Tag Archives: Equality

Notes from a Foreign Field: The South African Constitutional Court’s Decision on Gender Equality and Customary Marriages

(This guest post, on a recent judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, is authored by Tim Fish Hodgson. Tim works on socio-economic rights, is based in Johannesburg and is a former law clerk of Justice Zakeria Yacoob. He is cricket nerd, a law jock and identifies as a heretic. He tweets from @TimFish42. He writes in his personal capacity.)

On 30 November 2017, the Constitutional Court of South Africa handed down an important judgment in Ramuhovhi, which consolidates and expands its body jurisprudence on gender equality in customary marriages and in terms of the recognition of customary marriages.

Ms Munyadziwa Netshituka, a black woman from South Africa’s poor, largely rural, Limpopo province was married to Mr Musenwa Joseph Netshituka. Ms Netshituka was not, however, the only Ms Netshituka to whom Musenwa was married. During his lifetime he concluded both civil and customary marriages with Munyadizwa and customary marriages with three other women: Tshinakaho, Masindi and Diana. Polygamous marriages are permitted in terms of Venda custom.

Musenwa died in 2008 and a dispute arose about how his property should be divided. In Venda customary law, ownership and control of marital property is reserved solely for husbands. However, Mr Netshituka’s will clearly indicated that he believed that he and Munyadizwa were married in community of property and had a “joint estate”. Indeed Munyadizwa was the registered as half-owner of valuable immovable property upon which the Why Not Shopping Centre is located.

When litigation was initiated, Munyadizwa was Mr Netshituka’s only remaining spouse at customary law (Tshinakaho, Masindi and Diana were all deceased). Upon Mr Netshituka’s death two of his sons (those of Tshinakaho and Masindi respectively) sought to challenge Munyadizwa’s right to ownership of this property in particular, and (as indicated above) they based their claim on Vedna customary law. And, if they had succeeded in proving the application of Venda customary law, this argument would have prevailed, potentially leaving Munyadizwa in a treacherous financial position.

Customary law in South Africa’s constitutional democracy

However, in South Africa’s constitutional dispensation customary law cannot be read in isolation. Venda customary marriages, like all other customary marriages, are also protected in terms of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (The Act). This includes both monogamous and polygamous relationships.

The Act was passed by Parliament in 1998 to give effect to the South African Constitution, which specifically contemplates protection of “marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law”. This Act is therefore of considerable importance. According to the Constitutional Court, it:

“represents a belated but welcome and ambitious legislative effort to remedy the historical humiliation and exclusion meted out to spouses in marriages which were entered into in accordance with the law and culture of the indigenous African people of this country.”

Moreover, as with all other laws, traditions and practices in South Africa, the provisions of the Act must comply with the Bill of Right’s powerful protection of equality. The “achievement of equality” is a founding value of the Constitution, which also entrenches the right to “equal protection and benefit” of the law. It explicitly outlaws discrimination based on both “gender” and “sex”. Furthermore, when customary law is inconsistent with the Constitution, courts are required to “develop” it to ensure that it “promote[s] the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights”.

Women in Munyadziwa’s position have frequently needed to call on these constitutional provisions to ensure their own protection in terms of customary law. Without them, the Act itself is insufficient. It treats different marriages differently with serious consequences for women. Section 7(1) of the Act regulates such consequences of marriages concluded before the Act’s commencement (“old marriages”) while section 7(2) of Act governs those concluded after the Act’s commencement (“new marriages”).

 The basic and disastrous difference is that while “new marriages” are treated as marriages in community of property (where all property is shared equally between the spouses), the proprietary consequences of “old marriages” remain regulated by customary law. To return to the facts of this case, Mr Netshituka’s sons were therefore relying on the fact that the present case featured an “old marriage”, and therefore, Venda customary law (and not the “community of property” regime under Section 7(1)) would apply.

 The Constitutional Court and customary marriages

 The Constitution Court can (and should) be criticised from a feminist perspective. It has failed to identify, disregarded or ignored gender-specific arguments presented to it by women more often than it should have. It has also handed down some startlingly regressive judgments. Its infamous judgment(s) in Jordan, for example, unanimously refused to strike down legislation criminalising sex work saying: “dignity of prostitutes is diminished not by [the law] but by their engaging in commercial sex work”.

