(This is a guest post by Gauri Pillai).
The theory of intersectionality, within feminist jurisprudence, views individual identity as arising from an interaction of several grounds, such as caste, sex, disability, age, religion, race, sexual orientation etc. Originating in the context of understanding the identities of Black women as being shaped by both gender and race, the theory recognises that women are not a monolith, facing a single form of oppression; instead their multiple social identities interact, resulting in unique forms of marginalisation. Intersectional discrimination therefore signifies discrimination suffered on the basis of more than one personal characteristic. Such discrimination is not merely a sum or overlap of discriminatory treatment experienced due to individual grounds, but is instead characterised by a “uniqueness and sharedness” arising from the intersection of the various grounds. For instance, a Dalit woman with disabilities shares experiences of discrimination with persons with disabilities, Dalit individuals and other women. However, she also faces a distinctive form of discrimination due to the interaction of her multiple identities, which is more than a mere combination of discrimination on account of disability, caste and sex/ gender.
Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India reads, “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. In interpretation of this provision, courts have placed emphasis on the word “only” to imply that only discrimination on a single ground is suspect under Article 15, thus excluding intersectional discrimination from its scope. For instance, the Calcutta High Court in Mahadeb v Dr BB Sen held, “The impugned law must be shown to discriminate because of sex alone. If other factors in addition to sex come into play in making the discriminatory law, then such discrimination does not, in my judgment, come within the provision of Article 15(1) of the Constitution”. In Dattatraya Motiram v State of Bombay, the Bombay High Court accepted a form of discriminatory treatment as constitutionally valid, arguing, “If there is a discrimination in favour of a particular sex, that discrimination would be permissible provided it is not only on the ground of sex, or, in other words, the classification on the ground of sex is permissible provided that classification is the result of other considerations”. This trend was confirmed in Air India v Nergesh Meerza, where the Supreme Court stated, “[W]hat Articles 15(1) and 16(2) prohibit is that discrimination should not be made only and only on the ground of sex. These Articles of the Constitution do not prohibit the State from making discrimination on the ground of sex coupled with other considerations.”
However, previously on this blog, Shreya Atrey has argued that this misinterprets the meaning of the word “only”. Relying on the placement of this word within the text of Article 15(1), which says “on grounds only of” rather than “only on grounds of”, Atrey points out that the word “only” refers to the inappropriateness of certain personal characteristics or grounds being relied on as the basis of discrimination, and does not indicate the requirement of single-ground claims. Further, interpreting “only” to permit solely claims invoking a single ground of discrimination is a partial reading of Article 15(1), omitting to taking into account the phrase “or any of them” which would allow claims to be made under several grounds.
Justice Chandrachud’s concurring opinion in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India dismisses the reliance placed on “only” by cases like Nergesh Meerza as a “formalistic interpretation of Article 15” which would render the “constitutional guarantee against discrimination meaningless” [Chandrachud J., ¶ 36]. Though Chandrachud J. does not offer a reinterpretation of the text, as suggested by Atrey, the Court does state that discrimination based on “sex and another ground (‘sex plus’)” would fall within the ambit of Article 15 [Chandrachud J., ¶ 36].
This seems to indicate clear judicial approval for the theory of intersectionality. However, Chandrachud J. bases his observations on the need for recognising intersectional discrimination under Article 15(1) on a critique of Nergesh Meerza, holding that the approach adopted by the court in the case was incorrect since it failed to adopt an “intersectional understanding of how discrimination operates” [Chandrachud J., ¶ 41]. A close reading of Nergesh Meerza, on the other hand, shows that the case concerned discrimination solely on ground of sex. Nergesh Meerza involved a challenge to certain provisions of the Air India Employee Service Regulations, which created significant disparity between male and female crew with respect to service conditions. The Supreme Court, relying on these very differences in service conditions between men and women, dismissed the claim under Article 15(1), stating the discrimination was on ground of “sex coupled with other considerations”. The Court however failed to question the basis on which these “other considerations” were differentially allotted. As Bhatia argues, especially after finding that the nature of work performed by male and female members was similar, the Court should have held that the initial classification, relying on which these “other considerations” were decided, was based on sex. As pointed out by the female crewmembers in Nergesh Meerza, “the real discrimination was on the basis of sex which was sought to be smoke screened by giving a halo of circumstances other than sex”.
