Coronavirus and the Constitution – XVII: The Supreme Court’s Free Testing Order – Some Concluding Remarks

I am grateful for all the engagement with my initial post on the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s order mandating free testing for Covid-19. Some of these have been published as responses and rejoinder in this series (unfortunately, for reasons of space, I could not publish all). In this concluding post, I want to briefly address and clarify some of the core issues that have emerged – both on the blog and in the public domain – over the course of the discussion.

Let me start by reiterating that the Supreme Court’s order should have stated that private labs would be reimbursed by the State for free Covid-19 testing, and that a mechanism for this ought to have been worked out before the interim order was passed. That is a significant lacuna in the order. In what follows, I base my arguments on the premise that the State is indeed paying for free testing.

The Policy/Budget Argument 

The argument that has been most frequently made is that the Court’s order is an impermissible intervention into the policy sphere – and a violation of the separation of powers – because it effectively directs the government on how and where to spend its (finite?) resources. To this, there is a straightforward answer: the effective enforcement of almost any right depends upon creating infrastructure, which costs money. For instance, the right to vote requires polling booths and voting machines. The right to free association and assembly presumes the existence of policing. And so on. Consequently, the budgetary argument gets things back to front: the question is not whether a Court order interferes with the budget and is therefore illegitimate, but whether the Court order does or does not enforce a constitutional right. If it does, then the impact on the budget is a collateral issue. The whole point about enforceable rights is that – to go back to Ronald Dworkin – they act as “trumps” against policy goals. In the present case, therefore, the key issues are twofold: what rights are at play (I have argued that these are the rights to equality read with the right to health), and whether lack of access to testing constitutes an infringement of these rights (I have argued that the nature of the coronavirus pandemic is such that it does).

The Parade of Horribles Argument

It is then argued that there is no principled justification for restricting the scope of the Court’s order to free Covid-19 testing alone, and that the logic of the argument essentially requires free and universal access to healthcare. Now, to start with, I do not think that framing universal access to basic healthcare as a constitutional right is necessarily far-fetched: in countries all over the world, State responses to coronavirus have revealed that a lot of what seemed beyond the realm of possibility, practicality, or feasibility, was actually nothing more than a constraint of political ideology (Spain’s experiments with a universal basic income being a classic example). Consequently, while the modalities of effectuating a universal right to free basic healthcare requires the kinds of policy decisions that elected representatives make (a point that I shall come to later in this piece), the fact that free Covid-19 testing belongs to the same family of arguments that view healthcare as a constitutionally guaranteed right is not a disqualification.

However, that said, the argument for free Covid-19 tests does not automatically translate into a constitutional right to an NHS-style healthcare system, even as a necessary logical consequence. This is why, in the initial post, the point was made that what is at stake in this case is the right to health read with the right to equality. I specifically say this because of the nature of the pandemic, which – when combined with the national lock-down – means that the wealth-based barriers to testing affect not just the sufferer, but clusters of low-income neighbourhoods. The issue of testing, therefore, is directly related to structural or systemic discrimination (based on socio-economic class); it is not simply about an individual right to healthcare that is defeated because of financial barriers.

The Path Independence Argument

In his post, Goutham Shivshankar argued that we could accept that there exists a basic right to health, but that at the same time, there are different ways to achieve that (free testing being only one of them). According to this argument, while the right exists, the pathway towards it is a question of policy, which is up to the government to decide.

This tracks a familiar objection against the enforcement of socio-economic rights, and there are two responses to this. The first is that the Court’s order was an interim order, and was made in the presence of government counsel. If the government had an alternative pathway towards enforcement of the right to health, that could have been put forward during the hearing (indeed, socio-economic rights cases are normally dialogic in character, for exactly this reason).

However, there is a more important point here, which is that even in socio-economic rights cases, there is a “minimum core” – or a threshold – that is non-negotiable. For the reasons discussed in my initial post (summarised above) – as well as in Karan’s post – it is my view that in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, testing is that minimum threshold, without which the right becomes illusory. Shivshankar takes the example of an alternative method – that the government provides testing kits and then allows Rs. 500 to be charged for the tests. I disagree strongly with the argument that because poor people spend Rs. 500 on quacks anyway, they should have no problem spending Rs. 500 on a test; however, that apart, if we slightly tweak the example, this is actually an excellent demonstration of how the Supreme Court’s order does actually allow for path-independence, subject to a threshold: because the government could choose to provide the testing kits and then reimburse private labs Rs. 500 per test – or it could reimburse them the full cost. What the Order says is that there should be no price barrier for accessing testing, as that is the threshold of enforceability; how that is accomplished is left to the government.

The Unintended Consequences Argument

It has then been argued that the Order is effectively unimplementable, and will lead to unintended consequences: for example, the government might stop buying PPE equipment, or testing kits, or dramatically reduce testing to make up for the budget shortfall; to address that, then, the Court will be sucked deeper and deeper into a policy vortex, and end up “supervising the pandemic.”

However, State action to subvert Court judgments is neither new, nor confined to the domain of socio-economic rights; recall classic examples where, following Court judgments to desegregate a swimming pool, city municipalities chose to close the swimming pool altogether rather than allow white and black people to swim together. The objection here is of a similar kind, and the answer is of a similar character: there exist enough tools under existing judicial review mechanisms for a Court to be able to gauge when a change in government policy is directly designed to circumvent its orders – indeed, just the basic requirement of asking the government to justify the change in policy will often reveal that there was no good reason for it other than circumvention (in this case, for example, consider the vast amount of money that has already gone into the PM-CARES fund); limited judicial enforcement to prevent that does not damage the separation of powers.

Conclusion

Readers of this blog will be aware that I am no fan of the Court’s past record when it comes to supervising government policy under cover of an expansive interpretation of Article 21. However, for the reasons advanced above, I am not convinced that an Order designed to mitigate the discriminatory impact of a price-barriers to testing in the context of a nationwide lockdown, which itself was designed to tackle a global pandemic, is an overreach. There are a number of factors about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the State’s responses to it, which – in my view – justify this Order.

