Tag Archives: 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

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

Jural values running riot: The strange case of Ambika Prasad Mishra vs State of UP

Previously on this blog, we have extensively discussed sex equality under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. Today, while reading Flavia Agnes’ book, Law and Gender Inequality, my curiosity was piqued by reference to the case of Ambika Prasad Mishra vs State of UP. This is a 1980 judgment of a Constitution Bench upholding the constitutional validity of the Uttar Pradesh Imposition of Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, 1960. The Act was part of the series of land reform legislations that had been undertaken in the years after Independence and which, of course, had been the site of many memorable battles between Parliament and the Courts, culminating in the basic structure doctrine of Kesavananda Bharati. The UP Act, which – like many others – imposed a ceiling upon permissible land holdings  with a view to breaking up ownership over large tracks of land (with a further view to redistribution) – was challenged on multiple grounds, all of which the Court rejected. Here, I want to focus on one: the challenge under Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution, on the basis of sex discrimination.

There were two provisions of the Act that were challenged as being discriminatory. The first was Section 5(3), which stipulated that:

“Sec. 5(3): Subject to the provisions of sub-sections (4), (5), (6) and (7) the ceiling area for purposes of sub- section (1) shall be

(a) In the case of a tenure-holder having a family of not more than five members, 7.30 hectares of irrigated land (including land held by other members of his family) plus two additional hectares of irrigated land or such additional land which together with the land held by him aggregates to two hectares, for each of his adult sons, who are either not them selves tenure holders or who hold less than two hectares of irrigated land, subject to a maximum of six hectares of such additional land;”

The second was Section 3(17), part of the definitional clause, which stipulated that:

“… ‘tenure holder’ means a person who is the holder of a holding but [except in Chapter III] does not include —

(a) a woman whose husband is a tenure-holder.”

With respect to the first provision, the discrimination lay in that a son’s land holding, upto two acres, was counted as part of the overall ceiling limit, whereas a daughter’s was not. Thus, the Act facially discriminated between men and women. It was also discriminatory in effect, since – as the lawyer for the Petitioner pointed out – it severely disincentivised unmarried women from holding land.

How did the Court manage to uphold a law as blatantly discriminatory as this? The judgment of the Court was written by Justice Krishna Iyer (possibly one of the most lionised judges in the history of the Court), and for the most part, is extremely difficult to follow. On the subject of sex discrimination, the learned Judge had this to say:

“We wonder whether the Commission on the Status of Women or the Central Governments or the State Governments have considered this aspect of sex discrimination in most land reforms laws, but undoubtedly the State should be fair especially to the weaker sex. Adult damsels should not be left in distress by progressive legislations geared to land reforms. This criticism may have bearing on the ethos of the community and the attitude of the legislators, but we are concerned with the constitutionality of the provision. Maybe, in this age of nuclear families and sex equal human rights it is illiberal and contrary to the zeit geist to hark back to history’s dark pages nostalgically and disguise it as the Indian way of life with a view to deprive women of their undeniable half. Arts. 14 and 15 and the humane spirit of the Preamble rebel against the de facto denial of proprietary personhood of woman-hood. But this legal sentiment and jural value must not run riot and destroy provisions which do not discriminate between man and woman qua man and woman but merely organise a scheme where life’s realism is legislatively pragmatised. Such a scheme may marginally affect gender justice but does not abridge, even a wee-bit, the rights of women.”

I must confess, the meaning of this passage escapes me entirely, despite multiple readings. How do “legal sentiments” and “jural value” (?) “run riot”? How does the fact that a law “organises a scheme where life’s realism is legislatively pragmatised” affect its constitutional validity? How can the same sentence acknowledge that a law may (marginally) “affect gender justice“, but at the same time not “abridge, even a wee-bit, the rights of women” (isn’t “marginal” and “wee-bit” pretty much the same thing? And even if it does, do constitutional violations admit of degrees? Is a marginal constitutional violation acceptable, but a gross one not?)

Some insight into the learned Judge’s thinking may be gleaned from what comes after:

“If land-holding and ceiling thereon are organised with the paramount purpose of maximising surpluses without maiming woman’s ownership no submission to destroy this measure can be permitted using sex discrimination as a means to sabotage what is socially desirable. No woman s property is taken away any more than a man’s property.”

The problem with this reasoning is that Article 15 does not state that “The State shall not discriminate on grounds of sex with regard to ownership of property”. It only states that “The State shall not discriminate on grounds of sex”, period. In certain constitutions, such as the ECHR, an equality claim must be brought alongside a claim of a substantive rights violation. The Indian Constitution is not of that mould – it prohibits unequal or discriminatory treatment simpliciter. The fact, therefore, that the UP Act did not take away the property of women was not sufficient to save it from unconstitutionality. It treated women unequally, and that should have been enough.

While the above point is at least arguable, Section 3(17), which excluded women from the definition of “tenure holder” altogether (and, as Flavia Agnes correctly points out, embodied the worst of the medieval European fictions where the legal personality of women was subsumed within their husbands) seemed even more blatantly unconstitutional. And in examining it, the learned Judge grew even more opaque:

“The husband being treated as tenure-holder even when the wife is the owner is a legislative device for simplifying procedural dealings. When all is said and done, married woman in our villages do need their husband’s services and speak through them in public places, except, hopefully in the secret ballot expressing their independent political choice. Some of us may not be happy with the masculine flavour of this law but it is difficult to hold that rights of women are unequally treated, and so, the war for equal gender status has to be waged elsewhere. Ideologically speaking, the legal system, true to the spirit of the Preamble and Art. 14, must entitle the Indian women to be equal in dignity, property and personality, with man. It is wrong if the land reforms law denudes woman of her property. If such be the provision, it may be unconstitutional because we cannot expect that “home is the girl’s prison and the woman’s work-house” But it is not. It must be said in fairness, that- the legislature must act on hard realities, not on glittering ideals which fail to work. Nor can large landholders be allowed to outwit socially imperative land distribution by putting female discrimination as a mask.”

