, by Assam’s first trans judge (Swati Bidhan Baruah). This post briefly examines the principal grounds of challenge. These can broadly be categorised into (a) the self-determination challenge (Article 21); (b) the equality challenge (Article 14); (c) the non-discrimination challenge (Article 14); (d) the affirmative action challenge (Article 16); and (e) the positive obligations challenge (Article 21).

The Self-Determination Challenge

Section 4 of the Act guarantees to transgender persons the “right to be recognised as such, in accordance with the provisions of this Act.” Section 5, however, stipulates that such recognition will be contingent upon application to a District Magistrate, “in such form and manner, and accompanied with such documents, as may be prescribed.” Section 6 requires the Magistrate to issue a “certificate of identity” following “such procedure … as may be prescribed.” It is only upon such recognition that the transgender person shall have the right to their “self-perceived gender identity” (Section 4(2)).

The petition challenges Sections 4 to 6 on the basis that making self-identification “subject to certification by the State” is unconstitutional. It relies primarily upon two judgments of the Supreme Court: NALSA v Union of India and Puttaswamy (I) v Union of India. In NALSA, the Supreme Court held that the right to gender identity was protected under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution. Puttaswamy held that the right to privacy protected the freedom to take intimate decisions regarding personhood and autonomy, decisions that brooked minimum interference from the State. The petition argues that certification process violates both rulings. It also violates the the proportionality standard laid down in Puttasawamy, by being neither suitable, nor necessary, for giving effect to the principle of self-identification.

Now of course, the State may argue in response that if it is to come out with schemes and policies to support the transgender community, some form of State-sanctioned ID is indispensable, as that will be the basis on which beneficiaries will be identified. In order to counter this argument on its own terms, the self-determination challenge may need to be supplemented with an excessive delegation challenge: Sections 4 to 6 make no mention of whether the Magistrate has any discretion to reject an application to be recognised as a trans person – and if so – what the scope of that discretion is. In compliance with NALSA and Puttaswamy, it would follow that the Magistrate has no substantive discretion in this regard, and the only documentation that can be required – at the highest – is a self-attested affidavit (anything more onerous would violate the principle of self-determination and self-identification). However, the Act is silent on that, leaving any such determination to rules “as may be prescribed” (see Section 22). As the matter concerns the fundamental rights of the transgender community, this clearly is an issue that cannot be “delegated” to the rule-making power of the executive.

The petition also challenges Section 7 of the Act, which provides that once a certificate of identity has been issued, and the transgender person wants to then change their gender, that is permissible only on submission of a certificate by the Chief Medical Officer of the institution where the applicant has undergone surgery. Here, again, the application must be made to the District Magistrate, who will then issue a “revised” certificate. As the petition correctly points out, this introduces a certification requirement specifically upon gender-affirming surgeries.

The Equality Challenge

Sections 4 to 7 are also challenged on the touchstone of equality. The first – straightforward – argument is that the Act imposes burdens upon transgender individuals (certification) that it does not upon non-trans individuals. While being straightforward, the argument is nonetheless a very important one, because it challenges the long-held assumption underlying our legal institutions, namely, that being cisgender is the “norm”, while being transgender is the “exception” (which, therefore, requires something additional to “prove”, such as a certification requirement). The assumptions, of course, run much deeper than merely in our legal institutions: the social norm of “assigning” a gender at birth is based on the assumption that there exists a “natural” gender that one is born into, and a transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not “match” that assignation (see, e.g., Section 2(k) of the Act, which defines “transgender person.”

As Albie Sachs pointed out once, however, the purpose of a Constitution is to transform “misfortunes to be endured” into “injustices to be remedied”. In recent judgments such as Johar, the Supreme Court has also engaged with how our unthinking affirmation of sedimented norms has the effect of entrenching and perpetuating existing patterns of discrimination. And if we take seriously NALSA‘s affirmation that gender identity is a fundamental choice protected by Articles 19 and 21, it is clear that at least as far as the Constitution goes, cis- and trans-identities are to be treated on an equal footing.

Now of course, the State may once again argue that Sections 4 to 6 are not about identity, but merely about setting out a form of identification that can then be utilised to determine beneficiaries for welfare schemes. Such an argument, however, is belied by the wording of Section 4(2), which states clearly that it is only after recognition under the provisions of the Act, that a transgender person shall have the right to their “self-perceived identity”. In other words, therefore, the Act makes identity conditional upon identificationinstead of the other way round (which is what was prescribed in NALSA). It should therefore be evident that the scheme of Sections 4 through 7 is constitutionally flawed.