It is clear, however, that we have not heard the last of this. The mechanism for reimbursement remains to be worked out, and various applicants have moved the Court asking – inter alia – that free testing be restricted to low-income groups. I will conclude by voicing my skepticism about this intuitively plausible solution: the whole point of a right is that it is universal in character. The point is defeated if you start means-testing in order to identify who deserves or does not deserve to access the right. If, therefore, the prior arguments in this essay are sound, free testing should be universal, and not selective (to the equally universal question of how do we pay for it – the State’s powers of progressive taxation exist for exactly that).

 

Gender Equality in the Armed Forces

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


On this blog, we have discussed in some detail the judicial approach to gender discrimination under the Constitution. Two recent judgments of the Supreme Court – delivered by a bench of Chandrachud and Rastogi JJ – have made an important contribution to contemporary jurisprudence on the subject. Both concerned the intersection of service law and gender equality – and, in particular, gender equality in the armed forces, a particularly fraught and thorny topic.

Babita Puniya

Secretary, Ministry of Defence v Babita Puniya concerned the grant of Permanent Commissions in the Army. Section 12 of the Army Act prohibits the recruitment of “females” into the army except where – and to the extent that – the Central Government might allow. In 1992, the Union Government issued notifications allowing women to join certain branches/cadres of the army (all were non-combat roles). These notifications – which were intended to operate for a stipulated period of five years – were later extended in 1996, 2005, and 2006, along with promotional opportunities. Then, in 2008, the Ministry of Defence issued a Circular authorising the grant of Permanent Commissions [PCs] to women, but only prospectively, and only in certain cadres.

Adjudicating writ petitions challenging this, the High Court of Delhi held in 2010 that women who had entered the army on Short Service Commissions [“SSCs”], were entitled to PCs on par with their male colleagues. The Union of India appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. During the pendency of the hearing, it also proposed a separate policy for grant of PCs to women, which nonetheless was limited to staff positions, imposed different standards, as well as only applying prospectively.

Before the Supreme Court, the Union argued that this was a matter of policy – based on a consideration of “the inherent dangers involved in serving in the Army, adverse conditions of service which include an absence of privacy in field and insurgency areas, maternity issues and child care” (paragraph 28), and that in any event, Article 33 of the Constitution allowed for the fundamental rights chapter to be restricted when it came to the Armed Forces. It also argued that “the Army has to cater for spouse postings, “long absence on account of maternity leave, child care leave” as a result of which “the legitimate dues of male officers have to be compromised”.” (paragraph 31). In a Written Note, the Union of India added to these submissions by referring – once again – to “pregnancy, motherhood, and domestic obligations”, differences in physical capabilities, the “peculiar dynamics” of all-male units, and issues of hygiene.

These submissions were rejected by the Court. Chandrachud j. began his analysis by noting that while Article 33 did allow for restrictions upon fundamental rights in the Armed Forces, it also made it clear that these rights could be restricted only to the extent that it was necessary to ensure the proper discharge of duties and the maintenance of discipline. On the other hand, from 1991, there had been an “evolutionary process” towards inducting women into the armed forces (paragraph 50) – to the extent that in the 2019 Policy Document submitted before the Court, even PCs (in certain fields) had been opened up to women. In fact, this created an internal contradictions within the submissions of the union of India, as:

The decision of the Union Government to extend the grant of PC to other corps in the support arms and services recognizes that the physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution. (paragraph 52)

Going further, however, the Chandrachud J. noted that:

The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women. Underlying the statement that it is a “greater challenge” for women officers to meet the hazards of service “owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families” is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women. Reliance on the “inherent physiological differences between men and women” rests in a deeply entrenched stereotypical and constitutionally flawed notion that women are the “weaker‟ sex and may not undertake tasks that are „too arduous‟ for them. Arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women and on assumptions about women in the social context of marriage and family do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To deny the grant of PCs to women officers on the ground that this would upset the “peculiar dynamics” in a unit casts an undue burden on women officers which has been claimed as a ground for excluding women. The written note also relies on the “minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene” as a ground for suggesting that women officers in the services must not be deployed in conflict zones. The respondents have placed on record that 30% of the total women officers are in fact deputed to conflict areas. (paragraph 54)

On a similar basis, the Court also rejected the blanket prohibition upon the grant of PCs to women in command appointments (and restricted only to staff appointments), noting that the Army bore the burden of justifying such exclusion, and that in any event, it could only be done on a case to case basis (paragraph 67). In sum, therefore, it accepted the 2019 Policy, but (a) made it applicable across the board, and (b) removed its limited scope to staff appointments.

Annie Nagaraja

The case of Union of India vs Lt. Cdr. Annie Nagaraja – involving Permanent Commissions in the Navy – was somewhat more complex. According to Section 9 of the Navy Act, women are not eligible for enrolment in the Indian Navy, except where – and on such terms and conditions – that the Central Government might specify (Chandrachud J.’s judgment refers to an interesting piece of history – at the time of the drafting of the Navy Act in 1957, there was a strong dissenting note in the Parliamentary Joint Committee objecting to this exclusion of women).

Now – simplifying the position somewhat – under the Navy Regulations, one of the qualifications for being inducted into the navy on a Short Service Commission [“SSC”] is that the applicant must be an “unmarried male.” SSC officers may subsequently be granted Permanent Commissions [“PCs”] on the basis of vacancies and suitability. In 1991, the Union Government issued a notification opening up certain branches of the Navy to women. Women, therefore, were entitled to take up SSCs, and it was noted that the policy for the grant of PCs would be formulated subsequently. Subsequently, in 1998, by another Notification under Section 9 of the Navy Act, more branches of the Navy were opened up to women. Soon after that in, in 1999, in a communication from the Ministry of Defence, it was clarified that women could serve on board ships, and that the policy governing PCs would be that which was already stipulated in the Regulations (see above).

