Category Archives: Non-discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Round-Up: The Delhi High Court’s Experiments with the Constitution

(This is the second part of three blog posts that round-up some recent judicial pronouncements. For work-related reasons, I did not have the time to write about them when they were delivered. – Ed.)

Benches of the Delhi High Court have issued a series of interesting rulings in the first half of 2018. A summary follows.

Article 14 and Genetic Discrimination

In United India Insurance Company v Jai Parkash Tayal, a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court invalidated a clause of an insurance contract that excluded “genetic disorders” from the scope of insurance. The judgment proceeded on multiple grounds, and makes for fascinating reading. In particular, Justice Pratibha Singh invalidated the clause on the grounds of Article 14 (equality before law), 21 (right to health), and the impermissibility of changing an insurance contract to the detriment of the insured. The Article 21 issue is not one I will discuss here: as readers of this blog will know, the reading in of broad socio-economic rights into Article 21, and their exceedingly uneven application on a case-to-case basis, is not something I am very comfortable with. This case, like so many others, tells us that there is a right to health, and then uses it to achieve a specific outcome, but somewhere along the way, the precise spelling out of the scope, contours and limits of this right, and the nature of the obligations it places upon the State, is lost by the wayside.

What I find much more interesting, however, is the manner in which the Court used Article 14. In paragraph D1, Justice Singh observed:

Article 14 of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination of any kind. This would include discrimination based on genetic heritage of an individual.

There is, however, something odd about this framing. Article 14 is the equality clause. The non-discrimination clause is Article 15(1), which prohibits the State from discriminating on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, and place of origin. Moreover, Article 15(1) is a closed list – unlike certain other Constitutions, no additional, analogous grounds can be brought within its ambit. Article 14, on the other hand, is a general equality clause that has been interpreted by the Courts to exclude irrational classification or arbitrary State action, on a case-to-case basis. Unlike Article 15(1), Article 14 does not – a priori – rule out specific grounds upon which differentiation may be based. The distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1) was expressed by Patanjali Sastri CJ in a classic exposition, in Kathi Raning Rawat v The State of Saurashtra (1952)

As we can see, Justice Singh’s observation that Article 14 prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic heritage appears to conflate Sastri CJI’s distinction between Articles 14 and 15(1).

In the latter part of the judgment, however, Justice Singh modulates the claim. In the context of insurance contracts, she concedes that there may be a class of narrowly defined cases (to be articulated by the policy-makers) where certain kinds of genetic diseases can be excluded by the insurer. Her specific problem is with the width of this exclusion clause (covering all “genetic disorders”) which – as she states in the operative part of the judgment – violates Article 14. Consequently, Justice Singh’s argument is not that “discrimination” on the basis of genetic characteristics will automatically violate Article 14, but rather, it will presumptively violate Article 14, unless strong reasons can be shown that justify the violation. In other words, differentiation based on genetic differences will be subjected to stricter judicial scrutiny than other classifications.

Is there any constitutional warrant for this reading of Articles 14 and 15? I have recently argued that there is, in a defence of the Delhi High Court’s Naz Foundation judgment (SSRN version here). Briefly, the argument is as follows: an analysis of the Constituent Assembly Debates shows that the framers did not intent Articles 14 and 15 to operate as separate silos. Rather, Article 14 was the general expression of the concrete commitment towards non-discrimination under Article 15(1). The framers took the five most publicly salient grounds at the time – race, religion, caste, sex, place of origin – and prohibited all discrimination involving those grounds. However, the framers also realised that forms and sites of discrimination evolve, and what is not salient today can become salient tomorrow (classic examples: sexual orientation, disability, and age, which are all present in some more recent Constitutional documents). For this reason, the framers included Article 14, whose more open-ended language would allow future Courts to develop new grounds of discrimination, and subject them to stricter scrutiny (something akin to a proportionality standard). Unfortunately, however, this possibility has never seriously been explored by the Courts, who have been caught between the classification and the arbitrariness standards under Article 14. Naz Foundation represented the first serious articulation of this vision of Articles 14 and 15(1). United India Insurance Company is another small, incremental step towards it.