The Non-Discrimination Challenge

Section 3 of the Act sets out the non-discrimination provisions; it prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals in various domains, such as provision of services, education, healthcare, housing etc. Strangely, however, the Act provides no penalty – or remedy – for breach of these provisions. As the Petition correctly points out, a right without a remedy is meaningless – and, indeed, is not a right at all. This argument is buttressed by the fact that two of the crucial “horizontal rights” provisions in the Constitution itself – Articles 17 (“untouchability”) and Article 23 (“forced labour”) specifically envisage that laws will be implemented to make breaches punishable. Thus, the Constitution understands that where you impose obligations upon private individuals to behave in certain (non-discriminatory) ways against other private individuals, there must exist an enforcement mechanism to make those obligations meaningful.

A second set of challenges flows from Section 18 of the Act, which prescribes punishment of upto two years imprisonment for a series of offences against transgender individuals, such as forced labour, denial of access to public spaces, abuse, and so on. As the petition points out, similar offences in other contexts (such as bonded labour in general, or rape) have much more severe penalties, in order to achieve deterrence. As the transgender community is already particularly vulnerable to these forms of coercion and violence, it is outrightly discriminatory to make the punishment lighter under this Act. The petition also impugns this Section on grounds of vagueness and arbitrariness.

The Affirmative Action Challenge

In NALSA, the Supreme Court made it clear that the transgender community was to be treated as a “socially and educationally backward class”, for the purpose of availing of reservation schemes under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Predictably, the government never acted on this, and under the Act, there is no mention of affirmative action.

Does the Act, therefore, breach Articles 15 and 16? The petition argues that it does, as reservation is a “facet of equality.” In other words – to explain further – once it is established that the transgender community is not on an equal footing with others, there exists a right to affirmative action under Articles 15 and 16, as the very meaning of substantive equality will be defeated by maintaining an unequal status quo.

Such an argument would flow naturally from the judgment of the Supreme Court in N.M. Thomas, where it was indeed held that reservations are a “facet” of equality (and not exceptions to it). In other words, reservations under Article 16(4) are specific manifestations of the right to equality of opportunity under Article 16(1). Continuing with this logic, reservations – then – are not simply something the government may do, but indeed, is obligated to do after identifying relevant sections of society that stand in need of them (the “power plus duty” reading of Article 16, that we have discussed before on this blog). And in NALSA, the Court did a part of the government’s job by identifying the transgender community as a beneficiary class; bringing them under Article 16, then, is a necessary consequence.

While I agree with this argument as a matter of constitutional logic, it is also important to note that the pitch has been muddied somewhat in recent years, and the promise of N.M. Thomas has never entirely been fulfilled. The Court has refused to affirmatively hold that Article 16 imposes both a power and a duty upon the government, and the government itself filed clarification petitions on this point after NALSA. It is quite likely, therefore, that the government will resist the demand for affirmative action, and the Court will have to issue a ruling on whether NALSA was correct on this point (I believe it was).

The Positive Obligations Challenge

The final set of grounds hold that the beneficial provisions of the Act are insufficient to realise the fundamental rights of the transgender community. Section 15, for example, speaks of an insurance scheme, which – the petition argues – is insufficient to guarantee the right to health. This argument will test the limits to which the Court is prepared to go when it comes to enforcing positive obligations upon the government; to what extent will the Court be willing to substitute its judgment for the government’s on which measures are adequate to address positive obligations such as the right to health?

One way of framing the issue might be that had no legislation existed, and a challenge had been filed, then the Court could well have reprised its judgment in Vishaka, and laid down guidelines to fill in the legislative vacuum. While I retain my skepticism about what the Court did in Vishaka, one principle that flows from that judgment is that even in the case of positive obligations, there exist clear and judicially manageable standards, often drawn from principles of international law. Therefore, if there is an Act, the Court can certainly examine whether its implementational measures adequately provide for the effective fulfilment of a positive right (such as the right to health), or whether they fall short; and if they fall demonstrably short, to fashion an appropriate remedy.

Conclusion 

Swati Bidhan Baruah’s petition raises a series of crucial constitutional questions about the Transgender Act. As I have shown above, while some of the challenges are straightforward, others are more subtle and nuanced – and will require the Court, in particular, to engage with some of the more progressive stands of its jurisprudence in recent years. Such an engagement, however, also presents an opportunity – an opportunity to cement and even build upon that progressive jurisprudence, in the domain of social rights.

Guest Post: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is Unconstitutional

[This is a guest post by Nivedhitha K. The piece was written before the latest draft of the Bill – which exempts certain North-Eastern states from the operation of the Amendment – was made available.]


The BJP-led Union government is determined to table the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in this parliamentary session, after it lapsed earlier in the year. The bill proposes to amend Section 2 (b) of the Citizenship Act – which defines ‘illegal immigrants’ – by excluding “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan” from the ambit of “illegal immigrants”. The bill also reduces the period of residence in India for the acquisition of Indian citizenship through naturalization to six years from the earlier period of twelve years. Thus, under the amendment, these ‘minority communities’ from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are no longer ‘illegal’ immigrants, and they can obtain Indian citizenship through naturalization if they have resided in India for six years.