Then, in 2008, the MoD issued another communication, stating that PCs to women SSC officers would be considered prospectively, and limited only to certain branches. In other words, women who had joined the Navy as SSCs following the opening up of recruitment after 1991, would not be considered for PCs. It was this that triggered the initial challenge before the Delhi High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal, before finally winding its way to the Supreme Court.

Chandrachud J. began his analysis by noting that both the 1991 and 1998 Notifications lifted the bar for enrolment of women into the Navy, in certain branches (without expressly limiting them to SSCs) (paragraph 60). Consequently, when in 1999 the Government stipulated that the normal Regulations would apply for grant of PCs (which made them conditional on vacancies, suitability, and a recommendation from the Chief of Naval Staff), it was obvious that this would “cover both men and women serving on SSCs (paragraphs 64 – 65, 67). Consequently, the 2008 communication – which did not refer to these previous notifications and communications – could not change that fact.

As with Babita Puniya’s Case, however, the judgment’s bite lay in the analysis that came after the hard work of service law was done. In a section called “The Stereotypical Sailor”, the Court noted that the government had attempted to justify its stand by arguing that sea-duties were ill-suited for women as “there is no return to base”, and that Russian naval vessels had no separate bathrooms for women (paragraph 72). These arguments were roundly rejected, with Chandrachud J. noting that “the contention that certain sea-going duties are ill-suited to women officers is premised on sex stereotypes that male officers are more suited to certain duties by virtue of the physiological characteristics.” (paragraph 74), and that:

arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To accept the contention urged by the ASG would be to approve the socially ascribed gender roles which a commitment to equal worth and dignity of every individual belies. (paragraph 74)

The Court concluded by moulding the relief in accordance with the different positions occupied by different sets of claimants, on the basis of the legal position that eligibility for PCs flowed from the 1991 and 1998 Notifications, and that the 2008 Communication making PCs prospctive from that date, was not valid (to that extent).

Analysis

Both judgments raise a few interesting issues. The first is that they add to the growing body of jurisprudence that brings the anti-stereotyping lens to issues of gender discrimination. In both cases, differential treatment of men and women in the armed forces was sought to be justified by invoking stereotypes about physical and psychological capabilities – broad generalisations that reflected deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions about gender roles in society. As we have argued before on this blog, Articles 14 and 15 rule out discrimination based on such stereotypes and generalisations. While the Court’s historical record on this front – especially in the domain of service law – has been patchy, at least since 2007, there has been a more consistent application of the anti-stereotyping principle. These judgments, with their clear invocation of the principle, will make it even more difficult in the future for stereotype-based arguments to be justified in Court.

Secondly, these judgments reiterate that in a constitutional democracy, the Armed Forces are not – and cannot be – a rights-free zone. While Article 33 admittedly authorises the restriction of fundamental rights to the Armed Forces, any such restriction must be “necessary” for allowing the Armed Forces to fulfil their goals, and the burden of sowing necessity lies upon those who want to exclude the operation of fundamental rights. In both judgments, the Court was careful in how it navigated this thorny area: it reiterated the need for Article 33 to exist, while also ensuring that it could not be used as a sword to cut down the rest of Part III.

Thirdly, these judgments demonstrate an oft-neglected truth: that the Court ought not to bear the sole burden of articulating and enforcing fundamental rights. What is notable about both these cases is – as the Court itself noted in Babita Puniya – that the induction of women into the armed forces had been an evolutionary process that had begun in 1992. The State’s sweeping arguments about the unsuitability of women to be granted PCs, therefore, were undercut by its own evolving policy decisions. This made the task of the Court substantially easier: instead of forcing gender equality down the throat of a recalcitrant institution, it could simply point to how the institution’s own logic was at variance with the exclusionary arguments that it now put forward. Thus, instead of ending up in an adverserial situation – where the Armed Forces justified discrimination and the Court opposed it – what happened here was that the Court engaged in an immanent critique, essentially requiring the Armed Forces to follow their own policies to a logical conclusion.

Fourthly – and relatedly – this also shows, perhaps, the limitations of the possibility of reform through adjudication. Notably, the relevant provisions of both the Army and the Navy Act, which bar the recruitment of women into the Forces except where the government allows it – were not under challenge, and the Court was at pains to point out that fact, apart from also noting that the suitability of women for combat roles was not an issue about it. What would happen, however, if those Sections were to be challenged? Logically speaking, the anti-stereotyping approach – and, more particularly, the Court’s explicit rejection of blanket prohibition of PCs to women in command areas – clearly rules out the blanket restriction on recruitment in the Armed Forces (except where the government permits). Would that be a step to far for the Court to take, especially if the State and the Armed Forces were to take the defence of national security considerations? That would be interesting to see, but at the same time, the Army’s own opening up over the years – combined with the Court’s incremental approach in these cases – probably obviates the immediate imperative for more radical challenges.

The Constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act: A Response

[This is a guest post by Shivam Singhania. The piece was written before the passage of the Bill into an Act, and the constitutional challenge to the Act. References to the “Bill”, therefore, may be understood as references to the Act.]


This piece is in response to the piece on this blog titled “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is Unconstitutional”. Respectfully disagreeing with the author, I shall endeavour to address the arguments against its constitutionality, and also chart out a path within the bounds of the settled judicial precedent on Article 14.

The bill changes amends the Citizenship Act on two counts – by inserting a proviso in Section 2(1)(b), and by amending clause (d) of the Third Schedule. The first count, i.e., the proviso, provides that ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’ will not be treated as an illegal immigrant under the Act, subject to three conditions: (a) he/she entered India on or before December 31, 2014, (b) is exempted by the Central Government under Section 3(2)(b) of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, (c) is exempted from the application of Foreigners Act, 1946.