Nevertheless, overall, it has through its jurisprudence committed itself to the protection of formal and substantive equality for women. It has also, at times, been alert to systemic sexism in the form of patriarchy. It has described gendered patterns of behavior and gender-stereotypes as “a relic and a feature of the patriarchy which the Constitution so vehemently condemns”. Its broad position on gender equality has been no different in cases on African customary law.

In 2008, in Gumede, the Constitutional Court had already declared section 7(1) to be unconstitutional to the extent that it applied to monogamous “old marriages”. In coming to this conclusion, it reasoned that this provision is “self-evidently discriminatory” on the ground of gender. It was emphatic that the continued application of the provision in the context of Ms Gumede, an isiZulu women living in the KwaZulu-Natal province, negatively “affected wives in customary marriages” because they “are considered incapable or unfit to hold or manage property”. Women, the Court continued, are “expressly excluded from meaningful economic activity in the face of an active redefinition of gender roles in relation to income and property”.

The task in front of the court in Ramuhovhi, then, was simply to decide whether its reasoning in Ms Gumede’s case on monogamous “old marriage” could be extended to Munyadziwa’s case on polygamous old marriages. Quoting heavily from Gumede the Court confirmed that section 7(1) of the Act “perpetuate[s] inequality between husbands and wives” in old marriages. More specifically, it found that the provision clearly had the effect of violating Munyadziwa’s right to dignity and her right not to be discriminated against based on her gender and marital status. As a result, the challenge to Munyadizwa’s right to own, inherit and control marital property thus failed.

In its judgment, the Court also considered whether s 7(1) could be saved by s 7(4) of the Act. Section 7(4) permits couples to “jointly” approach a court to change the matrimonial property system applicable to “their marriage or marriages”. The Court’s response speaks to a strong understanding of unequal power relations between men and women in South African society. Describing s 7(4) as “cold comfort, if not pie-in-sky” for most women the court reasoned:

“The fact of not owning or having control over marital property renders wives in pre-Act polygamous marriages particularly vulnerable and at the mercy of husbands. They cannot be in an equal-bargaining footing for purposes of reaching agreement to make an approach to court in terms of section 7(4). In fact, some may even be cowed not to raise the issue at all.”

To cap off this reasoning the court added that it “it does not require rocket science” to know that most women “may not even be aware of the existence of the provisions of section 7(4)”. This observation is undoubtedly correct. A mere 46% of South Africans have ever heard of the existence of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, while a depressing 10% of people had ever read the Constitution or had it read to them. If people do not know their fundamental constitutional rights it takes legal fiction of science-fiction like proportions to imagine these same people will know complicated, hidden provisions of laws on the statute books.

Customary law and colonialism

 It is worth noting that the Constitutional Court has been particularly careful to respect customary law and to acknowledge the genesis of its patriarchal problems in its judgments. These problems have their origins both in patriarchal African cultures and their “formalisation and fossilisation” but Dutch and British colonial powers and the apartheid government. Therefore, though the court does not deny that patriarchy “has always been a feature of indigenous society” in Bhe it observed that:

“At a time when the patriarchal features of Roman-Dutch law were progressively being removed by legislation, customary law was robbed of its inherent capacity to evolve in keeping with the changing life of the people it served, particularly of women. Thus customary law as administered failed to respond creatively to new kinds of economic activity by women, different forms of property and household arrangements for women and men, and changing values concerning gender roles in society. The outcome has been formalisation and fossilisation of a system which by its nature should function in an active and dynamic manner.”

The result was the development “a particularly crude and gendered form of inequality, which left women and children singularly marginalised and vulnerable” in African customary law which was “recorded and enforced by those who neither practised it nor were bound by it”. These people were white settler colonialists.

The Constitutional Court’s approach to these cases has therefore been to prefer to acknowledge the organic development of “living customary law” – which is developing in a diverse and dynamic manner constantly – instead of repeating the colonial approach of strictly imposing rules from the judges’ lofty positions.