The amendment makes two classifications: first, a classification based on religion by excluding Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from the ambit of illegal immigrants; and secondly, a classification based on country, by restricting the benefit of acquiring citizenship through naturalization to minority immigrants only from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Religion-based classification

The first argument for the unconstitutionality of the CAB is that it enacts an impermissible, religious-based classification under Article 14 of the Constitution. To understand why, we first need to look at Article 15. Article 15 provides for specific grounds – religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth – that cannot form the basis for discrimination. Thus, the grounds in Article 15 indicate impermissible discrimination, i.e the law should effect discrimination based on these grounds to be violative of Article 15. In Navtej, Chandrachud J and Indu Malhotra J did not declare section 377 of the IPC as violative of Article 15 only because it effected classification based on “sex”. Rather the test used was whether the classification was based on Article 15 grounds, and if so whether it effected discrimination. Therefore, for the violation of Article 15, both classification based on the grounds and discrimination in effect will have to be proved. However, the  Citizenship Amendment Bill cannot be subjected to Article 15, because that Article is only applicable to citizens (immigrants, by definitions, are not citizens).

This takes us to Article 14. The traditional test for an Article 14 violation requires the classification to have an intelligible differentia and a reasonable nexus with the legislative object. In Anwar Ali Sarkar, it was explained that intelligible differentia means that there must be a yardstick to differentiate between those included in, and excluded from the group. However, in Navtej, an important interpretive advance was made upon this. Indu Malhotra J, in her judgment, infused Article 15 grounds into Article 14. She interpreted intelligible differentia to mean reasonable differentia. She required the intelligible differentia test to fulfil two sub-tests: one there must be a yardstick to differentiate between those included in and excluded from the group, and two, that yardstick must itself be reasonable. She observed: “Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia”. Therefore, the yardstick is reasonable only if it is not based on an intrinsic and core trait of an individual. She then referred to Article 15 grounds to explain that they form an intrinsic and core trait of an individual. She noted: “Race, caste, sex, and place of birth are aspects over which a person has no control, ergo they are immutable. On the other hand, religion is a fundamental choice of a person. Discrimination based on any of these grounds would undermine an individual’s personal autonomy.” Therefore, contrary to Article 15, the test for Article 14 violation is based on impermissible classification. Impermissible classification means that a particular principle cannot be used to classify because it is constitutionally irrelevant. Religion is a facet of personal autonomy, and a classification based on it is an impermissible classification.

The infusion of impermissible classification into the intelligible differentia test is justifiable for two reasons. First, while the objective of Article 15 is anti-discrimination, the objective of Article 14 is to provide equal protection of laws. Thus, Article 14 will be violated if the classification is unreasonable, while Article 15 will be violated only if there is discrimination based on the classification. Second, the interpretation of Article 14 on the lines of Article 15 aligns with the argument that fundamental rights are not watertight compartments. This understanding began with Fazl Ali J’s dissent in A.K Gopalan v. The State of Madras on the interpretation of the ‘procedure established by law’ clause. The interpretation was cemented through the evolution of the golden triangle in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, and strengthened by Chandrachud J’s interpretation of Article 26 in the Sabarimala case.  Therefore, classification based on religion is prima facie impermissible and violative of Article 14.

The second argument against religion-based classification in this case turns on its inability to fulfil Article 14’s nexus prong. The object of the amendment is to ‘protect those who have faced religious persecutions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh’. However, by excluding Muslims from the category of ‘persecuted’, the amendment is based on the false premise that only minorities face religious persecution in a Muslim-majority country. The amendment makes an easy – but untrue – classification between minority and majority religion. This assumption is similar to assuming that all Hindus in India are treated alike irrespective of caste. However, within the majority Muslim religion, there is persecution based on sect. For example, in Pakistan, the Shias face religious persecution. Ahmadiyyas who align themselves with the Sunni school also face persecution. Unless persecution of a sect within the majority religion is recognised, the classification – of majority and minority – will have no nexus with the object of protecting those who face religious persecution.

Country based classification

The country based classification violates Article 14 as it fails the “manifest arbitrariness” test. Nariman J in Shayara Bano noted, “manifest arbitrariness, therefore, must be something done by the legislature capriciously, irrationally and/or without adequate determining principle. Also, when something is done which is excessive and disproportionate, such legislation would be manifestly arbitrary.” The common threads that run through the three selected countries in the CAB are that they are Muslim-majority countries, and that they are India’s neighbours. The first rationale has been addressed above. If, however, the relevant countries have been selected because they are India’s neighbors, the exclusion of the other neighbors – such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar where people face religious persecution – must be justified. However, there is no justification because there is no adequate determining principle that guides the classification. The following points elucidate the absence of a determining principle for the classification.