There seem to be four possible reasons here for upholding the law. First, that it is “for simplifying procedural dealings”. Secondly, that “married women… need their husband’s services.” Thirdly, that “the war for equal gender status has to be waged elsewhere”. And fourthly, that “the legislature must act on hard realities.” It needs hardly to be stated that none of these are constitutional reasons. It also seems clear that the use of multi-syllabled words to avoid the necessity of providing cogent legal reasoning is not a recent development in Indian Constitutional law.

Reading this judgment reminded me of two other cases. One is State of UP vs Lalai Singh Yadav, where the same Justice Krishna Iyer insisted on a “pragmatic approach” to free speech, and warned that whoever by “books or bombs” sought to disturb public tranquility would be met by the interdict of the State. The second is State of Bihar vs Madhu Kishwar, where the Court once again deployed “pragmatic” reasoning to refuse to strike down a law despite returning a finding of gender inequality. Over the years, we have come to think of the Supreme Court as an “activist Court”. Perhaps it is time for a more honest re-assessment: “activist on most things, pragmatic on civil rights,”



Filed under Equality, Non-discrimination, Sex Discrimination

T. Sareetha vs T. Venkata Subbaiah: Remembering a Revolutionary Decision

On July 1, 1983, Justice P.A. Choudary of the Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, which allowed the Court to pass an order for ‘restitution of conjugal rights.’ In simple language, if the Court was convinced that either a husband or a wife had ‘without reasonable cause, withdrawn from the society‘ of their spouse, then it could decree that the defaulting spouse was required to go back to the company of their partner – a decree that could be enforced by attaching the defaulter’s property. Justice Choudary held that Section 9 violated the rights to equality and privacy under the Constitution, and was accordingly void. Within five months, the Delhi High Court handed down a judgment disagreeing with this conclusion. And a little over a year later, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Delhi High Court, bringing the legal controversy to a close.

Sareetha remains as a footnote in family law courses, a passing reference in discussions about the restitution of conjugal rights. This is a pity. Sareetha was one of those rare cases in Indian constitutional history where a Court understood the Constitution as a radically transformative document, and struck out in a direction that was unfamiliar, bold, and creative – while remaining constitutionally tethered. Its interpretations of equality and privacy anticipated similar developments in other jurisdictions by years, or decades; and in some respects, it is still ahead of the time. Quite apart from the actual decision, it is its reasoning that constitutional lawyers should not forget; because even though the Supreme Court overruled the judgment, and perhaps closed off the window to a certain kind of legal change, Sareetha’s reasoning remains a template for other cases that might attempt to shape equality and privacy in an emancipatory and progressive direction.

Polis and Oikos: The Privacy of the Ancients

To understand the radicalism of Sareetha, we need to begin at the beginning. The distinction between the public and the private sphere, which is one of the most controversial issues today, and which was at the heart of Sareetha, had its origins in classical Athens.  As Don Slater writes, “The public sphere – the polis or res publica – was the realm of free association between citizens. Men [and only men] were deemed free in the polis not because it was unregulated, but because it was kept rigidly separated from the private sphere of the household and the domestic economy (oikos): the domestic sphere was regarded as the realm of mere physical reproduction, and therefore of the compulsion and slavery of needs.” In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt records that the public sphere (which Humphrey’s defines by its ‘impersonality’) was the arena of “equals” – men, who came together to debate and discuss issues affecting their City-State were neither “to rule, nor to be ruled.” In fact, the very idea of ‘rule’ was at odds with the idea of the polis. In the oikos, on the other hand, the male head of the household had absolute dominion over his slaves, the women, and the minor children. It was these who would ensure the satisfaction of his bodily needs, thus liberating him from ‘necessity’, and freeing him to participate in the public sphere with other, equally situated men.

The public/private divide, therefore, mapped on to the dichotomy between freedom and necessity, equality and inequality. The claims of equality were restricted to the public sphere (polis), and simply weren’t applicable to the household (oikos), which was defined by its inequality.

Public and Private: The Privacy of the Moderns

The public/private divide largely disappeared during feudal times (the manorial households, in a sense, came to embody characteristics of both spheres), and then made a reappearance after the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era. The modern era – Arendt argues – saw economic activities and market transactions taken out of the domain of the private sphere, which was now defined as the site of intimacy, or intimate relationships. At this time, as Seyla Benhabib records, the American and French Revolutions had brought into public consciousness the ideas of basic rights, and the idea of autonomy. Quoting the philosopher Lawrence Stone, she observes that:

“… from the beginning there were tensions between the continuing patriarchal authority of the father in the bourgeois family and developing conceptions of equality and consent in the political world. As the male bourgeois citizen was battling for his rights to autonomy in the religious and economic spheres against the absolutist state, his relations in the household were defined by nonconsensual, nonegalitarian assumptions. Questions of justice were from the beginning restricted to the ‘public sphere’, whereas the private sphere was considered outside the realm of justice.”

Unlike the Ancients, who accepted that the private sphere was essentially inegalitarian, the moderns held that it was simply not subject to the claims of equality. Benhabib further points out that “power relations in the ‘intimate sphere’ have been treated as though they did not even exist.” It is this idea of privacy that culminated in judicial holdings in the 20th century that viewed privacy as a question of a space of seclusion, a space that the State could not enter. After Warren and Brandeis wrote their famous article at the end of the 19th century, viewing the right to privacy as a right to seclusion, or a right to be let alone, the American Supreme Court held that the right extended to “areas” where there was a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

It was this spatial concept of privacy that was strongly criticised by feminist legal scholars over the second half of the 20th  century. In light of the fact that the “private sphere” is itself a hierarchically structured space, Martha Nussbaum points out that “recognizing a sphere of seclusion into which the state shall not enter means that males may exercise unconstrained power.” A classic example of this is the marital rape exception which deems that forcible sexual intercourse within the marital relationship does not amount to rape.