Uncertainties over Horizontality

The Delhi High Court was very clear that Articles 14 and 21 applied to all insurance contracts, whether entered into by a State insurer or a private insurance company. This, however, is a problematic conclusion. Articles 14 and 21 very categorically apply to State action. “State”, under Article 12, is limited to government and entities under the “functional, financial, and administrative” control of government. Without some additional reasoning, a private insurance company cannot be brought within the ambit of the fundamental rights chapter.

The Court’s response was to argue that insurance contracts are unequal (like contracts of adhesion, although the Court did not use the term), and place the insurance applicant at a disadvantage. That is correct – and many jurisdictions recognise that such contracts are of a special kind, that cannot be interpreted in a normal way (see the recent decision of the UK Employment Tribunal involving Uber’s contracts with its drivers). However, the remedies for that are provided within contract law: interpret ambiguous terms in favour of the weaker party, and if the unconscionability is clear, void the contract on grounds of public policy. The Court could even have said – as it came close to doing – that such contracts had a public element, and therefore could be subjected to public law norms (which include norms of non-discrimination). There is no warrant, however, for making Part III of the Constitution directly applicable to private insurance contracts, and to the extent the Court did so, I submit that it erred.

The same issue arose in another Delhi High Court decision that made the news recently, Sanghamitra Acharya v State (NCT) of DelhiSanghamitra Acharya involved the commitment of an adult woman into a mental hospital at the instance of her parents. Justice Muralidhar, writing for the division bench, held that the woman’s rights to liberty, autonomy and dignity had been violated (especially in view of the Puttaswamy judgment), that the parents, police, and the hospital were in breach of their legal obligations, and ordered compensation. This is, of course, impeccable; in the course of the judgment, however, the Court expressly held that Articles 19 and 21 (along with Articles 15(2), 17, and 23) were horizontally applicable between private parties.

It is true that Articles 19 and 21 are not categorically framed as injunctions against the State. Article 19 stipulates that “All citizens shall have the right… to freedom of speech and expression…” and Article 21 states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Therefore, there is no express textual bar against reading Articles 19 and 21 horizontally. However, the reference to State restrictions under Articles 19(2) to 19(6), and the specific reference to “procedure established by law” under Article 21, strongly indicates that these Articles are meant to apply vertically, between State and individual. This is buttressed by the fact that where the framers did intend the horizontal application of fundamental rights, they were clear and unambiguous about it (Articles 15(2), 17, 23, 24). And lastly, this is how the Courts have almost uniformly understood and interpreted them (there are some exceptions, such as the Aruna Shanbaug judgment). It is, of course, open to the Delhi High Court to hold that this jurisprudence is misguided; however, such a radical change in the interpretation of Articles 19 and 21, it needed to provide strong reasons for that holding, and also to elaborate its own theory justifying the horizontal reading of Articles 19 and 21. With respect, the Court did not do that.

Legal Interpretation in the Shadow of the Constitution

What the Court did do very well, in my opinion, was bring the Constitution to bear upon the interpretation of the Mental Health Act, which was the relevant legislation at issue. The Court was examining whether the “involuntary admission” into a mental hospital was consistent with the scheme of the Act. Under Section 19, a person could be involuntarily admitted into a mental hospital by their relative or friend, if the medical officer in-charge was “satisfied” that it was in the interests of the patient. The Court held that although Section 19 was a “stand-alone” provision, the rights under Article 21 required that the word “satisfaction” be read as “objective satisfaction”; that is, the medical officer would have to follow the legal definition of “unsoundness of mind” (which is narrow and circumscribed) before allowing involuntary admission. On facts, it was found that the medical professional had not even attempted to apply any objective standards in his determination.

The form of interpretation that the Court engaged in here is one that Indian Courts have attempted in the past, but only sporadically: borrowed from German law, it is called “the radiating effect” put broadly, holds that a Constitution is not merely a set of rights, but an objective “order of values”, and these values “radiate” through the legal system. In concrete terms, a Court is to interpret laws – including private law – in a manner that advances and promotes the constitutional order of values. By interpreting “satisfaction” (an ambiguous word) to refer to “objective satisfaction”, and to justify that reading by specifically pegging it to constitutional rights, the Sanghamitra Acharya is an important judgment in the context of the theory of the radiating effect.