  1. Principle 1: Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of British India. Illegal immigrants from there could still generically be considered of Indian origin. However, with the inclusion of Afghanistan, it is evident that the classification is not based on the principle of divided India and undivided India.
  2. Principle 2: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a State religion. However, the classification cannot be on the basis of a State religion, as Sri Lanka prescribes Buddhism as the State religion.
  3. Principle 3: Degrees of harm. In Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury it was held that the legislature is free to recognize the degrees of harm and confine the classification to where harm is the clearest. However, if the CAB is based on the degrees of harm then the Rohingyas of Myanmar ought to be included as the 2013 UN report states that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted in the world.
  4. Principle 4: The classification might be limited to singling out persecuted religious minoritiesHowever, on this logic, Sri Lankan Eelam Tamils must also be included, as the Tamil Eelams are persecuted based on religion (Hinduism) and ethnicity.

Therefore, it is evident that the exclusion of the other neighboring countries where people face religious persecution is not justified, because the inclusion of these three countries is not based on any determining principle be it Indian origin, state religion, the degree of harm, or of persecuted minorities. Thus, the country based classification is violative of Article 14 as it suffers from the vice of manifest arbitrariness.

Under-inclusiveness and Deference

Having established the violation of Article 14, it is also necessary to address two counter arguments that arise. The first counter argument is that under-inclusiveness cannot render the law unconstitutional. The second counter argument is that the court would have to exercise deferential review – by showing deference to legislative wisdom – while deciding cases on citizenship, refugees etc.

Indian courts have permitted under-inclusive laws on grounds of administrative necessity and legislative experimentation (see State of Gujarat v. Ambika Mills). However, in N.P Basheer v. the State of Kerala, it was held that under-inclusiveness would withstand scrutiny under Article 14 only when it is ‘nominal’. However, the decision neither explains nor defines the word ‘nominal’. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence now for what cannot be considered “nominal”: for example, in the case of Sowmithri Vishnu, the constitutionality of the adultery provision was challenged. The court observed that Section 497 was under-inclusive but allowed deference to legislative wisdom. However, in Joseph Shine, the court performed a volte face and struck down section 497 because it violated the ‘personal autonomy’ of women. The importance of personal autonomy in Article 14 challenges is also evident from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Indian Young Lawyers (Sabarimala) and Navtej. Hence, if the differentiation violates personal autonomy – in this case, religion – under-inclusiveness is certainly not ‘nominal’.

What of the argument that deference to legislative wisdom is required on issues of citizenship, refugees and the like, as they fall under the realm of legislative policy? On the contrary, I suggest that this argument should be turned on its head: precisely because the issue concerns citizenship, deference is undesirable. It has already been argued above that the court should not allow deference to issues that concern personal autonomy. In Navtej, Indu Malhotra J and Dipak Mishra (writing for himself and A.M. Khanwilkar) referred to Article 15 grounds as illustrative of personal autonomy. They also accepted the analogous grounds argument, by holding Section 377 violative of Article 15 because it discriminates on sexual orientation which is a ground analogous to grounds specified textually in Article 15. Therefore, very little deference must be allowed to grounds under Article 15, and grounds that are analogous to Article 15 grounds, since they are based on personal autonomy. The argument now is that citizenship is a ground analogous to Article 15 grounds, since it is an important facet of personal autonomy. The Canadian Supreme Court in Andrew v. Law Society of British Columbia held that citizenship is a ground analogous to Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom – a provision which is similar to Article 15 of the COI – because it is a ‘personal characteristic’. It was observed that analogous grounds must be determined based on the “place of a group in the socio-political-legal fabric of the society.” Where a number of important rights are accrued on the basis of citizenship, non-citizens as a minority whose interests are brushed off would fall within the analogous category. Hence, the heightened level of scrutiny to a classification based on personal characteristics (grounds analogous to Article 15, and grounds in Article 15) should prevent the court from applying a deferential review.

Conclusion

Consolidating the arguments above, religion-based classification is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution because religion is a constitutionally impermissible ground for classification, and the classification does not have any nexus with the object of the bill. The country-based classification is manifestly arbitrary and violative of Article 14, as it is not based on any determining principle. The argument that under-inclusiveness cannot be a ground for unconstitutionality is countered by explaining that a law that is grounded on personal autonomy (i.e religion) is not merely a case of nominal under-inclusiveness. And the argument on application of deferential review to issues concerning citizenship and refugees is inapplicable, as citizenship falls within the ambit of analogous grounds, for which deference should not be allowed.

Guest Post: Sex Discrimination and Pregnancy – Reviewing Khusbu Sharma’s Case

[Editorial 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.]


[This is a guest post by Satyajit Bose.]


Over the past year, the higher judiciary has adjudicated two cases that have vast implications for sex-discrimination jurisprudence in India. The first was Ankita Meena v. University of Delhi. In this case, the petitioner had been barred from writing the end-semester examination, on account of her failure to meet the 70% attendance requirement, which was mandated under the Rules of Legal Education of the Bar Council of India. Crucially, the petitioner was in the latter stages of pregnancy, which made it physically impossible for her to attend class. Aggrieved by the decision of the University, she filed a writ petition before the Delhi High Court. A single judge bench of the Court dismissed her writ petition, thereby upholding the decision of the University. The petitioner then appealed to the Supreme Court by Special Leave (which remains pending).