The Court’s understanding of patriarchal power imbalances, combined with its recognition that “those who were bound by customary law had no power to adapt it”, has made it very receptive to women who have approached the court in search protection. It is also critical in dispelling the myth that black African cultures and customs are any more or less patriarchal then the rest of South African society. Patriarchy, the Court rightly observes, “has worldwide prevalence”.

Constitutional promises and constitutional realities

However, as is often the case, paper-based legal protection provides paper-thin protection to women in reality. As retired Justice Zakeria Yacoob has said, contrary to the popular belief of human rights lawyers and bourgeois elites in particular, “our Constitution did NOT create the society it envisaged”. In truth, no Constitution can. Such is the pernicious and ubiquitous impact of patriarchy amongst all customs, cultures and races in South Africa.

And so, almost 20 years after the formal recognition of customary marriages in terms of the Act, women such as Munyadziwa Netshituka bravely continue to approach South African courts clutching onto “the right to equal protection and benefit of the law”. They do so simply to access the rightful benefits of their marriages and life’s work. Sadly, they often also seek protection from both their marriages, families, communities and the law itself.

But translating the constitutional promise of gender equality into a constitutional reality cannot be the business of courts alone. A monumental societal shift is needed. Women like Ms Gumede, Ms Netshituka, Ms Bhe and Ms Shilubana all around South Africa are pushing for this change on daily basis. Too many men refuse to budge, accepting instead the continued spoils of patriarchy. For as long as we men – whether white Jewish men, black Venda men, or Indian Muslim men – continue to endorse and support patriarchy, women will have to continue to fight back using any means they have at their disposal.

To paraphrase the Constitutional Court’s rhetorical question in its judgment in Ramuhovhi, on of the key questions remains: “how many [men] would readily give up their position of dominance?” If the number does not increase dramatically, exponentially and urgently, for all the constitutional protection provided to women (and all the beautiful prose in the Constitutional Court’s judgments), they will continue experience the society in envisioned in the Constitution as elusive: more fiction than fact.


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Filed under Gender Discrimination, south africa

The Leprosy PIL: A Chance to Rethink Equality under Law

Today, the Supreme Court issued notice on a petition filed by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy challenging provisions from as many as 119 statutes, which discriminate against people with leprosy. The petition follows the 256th Law Commission Report, which highlighted the discriminatory legal landscape against persons with leprosy, and called for its elimination.

The petition challenges these statutes (that range from election disqualifications to employment discrimination) on the expected grounds of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. I suggest, however, that this case provides, in addition, an opportunity to the Supreme Court to reconsider and evolve its jurisprudence of equality, which has been rather sterile in recent years (and decades). This opportunity exists because leprosy, insofar as it has been a historic site for group-based discrimination, is similar to the prohibited characteristics under Article 15(1) (race, caste, sex etc.), but of course, does not fall within any of them. Consequently, while the equality-based challenge to these discriminatory statutes will have to be made under Article 14, the Court can advance a theory of discrimination that dispenses with the classic intelligible differentia/rational nexus test under Article 14, and applies a higher threshold of scrutiny in circumstances where the ground of discrimination is similar to, but does not fall within, the listed grounds under Article 15(1).

Note that this is not unprecedented. The Delhi High Court did exactly this when it read down Section 377 of the IPC in 2009. The Supreme Court overturned that judgment in 2013, without undertaking any analysis of the High Court’s 14-15 synthesis.

I have written an article that defends this view, and considers its extension to exactly the kinds of laws under challenge in the present petition – i.e., those that discriminate against people with leprosy. The article can be accessed here.




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

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

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

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

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

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

Narasu Appa Mali

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

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

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

Personal Laws as ‘Laws in Force’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of Personal Law in India

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

  • Mountstuart Elphinstone,

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

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

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

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

‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ under the Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

The Invalidation of S. 2(q) of the Domestic Violence Act: A Comment

Last week, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down Section 2(q) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 [“DV Act”], on the basis that it violated Article 14 of the Constitution. Section 2(q), which is part of the definitional clause of the DV Act, read:

“…”respondent” means any adult male person who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the aggrieved person and against whom the aggrieved person has sought any relief under this Act:

Provided that an aggrieved wife or female living in a relationship in the nature of a marriage may also file a complaint against a relative of the husband or the male partner.”

