[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]
On this blog, we have discussed in some detail the judicial approach to gender discrimination under the Constitution. Two recent judgments of the Supreme Court – delivered by a bench of Chandrachud and Rastogi JJ – have made an important contribution to contemporary jurisprudence on the subject. Both concerned the intersection of service law and gender equality – and, in particular, gender equality in the armed forces, a particularly fraught and thorny topic.
Secretary, Ministry of Defence v Babita Puniya concerned the grant of Permanent Commissions in the Army. Section 12 of the Army Act prohibits the recruitment of “females” into the army except where – and to the extent that – the Central Government might allow. In 1992, the Union Government issued notifications allowing women to join certain branches/cadres of the army (all were non-combat roles). These notifications – which were intended to operate for a stipulated period of five years – were later extended in 1996, 2005, and 2006, along with promotional opportunities. Then, in 2008, the Ministry of Defence issued a Circular authorising the grant of Permanent Commissions [PCs] to women, but only prospectively, and only in certain cadres.
Adjudicating writ petitions challenging this, the High Court of Delhi held in 2010 that women who had entered the army on Short Service Commissions [“SSCs”], were entitled to PCs on par with their male colleagues. The Union of India appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. During the pendency of the hearing, it also proposed a separate policy for grant of PCs to women, which nonetheless was limited to staff positions, imposed different standards, as well as only applying prospectively.
Before the Supreme Court, the Union argued that this was a matter of policy – based on a consideration of “the inherent dangers involved in serving in the Army, adverse conditions of service which include an absence of privacy in field and insurgency areas, maternity issues and child care” (paragraph 28), and that in any event, Article 33 of the Constitution allowed for the fundamental rights chapter to be restricted when it came to the Armed Forces. It also argued that “the Army has to cater for spouse postings, “long absence on account of maternity leave, child care leave” as a result of which “the legitimate dues of male officers have to be compromised”.” (paragraph 31). In a Written Note, the Union of India added to these submissions by referring – once again – to “pregnancy, motherhood, and domestic obligations”, differences in physical capabilities, the “peculiar dynamics” of all-male units, and issues of hygiene.
These submissions were rejected by the Court. Chandrachud j. began his analysis by noting that while Article 33 did allow for restrictions upon fundamental rights in the Armed Forces, it also made it clear that these rights could be restricted only to the extent that it was necessary to ensure the proper discharge of duties and the maintenance of discipline. On the other hand, from 1991, there had been an “evolutionary process” towards inducting women into the armed forces (paragraph 50) – to the extent that in the 2019 Policy Document submitted before the Court, even PCs (in certain fields) had been opened up to women. In fact, this created an internal contradictions within the submissions of the union of India, as:
The decision of the Union Government to extend the grant of PC to other corps in the support arms and services recognizes that the physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution. (paragraph 52)
Going further, however, the Chandrachud J. noted that:
The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women. Underlying the statement that it is a “greater challenge” for women officers to meet the hazards of service “owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families” is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women. Reliance on the “inherent physiological differences between men and women” rests in a deeply entrenched stereotypical and constitutionally flawed notion that women are the “weaker‟ sex and may not undertake tasks that are „too arduous‟ for them. Arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women and on assumptions about women in the social context of marriage and family do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To deny the grant of PCs to women officers on the ground that this would upset the “peculiar dynamics” in a unit casts an undue burden on women officers which has been claimed as a ground for excluding women. The written note also relies on the “minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene” as a ground for suggesting that women officers in the services must not be deployed in conflict zones. The respondents have placed on record that 30% of the total women officers are in fact deputed to conflict areas. (paragraph 54)
On a similar basis, the Court also rejected the blanket prohibition upon the grant of PCs to women in command appointments (and restricted only to staff appointments), noting that the Army bore the burden of justifying such exclusion, and that in any event, it could only be done on a case to case basis (paragraph 67). In sum, therefore, it accepted the 2019 Policy, but (a) made it applicable across the board, and (b) removed its limited scope to staff appointments.
The case of Union of India vs Lt. Cdr. Annie Nagaraja – involving Permanent Commissions in the Navy – was somewhat more complex. According to Section 9 of the Navy Act, women are not eligible for enrolment in the Indian Navy, except where – and on such terms and conditions – that the Central Government might specify (Chandrachud J.’s judgment refers to an interesting piece of history – at the time of the drafting of the Navy Act in 1957, there was a strong dissenting note in the Parliamentary Joint Committee objecting to this exclusion of women).
Now – simplifying the position somewhat – under the Navy Regulations, one of the qualifications for being inducted into the navy on a Short Service Commission [“SSC”] is that the applicant must be an “unmarried male.” SSC officers may subsequently be granted Permanent Commissions [“PCs”] on the basis of vacancies and suitability. In 1991, the Union Government issued a notification opening up certain branches of the Navy to women. Women, therefore, were entitled to take up SSCs, and it was noted that the policy for the grant of PCs would be formulated subsequently. Subsequently, in 1998, by another Notification under Section 9 of the Navy Act, more branches of the Navy were opened up to women. Soon after that in, in 1999, in a communication from the Ministry of Defence, it was clarified that women could serve on board ships, and that the policy governing PCs would be that which was already stipulated in the Regulations (see above).