Community and Individual: Privacy in Colonial India

In colonial India of the late nineteenth century, where – in the words of historian Tanika Sarkar, there first began to emerge a “pre-history of rights“, privacy took on yet another form: here, it became the right of communities to determine certain issues – including the treatment of women – free from the interference of the colonial State. Tanika Sarkar, Lata Mani, Partha Chatterjee, and other scholars recount the debates around the abolition of Sati, the raising of the Age of Consent, and indeed, on restitution of conjugal rights. Chatterjee notes, for instance, that “the so-called women’s question in the agenda of Indian social reform in the early 19th century was not so much about the specific condition of women as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and the supposed “tradition” of a conquered people.” In other words, community “traditions”, which centrally involved the rights, positions, and social roles of women, were deemed to be off limits, since they came to represent, or embody, the “inner life” of the community. So the idea of privacy (although it was not framed in so many words) became connected with group rights; or, it was groups that – as bearers of value in themselves – that became the holders of something like a right to privacy.

The Ambiguity of Gobind v State of MP

Therefore, when the Indian Supreme Court began to take up issues relating to the right to privacy, it was adjudicating in the context of a number of different – although somewhat complementary – traditions. The case that first held that there existed a constitutional right to privacy in India reflected this problem. In Gobind v State of MP,  the Supreme Court held, in sphinx-like tones, that:

“Any right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing.”

As I have noted before, part of the reason why this definition sounds confusing is that it was lifted by the Supreme Court from an American decision delivered in an entirely different context – that of adult theatres. In any event, a quick reading of this sentence reveals at least four possible underlying themes:

(a) A spatial idea of privacy, flowing from the use of the word “home”, and the fact that all the terms that follow it refer to activities normally undertaken within the home

(b) An institutional, or relational idea of privacy: the home (in the sense of a household), the family, marriage, and motherhood are all social institutions. The right to privacy, then, protects the sanctity of these institutions by insulating them against State interference.

(c) A functional idea of privacy: motherhood, procreation, and child-rearing, in particular, seem to suggest domestic activities (and the absence of ‘fatherhood’, in turn, suggests the gendered nature of the division).

(d) An individualistic idea of privacy that focuses upon bodily integrity and decisional autonomy: a few years before Gobind, the American Supreme Court in Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade  had upheld the right to contraceptives and the right to abortion, on grounds of privacy; privacy, here, refers to the right of the individual to make her own choices about decisions that directly affect her bodily integrity.

As we can see, while the first three interpretations reflect the various conceptions of privacy discussed above, the fourth marks something of a break. In Sareetha, the Justice Choudary would take this fourth idea, and use it to develop a transformative vision of privacy.

Sareetha; Reasoning and Outcome

A. Privacy as Individual Dignity

Justice Choudary held that “a decree of restitution of conjugal rights thus enforced offends the inviolability of the body and the mind subjected to the decree and offends the integrity of such a person and invades the marital privacy and domestic intimacies of such a person.” According to him, at the heart of the issue was the fact that the law, essentially, was a law compelling sexual intercourse. “The consequences of the enforcement of such a decree”, he observed, “are firstly to transfer the choice to have or not to have marital intercourse to the State from the concerned individual and secondly, to surrender the choice of the individual to allow or not to allow one’s body to be used as a vehicle for another human being’s creation to the State.” 

Notice, however, that the law itself does not require sexual intercourse. It only authorises a decree for cohabitation, which can be enforced through attachment of property. This is why Justice Choudary spoke of the consequences of enforcing a decree – and it is here that we see the first major break with traditional conceptions of privacy. Because Justice Choudary was not content simply to end his enquiry at the point of cohabitation – but to go further, to find that given the deeply unequal structure of the family, and given the myriad pressures – not simply physical, but of every other kind – that could be brought to bear upon a woman who is shorn from the protection of her own family, a decree for cohabitation would, in all likelihood, lead to compelled intercourse. Taking the example of a Madhya Pradesh High Court decision where a woman called Tarabai was required by decree to go back to her husband, Justice Choudary observed that “what could have happened to Tarabai thereafter may well be left to the reader’s imagination.” This, for him, was completely unacceptable, because:

Sexual expression is so integral to one’s personality that it is impossible to conceive of sexuality on any basis except on the basis of consensual participation of the opposite sexes. No relationship between man and woman is more rested on mutual consent and freewill and is more intimately and personally forged than sexual relationship.”

And for a women, who would be the one to conceive, “in a matter which is so intimately concerns her body and which is so vital for her life, a decree of restitution of conjugal rights totally excludes her.” Here, for the first time, we see a vision of privacy that focusses upon a combination of bodily integrity and decisional autonomy. Soon afterwards, Justice Choudary cited Gobind, and then focused on one particular line in Gobind:

“There can be no doubt that privacy-dignity claims deserve to be examined with care and to be denied only when an important countervailing interest is shown to be superior.”

Latching upon the concept of privacy-dignity (and dignity, it will be noticed, speaks to the individual), Justice Choudary then noted “any plausible definition of right to privacy is bound to take human body as its first and most basic reference for control over personal identity… [the] right to privacy belongs to a person as an individual and, is not lost by marital association.”

This is a crucial observation, since it completely rejects the view that the site of privacy claims are social institutions, such as the marriage or the family, and accepts, instead, the opposite claim that the right-bearer is the individual. Privacy, therefore, is to be understood not as an exalted space within which the State cannot enter (no matter what happens within that space), but as a right accorded to each individual, which guarantees her autonomy in all fundamental decisions concerning her body.

B. Justice Brandeis and the Balance of Power

Interestingly, during the course of his argument, Justice Choudary also referred to Justice Brandeis’ dissenting opinion in the case of Olmstead vs New York.  Olmstead was a 1928 American Supreme Court decision concerning the admissibility of evidence obtained through a wiretap. The majority held that the wiretap did not offend the Fourth Amendment, which was limited to  prohibiting illegal searches of “persons, houses, papers, and effects”. Justice Brandeis, however, refused to read the Fourth Amendment in such a literal way. He observed:

“When the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were adopted, “the form that evil had theretofore taken” had been necessarily simple. Force and violence were then the only means known to man by which a Government could directly effect self-incrimination. It could compel the individual to testify — a compulsion effected, if need be, by torture. It could secure possession of his papers and other articles incident to his private life — a seizure effected, if need be, by breaking and entry. Protection against such invasion of “the sanctities of a man’s home and the privacies of life” was provided in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments by specific language. But “time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes.” Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.”