To understand what, precisely was at issue, it is also important to set out the definitions of “aggrieved person” and “domestic relationship”. Section 2(a) defined an “aggrieved person” to mean “any woman who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the respondent and who alleges to have been subjected to any act of domestic violence by the respondent.” Section 2(f) defined domestic relationship as “a relationship between two persons who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household, when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family.”

The effect of Section 2(q), therefore, was that insofar as a domestic relationship was concerned, an aggrieved woman could proceed only against male perpetrators of domestic violence. However, if the domestic relationship was a marriage or a relationship in the nature of a marriage, the aggrieved woman could file complaints against the relative of her husband/male partner. It is important to note that it is, by now, settled law, that under the proviso to Section 2(q), women could be respondents. Consequently, the distinction drawn by S. 2(q) was between marriages/relationships in the nature of marriage on the one hand, and other domestic relationships on the other. In the former case, female relatives of the husband/male partner could be made respondents, while in the latter, a respondent could only be an “adult male”.

The Supreme Court found that this distinction was irrational, arbitrary, and contrary to Article 14. For the most part, the judgment is a textbook application of Article 14 doctrine, and needs no comment. However, a couple of interesting issues do arise out of the judgment, which deserve to be examined.

The first is the issue of legislative purpose under Article 14. Relying upon Shashikant Laxman Kale vs Union of India and Harbilas Rai Bansal vs State of Punjab, Justice Nariman held that the Statement of Objects and Reasons and the Preamble of the DV Act must be examined to discern its purpose. Reading the two together, he found that the purpose of the Act was to “provide for effective protection of the rights of women who are victims of violence of any kind occurring within the family.” (emphasis his) (paragraph 16) In light of the wide definition of ‘domestic relationship’, which included members of both sexes (paragraph 18), the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act that now made women co-parceners in a joint family (paragraph 18), the gender-neutral definition of “domestic violence” under Section 3 of the DV Act (paragraph 19), and the fact that the remedies under the Act (such as protection and residence orders) could easily be defeated if “respondent” was limited to adult male persons (paragraph 20), he then held that the classification under S. 2(q) failed the rational relation test under Article 14. This was not just true for “male”, but for “adult” as well, since it was easy to envisage 16 and 17- year olds engaging in acts of domestic violence within shared households (paragraph 24). The linchpin of Justice Nariman’s opinion, which he repeated, was that “the classification of “adult male person” clearly subverts the doctrine of equality, by restricting the reach of a social beneficial statute meant to protect women against all forms of domestic violence.” (paragraph 31) The phrase “domestic violence of any kind” was repeated in paragraph 36.

In short, therefore, the Court struck down S. 2(q) on the basis that the distinction it drew between the persons who could be arraigned as respondents in the case of marital relationships, and other kinds of domestic relationships, bore no rational relation with the purpose of the Act, which was to protect women against domestic violence of “any kind”, or of “all forms”. This legislative purpose was drawn from its statement of objects and reasons and the Preamble.

It is important, however, to draw a conceptual distinction between two kinds of “legislative purposes”. In the first sense, “legislative purpose” is what the legislature actually had in mind (to the extent that collective purposes make sense) when enacting the statute, something that a Court can determine by looking at the text and surrounding documents of the law. This is what Justice Nariman did in the present case. Call this the “intended purpose“. In the second sense, “legislative purpose” is a purpose that can be justifiable attributed to a statute, regardless of whether or not it was actually within the contemplation of the legislature while drafting the law. Call this the “justified purpose“. In this case, after having found that the stated purpose of the Act was to protect women against domestic violence of “all kinds”, and that the S. 2(q) classification did not serve this purpose, Justice Nariman did not ask (and indeed, the State did not propose) whether S. 2(q) could be plausibly justified in relation to any other possible legislative purpose. Here is one possible candidate:

The Domestic Violence Act understands “domestic violence” as not simply violent acts committed by one person upon another within a domestic setting, but as a problem that flows from differential, structural power relations between men and woman in the family (which is why only women can be complainants under the Act), and therefore, primarily seeks to prevent male-on-female violence. While we may disagree with this framing, it is within the realm of legislative discretion to make this call. This accounts for S. 2(q). However, the legislature was also cognisant of the fact that the marital relationship is a space where women are specifically vulnerable, in no small part because in many circumstances they must leave their homes and live with their husband’s family. Consequently, the legislature chose to carve out a proviso to S. 2(q) to deal with the heightened vulnerability of women in marital relationships.

I am not arguing that this restated purpose of the Domestic Violence Act would necessarily clear Article 14 scrutiny. It might be argued, for instance, that even if one is to accept the argument that domestic violence is structural and institutional, acts of domestic violence can and are committed by both men and women – and so, even if we were to take the above argument on its own terms, it would fail the test of rational classification (in that case, however, the Court would also have to explain why the legislature’s identification of the specific harm that it was seeking to prevent was irrational and could be overridden in a judicial enquiry). What I am arguing, however, is that principles of judicial deference and the presumption of constitutionality would require the Court to adopt a generous approach towards the determination of legislative purpose, which would include, at times, reconstructing legislative purpose in a manner that would make the strongest case for the constitutionality of the law. If, even then, the law failed Article 14 scrutiny, then of course, it would need to be struck down.

As an aside, it is also interesting to take note of the path that this judgment did not take. Recall that in Yusuf Abdul Aziz vs State of Bombay, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of adultery law against a gender-equality challenge (women are not liable in case of adultery) on the basis that it was saved by Article 15(3) of the Constitution (“special provisions for women and children”). An argument could have been made in this case that exempting a class of women from legal liability was exactly what was done in Yusuf Abdul Aziz, and upheld under Article 15(3). The problems with that approach are too many to list out here, and so, it is certainly a good thing that the Court showed no signs of retracing its steps along that road.



Filed under Article 14, Equality

The BCCI Controversy, Public Functions and Cultural Goods, and the Return (?) of the Functional Test

Last month, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Board of Control for Cricket vs Cricket Association of Bihar. The Court accepted most of the recommendations of the Lodha Committee, which it had established through its previous order in the same case, in January 2015, and directed their implementation. These recommendations included extensive restructuring of the BCCI (e.g., age limits, conflicts of interest, and so on). Unsurprisingly, this has proven controversial. Markandey Katju, the BCCI’s ‘legal advisor’, has strongly criticised the judgment for violating the separation of powers, and also for contravening the Tamil Nadu Societies’ Registration Act (under which the BCCI is registered) by judicially altering the terms of association of a private society.

There are, however, two separate questions here. The first is whether the BCCI’s structure and functioning is subject to judicial review at all, and if so, on what basis and under which principles. The second is whether the kind of systematic overhaul recommended by the Lodha Committee ought to be implemented by the judiciary, or by Parliament (Katju’s separation of powers argument). The two questions are tangled up, because it is only after providing a principled basis (if any exists) justifying judicial intervention into the workings of a (technically) private society such as the BCCI, can we then ask whether the manner in which the Lodha Committee did it was justified or not. For this, we need to go back to the Supreme Court’s January 2015 order.

The facts that led up to the passing of that order are rather complex, but very briefly, allegations of match-fixing had dogged the Indian Premier League (IPL). In response, the BCCI constituted a probe panel. The Cricket Association of Bihar filed a writ petition against this in the High Court of Bombay, and also filed another writ praying for the removal of the BCCI President as well as the cancellation of the franchise of two IPL teams. And in yet another proceeding, the Association challenged Rule 6.2.4. of the BCCI Regulations, which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL. After the Bombay High Court passed various orders on these proceedings, the matter reached the Supreme Court. On 8th October 2013, ‘with the consent of the parties’, the Supreme Court constituted a ‘probe committee’ to look into the allegations of match-fixing. The Probe Committee returned damning findings against both players and officials. On 16th May 2014, the Supreme Court then constituted an investigation team to help the Probe Committee conduct an enquiry into the specific accusations. Its report was placed before the Court towards the end of 2014. The Supreme Court then framed seven questions, including whether allegations of match-fixing stood proven, the quantum and nature of punishment, the legality of Rule 6.2.4., and consequential orders.