Traces of this are visible in two other judgments the Delhi High Court delivered, on the subject of labour law. In Indu Munshi v Union of India, a division bench of the Delhi High Court ordered the regularisation of a batch of Kashmiri Pandit schoolteachers. The schoolteachers had been forced to flee from the Valley in 1993, and had come to Delhi. They had been given contractual jobs as schoolteachers in 1994 – and then kept on contract for the next twenty-four years. The issue of regularisation is a fraught one, and any Court that wishes to order regularisation has to content with the challenge of the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench judgment in Uma Devi’s Case, which invoked the constitutional right to equality of opportunity to hold that contractual employees who had been appointed by the “back door” could not later be regularised “at the cost of” other employees. Uma Devi’s ratio has, however, been subsequently whittled down (the High Court discussed some of these judgments), and here Justice Bhat, writing on behalf of a Division Bench, held that, on facts, there was no “back door appointment.” One of the crucial features that weighed with Justice Bhat was the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits had arrived as refugees, and were compelled to accept whatever offer of employment was open to them, without any genuine choice or bargaining power. When combined with the fact that the process of appointments was competitive, and that the teachers had worked against regular (unfilled) vacancies for twenty-two years, as well as a number of other technical factors, Justice Bhat held that, notwithstanding Uma Devi, the case for regularisation was unanswerable. The Court also held that the contractual teachers deserved remuneration that was equal to the sanctioned remuneration for regular schoolteachers. It adopted a broad version of the “equal pay for equal work” doctrine (which focused on the nature of work) rather than a narrow version (which made technical factors such as cadres and sources of appointment – which could easily be undermined – determinative), and again, framed the issue as a right against exploitation:

Turning to the issue of equal salary and remuneration, the Govt of NCT of Delhi had argued that the teachers could not question their emoluments, because they had accepted their contractual status and functioned in that capacity for over a decade and a half. The teachers’ argument is that they had practically no choice; the alternative to accepting the job with reduced emoluments was starvation or no employment. Such a Hobson’s choice is not meaningful. This court agrees with the contention and holds that there cannot be any estoppel in such situations, barring claims to parity. Long ago, in Sanjit Roy v State of Rajasthan, AIR 1983 SC 328, the Supreme Court characterized as forced labour the acceptance, under compulsion of circumstances, by a person without employment, remuneration that was lower than the minimum wage and stated “that it may therefore be legitimately presumed that when a person provides labour or service to another against receipt of remuneration which is less than the minimum wage, he is acting under the force of some compulsion which drives him to work though he is paid less than what he is entitled under the law to receive.”

And:

In the facts of the present cases too, the court is of the opinion that the mere nomenclature of “contract teachers” is an artificial one given to the teachers who approached this court through the writ petitions that have led to these appeals; they were appointed against regular vacancies, their services are unbroken and have not been continued on account of any stay or court directed interim order; their appointments were pursuant to a constitutionally recognized and acceptable procedure of advertisement and calling names from employment exchange; they each held and hold the requisite qualifications, including B.Ed; all of them were interviewed before their appointment. For these reasons, having regard to their unbroken employment for over two decades, in line with the decision in Umadevi (supra) as understood in Pratap Kishore Panda (supra), Malati Dass (supra) and Sheo Narain Nagar (supra), the said Kashmiri migrant teachers are entitled to be treated as regular appointees. They shall also be entitled to provident fund benefit, gratuity and pension upon attaining the age of superannuation. If any of the petitioners or any other Kashmiri migrant teacher has already attained superannuation or has died in the interregnum the Govt of NCT of Delhi shall calculate their entitlement and release them to such retired employees, and in the case of death, release such amounts to the legal representatives of such deceased employees.

Of course, the Constitution was not directly involved in this case, in the sense that there was no legal provision under challenge. However, it is obvious that the Constitution – and especially, its egalitarian and anti-exploitative ethos – permeated each of the choices the judges had to make. Uma Devi had invoked the doctrine of equality of opportunity to set up “regular” and “back door” appointees in conflict with each other, competing for the same scarce public good (jobs). The Delhi High Court rejected this race-to-the-bottom vision of equality and, instead, focused upon an understanding of equality that was sensitive to exploitation and disparities in bargaining power, to hold that Uma Devi was inapplicable to the present case, and furthermore, the the constitutional principle of equal pay for equal work would also apply.