Justice Brandeis’ basic point was that as invasive State technologies increase in scope and reach, the law must correspondingly evolve to continue effectively protecting the individual. Underlying this is the idea that there must, at all times, remain a balance of power between State and individual. The more power the State acquires, the further must the law reach to constrain its use, lest we arrive at a totalitarian society in which State power has completely overwhelmed the individual.

The innovation in Sareetha is that it takes Brandeis’ idea of a parity of power between individual and State, and extends that to apply horizontally, in the private realm. The link between cohabitation and compelled intercourse is based upon a difference in power: and Sareetha’s striking down of S. 9 is a Brandeisian attempt to restore the balance. In a truly radical fashion, therefore, Justice Choudary’s attempt was to bring about – in the smallest of ways possible – a democratisation of the private sphere.

C. Article 14 and Indirect Discrimination

Justice Choudary’s last argument was with respect to Article 14. Section 9, of course, was facially neutral: the remedy, in theory, was open to both husbands and wives. But, Justice Choudary held, ” “Bare equality of treatment regardless of the inequality of realities   is neither justice   nor homage to the constitutional principle”… the question is how this remedy works in life terms In our  social reality, this matrimonial remedy   is found used almost exclusively by the husband  and is rarely resorted to by the   wife. A passage in Gupte’s Hindu law in British India’ page 929 (second edition) attests to this   fact…  the reason for this mainly lies in the fact of the differences between the man and the woman. By enforcing a decree for restitution of conjugal rights the life pattern of the wife is likely to be altered irretrievable whereas the husband’s can remain almost as it was before this is so because it is the wife who has to beget and bear a child. This practical but the inevitable consequence of the enforcement of this remedy cripples the wife’s  future  plans of life and prevents her from using that self-destructive remedy… The pledge of equal protection of laws is thus inherently incapable of being fulfilled by this   matrimonial remedy in our Hindu society. As a result this remedy words in practice only as an engine of oppression to be operated by the husband for the benefit of the husband against the wife.”

On this blog, we have often discussed the question of whether, to prove discrimination, once must show that the law was intended, or had a motivation to, discriminate; or is it adequate to show that the law, although neutral in its terms, has a disproportionate impact upon a certain group of people. The former views discrimination as a result of a discrete, intentional act; the latter, as the result of long-standing structures and institutions. The former understands social realities as independent of law, providing a neutral background within which law operates; the latter insists that these social realities are always constructed by, and complementary to, the legal system – and that therefore, laws which reproduce or endorse such social realities are equally suspect (or, in the words, of Justice Albie Sachs, the purpose of a Constitution is to transform “misfortune to be endured into injustice to be remedied“). In his analysis of the differential effects of Section 9 based upon a social reality that placed the cost of child-bearing and rearing disproportionately upon women, Justice Choudary firmly endorsed the latter, more nuanced understanding, of equality.

The Radicalism of Sareetha

We are now in a position to understand the full extent to which Sareetha was a transformative and radical judgment. In specifically applying Article 14 to the private sphere, Justice Choudary repudiated the privacy of the Ancients, according to which equality was a value only in the public sphere. In specifically invoking the power hierarchies and inequalities in the private sphere to justify his decision, he repudiated the spatial conception of the privacy of the moderns, that turns a blind eye to the realities of domination and subordination within the home. In invoking Justice Brandeis, he brought the idea of maintaining an egalitarian balance of power between State and individual into private relationships, and took a small step towards the democratisation of the private sphere. And in finding an Article 14 violation, he advanced a view of equality that was grounded in structures and institutions, rather than individual acts. One may disagree with his final conclusion – and in fact, Flavia Agnes, among others, has made arguments defending S. 9 – but the reasoning remains powerful, and a clarion call for a progressive vision of privacy and equality.


Soon after Sareetha, the Delhi High Court came to the opposite decision. In Harvinder Kaur v Harmender Singh Chaudhary, it held that:

“Introduction of constitutional law in the home is most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china shop. It will prove to be a ruthless destroyer of the marriage institution and all that it stands for. In the privacy of the home and the married life neither Article 21 nor Article 14- have anyplace. In a sensitive sphere which is at once most intimate and delicate the introduction of the cold principles of constitutional law will have the effect of weakening the marriage bond. That the restitution remedy was abolished in England in 1970 by Section 20 of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Properties Act 1970. on the recommendation of the Law Commission headed by Justice Sharman is no ground to hold that it is unconstitutional in the Indian set-up. In the home the consideration that really obtains is that natural love and affection which counts for so little in these cold courts. Constitutional law principles find no place in the domestic code.” 

In its blanket refusal to apply equality and privacy to the “home”, the Delhi High Court reinstated the traditional, spatial view of privacy, that closed off a physical space from State intervention. This was upheld by the Supreme Court, which also added that “the right of the husband or the wife to the society of the other spouse is not merely creature of the statute. Such a right is inherent in the very institution of marriage itself” – thus reinforcing the position that the sanctity of privacy is accorded not to the individual, but to the institution of marriage.


Sareetha, undoubtedly, was buried thirty years ago, and cannot be brought back to life. But while a judgment remains in ashes, its arguments can certainly become phoenixes and rise again. Justice Choudary’s insights are relevant for the ongoing struggle against the non-criminalisation of marital rape, against numerous inequitable provisions in personal law codes, and for the continuing efforts to persuade the Court to understand Articles 14 and 15 in structural terms (another, abortive, effort was made in Naz Foundation, which was also overruled). At the very least, Sareetha should not be forgotten: it should remain in historical memory as a landmark of Indian constitutional law, taught and discussed as a brilliant – if unsuccessful – attempt at radically transforming our constitutional jurisprudence of privacy and equality.