(Note: The Passport Act empowers the Central Government to make rules requiring persons entering India to possess passports. It also gives the Central Government power to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, any person or class of persons from complying with such requirements. The Foreigners Act empowers the Central Government to make orders prohibiting, regulating, restricting entry of non-citizens, i.e., foreigners into India. The Central Government also has the power to exempt any individual or class or description of foreigner from the application of the act. The exemptions for Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals were issued in 2015, and included Afghanistan nationals in 2016. These exemptions have not been challenged. Further, the same classification exists for the purpose of issuing Long Term Visas (LTV) to nationals of these three countries. The same has also not been challenged.)

The second count, i.e., amendment to the Third Schedule, relaxes the time-criteria for naturalization from at least 11 out of 14 years to at least 5 out of 14 years of residing in India, or being in service of the Government, for ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’.

Admittedly, the constitutional questions rest on the issue of discrimination and non-adherence to ‘equal protection of law’.

CLASSIFICAITON UNDER ARTICLE 14

The Constitutional position, right from Anwar Ali Sarkar to a catena of subsequent cases, is clear that the equality principle envisages like to be treated alike, and consequently allows unlike to be treated differently. Such differentiation, however, has to stand the test of intelligible differentia, i.e. that the basis or principle guiding the creation of different groups meant to be treated differently by the law should be ascertainable and sound. Further, such differentia should have a rational nexus to the object of the law, meaning that t should directly further the purpose that the law seeks to fulfil. Subsequently, the test of arbitrariness was also added in E.P. Royappa.

The classification in this amendment, as rightly described by the author, is on two counts: first – religion of the target group, i.e., Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians; and second – country of origin of these groups, i.e., Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It will be shown in the course of this essay that the principles that ground the above classifications are intelligible and not under-inclusive and serve the object of the amendment and overall, are not arbitrary.

RELIGION, ARTICLE 14 AND ARTICLE 15

Over and above the generality of equality principle laid out in Article 14, Article 15 provides for prohibition of discrimination on specific grounds, such as race, sex, and also religion. This means that any such basis of classification, even if intelligible, cannot pass muster of Article 14 for reason of the specific prohibition in Article 15.

However, Article 15 applies only to citizens. On the other hand Article 14 applies to ‘any person’. Thus, as settled in Chandrima Das and Indo-China Steam Navigation cases, a non-citizen cannot take the benefit of Article 15. Thus, with respect to non-citizens, a classification which has religious inklings cannot be dismissed at the threshold; it will pass muster if it passes the tests of Article 14 discussed above.

We now address the author’s argument based on the concurring judgement of Justice Malhotra in Navtej Johar v Union of India. The author’s inference from certain portions of Justice Malhotra’s opinion Navtej Johar is misplaced. The quoted paragraph – “Race, caste, sex, and place of birth are aspects over which a person has no control, ergo they are immutable. On the other hand, religion is a fundamental choice of a person. Discrimination based on any of these grounds would undermine an individual’s personal autonomy” – lays out the underlying constitutional intent of Article 15. It does not, and is not meant to address the point of whether such grounds transcend Article 15, and apply as a bar upon classification ipso facto, including for non-citizens under Article 14

The following exposition from the judgment, admittedly, is unequivocal: “Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia”. However, what begs an answer, and none is provided in clear terms by any judicial precedent, is whether certain grounds, beyond those in Article 15 and thus applicable to non-citizens, are barred at the threshold as the bases of any classification; if yes, then what are these grounds and do ‘intrinsic and core trait(s) of an individual’ qualify as such grounds?

Essentially, the submission of the author, relying on Justice Malhotra’s opinion, is that any classification with semblance to religion is impermissible, since like Article 15, which applies only for citizens, Article 14 contains an inherent bar upon classification on certain grounds, one of which is the notion of core trait/choice/personal autonomy (and religion is a part of that). This, however, has little basis in existing equality jurisprudence. The tests are clear and any classification can exist so long as the tests of Article 14 are met. Beyond that, no inherent barriers have been created for classification under Article 14.

In any case, the proposition that classification rests solely on religion should be taken with scepticism. In the CAA, religion is qualified by persecution. Therefore the two should be considered together. Religion persecution has also been recognized in the Refugee Convention as a form of persecution. Therefore, it cannot be considered as a capricious standard of marking the lines, given that the exact target groups are sought to be protected as recognized by International Convention. Further, the classification is not to create new benefits, but is only to accelerate an existing process as a measure of protection for recognizable and internationally accepted target group that, due to their precarious situation, need such protection. It is akin to any law which may be framed for instance to protect LGBT individuals from countries which provide for capital punishment for them. In that case, it will be a constitutional disservice to accept an argument that they cannot be allowed a dignified life in India because the law classifies on the basis of sex/sexual orientation.

THE PRINCIPLES CONUNDRUM AND UNDER-INCLUSIVENESS

A classic fallacy with the arguments on under-inclusiveness, also reflected in the author’s piece, is that its proponents enlarge either the principle determining classification, or the object of the law beyond their actual bounds, to argue that the classification is narrower than it ought to be.

It will be shown that the author’s purported principles determining the classification is deliberately broad, and the actual principle is more qualified. Therefore, when the purpose is defined properly, the classification is not under-inclusive.

The author, in her piece, considers four principles and finds them inadequate. For convenience, they are reproduced below –

  1. “Principle 1: Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of British India. Illegal immigrants from there could still generically be considered of Indian origin. However, with the inclusion of Afghanistan, it is evident that the classification is not based on the principle of divided India and undivided India.
  2. Principle 2: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a State religion. However, the classification cannot be on the basis of a State religion, as Sri Lanka prescribes Buddhism as the State religion.
  3. Principle 3: Degrees of harm. In Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury it was held that the legislature is free to recognize the degrees of harm and confine the classification to where harm is the clearest. However, if the CAB is based on the degrees of harm then the Rohingyas of Myanmar ought to be included as the 2013 UN report states that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted in the world.
  4. Principle 4: The classification might be limited to singling out persecuted religious minoritiesHowever, on this logic, Sri Lankan Eelam Tamils must also be included, as the Tamil Eelams are persecuted based on religion (Hinduism) and ethnicity.”