The Constitution was more directly at play in M/s Metrro Waste Handling v Delhi Jal Board, a brief judgment concerning manual scavenging, and bookending its holding by quotes from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The Delhi Jal Board issued a tender for mechanised sewer cleaning, where it did two things: first, it stipulated that only one machine would be issued per bidder; and second, it stipulated that preference would be given to the families of deceased manual scavengers and ex-manual scavengers. The first condition – it argued – was to encourage small entrepreneurs and the underprivileged class to apply. The justification for the second is obvious. The Petitioner challenged the first condition as being arbitrary, and the second as imposing a “100 percent reservation”, which was unconstitutional.

The Court rejected both arguments. On the first, it found that the DJB had set up an elaborate system of loans and other forms of aid to genuinely enable underprivileged sections to effectively bid for the tender; the argument from arbitrariness, therefore, was dismissed. From a constitutional point of view, however, the second issue is more interesting. The Court rejected the argument that the DJB’s order of preference was establishing 100 percent reservation. This was not – it observed – a system of “quotas”:

What is in issue, however, in this case is the attempt of the state, uniquely to ensure that the livelihood and lives of sewage workers performing manual scavenging tasks are meaningfully uplifted. The system of preference is not reservation, in any sense of the term. The court recollects what was held in Government of Andhra Pradesh v Vijaykumar1995 (4) SCC 520 that the wording of Art. 15(3) enables “special provisions” is wider than Article 16(4) which enables a special provision by way of reservations. Article 15(3) is wider and includes “positive action programmes in addition to reservations”.

However, if what was involved was not reservation, then the provisions of Articles 16(4) (since it specifically mentions reservation). Nor could 15(3)’s “special provisions” be invoked, since they are limited to women and children. The only alternative, therefore – as the Court noted – was that preferential treatment of underprivileged classes was itself consistent with the guarantee of equality of opportunity under Article 16(1). Or, in other words – as the concurring opinions of Justices Mathew and Krishna Iyer had famously held in NM Thomas, but which were not subsequently developed in detail – the constitutional vision of equality is a substantive vision, which factors in structural and systemic discrimination, and views the overcoming of structural barriers as part of the very meaning of equality. As Justice Bhat – again, writing for a division bench – held:

Seen from the context of the decisions quoted previously, the NIT conditions are not meant to exclude the “general” class of citizens. They afford an opportunity to an utterly marginalized section a “step up” (or to use the expression in Nagaraj (supra), “catch up”) with the other citizens. The object of such preference is plainly to enable the meaningful participation of the most marginalized section, i.e. workers involved in manual scavenging, and scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities (who are so chosen, having regard to what the Constitution framers stated as “a backward section of the Hindu community who were handicapped by the practice of untouchability”). The state, i.e., DJB, in our opinion, had a compelling interest in promoting the welfare of these class of citizens, while conceiving and implementing this system of preferences, in the impugned NIT.

Indirect Discrimination

This provides an ideal segue into the last case: Madhu v Northern RailwayMadhu involved the interpretation of certain Indian Railways rules. The dispute centred around a railway employee taking his wife and daughter “off” his list of “dependents” entitled to free medical treatment, on the ground that he had “disowned” them. The Railways argued that for a person’s dependents to avail of treatment, he had to make a “declaration” that they were part of his family; in this case, since the employee had refused to do so, the Railways was justified in denying them medical treatment. The Division Bench, speaking through Justice Bhat – yet again! – rejected this argument, arguing that not only was such an interpretation textually untenable, but also that accepting it would perpetuate indirect discrimination:

The Northern Railways contends that the Appellants are not denied the medical card because they are women, but rather because their husband and father had not made the requisite declaration. However, this explanation is not enough. It is not sufficient to say that the reasoning of Northern Railways did not intentionally discriminate against the Appellants because they were women. Law does not operate in a vacuum and the reasoning and consequent decision of Northern Railways must be examined in the social context that it operates and the effects that it creates in the real world. Even a facially neutral decision can have disproportionate impact on a constitutionally protected class.