Then, in 2008, the MoD issued another communication, stating that PCs to women SSC officers would be considered prospectively, and limited only to certain branches. In other words, women who had joined the Navy as SSCs following the opening up of recruitment after 1991, would not be considered for PCs. It was this that triggered the initial challenge before the Delhi High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal, before finally winding its way to the Supreme Court.
Chandrachud J. began his analysis by noting that both the 1991 and 1998 Notifications lifted the bar for enrolment of women into the Navy, in certain branches (without expressly limiting them to SSCs) (paragraph 60). Consequently, when in 1999 the Government stipulated that the normal Regulations would apply for grant of PCs (which made them conditional on vacancies, suitability, and a recommendation from the Chief of Naval Staff), it was obvious that this would “cover both men and women serving on SSCs (paragraphs 64 – 65, 67). Consequently, the 2008 communication – which did not refer to these previous notifications and communications – could not change that fact.
As with Babita Puniya’s Case, however, the judgment’s bite lay in the analysis that came after the hard work of service law was done. In a section called “The Stereotypical Sailor”, the Court noted that the government had attempted to justify its stand by arguing that sea-duties were ill-suited for women as “there is no return to base”, and that Russian naval vessels had no separate bathrooms for women (paragraph 72). These arguments were roundly rejected, with Chandrachud J. noting that “the contention that certain sea-going duties are ill-suited to women officers is premised on sex stereotypes that male officers are more suited to certain duties by virtue of the physiological characteristics.” (paragraph 74), and that:
arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To accept the contention urged by the ASG would be to approve the socially ascribed gender roles which a commitment to equal worth and dignity of every individual belies. (paragraph 74)
The Court concluded by moulding the relief in accordance with the different positions occupied by different sets of claimants, on the basis of the legal position that eligibility for PCs flowed from the 1991 and 1998 Notifications, and that the 2008 Communication making PCs prospctive from that date, was not valid (to that extent).
Both judgments raise a few interesting issues. The first is that they add to the growing body of jurisprudence that brings the anti-stereotyping lens to issues of gender discrimination. In both cases, differential treatment of men and women in the armed forces was sought to be justified by invoking stereotypes about physical and psychological capabilities – broad generalisations that reflected deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions about gender roles in society. As we have argued before on this blog, Articles 14 and 15 rule out discrimination based on such stereotypes and generalisations. While the Court’s historical record on this front – especially in the domain of service law – has been patchy, at least since 2007, there has been a more consistent application of the anti-stereotyping principle. These judgments, with their clear invocation of the principle, will make it even more difficult in the future for stereotype-based arguments to be justified in Court.
Secondly, these judgments reiterate that in a constitutional democracy, the Armed Forces are not – and cannot be – a rights-free zone. While Article 33 admittedly authorises the restriction of fundamental rights to the Armed Forces, any such restriction must be “necessary” for allowing the Armed Forces to fulfil their goals, and the burden of sowing necessity lies upon those who want to exclude the operation of fundamental rights. In both judgments, the Court was careful in how it navigated this thorny area: it reiterated the need for Article 33 to exist, while also ensuring that it could not be used as a sword to cut down the rest of Part III.
Thirdly, these judgments demonstrate an oft-neglected truth: that the Court ought not to bear the sole burden of articulating and enforcing fundamental rights. What is notable about both these cases is – as the Court itself noted in Babita Puniya – that the induction of women into the armed forces had been an evolutionary process that had begun in 1992. The State’s sweeping arguments about the unsuitability of women to be granted PCs, therefore, were undercut by its own evolving policy decisions. This made the task of the Court substantially easier: instead of forcing gender equality down the throat of a recalcitrant institution, it could simply point to how the institution’s own logic was at variance with the exclusionary arguments that it now put forward. Thus, instead of ending up in an adverserial situation – where the Armed Forces justified discrimination and the Court opposed it – what happened here was that the Court engaged in an immanent critique, essentially requiring the Armed Forces to follow their own policies to a logical conclusion.
Fourthly – and relatedly – this also shows, perhaps, the limitations of the possibility of reform through adjudication. Notably, the relevant provisions of both the Army and the Navy Act, which bar the recruitment of women into the Forces except where the government allows it – were not under challenge, and the Court was at pains to point out that fact, apart from also noting that the suitability of women for combat roles was not an issue about it. What would happen, however, if those Sections were to be challenged? Logically speaking, the anti-stereotyping approach – and, more particularly, the Court’s explicit rejection of blanket prohibition of PCs to women in command areas – clearly rules out the blanket restriction on recruitment in the Armed Forces (except where the government permits). Would that be a step to far for the Court to take, especially if the State and the Armed Forces were to take the defence of national security considerations? That would be interesting to see, but at the same time, the Army’s own opening up over the years – combined with the Court’s incremental approach in these cases – probably obviates the immediate imperative for more radical challenges.