Guest Post: Misinterpreting Harsora – Male Complainants and the Domestic Violence Act

[This is a guest post by Mohammad Zayaan.]

On 29.11.2021, the Judicial Magistrate (1st class), Jammu [hereinafter ‘Magistrate’], took cognisance of a complaint filed by a husband against his wife under Section 12 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 [hereinafter ‘Act]. The Order handed by the Magistrate [hereinafter ‘order’] identifies the judgments in Hiralal P. Harsora v. Kusum Narottamdas Harsora [hereinafter ‘Harsora’] and Mohammad Zakir v. Shabana [hereinafter ‘Zakir’] as sufficient grounds to proceed against a wife under Section 12 of the Act. No further reasoning is provided as to how the two judgements lead to such an interpretation.

This post is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the importance of a judicial magistrate in the criminal justice system in India and how taking cognizance of such an act- though at the lowest level- could lead to wide (and unnecessary) ramifications for the accused. Part-II deals with the ratio of the two judgments in Harsora and Zakir, and what they actually held. Part-III argues that the order was erroneous as it misapplied the ratio laid down in Harsora and used Zakir as a precedent incorrectly, thereby arriving at an erroneous conclusion.

The Important of a Judicial Magistrate

A Judicial Magistrate (Ist Class), under Section 29(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure [hereinafter ‘CrPC’] is empowered to pass any sentence authorized by law except the sentence of death, life imprisonment and imprisonment more than 3 years. They may also impose a fine up to Rs. 10,000. This amount has been increased to Rs. 50,000 in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. However, more importantly, they have the power to take cognizance of a complaint, which sets the entire criminal justice system in motion. Under Section 190 of the CrPC, Magistrates are empowered to take cognizance of offences after receiving a direct complaint from the aggrieved, upon a police report, upon information received from ant other person, or upon the concerned Magistrate’s own knowledge. In Nupur Talwar v. CBI, the Supreme Court of India noted as follows:

“We feel constrained to observe that at this stage, this Court should exercise utmost restraint and caution before interfering with an order of taking cognizance by the Magistrate, otherwise the holding of a trial will be stalled. The superior Courts should maintain this restrain to uphold the rule of law and sustain the faith of the common man in the administration of justice.”

Therefore, it is difficult for a higher court to scrutinize the process of taking cognizance by the magistrate. Consequently, erroneous orders given by magistrates in the backdrop of a fractured criminal justice system only increase the hardships faced by the accused.

What Harsora and Zakir held

In Harsora, two women (mother and daughter) filed two separate cases against their family members, alleging acts of violence on part of them. Three of the respondents were women, while one of them was a man. The case had been filed under Section 2(a) r/w Section 2(q) of the Act. Section 2(a) defines an aggrieved person as

“… 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(q) of the Act defined Respondent as:

“… 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.”

The three female Respondents filed an application in the Court of the Metropolitan Magistrate seeking their discharge from the case. They argued that Section 2(q) only encompassed adult males as respondents and since they are not a part of that class or category, a complaint cannot be made against them under these provisions. However, the Metropolitan Magistrate dismissed this application. This order was appealed before the Bombay High Court, which overruled the verdict of the Metropolitan Magistrate and held that the wording of Section 2(q) clearly excludes any person other than an adult male from the ambit of the act, and therefore, women cannot be Respondents in such cases. This was further appealed in the Supreme Court of India, where it was argued that Section 2(q) of the Act was discriminatory and violated Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Apart from other issues, the Supreme Court primarily dealt with the constitutional validity of Sections 2(a) and 2(q) of the Act. In its judgment, the Court struck down a part of Section 2(a) and read down the words ‘adult male’ from Section 2(q), which essentially meant that a woman could file a complaint under the Act against anyone, irrespective of their gender. This, however, was strictly laid down in context of the Respondent, giving women the liberty to file cases against other women who might be complicit in their abuse.

In Zakir, a single bench of the Karnataka High Court misinterpreted Harsora to hold that a man can also file a complaint under the Act. The High Court held that since the words ‘adult male’ were removed from Section 2(q), “any aggrieved person, in terms of DV Act, whether male or female, is entitled to invoke provisions of the Act”. However, the judge later withdrew this order on grounds of being ‘patently erroneous’ and restored the petition to the file. Therefore, the order in Zakir, notwithstanding the misinterpretation of Harsora, could not have been used as a precedent at all, as it had been subsequently withdrawn.