Filed under Article 14, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Disparate Impact, Equality, Marital Rape, Non-discrimination, Privacy, Sexuality

Guest Post: Women and the Constituent Assembly – I

(Dovetailing with the previous discussion of sex discrimination on this blog, the following three-part guest post series by Professor Sanjay Jain focusses on the discussions surrounding women and the Constitution, during the Constituent Assembly Debates)

Representation of Women in the Constituent Assembly

Representation of women was low in the Constituent Assembly. One of the women members, Purnima Banerjee, tried to raise the issue of vacancies created by the exit of three prominent women members in the Constituent Assembly. She was of the opinion that the vacancies should be filled by women to ensure a more egalitarian perspective in the constitution-making process. However, the Assembly did not support her. In this connection, the observations made by H.V. Kamath are of particular importance because they show the extra ordinary political indifference to gender representation in the constitution making process and also reinforce stereotypes about women. He observed,

“…, if I heard her right, she said that women should be given a greater chance more scope, in affairs of administration and government than they are being given today. The most common and the strongest objection so far put forward by political philosophers in this….regards the capability of women for government and administration is that woman is ruled more by the heart than by the head, and where the affairs of Government are concerned, where we have to be cold and calculating in dealing with various kinds of men, women would find it rather awkward and difficult to deal with such persons and ….If the heart were to rule and the head to take a secondary place then it is felt by many thinking men, and thinking women too, that the affairs of government might go somewhat awry, might not fare..”

He further observed however,

“….I think the House will not quarrel with Shrimati Purnima Banerji on this point that where a seat held by a woman Member is vacated that seat should normally go to another woman.”

B.R. Ambedkar responded to Purnima Banerjee’s request by claiming,

“…….I do not think it is necessary to make a specific provision for the retention of women in this Constituent Assembly. ..the President in the exercise of his powers of rule-making will bear this fact in mind and see that certain number of women members of the Constituent Assembly or of the various parties will be brought in as members of the Provisional Parliament.” (dated 11th Oct. 1949)

Being inclined towards a perfectionist State, the focus of the framers of the Indian constitution was more on the ‘rights discourse’ rather than on the ‘principle of equality.’ They proposed to incorporate the ‘right to life and personal liberty, the right to equality, the right to property, and the right to nondiscrimination’ in a single provision (B Shiv Rao “The framing of India’s Constitution’, Vol II, P 173 ). The Article was extensively deliberated from 16th April 1947 to 30th April 1947 and underwent several changes. Particularly, the difference of opinion between K.M. Munshi and Allidi Krishnaswami Ayyar is worth noting. The latter insisted for the deletion of the principle of ‘equality before the law’ by observing “so long as it is merely a maxim or principle of the common law there is a certain flexibility attaching to it and it can be adopted by the courts and legislatures to changing circumstances but when the same is made a constitutional guarantee it is beset with difficulties. Every law which violates this principle becomes invalid and will become subject to the crucible of judicial review. The statute law of the country may have necessarily made (sic) a difference between infants and adults (vide Juvenile offenders Act), between men and women (vide factory and labour legislations)”.( B Shiva Rao “ Framing of India’s Constitution” Vol II P 212.) The Subcommittee on fundamental rights accepted this view and transferred the principle to the section of non-justiciable rights (B Shiv Rao “ The framing of India’s Constitution’ , Vol II, P 175) from the draft clause 12. However, when the article came for consideration before the Constituent Assembly on 30th April 1947, without any discussion on this issue, the principle was reintroduced as a part of justiciable rights. Even at this stage, Article 14 was not in its final form and was later separated from present Article 21. It is also interesting to note that there was little discussion on the adoption of the principle of ‘equality before the law’ and the ‘equal protection of the law’ in Constituent Assembly debates at the time of finalization of Article 14.( dated 2nd December 1948, accessed 16th august 2012).


Such attitudes – i.e., based upon portraying women as victims and in need of protection, can be seen to be carried over in the gender specific terminology that was advocated at certain places. For example Lakshminarayan Sahu, [supported by H.V. Kamath] suggested amendments in draft Article 31(v) (Presently Article 39(e). Article 39(e) now reads:

“… that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength.”

Sahu recommended that:

“…., for the words ‘their age’ the words ‘their age, sex’ be substituted………Mr. Kamath admitted here that even he considers that the word ‘Sex’ should be put in but that he did not do so because the term ‘Sex’ was not liked by some lady members of this House. But I insist that this word should be retained here. I would like to know the reasons which led them to say that they did not like this word. We see that the word ‘Sex’ has already been used in article 9 of the Fundamental Rights….. Secondly, if we do not use the word ‘Sex’ here, many unpleasant complications are likely to ensure…. There are many such factories and mines which are not fit for women to work in. But many women are compelled by circumstances to work there. To stop this practice the word “Sex” should be specifically used here. ….third…The condition of the women of our country is rather deplorable and I do not like that they should work day and night in the mines and be obliged to adopt some such profession which may spoil their home life” (CAD Volume VII PP 512, 22nd Nov.1948.)

Kapoor and Cossman note that in this approach, women are construed as weak and subordinate and are pursued to be in need of protection. Such differential treatment in some circumstances is said to be preferential treatment. This approach unduly essentialises the sexual difference.

The Uniform Civil Code

During the protracted debate on draft Article 35 (Presently Article 44) dealing with the Uniform Civil Code, there was only one intervention by K. M. Munshi pertaining to inequality faced by women in different religious personal laws. He observed,

“…..Look at Hindu Law; you get any amount of discrimination against women; and if that is part of Hindu religion or Hindu religious practice, you cannot pass a single law which would elevate the position of Hindu women to that of men. Therefore, there is no reason why there should not be a civil code throughout the territory of India….

Trafficking etc.