Before the Court could do any of that, however, it had to work out the exact relationship between the judiciary and the BCCI, an ostensibly private body. Consequently, the first question that the Supreme Court framed was:

“Whether the Board of Cricket Control of India is ‘State’ within the meaning of Article 12 and if it is not, whether it is amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India?”

The Court’s discussion of this question is contained in paragraphs 20 – 30 of the judgment. Previously on this blog, we have discussed the history of the Supreme Court’s Article 12 jurisprudence. Very briefly, for a few decades, the Court fluctuated between a ‘functional test’ (i.e., looking to the functions a body is performing in order to determine whether it could be equated to ‘State’ under Article 12, and therefore subject to fundamental rights claims), and a ‘legal’ test (i.e., whether the legal form of the body can be equated with that of the State). In Pradeep Kumar Biswas, and then in Zee Telefilms, the Court finally – and decisively – adopted the legal test, holding that a body fell within Article 12 only if it was “functionally, financially or administratively” under the control of the State.

However, while the Supreme Court ultimately decided upon a narrow interpretation of Article 12, in a parallel set of cases, it began to develop a jurisprudence around ‘private bodies dealing with public functions’. The genesis of this was Justice Mohan’s concurring opinion in Unnikrishnan, where he held that educational institutions discharged a public duty, which require them to “act fairly“. This approach saw its culmination in the Zee Telefilms Case – which, as a matter of fact, was about the Article 12 status of the BCCI (!). After holding that the BCCI was not State under Article 12, on an application of the control test, the Court then went on to observe that ““it cannot be denied that the Board does discharge some duties like the selection of an Indian cricket team, controlling the activities of the players and others involved in the game of cricket. These activities can be said to be akin to public duties or State functions and if there is any violation of any constitutional or statutory obligation or rights of other citizens, the aggrieved party may not have a relief by way of a petition under Article 32. But that does not mean that the violator of such right would go scot-free merely because it or he is not a State. Under the Indian jurisprudence there is always a just remedy for violation of a right of a citizen. Though the remedy under Article 32 is not available, an aggrieved party can always seek a remedy under the ordinary course of law or by way of a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution which is much wider than Article 32.”

A private body discharging public functions, therefore, could be subject to the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under Article 226, for the vindication of the rights of citizens (for a discussion of what exactly this might mean, see the comments to this post).

Let us come back to the BCCI judgment. From paragraph 20 to 29, Thakur CJI recounted the judicial history of Article 12, with its culmination in Zee Telefilms. In paragraph 30, he explained why, in his view, the BCCI was performing a ‘public function’. The reasons can be broadly summarised as follows:

  • The BCCI had complete control over the game of cricket in India (including control over the careers of players)
  • The BCCI’s activities were of considerable financial scope (infrastructure, expenditure on coaches, pension schemes, selling broadcast and telecast rights)
  • The BCCI was exercising these functions with the “tacit concurrence” of the government, which had chosen not pass any law diluting the BCCI’s monopoly.

For this reasons, Thakur CJI held that the BCCI would be subject to “the standards generally applicable to judicial review of State action.” Later in the judgment, he noted that the setting up of the Probe Committee “was issued in exercise of appellate powers vested in this Court in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution” – thus linking the Court’s actions to the public function test, via Article 226.