A year later, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to set the record straight. In Khusbu Sharma v. Bihar Police Sub Ordinate Service Commission and Ors., the petitioner had applied for the post of Police Sub-Inspector in the State of Bihar. The selection process was three-fold: two written examinations, followed by a Physical Evaluation Test (PET). However, the petitioner was in the latter stages of pregnancy when the PET was scheduled, and requested the Police Commission for an extension of three to six months on the PET. Having received no response, she filed a writ before the Patna High Court. A single judge bench of the Patna High Court initially granted her relief, which was subsequently overturned by a division bench. The petitioner then appealed to the Supreme Court by Special Leave. The Court allowed the appeal and directed the Commission to conduct a PET for all female candidates who had been unable to participate previously on account of pregnancy.

Barring obvious differences, both cases pertain to the same issue, namely, the beneficial treatment of pregnant women. Why, then, did the respective courts reach different conclusions? Interestingly, neither judgement even attempts to apply Articles 14, 15, 16 and 21 of the Constitution. In Ankita Meena, the judgement of the Delhi High Court was restricted to the Bar Council Rules and its apparent conflict with the Rules of the Delhi University. In Khusbu Sharma, the Supreme Court went one step further, and attempted to engage with beneficial treatment of pregnant women. In this article, I critique the approach adopted by the Court in Khusbu Sharma, and argue that the reasoning is at odds with Articles 16 and 21 of the Constitution.

The Equality of Opportunity

In its judgement, the Court directs the Commission to conduct the PET for all pregnant female candidates. However, the reasoning of the Court is contained in two passages, the first of which is:

“We face a dilemma arising from on one hand maintaining the schedule of the examination as sacrosanct and on the other hand the difficulties faced by women candidates who could undergo the competitive test but are constrained in undergoing PET on account of pregnancy. The presence of lady members in the police force, considering the crime against women, is a prime need of the hour. Thus we feel that every endeavor should be made to ensure that there is higher representation of women in the police services. It is not as if some quota is being carved out for the women candidates but they are competing against men candidates. They have been successful in competitive examination getting higher merit.

There are two objections that may be raised with this argument. First, the Court frames the issue as a conflict between the sanctity of the examination and the difficulties faced by women candidates in undergoing a competitive test. As per this approach, the special treatment of pregnant women is an exception to the sanctity of the examination schedule, which presumably exists so as to ensure that all candidates have equal time to prepare and give the examination, a presumption which I shall address subsequently. Rather, I argue that the issue is better conceptualised as whether a woman’s pregnancy actively prohibits her from competing equally in such an exam, and what directions ought to be given in order to enable effective participation of women in the exam. This distinction is significant as it attributes the differential treatment of pregnant women as an attribute of equality of opportunity under Article 16(1) (which the Court omits from mentioning even once in its judgement, somewhat bizarrely), rather than an exception to equal opportunity in public employment.

Moreover, the Court assumes the value neutral character of the examination schedule as an objective tool in determining merit. What this implies is that institutional rules, such as the sanctity of examinations, may profess to be objective and neutral in selecting the best candidates, while in reality they perpetuate social hierarchies. This conception of merit was most recently espoused by Chandrachud J., in B.K. Pavitra v. Union of India, where it is stated:

“If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in exclusion, it will produce a pattern of governance which is skewed against the marginalised. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in equal access, our outcomes will reflect the commitment of the Constitution to produce a just social order. Otherwise, our past will haunt the inability of our society to move away from being deeply unequal to one which is founded on liberty and fraternity. Hence, while interpreting Article 335, it is necessary to liberate the concept of efficiency from a one sided approach which ignores the need for and the positive effects of the inclusion of diverse segments of society on the efficiency of administration of the Union or of a State.”

In the present case, the need to preserve the examination schedule was presumably to ensure that candidates have equal preparation time and hence, the best method of selecting the most meritorious candidates. However, this has the indirect effect of selecting only men as policemen, as they cannot get pregnant. Such a theory of merit attacks the heart of substantive equality guaranteed under the Constitution, as it ignores the differential impact of institutional rules on different social groups, most prominently those who have suffered centuries of discrimination.

That being said, it may appear that this distinction is seemingly trivial. I argue that the consequence of framing the issue is seen in the reasoning that follows, which is the second objection that may be raised. In this matter, the Court resolves this conflict by highlighting the rise in crimes against women, thus establishing the necessity for greater representation of women in the police force. This reasoning is dangerous as it relies on policy considerations in order to grant the petitioner the relief that had been prayed for, for violation of a fundamental right. What this means is that the petitioner does not enjoy a right to take the examination after her pregnancy had been completed, but was rather being granted the same on account of collective social need for greater representation of women within the police force. Clearly, the emphasis shifts from enforcing individual rights to collective social benefit, which excludes Article 16(1). In a somewhat strange clarification that follows, the Court effectively excludes Article 16(4) as well, by stating that they are not creating a special quota for women in the police force. Therefore, how does the Court reach the conclusion that the PET has to be conducted for pregnant women on this basis?