The reason that the drafters of the Constitution included Article 15 and 16 was because women (inter alia) have been subjected to historic discrimination that makes a classification which disproportionately affects them as a class constitutionally untenable. The Northern Railways decision to not grant the Appellants medical cards clearly has such a disproportionate effect. By leaving an essential benefit such as medical services subject to a declaration by the railway officer/servant, the dependents are subject to the whims and fancies of such employee. The large majority of dependents are likely to be women and children, and by insisting that the railway officer/servant makes a declaration, the Railway authorities place these women and children at risk of being denied medical services.

It is irrelevant that the Railways did not deny them the medical card because the Appellants were women, or that it is potentially possible that a male dependent may also be denied benefits under decision made by the Railways. The ultimate effect of its decision has a disparate impact on women by perpetuating the historic denial of agency that women have faced in India, and deny them benefits as dependents.

The concept of indirect discrimination – discussed in some detail on this blog previously – has been incorporated into the jurisprudence of many other constitutional courts (the High Court cited some of them). Indian Courts have taken tentative steps towards it, but Madhu represents perhaps the first full-blooded articulation and defence of indirect discrimination as a form of discrimination prohibited by the Constitution. It will, hopefully, be the first of many instances.
 

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

Guest Post: The Trans Bill and Its Discontents – II

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

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

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

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

Non-Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provisions on Residence

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

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

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

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

Provisions on Begging

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

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

Guest Post: The Trans Bill and its Discontents – I

(This is a guest post by Vasudevan Devadasan.)

This week the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill is up for vote in the Lok Sabha. The Bill has had a comparatively short but turbulent history. On the back of the National Legal Services Authority v UoI (NALSA) judgement and an Expert Committee Report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (here) the Bill was first introduced and passed as a Private Member Bill by the Rajya Sabha in 2015. A year later however, the Ministry introduced a modified version of the Rajya Sabha Bill and referred it to committee. The Standing Committee (whose report can be found here) lambasted the Bill on several points that we will discuss here and on subsequent posts. Despite the Standing Committee’s report, the provisions of the bill have not been modified and continue to raise some troubling constitutional issues.

Beginning with the distinctions of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, as well as ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’, this post examines the interpretation of Articles 19 and 21 in NALSA. While there are a host of practical and legal ramifications of introducing such legislation, this post focuses on the constitutional issues raised by the definition of “transgender” in the current Bill and the ‘screening process’ that individuals have to undergo to secure legal recognition of their gender identity.

The constitutional framework

Before looking at the multiple definitions of “transgender” that have been used by the bills in parliament, its crucial to understand the constitutional framework created by NALSA and Article 19 and 21. (There are other judgements before and after that contribute to this framework, but the relevant principles are discussed contextually in NALSA.) Firstly, the Court distinguishes between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The former is determined by biological characteristics such as chromosomes and internal and external sex organs, and is assigned to individuals at birth while the latter is constituted by an individual’s own experience, developed through innate belief, upbringing, society and culture. In the case of a transgender person there is a conflict between their “gender identity” assigned to them at birth, and the one they develop through the course of their life. Secondly, while ‘gender identity’ refers to an individual’s internal experience of gender, ‘gender expression’ refers to their outward expression, as perceived by society.

It is the right of transgender persons to choose their gender identity that the Supreme Court upheld in NALSA. In the Court’s own words, “self-determination of gender is an integral part of personal autonomy and self-expression and falls within the realm of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21”. Additionally, the Court held that ‘gender expression’ by way of dressing, speaking, or behaving was protected under Article 19. The invocation of ‘personal autonomy’ and ‘self-expression’ is crucial, because this means that the decision of a transgender person in choosing a gender (whether male, female) is made is made by the individual, as an expression of personal choice. In fact, the Court explicitly rejected an objective ‘medical’ or ‘pathological’ standard to determine an individual’s gender (¶75) The Court also recognised that “transgender” constituted its own, standalone, gender for individuals who did not wish to associate themselves with either the male or female gender. In summary, a transgender person could choose to be recognised as either male or female based on their choice, or alternatively could choose to be recognised as transgender.