After an extensive discussion of the match-fixing itself (which need not concern us here), the Court moved on to the validity of Rule 6.2.4., which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL and other T20 tournaments. Note that, technically, Rule 6.2.4. was an internal regulation of a private society, something that the Court had repeatedly held was (more or less) beyond judicial scrutiny (see, e.g., Zoroastrian Cooperative and other cases). In paragraph 69, this was Thakur CJI’s response:

We have, while dealing with question No.1 above, held that BCCI is amenable to writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution as it discharges “Public Functions”. The natural corollary flowing from that finding is that all actions which BCCI takes while discharging such public functions are open to scrutiny by the Courts in exercise of their powers under Article 226 of the Constitution. It also implies that such actions shall when under scrutiny be judged by the standards and on principles that govern similar actions when taken by the State or its instrumentalities. The approach which a Court exercising powers of judicial review of administrative action adopts will remain the same irrespective of whether the action under review is taken by the State or its instrumentality or by any non statutory non government organisation like the BCCI in the case at hand. It follows that Rule 6.2.4 will be subject to the same tests and standards as would apply to any similar provision emanating from a statute or the general executive power of the State.”

There is, however, a crucial elision in the two underlined portions. In the first, the Court made the (uncontroversial) claim that when adjudicating upon the performance of a public function, it would exercise its jurisdiction following principles of judicial review of administrative action (that is, the Wednesbury standards, or one of its variants, most of which are marked, to different degrees, by judicial deference). However, at the end of the paragraph, the Court equated judicial review of Rule 6.2.4. to that of a statute, or executive action. This, however, is an entirely different standard altogether. When considering a challenge to a statute or to an executive act, the Court, far from employing standards governing judicial review of administrative action, tests the statute for compliance with legislative competence, and with Part III. In other words, if Rule 6.2.4. is akin to a statute, then Part III would apply to it directly, in the same manner as if the BCCI was State under Article 12 – which, as we have already seen, it is not.

The waters were further muddied in paragraph 73, when Thakur CJI noted that “in the light of the Articles of Association, we find no infirmity in the amendment to Rule 6.2.4 in so far as the legislative competence (if we may use that expression) of the authority that brought about the amendment is concerned.” Surely, this usage is not innocuous!

Subsequently, considering Rule 6.2.4. on its merits, the Court invalidated it on two grounds: first, that in allowing a man to be a judge in his own cause, it violated principles of natural justice, noting specifically that “the significance of the principles of natural justice visa-vis Article 14 of the Constitution is no longer res integra. The principles have been held to be a part and parcel of the guarantee contained in Article 14.” Secondly, it struck the Rule down on grounds of public policy, holding that it defeated the “high ideals of fairness and objectivity in the discharge of public functions.”

Bracketing out the second argument for the moment, if we read paragraph 69 alongside the Court’s examination of Rule 6.2.4., then I would suggest that it is at least strongly arguable that the Court held that private bodies performing public functions are directly subject to Part III of the Constitution. It treated the BCCI’s internal regulations as a statute, and then applied Article 14 to it. This would seem to mark a return of the functional test through the back door, with the rider that since private bodies performing public functions are (technically) not ‘State’, you cannot go straight to the Supreme Court under Article 32, but must first go to the High Court under Article 226.

Such a position (I would submit) requires a close and careful definition of what, precisely, constitutes a ‘public function’. It is here that the Court’s analysis is not entirely satisfactory. The three reasons – complete control over cricket, large-scale financial stakes, and State concurrence – are indicative of public functions, but they are surely not determinative. Without any examination of what it is about cricket that makes a monopoly over it public in nature, or that gives financial transactions a public character, the analysis is incomplete; and the State concurrence point could be applied to any other field of work as well, where there is no existing statute.

In a recent article, Suhrith Parthasarathy provides an important justification. He writes that “in India, where cricket plays such a pervasive role, the sport would therefore have to necessarily be seen as a primary cultural good, one which, to borrow from another American, the philosopher John Rawls, is critical to the fulfilment of a person’s conception of a good life.” As Rawls (and many other scholars) have noted, human beings need access to a basic set of goods to be able to lead a dignified and full life. At a basic level these include access to food, shelter, and so on, but at a more abstract level, they also include intangible goods such as cultural and social membership. Communal participation in events such as popular sports constitute an important manner in which people establish meaning in their lives. Consequently, bodies that act as gatekeepers of access to cultural goods must be deemed to be performing public functions.