The classic problem of “inadequate principle” is at issue here. The above four principles, if applied, result in the law leaving out some group who ought to qualify. However, it is quite possible that the alleged principles are not actually the principles on which the classification is based.

In this context, let us begin by noting that laying down adequate determining principle for classification in a law lies at the doorstep of the Parliament.

It is submitted that here, the determining principle is not solely based on Partition, or harm. It is also not only about state religion or secular states, or about religious minorities. Determining principles cannot be laid in water-tight compartments, and it is not necessary that the entirety of one ground has to make a determining principle (for instance “all minorities”, or “all persecuted”). More than one ground can qualify the other grounds if the determining principle is specific (for instance, not all minorities but religious minorities, or not all persecuted but persecuted for being a religious minority).

While one set of determining principles takes in the Partition (Pakistan and Bangladesh), and the unique situation of Afghanistan vis-a-vis India, another possible set of principles is not Partition-related. India sees its responsibility as a regional leader in its neighbourhood with a thriving democracy and secular credentials to protect certain classes of foreigners under threat in their own countries. Among many forms of persecution, for now, India considers itself sufficiently prepared to be able to imbibe as citizens through a relaxed process of naturalization, those persecuted on the basis of religion. The next question is, who all and from where all?

The principle is members of communities (religion) not being the state religion of the respective nation. Essentially, it is a loose combination of Principle 2 and 4 described by the author. In other words, the broad sphere of ‘religious minority’ is qualified by its application only with respect to nations with state religions and on minorities being non-believers of the state religion. This is clearer with the altered text of bill, as being circulated in the media, by which the phrase “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindu, Sikh…” has been replaced with “persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh…”. [Editor’s Note: this is now the text of the Act.]

Therefore, it can no more be argued that the genus was ‘minority community’, and that only six of them cannot be protected (i.e., under-inclusion). The principle is shortened from ‘minority community’ to a principle which is qualified by two other components – applicable to states with a state religion, and applicable for religions not being the state religion. In other words, the principle is narrower than presented. Hence non-inclusion of some is not because of under-inclusion, but because they are not in conformity with the principle for classification. (such as Ismailis or Shias, being another sect of Islam and not a separate religion than Islam), or Myanmar, not included for not having a state religion.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have a state religion, i.e., Islam. The Sri Lankan Constitution gives Buddhism the foremost place and the Myanmarese Constitution only recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith practiced by majority. In any case, if it is still considered that Sri Lanka has a state religion, courts may also take cognizance of data, if provided by the Union of India, of the alleged dwindling rate of the minority population in Pakistan, Afghanistan (less than 1% presently) and Bangladesh (from 23% at independence to 9% presently) of the communities sought to be protected vis-à-vis Sri Lanka (28 % in 1953 to 20% presently) to gather the mischief that the amendment seeks to arrest.

SUMMARY

The classification under Article 14 does not have inherent barriers of impermissibility at the threshold level, and nor does it have to conform to Article 15 when invoked with respect to non-citizens. In this case, the only test needs to be satisfied is the intelligible differentia-rational nexus-non-arbitrariness test of Article 14. The principle underlying the classification is not merely minority or religious minority, but of belonging to group other than the state religion of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan (i.e. states with a constitutionally prescribed state religion). The classification with respect to states with state religions, for the benefit of persons not following the state religion, bears a rational nexus with the object of the amendment in protecting such persons facing threat of persecution for reason of non-conformity with their state religion and being eligible for relaxed criteria of immigration and naturalisation in India, and in furtherance of India’s responsibility as the leader in its nation with strong democratic values and emphasis on dignity of life to support victims of religious persecution in theocratic states. The classification, having semblance to a category of vulnerability recognized in international convention and supported empirically (possibly) is therefore not arbitrary.

ICLP Round Table – The Equality Bill 2019: On the Equality Courts

(This is the fourth piece in our ICLP Round Table on CLPR’s Draft Equality Bill. This post is by Anmol Jain.)


This article concerns Part V of the Draft CLPR’s Equality Bill, 2019, which deals with the constitution of district-level equality courts to enforce the non-discrimination rights envisaged under the Bill. I attempt to lay down a background for appreciating the constitution of equality courts and their desired manner of functioning.  

The Idea of Equality Courts and the Need to Establish Them

The Constitution guarantees several civil, political and socio-economic rights including the right to equality and the right against discrimination. When violated, the Supreme Court and the jurisdictional High Court have been empowered to take necessary actions. A question then arises that why we need another judicial forum in the form of equality courts. The answer is simple: ‘the constitutional courts are not approachable, affordable and accessible for a large part of the Indian masses.’ A geographically vast country like India has only one Supreme Court with no regional benches, and many States and Union Territories sharing High Courts (especially in the Northeast) among themselves. For instance, if one’s rights guaranteed under the Constitution are violated in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the remedy lies more than 1000 km away in Kolkata. The hefty fees of the lawyers in the High courts seems realistically unaffordable for a (severely) economically unequal citizenry that remains illiterate with the functioning of the courts.

For a true constitutional win, the State must take the courts closer to the public. South Africa, a country with a similar history as ours but in the form of Apartheid, aimed to realize this goal by constituting equality courts under the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000. India is already on the path of creating such courts and one of its first kind can be perceived under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which creates Special Courts and Exclusive Special Courts to address the acts of discrimination having their locus in the caste of the victim. Similarly, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, if passed, would be another statute providing sanctions under a positive law for the violation of the right to non-discrimination. This is a partial success as Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race and place of birth, apart from caste and sex.    

Studied in this background, one cannot but appreciate the relevance of Chapter V of the CLPR’s Equality Bill, 2019, which provides for the constitution of equality courts. Equality courts, functioning at the District level, shall bring constitutional adjudication closer to the public and fulfil the dreams of attaining true equality. They might act as the necessary catalyst towards the fulfilment of our constitutional promises.