Self-identification is a promising idea in principle and may work in practice as well. For example, Argentina passed a statute that recognises an individual’s right to gender identity, and allows a person to change their sex in public records by filing an affidavit. However, this is clearly more helpful to individuals who want to change their gender identity than individuals who wish to identify outside the male-female binary. Additionally, the Court in NALSA sought both non-discrimination and affirmative action to be taken for transgenders. To secure these goals, there needs to be some practicable process or method by which the State can identify transgender persons. The crux of the matter then becomes the suitable level of State-scrutiny over an individual’s decision to identify with a gender, be it male, female, or transgender. It is important to note that the purpose of scrutiny must not reach a level so as to interfere with the individual’s autonomy to choose a gender, but sufficient to enable recognition and efficient governance.

The (current) Transgender Bill

The primary issue with the current bill stems both from its definition of the term “transgender person”, but also from the fact that to be recognised as a “transgender person”, one must undergoe a ‘screening process’ conducted by, inter alia a medical officer and a psychologist/psychiatrist. Section 2(i) defines a “transgender person” as one who is:

  • Neither wholly female nor wholly male; or
  • a combination of female or male; or
  • neither female nor male; and

whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at the time of birth, and includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations and gender-queers.

The use of the word “and” after clause (c) makes the definition conjunctive. Thus, to fall under the definition both the sexual characteristics and the gender characteristics of the definition must be met. By adding a pathological aspect to the definition of transgender, the Bill continues to view transgender as a medical or biological anomaly outside the normal duality of male and female. As we noted earlier, sex and gender are two distinct concepts; yet the definition in the Bill conflates them, both narrowing the scope of people who fall under the Bill’s protection, and distorting the definition of a transgender person in the national discourse. The definition also runs contrary to the rationale espoused in NALSA which explicitly ruled out the use of a ‘biological test’ to determine if a person is transgender. When looked at in contrast to the definition provided by the Expert Committee Report and the Rajya Sabha Bill, the conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is apparent. They specifically dispensed with the male/female binary, and defined “transgender person” as:

a person, whose gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at birth and includes trans-men and trans-women (whether or not they have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy or laser therapy etc.), gender-queers and a number of socio-cultural identities…

In addition to the definition, the current Bill sets up a ‘screening procedure’. Section 4 states that a transgender person “shall have a right to self-perceived gender identity”. However, the recognition of this freely chosen gender identity is only possible when the procedures that the Bill stipulates are completed. Under Sections 5 through 7, a transgender person must approach a District Magistrate, make an application for issuing a ‘certificate of identity as a transgender person’. The application shall be evaluated by the ‘District Screening Committee’ which as noted above includes medical personnel. The inclusion of medical personnel as part of the identification procedure again hints at the legislature’s conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. By not specifying the criteria upon which the ‘Screening Committee’ shall grant or reject an application, the Bill risks the identification procedure, (a deeply personal choice originating in an individual’s internal experience of gender) morphing into an objective medical assessment. In NALSA the Court also grounded the principle of self-identification in an individual’s dignity. The Bill runs the risk of violating this principle by subjecting transgender persons to unnecessary medical scrutiny.

The Bill also makes the State (through the ‘Screening Committee’), as opposed to the individual, the final arbiter on an individual’s gender identity. Under the Bill, the Screening Committee acts as a gatekeeper to an individual being able to fully experience their self-perceived gender identity in society. This runs against the rights of ‘self-expression’ and ‘personal autonomy’ that Article 19 and 21 confer on citizens. As ‘gender expression’ is protected under Article 19(1) and the Supreme Court has recognised that individuals have a ‘positive right to make decisions about their life’ under Article 21 the constitutional validity of the ‘Screening Committee’ will certainly raise some constitutional questions as it poses a restriction on the legal recognition of an individual’s gender identity.

Lastly, Section 7 allows the District Magistrate to grant a “certificate of identity as [a] transgender person…” seeming to negate the possibility that a transgender person may choose to identify as a male or female. At its core, the idea self-identification would allow a transgender person to choose to identify with either the male, female, or transgender identity. Section 7 seems to relegate transgender persons as explicitly and eternally outside the male female binary that Indian society deems normal.