The access-to-basic-goods approach, I would suggest, ought to be the blueprint upon which the Supreme Court builds its private-bodies-public-functions approach. Arguably, we claim and enforce fundamental rights against the State primarily because of the power that it exercises over us, a power that gives it the ability to control access to the most basic human goods (such as life). Similarly, when non-State bodies wield and exercise such power (including power over cultural goods), then the too must be subjected to similar standards. Note that the kind of standards to which it would be subjected to would have to have a relevant link to the question of access (for instance, if a private body controlled the entire water supply of a community, we would impose standards of Article 15 non-discrimination upon it as far as distribution of water went; but would we also directly, and in the absence of a statute, impose the same standards upon its hiring policies?)

All this, of course, is independent of what the Supreme Court actually did, finally, which was to impose a whole new structure upon the BCCI through the Lodha Committee Report. I do not claim here that the access/public functions argument justifies such intervention (in fact, I do not think that it does). It is one thing to say that the BCCI is subject to public law or Part III standards, and quite another for an external authority to so fundamentally transform it. The debate on this second aspect will continue; on the first, however, the BCCI judgment provides us with an important platform upon which to further think through issues of public functions and public standards; and – arguably – it sets a precedent for applying Part III of the Constitution directly to private bodies performing public functions.


Filed under Article 12: Meaning of "State", Judicial Review, Public Functions, Public goods

Today: The Supreme Court’s nod to structural discrimination

In a judgment handed down today, the Supreme Court held that the de-boarding of a disabled passenger from a Spice Jet airplane was illegal and violated her rights. It also issued some guidelines with respect to the treatment of disabled persons at airports under existing laws and regulations. In addition, constitutional observers might find certain observations in paragraph 39 to be of interest. Justice Sikri notes:

“…equality is founded upon two complementary principles: non-discrimination and reasonable differentiation. The principle of non-discrimination seeks to ensure that all persons can equally enjoy and exercise all their rights and freedoms. Discrimination occurs due to arbitrary denial of opportunities for equal participation. For example, when public facilities and services are set on standards out of the reach of persons with disabilities, it leads to exclusion and denial of rights. Equality not only implies preventing discrimination (example, the protection of individuals against unfavourable treatment by introducing anti-discrimination laws), but goes beyond in remedying discrimination against groups suffering systematic discrimination in society. In concrete terms, it means embracing the notion of positive rights, affirmative action and reasonable accommodation.”

What is striking about this passage is the complete absence of the language of intention/motive in defining discrimination. As we have discussed extensively on this blog before, the dominant approach (with the odd exception) of the Indian Supreme Court towards equality has been to understand the word “grounds” under Article 15(1) [“The State shall not discriminate on grounds only of…”] as qualifying “the State”, and thereby, holding that discrimination exists only if it can be shown that it was the intention, or purpose, of the law to discriminate. This approach is based upon a belief that discrimination is comprised of a set of conscious, intentional, definable, and individual acts.

This, however, is no longer the model followed in many other jurisdictions. Courts now focus upon the effects of government policy or laws, with the understanding that even seemingly neutral norms have the effect of excluding and subordinating people and groups by virtue of the fact that these norms are part of a non-neutral system of structures and institutions.

The underlined portions of the above excerpt strongly endorse the structural, effects-based model. They shift the emphasis from the reasons or motivations governing the discriminatory action, to the right of the discriminated group to enjoy equal access to public goods. And they also place the focus upon remedying systemic discrimination.

While these remain incidental observations of a two-judge bench, it is important to acknowledge that they provide an alternative approach towards equality under the Constitution, with admirable lucidity and clarity. In that sense, today’s judgment is of significance.

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Filed under Disparate Impact, Equality, Non-discrimination

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

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

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

Polis and Oikos: The Privacy of the Ancients

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

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

Public and Private: The Privacy of the Moderns

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

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

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

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

Community and Individual: Privacy in Colonial India

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

The Ambiguity of Gobind v State of MP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sareetha; Reasoning and Outcome

A. Privacy as Individual Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Justice Brandeis and the Balance of Power

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

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

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

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

C. Article 14 and Indirect Discrimination

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

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

The Radicalism of Sareetha

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


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

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

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


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


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