There was a lack of interest and even opposition by women members themselves for constitutionalization of prohibitions on specifically gendered harms such as the Devdasi system and dowry violence, and prostitution. In this regard, the discussion pertaining to the amendment moved by K.T. Shah to draft Article 17 (Presently Article 23) on trafficking in human beings is worth noting. He observed,

“That in clause (1) of article 17, for the words `Traffic in human beings and begar’, the words `Traffic in human beings or their dedication in the name of religion to be Devadasis or be subject to other forms of enslavement and degradation and begar’ be substituted.”

However, one of the women members expressed her reluctance for having such amendment on the ground that the practice of Devdasi system had been made illegal in the State of Madras. Similarly, T. T. Krishnamachari launched a scathing attack on Shah’s suggestion by observing,

Sir, I am here primarily to oppose the amendment moved by my honorable Friend, Prof. K. T. Shah, in that it imports into the consideration of this article facts which ought not to be taken into account in a consideration of the fundamental rights that are to be incorporated in the Constitution…. If those abuses are such where vested interests are likely to seek perpetuation of those abuses, well, I think we have to provide against them, but if public opinion is sufficiently mobilized against those abuses, I do not think we ought to put a blot on the fair name of India, possibly, by enacting in our constitution a ban on such abuses. …Looking as I do at such matters in that light, I wish most of my honorable Friends in this House will not try to import into these fundamental rights age-old peculiarities of ours that still persist, bad as they are in particular parts of society which can be made to disappear by suitable legislation in due course, perhaps in two, three or four years.

B.R. Ambedkar also adopted the views of Durgabai and Krishmanchari.

On the other hand, Das was more candid and realistic arguing,

“…However, I think we will not be justifying our constitution on fundamental rights if we do not accept and admit our great sins by including the words “traffic in women” and try to save the situation now and hereafter”.

Another female member, Renuka Ray however supported K.T. Shah by observing,

Sir, if we do not accept the amendment of Mr. B. Das, it is not because we do not appreciate his purpose. …but I do think that the article as it stands does cover it…… As for the amendment that my honourable Friend, Mr. K.T. Shah, moved, I agree with Shrimati Durgabai that legislation has covered this problem in regard to Madras, but I think that if Mr. Shah’s amendment could be accepted by this House so that the Devadasi system–the dedication of women in temples–is abolished by a categorical provision in the Constitution, it would be better procedure as the custom still lingers in some areas….(dated 3rd December 1948).”

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Filed under Constituent Assembly Debates, Women

Guest Post: Article 15 through the lens of intersectionality – II

(In this second essay of a two-part series, Shreya Atrey argues that a textual reading of Article 15(1) would imply that inter-sectional claims must fall within its ambit. Article 15(1) stipulates that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” Whether or not inter-sectionality is covered by this wording would depend upon the meaning attributed to the phrase “on grounds only of…”)

In the last post I surveyed the unfavourable outlook of Article 15(1) jurisprudence towards multiple grounds of discrimination. This post proceeds to consider how this jurisprudence can be reconstructed to admit multiple grounds in a discrimination claim under Article 15(1). I argue that a legitimate interpretation of the phrase ‘on grounds only of’ neither makes Article 15(1) a closed list of grounds nor limits it to single ground discrimination; but instead is concerned with finding the basis of discrimination in enumerated or analogous grounds. On the other hand a quantitative delimitation to the general non-discrimination guarantee is: (i) ill-conceived within the contours of constitutional and discrimination law; (ii) historically unsupported in constitutional drafting; and (iii) semantically inaccurate. The final analysis thus proffers a qualitative reconstruction of the phrase by linking grounds to the basis or effects of discrimination.

First, there is internal inconsistency in case law as to the meaning of ‘only’ in Article 15(1). Besides referring to a single ground in a discrimination claim, ‘only’ has also been understood as prohibiting discrimination on enumerated grounds but no more, such that Article 15(1) signifies a closed list of grounds (i.e. religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth). The Delhi High Court decision in Naz Foundation v Delhi Administration introduced the ground of ‘sexual orientation’ as an analogous ground under Article 15(1) and thus has challenged the view that Article 15(1) is an exhaustive list of grounds. However, this cannot perforce mean that ‘only’ can be interpreted to mean discrimination on just one ground since Article 15 can now operate as an open list. In fact, I argue that both these quantitative views of Article 15(1) lack a justifiable basis. Yacoob J of the South African Constitutional Court supports such a dyadic reconstruction in his remarks on the Indian Constitution:

“It goes without saying that a poor Dalit deaf lesbian woman on a wheelchair is far more vulnerable and in greater need of constitutional protection than a female university teacher who has all her faculties and who is part of the “dominant” classes. If this is not recognised, constitutional jurisprudence could suffer. And there is no need to limit protection to the grounds expressly mentioned in the Constitution.”

Secondly, it is useful to note that nothing in the drafting of the Constitution indicates an original intent for interpreting Article 15(1) to exclude multi-ground discrimination. It neither indicates Article 15(1) as restricting the number of grounds in a claim or considering it to be a closed list.

Thirdly, it is helpful to take recourse to semantics here. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘only’ can be used widely, and amongst its most popular uses include: (i) as an adverb meaning ‘Solely, merely, exclusively; with no one or nothing more besides; as a single or solitary thing or fact; no more than. Also, with a verb or verb phrase: no more than, simply, merely’; (ii) as an adjective with an attributive sense of being ‘unique’ in character, or ‘alone’ and; (iii) as a preposition meaning ‘except for’. Restating the language in clause (1): ‘no one shall be discriminated on grounds only of…’, it is clear that ‘only’ cannot possibly be an adjective in this sentence. This interpretation falls foul of the basic canons of English language where an adjective is used for naming an attribute of the immediately succeeding noun. Further, it could not have been used as a conjunction meaning ‘except for, but’ since that would totally inverse the meaning of the non-discrimination guarantee. Thus, the only possibility is of it being used as an adverb here. The question that remains is whether as an adverb it has a quantitative or a qualitative meaning. Does ‘only’ in the phrase ‘on ground only of’ signify ‘solely’, ‘singularly’, ‘uniquely’, ‘merely’, ‘exclusively’ in a qualitative sense such that it could mean that something is the exclusive cause of, or the sole basis of, or form the ground for a particular effect, or is uniquely relevant to a particular result; or the quantitative sense the single quantity one?

