Category Archives: Article 15 (general)

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.


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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Filed under Article 15 (general), Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Decisional Autonomy, Non-discrimination, Sexuality, Sexuality

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

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.




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

Asking the Right Questions: The Supreme Court’s Referral Order in the Sabarimala Case

In April 2016, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had heard arguments in a PIL challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s practice of barring menstruating-age women (between the ages of 10 and 50) from entering the precincts of the temple. In a brief order delivered today, the case has been referred to a five-judge bench for adjudication.

As we have discussed previously on this blog, the Sabarimala Case is a particularly complex one, involving the interaction of statutes, government rules, custom, religious practice, and the Constitution. For a satisfactory adjudication of the case, therefore, it is important that the Court ask the right questions. As we shall see below, today’s referral order succeeds in that enterprise, and lays the foundation for a clear verdict on the constitutional issues involved.

Recall that the justification for excluding menstruating-age women from entry into the Sabarimala is grounded in religious custom and usage. What complicates the issue is that there is also an existing legislation: the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship (Authorisation of Entry Act) of 1965. Section 3 of that Act stipulates that places of public worship must be open to all sections and classes of Hindus, notwithstanding any custom or usage to the contrary. Section 4 of the Act authorises persons in charge of places of public worship to make regulations for the “due performance of rites and ceremonies, with the proviso that the Regulations cannot discriminate against Hindus of “any class.” Acting under Section 4, in 1965, the Kerala Government framed certain rules. Rule 3 of these Rules deprived certain classes of people from offering worship, and Rule 3(b) included within this class “women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.”  

Keeping in mind this statutory framework, we are now in a position to understand the issues involved in the Sabarimala Case. The first – and simplest – issue is whether Rule 3(b) is legally valid, given that Section 3 of the Parent Act – i.e. – the primary legislation – mandates that places of public worship must be open to all “sections and classes”. If women constitute a “section” or a “class” of Hindus, then clearly Rule 3(b), being subordinate legislation, is ultra vires the parent statute, and must fall. Consequently, the first question that the Court must answer is whether, for the purpose of temple entry, women constitute a “section” or a “class” of Hindus. To answer this question, the Court must undertake a historical examination of temple entry legislations, the kinds of exclusion that they were trying to combat, and the social movements that necessitated their enactment. While at the core of the temple entry movements was the exclusion of Dalits and other castes, it is also important to note that the root of such exclusion was ideas of ritual pollution and purity; notably, that is exactly the justification being offered for the exclusion of menstruating age women from Sabarimala. Consequently, if temple entry laws were framed for the purpose of making ideas of pollution and purity irrelevant to temple entry, then there is a strong case for including women – as a class – within their protective ambit.

Now, in the event that Section 3(b) is consistent with the parent Act, the larger question of constitutionality arises. The 1965 Act – and the Rules – are pieces of primary and subordinate legislation respectively, and are therefore subject to the provisions of the Constitution. Insofar as the Act and the Rules are invoked to justify the exclusion of women from the Sabarimala Temple, therefore, there is a clear violation of Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution.

That, however, does not settle the issue, because the further argument is that the Act and the Rules merely codify the practice of existing religious mandates. These religious mandates, however, are grounded in something beyond merely the 1965 law: they are protected by Article 25(1) of the Constitution, which protects the freedom of religion. Or, in brief: the exclusion of menstruating age women is a religious mandate protected by Article 25(1) of the Constitution.

This raises a few difficult issues. The first issue is this: once the Kerala legislature passed the 1965 Temple Entry Act, then does there remain any independent right of places of public worship to regulate entry? Or, in other words, is the 1965 Act a “complete code” on the issue of temple entry? Readers will recall that a somewhat similar issue was at stake in the recent Triple Talaq judgment. The question there was whether the 1937 Shariat Act codified Muslim personal law, or whether it only recognised it. If it was the former, then if the 1937 Act was struck down as unconstitutional, the practice of triple talaq would go along with it; if the latter, however, then triple talaq was grounded not in a statute (which could be challenged and struck down for being unconstitutional), but was a part of “uncodified personal law”.

Consequently, the Court will have to decide whether, after the 1965 Act, it can be claimed that there exists an independent right under Article 25(1) to prohibit menstruating women from entering Sabarimala. If the Court decides that it cannot, then there is no further issue: insofar as the 1965 Act bans menstruating women from entering Sabarimala, it clearly violates Articles 14 and 15(1) (it may be argued that banning only menstruating women, and not all women, does not constitute sex discrimination; however, on this blog, it has repeatedly been pointed out how such arguments are flawed, and I will not rehearse them here).

However, if the Court holds that the claim can be made, then under existing Indian jurisprudence, it must ask a further question: is the banning of menstruating women an “essential religious practice” under Article 25(1), and is it consonant with the requirements of “public order, morality, and health”, to which Article 25(1) is subject. This will require the Court to go into the doctrines of the religion, and adjudicate whether the practice in question is essential, or merely peripheral.

Lastly, Article 26(b) of the Constitution guarantees to “religious denominations” the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. Two questions arise, therefore: do the worshippers at Sabarimala constitute a “religious denomination”? And is the question of temple access a question of “religion”? On the first issue, there exists substantial jurisprudence. My own suspicion is that in view of the fact that Sabarimala is governed by the Travnacore Devaswom Board (a State institution), and a State legislation, the religious denomination argument will not succeed. There is also a clear public element involved here (to an even greater extent than in the Bombay High Court’s Haji Ali Dargah decision).