Conclusion

The current version of the Bill has received a lot of criticism on a wide range of issues. Since its inception it has seen the loss of several prominent aspects including exclusive courts for transgenders, reservation in educational institutions and incentives to the private sector to employ transgender persons. While these are notable lapses, far more troubling is that the Bill seems to misunderstand the very individuals it seeks to protect. By conflating the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and imposing an opaque recognition procedure, the Bill does little to uphold the core principle of self-identification and dignity as articulated in Article 19 and 21.

 

 

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Decriminalising Adultery?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued notice in a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Indian Penal Code. Section 497, titled adultery, provides that:

“Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.

In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”

The petition also challenged Section 198 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states, in relevant part:

“… no person other than the husband of the woman shall be deemed to be aggrieved by any offence punishable under section 497 or section 498 of the said Code.”

It should be immediately obvious that these sections do three things. First, the offence of adultery applies only to the man committing adultery. Secondly, a woman committing adultery is not even deemed to be an “abettor” to the offence. And thirdly, the power to prosecute for adultery lies only with the husband of the woman.

Taken together, the underlying logic of these provisions is straightforward. In making only the man, and not the woman, liable for adultery, they are founded upon sexual stereotypes that attribute sexual agency only to men, and sexual passivity to women (or, in simpler language, men are the seducers (and therefore criminally liable), while women are the seduced). And in making the husband the only person who can prosecute for adultery, they are founded upon the idea that, in a marriage, the status of the wife is akin to that of the property of the husband.

As I have argued before, for these reasons, Section 497 is a textbook case of unconstitutional sex discrimination, and invalid under Article 15(1) of the Constitution (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex). The problem, however, is the judgment of the Supreme Court in Yusuf Abdul Aziz, which upheld Section 497 by invoking Article 15(3) of the Constitution, which states that:

“Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children.”

In Yusuf Abdul Aziz, the Supreme Court held that in granting immunity to women from criminal liability for adultery, Section 497 was a “special provision” for their benefit, and therefore valid despite being potentially discriminatory under Article 15(1).

There are at least two reasons why the Supreme Court’s judgment was incorrect. First, the Court failed to note that Article 15(3) was not a free-standing provision in the Constitution. It was a sub-set of Article 15, which deals with discrimination. The purpose of Article 15(3), therefore, is not to give a carte blanche to any law that might provide tangible or material benefits to women, but to sanction laws that accord favourable treatment to women in order to achieve substantive equality and remedy existing discrimination. The immediate example that comes to mind is that of affirmative action, where there is a tangible link between favourable treatment, and achieving substantive or genuine equality. While the question of whether a particular law or executive action falls within the ambit of remedial action can often be a question of debate (see, for example, this judgment of the South African Constitutional Court), it seems obvious that  the immunity for women under Section 497 is in no sense a remedial law, designed to or serving the goal of, remedying past discrimination or achieving substantive equality.

Secondly, the Supreme Court failed to notice that even though the law ostensible benefited women by providing them with a tangible benefit (immunity), it was based upon a set of assumptions that were deeply discriminatory (see above). Consequently, not only did Section 497 discriminate against men (which was the only argument considered by the Court), but in actual fact, it discriminated against women as well. Such discrimination, even if not clearly unconstitutional in 1954, when the case was decided, is certainly unconstitutional after the 2007 judgment of Anuj Garg, where the Supreme Court made it clear that laws ostensibly for the benefit of women, but which were based on sexual stereotypes, were unconstitutional.

The constitutional case against adultery, therefore, appears to be unanswerable, and the Supreme Court’s decision to issue notice means that the only possible hurdle – refusing to reconsider Yusuf Abdul Aziz (and subsequent cases) on the grounds of stare decisis – has been surmounted.

However, in some of the reports over yesterday and today, the case has been pitched not as being about striking down adultery, but about upholding it and making it gender-neutral. On this view, the Court will simply hold that women can also be made criminally liable for adultery, and in this way, “cure” the constitutional defect.

There are a number of reasons why this is unlikely.

First, the petitioners themselves have only asked that the section be struck down. There is no prayer in the writ petition that asks for retaining the provision, while making the provision gender-neutral. In fact, the petition itself argues that not only is S. 497 discriminatory against men, but is also discriminatory against women (for the reasons I’ve discussed above).