Pregnancy and the Meaning of “Choice”

Furthermore, the Court also relies on an additional factor to grant the relief that has been prayed for:

We are persuaded to do the aforesaid also for the reason that had recruitments taken place in accordance with certain pre-defined schedules, intervention of this court would not have been called for as candidates would have known as to when recruitment would take place and would have to plan their life accordingly. However that has not happened and in fact, as stated aforesaid, it is on the prodding of this court that these examinations have been held.”

 

In this passage, the Court remarks that if the dates for the exam had been issued from the very beginning, it would not have directed the Commission to conduct PET for pregnant female candidates. Remarkably, the Court states that female candidates must “plan their life accordingly.” Such a statement should not be viewed with surprise. In numerous cases, Indian Courts have held that pregnancy is a voluntary choice that is made by a female, and if it conflicts with any other commitment, no affirmative action can be granted.

In addressing this issue, one of two approaches may be followed. The first approach, as was followed in Inspector (Mahila) Ravina v. Union of India, is to conceptualise pregnancy as a deeply personal and intimate decision that is made by a woman, which falls within the rights guaranteed under Article 21. The second approach, which in my opinion represents the reality of pregnancy, considers the social pressure to bear children that women often face at the time of marriage. In simpler terms, women are often coerced into having children, which negates any element of reproductive choice. Accordingly, it is often not possible to ‘plan their life accordingly’, and place women within the binary of having to bear children, or pursuing their professional ambitions.

Conclusion

From this judgement, it is obvious that pregnancy jurisprudence in India has a long way to go. While the Court must be commended for moving on from Ankita Meena, we are still far away from comprehensively protecting and enforcing the rights of pregnant women in India. At the heart of both judgements lies a question of constitutional interpretation, namely, what theory of equality the Constitution of India is committed to. Until that question is answered, equality of opportunity remains a distant dream.

Notes from a Foreign Field: “The Time has Come” – the Botswana High Court and the decriminalisation of homosexuality

Sodomy laws … deserve archival mummification, or better still, a museum peg, shelf or cabinet for archival display.” – Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General, High Court of Botswana, para 209

Two weeks ago, the High Court of Kenya handed down a disappointing judgment upholding the constitutional validity of the Kenyan sodomy law. Yesterday, however, confronted with almost identical legal provisions, the High Court of Botswana went the other way, decriminalising same-sex relations on the touchstone of the constitutional rights to privacy, liberty, equality, and dignity. The judgment in Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General makes for fascinating reading. This is because of its austere – but clear – reasoning, but also because it marks the fall of yet another progeny of what began life as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and then proliferated through the British colonies: the prohibition of “carnal intercourse/knowledge against the order of nature.”

As I mentioned in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, the constitutional arguments against the sodomy law are familiar ones, whetted by years of litigation in constitutional courts across the world. What is striking, however, is the diametrically opposite view that the Botswana High Court took from its Kenyan counterpart, in responding to virtually identical arguments, within the space of two weeks. What is also striking is the similarities between the overall approach adopted by the Botswana High Court on the one hand, and the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation and the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, on the other. Both are issues that I shall discuss.

As a preliminary point, the judgment stands out for its clear endorsement of the value of pluralism, which made its first appearance in the second paragraph. Pluralism – and the necessity of respecting diverse ways of being and life choices, which the Court defined as inclusiveness – form, in a sense, the intellectual scaffolding that allowed it to build and develop its substantive rights-based arguments. Tellingly, “pluralism” and “inclusiveness” were also two words that were at the heart of the Delhi High Court’s 2009 judgment in Naz Foundation; and perhaps equally tellingly, the Kenyan High Court’s judgment did not have a similar, framing value that would help to contextualise the constitutional challenge. Within that framework, let us now examine the judgment.

Vagueness

After a brief account of the Christian – and later, colonial – origins of anti-sodomy laws, the Court considered the first substantive challenge – that of vagueness. Like the Kenyan High Court – and unlike the situation in India, where judicial interpretation of Section 377 had been inconsistent – the Court found that there existed binding court judgments explaining what “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature” meant: in Botswana, it had been defined as anal sex. For this reason, the impugned sections – 164(a), (c) and 165 – of the Penal Code were not vague; and the question then became, did the blanket criminalisation of anal sex violate the Constitution of Botswana? (paragraph 96)

Acts and Identities: Liberty, Dignity, Equality

This, in turn, allowed the State to set up that old and familiar argument, which makes an appearance in every litigation around this family of legal provisions: that ultimately, the sodomy law only criminalised a certain kind of “sexual act.” It did not criminalise homosexuality – or homosexuals – per se, and therefore, none of the constitutional values of equality, dignity, or liberty, were relevant. As the Court recorded the Attorney General’s submissions:

In answer thereto, the Attorney General has submitted that the applicant is a “cry baby” and that he is free to engage in sexual activity as long as it is not sexual intercourse per anus. It is the respondent’s position that Sections 164 (a) and (c) are not discriminatory as they are of equal application to all sexual preferences, and that Section 15 of the Constitution provides limitations on the enjoyment of fundamental rights. (paragraphs 136 – 7)

Recall that this classification of sodomy laws as targeting only “acts” was accepted both by the Indian Supreme Court in Koushal and by the Kenyan High Court, and formed an important part of these Courts’ reasoning in upholding the laws. It was, however, rejected by the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, and the High Court of Botswana similarly gave it short shrift. At a very basic level, the Court noted that while the section may have been neutrally worded, it nonetheless targeted a form of sexual expression that, in effect, targeted homosexuals, because they could not – by definition – engage in penile/vaginal sex. (paragraph 144) This being the case, the section clearly denied to homosexuals the right to sexual autonomy and the right to a choice of a sexual partner, choices that fell squarely within the domain of individual liberty; it also denied them the right to sexual expression, which was a violation of individual dignity. (paragraph 151) As the High Court colourfully noted, “the impugned provisions force him [the individual] to engage in private sexual expression not according to his orientation; but according to statutory dictates.” (paragraph 144)

The Court then made a deeper argument about equality and discrimination. Section 15(3) of the Constitution of Botswana defines discrimination as “affording different treatment to different persons, attributable wholly or mainly to their respective descriptions by race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex.” Like Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, this is a “closed list.” Unlike Canada or South Africa, It does not use words like “including” or “among others” before “race, tribe…” etc., and therefore, textually, precludes a Court from adding in entirely new grounds into the Section.

However, working within these constraints, and citing the previous judgment of Attorney-General v Dow, the High Court noted that:

I do not think that the framers of the Constitution intended to declare in 1966, that all potentially vulnerable groups and classes, who would be affected for all time by discriminatory treatment, have been identified and mentioned in the definition in section 15(3). I do not think that they intended to declare that the categories mentioned in that definition were forever closed. In the nature of things, as farsighted people trying to look into the future, they would have contemplated that, with the passage of time, not only groups or classes which had caused concern at the time of writing the Constitution but other groups or classes needing protection would arise. (paragraph 158, citing Dow)

As I have argued elsewhere, this is exactly the approach that should be adopted towards an anti-discrimination provision. Assessing discrimination is always a contextual enquiry, and the groups that are identified and persecuted by virtue of their group identity can – and do – change from time to time. For this reason, ideally, an anti-discrimination provision should lay down the principle, set out the groups that are salient at the time of drafting, and remain open-ended (as in Canada or South Africa). However, where it isn’t, a Court should at least be able to interpret the existing grounds flexibly, even if it can’t add new ones. And this is precisely what the High Court did, following comparative jurisprudence to hold (like the Delhi High Court in Naz), that sex included “sexual orientation”, as “sex and sexual orientation, are associable signifiers of a similar scope and content.” (paragraph 161) Interestingly, the Court buttressed this finding by noting that the Employment Act already prohibited discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace; like the case of the 2017 Mental Healthcare Act in India, a poignant example of the first meaningful legal change coming through a statute.

Armed with this interpretation of Section 15(3), the Court returned to the question of acts and identities. Relying upon both comparative law and evidence (including evidence provided by the Applicant, a gay man), to hold that sodomy laws – whatever their wording – had the effect of stigmatising the LGBTQ population, “render[ing] the[m] … a criminal, or an “unapprehended felon”, always on tenterhooks, waiting to be arrested.” (paragraph 169) This, in turn, meant that the sections were discriminatory in effect (an argument similar to that made by Chandrachud J. in Johar) – a conclusion that was aided by the fact that the Constitution of Botswana explicitly prohibited indirect discrimination. Here again, the High Court’s approach was in stark contrast to that of its Kenyan counterpart: while the Kenyan High Court – like Koushal in India – found that there was no “evidence” for any of this, and that simply “pleading” rights violations in affidavits was insufficient, the High Court of Botswana took seriously the account of discrimination recounted by the Applicant, as well as relying upon scholarly studies for the stigmatic effect of sodomy provisions.