One of the most important reasons for their success could be the rich constitutional common law that the Supreme Court and the High courts have created since 1950, which shall help the equality courts in uniform functioning. The constitutional courts could be seen as driving the Constitution towards transformational successes by valuing individual rights with a proper balancing with the collective security of the society. The richness of rights’ interpretation in India can be best captured by a recent decision of the Madras High Court, wherein the court held a marriage between a man and a trans-woman as valid. Moreover, the manner in which the DPSPs have now been perceived as the means for achieving the goals of Part III unlike the initial years when they were considered as secondary to Part III shall guide the Equality courts in the proper enforcement of the constitutional promises.

The Desired Functioning of the Equality Courts

The arguments in this part are made after a study of the equality courts functioning in South Africa, which can provide us with the necessary guidance about how things can go wrong or remain bad if not properly implemented.

Proponents of Legal Realism argue that ‘judges determine the outcome of a lawsuit before deciding whether the conclusion is, in fact, based on an established legal principle.Jerome Frank has noted that the decision reached by a judge is not based on the systematic understanding of the facts applied to the law, but on ‘judicial hunch’ or the ‘intuitive sense of what is right or wrong in the particular case.’ These intuitive results are largely determined through the socio-economic background, political inclinations, cultural understanding, personal experiences and individual characteristics of the judge. It has been argued that “since the ‘rules’ allow the judge considerable free play, he or she can in fact decide the case in a variety of ways, and the way that is in fact adopted will be more of a function of such factors as the judge’s psychological temperament, social class and values than of anything written down and called rules.

There have been instances of judges forwarding their personal notions in the equality courts of South Africa. In one instance, a judge belonging to the dominant class imposed a restriction on the rights of the blacks to sing their struggle song by employing questionable reasoning. Even in India, we have seen that in the late 1990s, the Supreme Court delivered a number of judgments expounding on the philosophy of Hindutva, while allowing political speeches and pamphlets grossly asking for votes based on religious lines. More recently, we have seen Justice Sen of the Meghalaya High Court and Justice Chitambaresh of the Kerala High Court, speaking through religiously coloured words. This depicts how discriminatory tendencies remains embedded in the judiciary, which dangerously ‘continues to favour the socially and economically dominant members of the society.’  

For successful functioning of the equality courts, it is necessary to secure the judges from being dominated by their discriminatory ideologies. They are one of the most important elements responsible for the success or failure of a justice system as they speak for the courts and their actions determine the level of confidence public shares for the entire institution. If we want people to approach the equality courts, we must first ensure that the Judges are well trained and properly sensitized to handle the matters of discrimination. Therefore, Clause 4 of Section 24 of the Equality Bill, which states that ‘Every judge presiding over a designated Equality Court shall receive a prior training on this Act, in the manner as may be prescribed under the Rules’, becomes extremely important and practically significant.

Apart from judicial sensitization, the Government would also need to ensure that the public is adequately aware of the equality courts and that they are accessible in terms of finances and judicial process. It is disheartening to see that the Government has decreased the Budget for the law and justice and has only earmarked one crore rupees for the advancement of transgender persons under the Transgender Persons Bill. Unless proper awareness campaigns are organized to educate people about their rights under the Bill and the judicial process required to be followed for their enforcement, the equality courts might end-up being just another theoretical attraction.

The courts could be based on the South African model, which has tried best to remove the barriers faced by public while approaching a court. It has made the courts to function in an informal manner, with case filing being nearly inexpensive for litigants and has provisioned for equality clerks as a guide for the litigation. We must ensure that the courts ‘operate with innovative and creative procedural and evidentiary rules that aim to maximise access to justice for victims of discrimination.’

Another important task for the Government shall be to ensure that the poor and underprivileged people have regular access to the courts. It has been noted by the South African Human Rights Commission that: “Equality Courts are not being utilized by the poor and vulnerable.Majority of the complaints are filed by the dominant class people, who hire best lawyers ‘to overpower the undereducated complainants.’ Unless these deficits are overcome in our system, we might fail to achieve the noble aims of the Equality Bill.

Concluding Remarks

The demand for a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is long pending and multiple attempts have been in the past. The reason is simple: it enlists the equality aspirations and non-discrimination responsibilities of the people in a specific and explicit manner, unlike the Constitution that has provided us with the overarching principles. The central stage is always afforded to the implementing body, which ensures that the statutory promises and objectives are fulfilled in their best essence. The constitution of equality courts shall fulfil such purpose and shall help us in achieving the constitutional promise in a more effective manner through forums closer to the public. Once properly sensitized, the equality courts shall bring with themselves the people-friendly and innovative tools for addressing individual actions of discrimination and might possess the possibilities of meeting the transformational goal of the Constitution.  

Quoting from Narnia Bohler-Muller’s work: “the creation of the Equality Courts in South Africa presents us with numerous possibilities. They do not depict in and of themselves the end of oppression but they do provide us with the hope for the future.” Hoping the same for our mature democracy, we must now endeavour to shift the constitutional adjudication at the ground level.

The Sabarimala Judgment – I: An Overview

Earlier today, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held, by a 4 – 1 Majority, that the Sabarimala Temple’s practice of barring entry to women between the ages of ten and fifty was unconstitutional. While the case raised a host of complex issues, involving the interaction of primary legislation (statute), subordinate legislation (rules), and the Constitution, the core reasoning of the Majority was straightforward enough. On this blog, we will examine the Sabarimala Judgment in three parts. Part One will provide a brief overview of the judgment(s). Part II will examine some of the issues raised in the concurring judgment of Chandrachud J. And Part III will analyse the dissenting opinion of Indu Malhotra J.