Thus, the dictum of the Supreme Court in Nergesh Meerza was certainly incorrect. However this was not due to a failure to account for intersectional identities of women. Rather, it was because the Court did not recognise that the constitution of the separate cadres and fixing of differential service conditions were themselves based on sex, such that the “other considerations” which the Court declared, when coupled with sex, excluded the claim from the scope of Article 15, were products of sex discrimination. Nergesh Meerza is thus not an example for a “sex plus” claim of discrimination; instead it is a case of sex discrimination where the Court omitted to consider that the “other considerations” were also incidents on discrimination on ground of sex.
The Supreme Court, in Navtej Johar, reversed this trend by stating that if the “other considerations” being relied on are stereotypical understandings of the notions of sex, or factors which have a disparate impact on the members of one sex, these cases would not be distinguishable from discrimination solely on ground of sex. For instance, citing Anuj Garg v. Union of India, the Court pointed out that stereotypes regarding socially ascribed gender roles cannot be used as plus factors to argue that discrimination was not only on ground of sex [Chandrachud J., ¶ 41]. Similarly, a rule that only people six feet or more in height would be employed in the army cannot be excluded from the ambit of Article 15(1) as being based on sex and height, since height is often an incident of sex, and classification on the basis of height would have a “disproportionate impact” on women [Chandrachud J., ¶ 36]. In this manner, the Chandrachud J. in Navtej Johar deviated from the dictum in Nergesh Meerza, where the Court adopted a formalistic interpretation of sex discrimination as a facial classification between men and women, relegating the other manifestations of sex discrimination to “other considerations”.
To this extent, the approach of the Court in Navtej Johar (through the opinion of Chandrachud J.) represents a welcome shift in the interpretation of “only” under Article 15(1). Atrey argues that the technical interpretation of “only” relied on so far by courts excludes both a contextual and an intersectional analysis of discrimination. By going beyond cases of facial classification between men and women to include other manifestations of sex discrimination- such as the use of stereotypes- the Court in Navtej Johar places sex discrimination within the existing socio-political context by including within the ambit of Article 15(1) the gendered aspects of sex discrimination. In this way, the Court brings in a contextual lens to the analysis of discrimination under Article 15. However, the examples relied on by the Court, as identified above, are incidents of discrimination on ground of sex, rather than intersection of sex with other grounds such as race, disability, age etc. This implies that the Court in Navtej Johar did not go the entire way in recognising intersectional discrimination, despite references to the intersectional nature of sex discrimination [Chandrachud J., ¶ ¶ 36, 41].
Adopting a more holistic view of sex discrimination, as the Chandrachud J. has done in Navtej Johar, is different from acknowledging the unique forms of oppression created by the intersection of multiple identities, of which sex is only one. For instance, in Shayara Bano v Union of India, the claim of discrimination was brought by Muslim women. Though the decision of the Supreme Court in the case has been critiqued (here and here) for failing to account for intersectional discrimination, the case illustrates how multiple grounds- sex and religion- interact to create a distinctive form of disadvantage. Shayaro Bano is thus an example of a claim of intersectional discrimination; Nergesh Meerza is not. The Supreme Court in Navtej Johar appears to have conclusively established a contextual approach towards analysing claims of discrimination under Article 15(1) by rejecting the interpretation of “only” presented in cases like Nergesh Meerza. However, whether an intersectional lens, which would not just allow but also recognise the distinctiveness of a claim invoking multiple grounds under Article 15(1), has been adopted remains to be seen.
In sum, Justice Chandrachud’s judgment in Navtej Johar recognises the concept of contextual discrimination and acknowledges the concept of intersectional discrimination; however, his actual reasoning is limited to the former. For a judgment that incorporates the concept of intersectional discrimination within the framework of Article 15(1), we may have to wait a little longer.
(The writer has recently completed her BCL degree from the University of Oxford.)