Secondly, making Section 497 gender-neutral would essentially amount to rewriting it in toto, something that a Court is not competent to do. Recall that Section 497 states: “whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man…”

Now, while Section 13 of the General Clauses Act lays down a default rule (subject to context) that the masculine gender is taken to include the feminine, the reverse is not true. In other words, while – in general – a statute using the word “man” can be read to include “woman”, in Section 497, “wife” cannot be read to include “husband.” Furthermore, in any event, the context of Sections 497 and 198, read together, makes the gendered nature of the provision abundantly clear: both the words, and the legislative intent, signify that the section is not, and was never meant to be, gender-neutral. The only way the Court can make it so now is by rewriting it altogether.

It has been argued, however, that the Court might simply strike down the last sentence – “in such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor” – creating a legal regime where the man is tried as the primary offender, and the woman as the secondary offender.

While it is, of course, possible to do this, it would be entirely illogical. If the reasoning of Yusuf Abdul Aziz was to apply, then the entire section would have to be held constitutional under Article 15(3). On the other hand, if the Court was to strike it down – and the only way it could strike it down was by applying the anti-stereotyping analysis – then only striking down the last sentence would in no way cure the constitutional defect. Making women secondarily liable for adultery perpetuates and endorses the exact same stereotypes about gendered sexual agency as exempting them from liability altogether.

Consequently, there are only two realistic options before the Court: follow Yusuf Abdul Aziz and uphold Section 497, or strike it down on the basis of Anuj Garg’s anti-stereotyping analysis. There’s no middle course of “levelling up” or striking down just the last sentence.

In fact, the order issuing notice demonstrates that the Court is likely to follow the latter course. The order states, in relevant part:

Prima facie, on a perusal of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, we find that it grants relief to the wife by treating her as a victim. It is also worthy to note that when an offence is committed by both of them, one is liable for the criminal offence but the other is absolved. It seems to be based on a societal presumption. Ordinarily, the criminal law proceeds on gender neutrality but in this provision, as we perceive, the said concept is absent. That apart, it is to be seen when there is conferment of any affirmative right on women, can it go to the extent of treating them as the victim, in all circumstances, to the peril of the husband. Quite apart from that, it is perceivable from the language employed in the Section that the fulcrum of the offence is destroyed once the consent or the connivance of the husband is established. Viewed from the said scenario, the provision really creates a dent on the individual independent identity of a woman when the emphasis is laid on the connivance or the consent of the husband. This tantamounts to subordination of a woman where the Constitution confers equal status. A time has come when the society must realise that a woman is equal to a man in every field. This provision, prima facie, appears to be quite archaic. When the society progresses and the rights are conferred, the new generation of thoughts spring, and that is why, we are inclined to issue notice.”

It’s clear that the Court is thinking along the right lines. All that is left is a reasoned judgment striking down this “quite archaic” provision.

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The Leprosy PIL: A Chance to Rethink Equality under Law

Today, the Supreme Court issued notice on a petition filed by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy challenging provisions from as many as 119 statutes, which discriminate against people with leprosy. The petition follows the 256th Law Commission Report, which highlighted the discriminatory legal landscape against persons with leprosy, and called for its elimination.

The petition challenges these statutes (that range from election disqualifications to employment discrimination) on the expected grounds of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. I suggest, however, that this case provides, in addition, an opportunity to the Supreme Court to reconsider and evolve its jurisprudence of equality, which has been rather sterile in recent years (and decades). This opportunity exists because leprosy, insofar as it has been a historic site for group-based discrimination, is similar to the prohibited characteristics under Article 15(1) (race, caste, sex etc.), but of course, does not fall within any of them. Consequently, while the equality-based challenge to these discriminatory statutes will have to be made under Article 14, the Court can advance a theory of discrimination that dispenses with the classic intelligible differentia/rational nexus test under Article 14, and applies a higher threshold of scrutiny in circumstances where the ground of discrimination is similar to, but does not fall within, the listed grounds under Article 15(1).

Note that this is not unprecedented. The Delhi High Court did exactly this when it read down Section 377 of the IPC in 2009. The Supreme Court overturned that judgment in 2013, without undertaking any analysis of the High Court’s 14-15 synthesis.

I have written an article that defends this view, and considers its extension to exactly the kinds of laws under challenge in the present petition – i.e., those that discriminate against people with leprosy. The article can be accessed here.

 

 

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