As an adverb, the positioning of ‘only’ in a sentence matters as OED indicates: ‘The traditional view is that the adverb only should be placed next to the word or words whose meaning it restricts: I have seen him only once rather than I have only seen him once.’ This explanatory statement is useful. It indicates that although there is free rein in using ‘only’ as a limiting adverb either before or after the object it seeks to limit, it should not be absurd or ambiguous in common usage. In its current positioning in clause (1), the word ‘only’ may qualify the immediately succeeding list of grounds or the term grounds just preceding it. But the fact that it is placed before rather than after ‘of’ in the phrase ‘on grounds only of’ diminishes the possibility of it limiting the list of grounds as such. On the other hand, if ‘only’ was meant to be used as ‘solely’ or ‘merely’ in the sense of limiting the number of grounds upon which a discrimination claim be based, it is clearly misplaced in the phrase ‘on grounds only of’.

A student of English language would then strip the phrase ‘on grounds only of’ of any quantitative sense. She would use ‘only’ as referring to ‘simply’, ‘merely’, ‘exclusively’ or ‘just’ such that it relates to the inadequacy or inappropriateness of certain grounds being invoked as the basis of discrimination. In the legal semantics of discrimination law this would mean that discrimination is prohibited when based on, for the reason of or because of these grounds: religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth (indeed, this is the understanding of discrimination in United States, UK and Canadian anti-discrimination legislation). Thus, the phrase can be taken to signify the basis of discrimination in grounds and does not either indicate a closed list or single-ground claims. In finding the basis of discrimination through ‘on grounds only of’, there is an emphasis on the causative (though the causation doesn’t need to be direct or strict and can be merely correlative as argued by Tarunabh Khaitan in A Theory of Discrimination Law) element in discrimination, i.e. something is discriminatory because it is based on certain grounds. It extends the inquiry into finding not just whether there was discrimination in treatment or in effect but that its basis was in certain kind of prohibited categories of identities.

Fourthly, the misinterpretation and misapplication of ‘on grounds only of’ in clause (1), a fundamental flaw in discrimination jurisprudence is the partial reading of the clause. The case law at no point engages in a complete meaning of the clause which ends with ‘or any of them’. This partial reading strips the prevailing jurisprudence of normative force. Re-interpreting clause (1) while reckoning with its full wherewithal including the phrase ‘or any of them’, stands as a clear indication of clause (1) covering multi-ground discrimination within its ambit.

The placing of ‘or’ in clause (1) is dispositive in this matter: ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth’ or ‘any of them’ indicates that the basis of discrimination can be any of the grounds, alone or in some combination. Once having interpreted ‘on grounds only of’ as finding the basis of discrimination—‘or’ can only logically settle for allowing multiple grounds to be the basis of discrimination. Given that ‘or’ may mean either ‘and/or’ in legal semantics, either construction leads to the recognition of discrimination on more than a single ground under clause (1).

In summary, a legitimate interpretation of ‘on grounds only of’ relates to finding the basis of discrimination in enumerated or analogous grounds by causally linking the discriminatory act or effect to the personal characteristics or group-identities of claimants based on grounds of discrimination.

(Shreya is completing her D.Phil in Law at the University of Oxford.)

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Guest Post: Article 15(1) Through the Lens of Intersectionality – I

(Previously on this blog, we have discussed the meaning of the phrase “on grounds only of…” in Article 15(1) of the Constitution. In a two-part guest post series, Shreya Atrey discusses the possibility of a discrimination jurisprudence that is sensitive to the claims of intersectionality, notwithstanding the seemingly restrictive wording of Article 15.)

In the world’s largest democracy which frequently prizes itself for its ‘diversity’, how has intersectional discrimination fallen by the wayside of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution? This two-part post is interested in examining this issue. The motivation is to explore how intersectionality needs to manoeuvre the foundational roadblock of a “quantitative” view of discrimination as based only on a single ground. It revolves around the interpretation of clause (1) of Article 15 which embodies the general constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination, especially the phrase ‘on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’, and whether it admits intersectionality. The aim is to understand: in this post, how discrimination law practice in relation to Article 15 has foreclosed the routes to recognising intersectional discrimination; and in the next post, how Article 15(1) can be reconstructed to include discrimination on multiple grounds by linking grounds to the basis or effects of discrimination.

Intersectionality Theory

Intersectionality theory seeks to understand identity as a combination of multiple and intersecting grounds of race, sex, gender, disability, class, age, caste, religion, sexual orientation, region etc. Intersectionality emerged as the practical and legal application of the theoretical characterisation of Black women’s identities shaped by their race, class and gender. It was first translated in the legal realm by Kimberlé W Crenshaw in her 1989 piece, which highlighted that any real commitment towards eliminating racism and patriarchy cannot ignore those located at the intersections of the two movements – i.e. Black women. The appreciation of both shared and unique compoundedness of Black women’s experiences of race, sex and class, characterised the method of intersectionality in discrimination law. Black women’s experiences were seen as defined by the intersection of blackness and femaleness – this meant that they could sometimes share experiences with white women or with Black men, and at other times reflected experiences of being both Black and female, in a unique synergy. This is how intersectionality theory explains the nature of discrimination based on more than one personal characteristic of individuals; thus the term ‘intersectional discrimination’ may be used to accurately signify discrimination which is suffered on more than one personal characteristic.