Privacy

The High Court also engaged in an interesting discussion of the right to privacy. Like the American Constitution, the Constitution of Botswana – through Sections 3(c) and 9 – frames “privacy” in its classical sense, as pertaining to spaces – the home, property, freedom from an unreasonable search, and so on. Specifically acknowledging this (para 116), the Court nonetheless refused to limit privacy to the merely spatial, instead – in line with comparative jurisprudence – extending it to include decisional autonomy and the privacy of intimate choice, free from State control. (para 122)

The State’s Arguments

Interestingly, this was not the first time that the constitutionality of sodomy laws was being litigated. In 2003, in a case called Kanane, the Botswana Court of Appeal had held that it “was not yet time” to decriminalise same-sex relations. Much like Johar in India, therefore, and Lawrence in the United States, the Court was faced with a recent decision that had gone the other way. The High Court of Botswana, however, was quick to get around this, noting that no expert evidence had been presented in Kanane, and that the Court had not even dealt with the arguments on privacy, dignity, and indirect discrimination. (paragraph 171)

The State then argued that the purpose of the law was to protect and advance public morality and public interest. – another familiar argument. Applying the proportionality standard, the Court responded by noting that these were merely “bare assertions and or speculations that sexual anal penetration is contrary to public morality or public interest.” (paragraph 180). However, none of this had been demonstrated, it had not been shown that criminalisation was the least restrictive method of achieving the State’s goal (even of advancing public morality), and evidence of the harm caused to the LGBTQ community had not been rebutted. (paragraph 181). But in any event, the Court noted, public morality was relevant in a constitutional claim, but not dispositive. (paragraph 185) In this case, for the reasons advanced above, it fell well short of the proportionality standard; the same was true for the public interest justification, as criminalisation:

… disproportionally impacts on the lives and dignity of LGBT persons. It perpetuates stigma and shame against homosexuals and renders them recluse and outcasts. There is no victim within consensual same sex intercourse inter se adults. (paragraph 189).

The only other possible justification, the Court noted, was the Victorian, “Judeo-Christian” idea of the purpose of sex being for procreation. That premise, evidently, had long ceased being valid. (paragraph 208). The Court therefore struck down the provisions prohibiting carnal knowledge against the order of nature, and read down the provision criminalising “gross indecency” (Section 167) by severing and excluding acts done in private.

Points of Critique

The judgment of the High Court of Botswana is a powerful and eloquent defence of the rights of privacy, dignity, freedom, and equality; its clear and unequivocal holding, which decriminalises same-sex relations, is to be welcomed and applauded. However, while most of the judgment is a study in excellent rights-reasoning by a constitutional court, there are three discordant notes, which also need to be highlighted.

First, from time to time, the High Court got sucked into the question of whether sexual orientation was “innate” (paragraph 142); towards the end of its judgment, it held that sexual orientation is an “innate attribute that [people] have no control over.” (paragraph 190) As I pointed out in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court judgment, however, the “born this way” argument is controversial even within LGBTQ circles, but more importantly, it is a red herring. The question of whether sexual orientation is innate or not is irrelevant to issues of group discrimination (where, as the South African Constitutional Court pointed out, a homosexual identity is first “constructed”, and then subject to persecution), and to questions of decisional autonomy and individual freedom in making intimate choices.

Secondly, as part of its substantive reasoning, the High Court drops the odd claim that homosexuals can “only” have anal sex (and that’s why Ss. 164 and 165 take away sexual freedom). Now, it’s unclear where the High Court gets this from, but in any event, this also misses the point: the struggle around getting sodomy laws removed is not – and has never been – about legalising a particular sexual act, but about bringing down a range of discriminatory practices that deny to the LGBTQ community equal moral membership in society.

Thirdly – and again, this comes at the end of its judgment – the High Court’s stress on the “private” sits ill at ease with its excellent analysis of freedom, equality, and discrimination. In Johar, the Indian Supreme Court was careful not to go down the Delhi High Court’s path and qualify decriminalisation by adding the words “in private.” Like Johar, the Botswana High Court also does not add any such qualification while striking down Ss. 164 and 165, but it does so in its analysis of S. 167 (gross indecency), where it strikes out “private”, and leaves the criminalisation of “gross public indecency” intact. But what is “public indecency” if not the same kind of socially-perceived “deviant” behaviour that the Court is otherwise so concerned to protect under the Constitution? Without a clearer definition, that is the only use it will ever be put to.

It is important to note, however, that none of these three points are central to the core of the decision; the decision would remain even if we jettisoned them. The High Court’s arguments on freedom, equality, and dignity, and its ringing endorsement of diversity, plurality and the protection of the marginalised, does not require it to commit to the “born this way” theory of sexual orientation; it does not require any holding on the mechanics of anal sex; and it does not need a re-entrenchment of the public/private divide. It is to be hoped, therefore, that in future, it is the rights-expanding, liberty-protecting aspects of the judgment that will stand the test of time, while these odd discordant notes will, ultimately, fade away.

Conclusion

Coming two weeks after the intense disappointment of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, Letsweletse Motshidiemang marks a welcome reversion to form: across the world, the fact that sodomy laws have no place in liberal democracies is increasingly becoming part of judicial common sense. Arguments from “public morality” and “deference”, which once held powerful sway over the minds of judges, are losing their purchase. The Botswana High Court’s clear, powerful, and unambiguous judgment gives us hope that what happened two weeks ago was a brief aberration, which will be swiftly set right by the Kenyan appellate courts; in the meantime, there is another judgment to celebrate.