Let us briefly recapitulate the core issue. The exclusion of (a class of) women from the Sabarimala Temple was justified on the basis of ancient custom, which was sanctioned by Rule 3(b), framed by the Government under the authority of the 1965 Kerala Hindu Places of Worship (Authorisation of Entry Act). Section 3 of the Act required that places of public worship be open to all sections and classes of Hindus, subject to special rules for religious denominations. Rule 3(b), however, provided for the exclusion of “women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.” These pieces of legislation, in turn, were juxtaposed against constitutional provisions such as Article 25(1) (freedom of worship), Article 26 (freedom of religious denominations to regulate their own practices), and Articles 14 and 15(1) (equality and non-discrimination).

In an earlier post, I set out the following map as an aid to understanding the issues:

(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?

While the judgments are structured slightly differently, this remains a useful guide. Here is a modified map, with the answers:

(1) Does the phrase “all classes” under the Act include “gender”? By Majority: Yes.

(2) Do Sabarimala worshippers constitute a separate religious denomination under Article 26, and are therefore exempted under the Act from the operation of Section 3? By Majority: No. Malhotra J. dissents.

2(a) Is Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules therefore ultra vires the 1965 Act? By Majority, logically following from (1) and (2): Yes. However, Nariman J., instead of holding it ultra vires, straightaway holds it unconstitutional under Articles 14 and 15(1). Malhotra J. – also logically following from 2 – dissents. 

(2b) 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? Does not arise.  

(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? Per Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J.: Yes, in theory. Per Chandrachud J.: No, because it violates constitutional morality. Per Nariman J.: No, because it violates Article 25(1), which stipulates that all persons are “equally entitled to practice religion.” Malhotra J.: Yes. 

(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)? Per Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J.: No, on facts. Per Nariman J.: Assuming the answer is yes, (3) answers the point. Per Chandrachud J.: No, on facts. Per Malhotra J.: Yes, on facts.  

An overview of the judgments handed down by the CJI and Khanwilkar J., and Nariman J., is provided below:

Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J. 

Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J. hold that the devotees of Lord Ayappa at Sabarimala have failed to establish that they constitute a “separate religious denomination” (paragraph 88 onwards). This is because the test for “separate denomination” is a stringent one, and requires a system of distinctive beliefs, a separate name, and a common organisation. The Sabarimala Temple’s public character (where all Hindus, and even people from other faiths) can go and worship, along with other temples to Lord Ayappa where the prohibition of women does not apply, leads the two judges to hold that it does not constitute a separate “denomination.” Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J. then hold that the fundamental rights chapter applies to the Temple, as it is governed by a statutory body (the Devaswom Board). Consequently, women have an enforceable Article 25(1) right to entry. This right is not undermined by a contrary right of exclusion because, on facts, excluding women does not constitute an “essential religious practice” that is protected by Article 25(1). This is because no scriptural or textual evidence has been shown to back up this practice (paragraph 122), and it is not possible to say that the very character of Hinduism would be changed if women were to be allowed entry into Sabarimala (paragraph 123). Moreover, on facts, this practice appears to have commenced only in 1950, and therefore lacks the ageless and consistent character that is required of an “essential religious practice” (para 125). Therefore – Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J. hold – since Section 3 of the 1965 Act prohibits discrimination against “any class” of Hindus, and the Temple is not a denominational temple, Rule 3(b) is ultra vires the parent Act, and therefore must fall (paras 132 and 141 – 142).

Nariman J. 

Nariman J. accepts, for the purposes of argument, that barring women of a certain age from accessing Sabarimala is an essential religious practice, and therefore protected by Article 25(1) (paragraph 25). However, he agrees with Misra CJI and Khanwilkar J that Sabarimala fails the rigorous test for a “separate denomination.” Article 26, therefore, is not attracted, and the proviso to S. 3 of the Act is not attracted (paragraphs 26 – 27). Therefore, even if there is an essential religious practice excluding women, this practice is hit by Section 3 of the Act, which provides for non-discriminatory access to all “classes” of Hindus (paragraph 28). This is further buttressed by the fact that the 1965 Act is a social reform legislation, and therefore, under Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution, can override the right to religious freedom (paragraph 28).

However, Nariman J. adds that even otherwise, this case involves a clash of rights under Article 25(1): the right of women to worship, and the right of the priests to exclude them. The text of Article 25(1) – which uses the phrase all persons are “equally entitled” to practice religion, decides the clash in favour of the women. (paragraph 29).

Even otherwise, the fundamental right of women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple is undoubtedly recognized by Article 25(1). The fundamental right claimed by the Thanthris and worshippers of the institution, based on custom and usage under the selfsame Article 25(1), must necessarily yield to the fundamental right of such women, as they are equally entitled to the right to practice religion, which would be meaningless unless they were allowed to enter the temple at Sabarimala to worship the idol of Lord Ayyappa. The argument that all women are not prohibited from entering the temple can be of no avail, as women between the age group of 10 to 50 are excluded completely. Also, the argument that such women can worship at the other Ayyappa temples is no answer to the denial of their fundamental right to practice religion as they see it, which includes their right to worship at any temple of their choice. On this ground also, the right to practice religion, as claimed by the Thanthris and worshippers, must be balanced with and must yield to the fundamental right of women between the ages of 10 and 50, who are completely barred from entering the temple at Sabarimala, based on the biological ground of menstruation.

And insofar as Rule 3(b) is concerned, Nariman J. holds it directly contrary to Article 15(1), and strikes it down.

Consequently, like the Majority – but using a different approach – Nariman J. holds in favour of the right of women to enter Sabarimala.

Navtej Johar v Union of India: Rethinking Rajbala, and the Way Forward

(This is the concluding post in our series of essays examining the Supreme Court’s judgment in Navtej Johar v Union of India. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Scroll.)