The understanding of discrimination suffered on more than one ground requires a distinctive explanation which represents the qualitative dimensions of tracing unique and shared experiences of disadvantage along the lines of people’s personal characteristics. It is different from “multiple discrimination”, which is usually understood as a combination of discrimination based on two grounds—such that the net discrimination suffered, say, as a Dalit women is a sum of discrimination suffered as a woman and as a Dalit. It is also different from the idea of ‘overlapping’ forms of discrimination such that discrimination suffered on two grounds can be described as having been suffered on both of them separately or individually. It thus asks us to view discrimination based on multiple grounds in a particular way which is not pure arithmetic. For example, to explain discrimination against a disabled Muslim woman, we will need to explain how: (i) the identity of the claimant shared experiences of discrimination with Muslims, women, disabled persons and hence coincided at points with experiences of disability, sex/gender and religion-based discrimination; but also (ii) the uniqueness of the discrimination which is faced by a disabled Muslim woman which is different from discrimination based on disability, sex/gender and religion, or a combination (addition) of any of these. This is the sense in which intersectionality seeks to capture the normative foundation of discrimination suffered on multiple grounds.

Indian Jurisprudence

In the United States, the locus classicus on intersectionality is the case of DeGraffenreid. In that case, the plaintiffs sought a determination that the ‘last hired-first fired’ lay off policies of the defendants discriminated against them as Black women. The United States District Court of Missouri summarily dismissed the possibility that claims could be based upon a combination of grounds (race and sex) and hence plaintiffs were denied the right to claim as Black women who suffered both racial and sex-based discrimination. It interpreted the compoundedness of the claim as a demand for recognising a ‘new special sub-category’ or ‘special class’ for the grant of a ‘new “super-remedy”’ beyond the contours of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. It concluded: ‘this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both.’

In the absence of an intersectionality test case like DeGraffenreid in the United States, there has been no direct instance of testing the waters of Article 15 for intersectional discrimination. Nevertheless, there have been cases which indicate the increasing impossibility of bringing a claim based on more than one ground. These cases can be delineated into three discernible threads pertaining to—(i) the misinterpretation of ‘only’ in the text of Article 15(1); (ii) the misapplication of Article 15(3) which allows protective discrimination in favour of women; and (iii) the overreach of reservation jurisprudence under Article 15(4)-(5) to limit the scope of clause (1). Pursued consistently by the Supreme Court, these approaches can (mis)lead us to the point of excluding intersectional discrimination by justifying it as either non-discriminatory or ameliorative.

The Calcutta High Court case of Anjali Roy v State of West Bengal laid down the foundation for understanding sex discrimination as solely based on the ground of sex and no other ground. The case involved an order which restricted admission to women into college A but not college B. The High Court held that the restriction did not constitute discrimination within the meaning of Article 15(1). The holding was premised on the interpretation of Article 15(1) as:

“….the discrimination which is forbidden [in Article 15(1)] is only such discrimination as is based solely on the ground that a person belongs to a particular race or caste or professes a particular religion or was born at a particular place or is of a particular sex and on no other ground. A discrimination based on one or more of these grounds and also on other grounds is not hit by the Article.

This reasoning seems to be cemented in the decision of Air India v Nergesh Meerza. Air Hostesses working with Air India challenged the constitutional validity of Air India Employees Service Regulations. The challenge related to three particular conditions under the Service Regulations which provided that an Air Hostess was to retire from service upon the following contingencies: (i) on attaining the age of 35 years (extendable at the discretion of Managing Director to 45 years); (ii) on marriage if it took place within 4 years of the service; or (iii) upon first pregnancy. The Court found that:

“[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.”

In the final analysis, the Court only upheld the condition of termination if married within four years of service on grounds of family planning, improving health and maturity of the employee with growing age and hence ensuring the success of marriage, as well as the economic costs of training the crew.

Since this case was argued as a claim of sex discrimination which also devolved upon marital status, age and pregnancy—all of which qualified as mere ‘considerations’ for the Court but could well be incidents of sex or even analogous grounds, the reasoning that discrimination can only be caught by clause (1) when only and only made on the ground of sex is as myopic as is incorrect. It strips the prohibition of sex discrimination of any necessary content and stands as a rejection of discrimination—whether single ground or intersectional—by failing to: (i) account for the meaning and wherewithal of the right to non-discrimination; and (ii) transcend the acontextual and technical understanding of ‘on grounds only of’ which ignores the ending phrase ‘or any of them’ in clause (1).

Finally, in relation to the relationship of clause (1) with the reservation jurisprudence: the Supreme Court in Champakam Dorairajan formulated the test for identifying classes for reservation as one which cannot solely be based on enumerated grounds because it would run afoul of clause (1). However, considering the text of clauses (4) and (5) which begin with ‘Nothing in this article’, it is clear that the reservations meant to justify and validate something which may even be discriminatory under clause (1). The judicial test for determining the classes for reservations thus renders the constitutional drafting confused and redundant. This ordinary meaning interpretation of the opening words of clauses (4) and (5) (‘Nothing in this article’) has been largely overlooked and reservations are only permitted when not based on a single ground.

This interpretative lapse is carried through when intersectional discrimination is not just made acceptable for the purposes of clauses (4) and (5) but also clause (1). But there is no such necessary logical corollary which flows from the possibility that special provisions on intersectional grounds may be made under clauses (4) and (5). The allowance for intersectional discrimination to be justified when ameliorative because it is for the advancement of certain classes should not also lead to a presumptive justification of hostile intersectional discrimination under Article (1). Whether considered a facet or exception to Article 15(1), the special provisions permissible under clauses (4) and (5) have a narrower compass than the guarantee in clause (1). They are specific in as much as they relate only to the state’s prerogative for taking certain special measures for identified classes. It is settled that these clauses do not confer rights as such and are discretionary tools for the government to be pursued towards the broader goal of promoting substantive equality. To interpret this discretionary power under clauses (4) and (5) to confine the scope of a right under clause (1) cannot be the appeal of Indian discrimination law jurisprudence.

The next post will consider how Clause (1) should be re-envisioned to admit the possibility of bringing discrimination claims based on more than one ground.

(Shreya is completing her D.Phil degree at the Law Faculty, University of Oxford.)

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