The last sub-issue – whether temple access is a pure question of “religion” or not – appears straightforward, but is actually rather complex. This is because, historically – right from Ambedkar’s temple entry movements of the 1920s – issues of temple entry have always been framed as issues of civil rights, involving access to public spaces (for an account, see Anupama Rao’s book, Caste Question). Exclusion from temples has been understood to be an embodiment of social hierarchies and deeper social exclusions, and has been opposed in these terms. In fact, temple entry movements were so politically successful, that the Constitution contains a specific exception to the freedom of religion clause (Article 25(2)(b)) that categorically authorises the State to throw open religious institutions to all classes of Hindus. Consequently, a nuanced analysis might have to acknowledge that for historical, political and social reasons, the issue of temple access is no longer restricted to the purely religious domain, but is inextricably linked with civil status and civil rights.

In my view, therefore, the Court would have to answer the following questions in the Sabarimala Case:

(1) Is Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules ultra vires the 1965 Act?

(2) If the answer to (1) is “no”, then is the Act – to the extent that it authorises the exclusion of women from temples – constitutionally valid?

(3) If the answer to (2) is “no”, and the Act is invalid, can a right to exclude be claimed under Article 25(1) of the Constitution?

(4) If the answer to (3) is “yes”, then is the exclusion of menstruating women from Sabarimala an “essential religious practice” protected by Article 25(1)?

(5) If the answer to (4) is “yes”, then is the exclusion of women nonetheless barred by reasons of “public order”, “health”, “morality”, or because of “other clauses of Part III”, which take precedence over Article 25(1)?

(6) Do Sabarimala worshippers constitute a separate religious denomination under Article 26?

(7) If the answer to (6) is yes, then is temple entry a pure question of religion?

In its referral order, the questions that the Court has framed are as follows:

“1. Whether the exclusionary practice which is based upon a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to “discrimination” and thereby violates the very core of Articles 14, 15 and 17 and not protected by ‘morality’ as used in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution?

2. Whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 and whether a religious institution can assert a claim in that regard under the umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?

3. Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed under Article 290-A of the Constitution of India out of Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu can indulge in such practices violating constitutional principles/ morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?

4. Whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years? And if so, would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of sex?

5. Whether Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and , if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution?”

While my own framing is almost exactly the reverse of how the Court has chosen to go about it, readers will note that the ground covered is virtually identical. One thing that is particularly interesting to note is that in Question 1, the Court refers not only to Articles 14 and 15, but to Article 17 as well. Article 17 bans the practice of “untouchability”. In framing the question, therefore, the Court has at least acknowledged the possibility that banning women on grounds of menstruation creates and perpetuates a stigma that is similar in character to the stigma faced by caste-untouchability (during the hearings last year, this argument was advanced by Ms Indira Jaising).

The invocation of Article 17 is crucial for another reason. In the recent Triple Talaq judgment, the dissenting opinion by Justices Khehar and Nazeer, after holding that triple talaq was an “essential practice” under Islam and therefore protected by Article 25(1), went on to hold that the phrase “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part“, which prefaced the Article 25(1) right, could not make triple talaq subject to Articles 14 and 15(1). This was because these Articles only protected the individual against the State, while Triple Talaq was an issue between two private individuals. Note, however, that Article 17 is horizontally applicable – that is, it prohibits untouchability between private parties. If, therefore, the Court is to find that excluding menstruating women from temple access amounts to “untouchability” within the meaning of Article 17, then even if that exclusion is an “essential religious practice” under Article 25(1), it will fall. This, of course, is assuming that Khehar and Nazeer JJ’s views in Triple Talaq, on this point, were correct; my own view is that they were not.

Consequently, the Court’s framing of the referral questions has set up a host of fascinating constitutional questions. And at its heart, the issue is this: should the question of temple access be left purely to the discretion of religious heads, or is it something that should be governed by constitutional norms of equality and non-discrimination? In my view, given the role played by religion in private and public life in India, given how religious status is often inextricably linked with civil and social status, and given the unique history of temple entry movements in India, constitutional norms should apply, and the exclusion of menstruating women from Sabarimala should be stuck down.

In view of the importance of the issues involved, however, it is to be hoped that the Constitution Bench is set up swiftly, and the case heard and decided finally.



Filed under Access to Religious Spaces, Article 15 (general), Equality, Essential Religious Practices, Freedom of Religion, Non-discrimination, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

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

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

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

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

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

Narasu Appa Mali

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

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

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

Personal Laws as ‘Laws in Force’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of Personal Law in India

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

  • Mountstuart Elphinstone,

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

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

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

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

‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ under the Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

“Sex” is Not a Biological Fact

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

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

The Gendered Implications of Taxation Regimes

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

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

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

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

Condoms, Aftershave Lotion, Lipstick, Underwear, and Disadvantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Not Article 21? 

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

Specific and Holistic

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Sanitary Pads and Article 15(1)

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

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

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

Let us now consider the objections.

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

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

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

Objection 2: “On grounds only of…

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

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

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

Objection 3: No Comparator

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

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

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

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

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

Objection 4: After-shave lotions?

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

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


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

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


Filed under Article 15 (general), Equality, Non-discrimination, Sex Discrimination, Uncategorized