As the dust settles over Navtej Johar v Union of India, attention must turn to the future. When, last year, the Supreme Court delivered the famous privacy judgment, it was immediately clear that it was both important in its own right, but also, equally important in the possibilities that it opened up for future expansion of civil rights. Navtej Johar – as I mentioned in my initial essay – was itself made possible by the privacy judgment. And Navtej Johar – in turn – now opens up a series of possibilities. Here are three of them:

A. “Manifest arbitrariness” as a ground for striking down laws

As readers of the blog are aware, we have previously discussed the long judicial tussle between the “classification” and the “arbitrariness” tests under Article 14 of the Constitution. To cut the long story short, the traditional rational classification standard under Article 14 has always been deferential towards the State, and incapable of addressing complex inequalities. Arbitrariness was introduced to mitigate the shortcomings of the classification standard, but has itself ended up being rather … arbitrary. Notwithstanding that, there has always been controversy over whether the arbitrariness standard is limited to invalidating executive action (which would, essentially, reduce it to a glorified Wednesbury principle), or whether it can be applied to invalidate statutes as well.

In the Triple Talaq judgment last year, at least two judges out of five held that “manifest arbitrariness” could, indeed, be applied by courts to invalidate statutes. It was unclear whether the “swing opinion” – that of Joseph J. – endorsed this principle. Subsequent judgments (delivered by two judges) appeared to believe that it did. However, the controversy has now been set to rest. In Navtej Johar – as Abhinav Chandrachud points out in his guest post – all five judges partially strike down S. 377 on grounds of manifest arbitrariness.

What does this mean for civil rights? There is one immediate implication. Three years ago, in Rajbala v State of Haryana (which I have analysed here), the Supreme Court upheld the State of Haryana’s amendments to the Panchayati Raj Act, which had imposed educational, debt and property-based restrictions upon the right to contest Panchayat elections. The judgment expressly held that the “arbitrariness standard” could not – and would not – be applied to test the law under Article 14. As Mihir Naniwadekar pointed out at the time, there was a strong argument that the Rajbala bench was bound to apply the arbitrariness standard, under existing precedent. Two judges out of five believed so in Triple Talaq, when they expressly stated that Rajbala stood overruled on this point. And that view has not been vindicated by the verdict of all five judges in Navtej JoharRajbala, therefore, requires reconsideration.

(N.B. I should add that, as previously discussed on this blog, I do not think the arbitrariness standard – as it stands, and without further development – is constitutionally defensible. However, it is what it is.)

B. Discrimination as a contextual enquiry

Justice Chandrachud’s concurring judgment in Navtej Johar argues at great length that the question of whether a law or a rule has a discriminatory effect must be answered by taking into account the background social context in which the law operates. In 2013, in its judgment upholding Section 377, the Supreme Court in Koushal v Naz Foundation had held that in criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, the section only penalized “acts”, and not persons; consequently, the question of discrimination did not arise. In a detailed repudiation of this facile argument, Justice Chandrachud examines how, when Section 377 interacts with the existing social and moral proscriptions, its effect is to confine the LGBT+ community to the proverbial closet, causing great harm to their individuality, personhood, and dignity. Whatever the form of the law, therefore, its effect – when placed within the social context – is discriminatory.

This focus on effect and context has the potential to significantly advance discrimination jurisprudence in India. As an example, take once again the judgment in Rajbala v State of Haryana. While upholding educational disqualifications in that case, the Court noted that it was only education that allowed people to distinguish between right and wrong. What the Court didn’t take into account, however, was that despite our legal and constitutional framework, access to education continues to be skewed along caste, gender, and economic lines, for a multiplicity of reasons (ranging from stereotypes about women’s role in the family, to simple economic stress that does not permit the luxury of sending children to school). This has been pointed out repeatedly, and is well-documented. For example:

A glimpse at Haryana’s background tells us how deeply it is entrenched in patriarchy. It has one of the most skewed sex ratios in India — 877 overall and 837 in the 0-6 year age group. Male literacy rate is 85 pc, against 66 pc for females, a significant gap.

 

Therefore, while the law in Rajbala appeared to be about incentivizing education (a laudable goal), its effect was to further marginalize from the political process those who were already most marginalised. If Chandrachud J.’s reasoning in Navtej Johar is followed, this background context cannot be ignored.

The Supreme Court has an immediate opportunity to correct its error in Rajbala: the State of Rajasthan passed a very similar law at around the same time, which is yet to be adjudicated upon by the Court.

It is, after all, never out of season to dream.

 C. Analogous grounds

In her concurring opinion, Justice Indu Malhotra argues that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution. Article 15(1) prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, race, religion, caste, and place of birth. Justice Malhotra takes the view, however, that Article 15(1) covers not only these five stipulated grounds, but also “analogous” grounds: that is, characteristics that bear a family resemblance to sex, race, religion etc. What is common to the “grounds” under 15(1) – Justice Malhotra argues – is that they are either immutable (i.e., impossible or extremely difficult to change), and/or deeply linked to personal autonomy. Sexual orientation, thus, is an “analogous ground”, and therefore protected under Article 15(1).

Malhotra J.’s interpretation is difficult to sustain on the text of Article 15(1), which makes it clear that it refers to a “closed list of grounds” – i.e., the Court cannot add to the five grounds stipulated therein. However, if Justice Malhotra’s view is accepted in future judgments, it does open up Article 15(1) to a range of discrimination claims: for example, age, disability, political belief, and economic status are just a few of the possible “grounds” that can be invoked as analogous, and therefore, protected by a non-discrimination guarantee. Here, once again, the Court must tread carefully, and develop the law in an incremental and rigorous fashion.

Conclusion

For a long time now, the Indian Supreme Court’s thinking on issues of equality and non-discrimination has been static. This is contrary to other jurisdictions such as Canada and South Africa, where judges have deepened their understanding of these questions, over time. Navtej Johar’s judgment provides us with a gateway to updating our own understanding of Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution, to match with ever more sophisticated accounts of what constitutes inequality and discrimination. However, it is only the foundation stone: the future development of the law is now in the hands of the courts.

Guest Post: Navtej Johar v Union of India – On Intersectionality (We’re not quite there yet)

(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.)

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.

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

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,”