The Order

The Order given by the IInd Class Magistrate in Jammu essentially made two errors- firstly, it misinterpreted Harsora and repeated the error made in Zakir, and secondly, incorrectly relied on Zakir to support the misinterpretation. Not only was Zakir itself erroneous but was also withdrawn and therefore could not have been used as a precedent.

Harsora only stressed on who the respondents could be and did not deal with who could or could not file a complaint. The omitting of the words ‘adult male’ from Section 2(q) of the Act does not automatically imply that anyone could file a complaint under the Act, but only means that a case can be filed against anyone, rather than by anyone. Section 2(q) was struck down to expand the scope of the Act to include females who are complicit in acts of domestic violence, rather than to include men as complainants under the Act. The Court rightly looked at the Statement of Objects and Reasons of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill, a part of which reads:

“It is, therefore, proposed to enact a law keeping in view the rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution to provide for a remedy under the civil law which is intended to protect the woman from being victims of domestic violence and to prevent the occurrence of domestic violence in the society.”

Therefore, the law was essentially brought to tackle the cases of domestic violence against women, who are affected by such violence disproportionately. The intent of the legislation coupled with a literal interpretation of the text of legislation clearly excludes men from filing cases under the Act.

Guest Post: Deconstructing the Paternalism in Section 66(1)(b) – Treasa Josfine v. State of Kerala

[This is a guest post by Unnati Ghia.]

On 9th April 2021, the Kerala High Court in Treasa Josfine v. State of Kerala directed the State authorities to consider an application submitted by the petitioner (a female trainee engineer) for the post of a Safety Officer in Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd, on the grounds that she had been denied opportunity on the basis of her sex.

The petitioner’s grievance was that the notification published by the State inviting applications for the post applied only to male candidates, which was discriminatory under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. The counter affidavit filed by the State argued that the notification was in compliance with Section 66(1)(b) of the Factories Act, 1948. Section 66(1)(b) states that “no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6 A.M. and 7 P.M”. The submission of the State was that the post of a Safety Officer required the person so engaged to work round the clock, even during the night if required. Therefore, women could not be hired for this position under the provisions of the Factories Act. 

Reasoning of the Court

The Court in Treasa Josfine relied on two key decisions of the Kerala High Court. The first decision was that of Hindustan Latex Ltd. v Maniamma, which, in my opinion, does not appear to be a case under Section 66(1)(b). In Hindustan Latex, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court observed that special provisions for women under Article 15(3) constituted an exception to sex discrimination under Article 14.

In Leela v State of Kerala, another Division Bench took the view that Section 66(1)(b) was a beneficial provision under Article 15(3). The Bench held that Section 66(1)(b) ensured that women were not taken away from their families, and they were protected from the “hazards” of working at night.

The Court also relied on Vasantha R v Union of India, where the Madras High Court held Section 66(1)(b) to be discriminatory under Articles 14, 15 and 16. Interestingly, the Madras High Court observed the validity of Section 66(1)(b) must be tested under Articles 14 and 15(1) because it was a restriction on women, as opposed to being a protective provision under Article 15(3).

In Treasa Josfine, Justice Anu Sivaraman agreed that Section 66(1)(b) is a beneficial provision intended to protect women. However, the Court observed that the Factories Act was enacted at a different time and in a different socio-economic context, particularly with respect to the roles played by women in society. Given this context, Section 66(1)(b)’s force could only be utilised to protect women, but would not constitute a reason to deny them engagement and opportunity if they are fully qualified [paragraph 15]. On this basis, the Court set aside the notification and held it to be violative of Articles 14, 15 and 16. 

The premise of the Court’s decision in Treasa Josfine is that the change in the roles played by women as they shift from domestic labour to wage labour warrants a different interpretation of Section 66(1)(b) [paragraph 14]. The Court relies on the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya, which held that justifications founded in stereotypical assumptions about women do not constitute a valid basis for denying opportunity. In light of this, the Kerala High Court held the denial of opportunity to the petitioner under Section 66(1)(b) is “completely untenable and unacceptable”. 

Within this reasoning, it is not clear which stereotype has caught the scrutiny of the court and rendered the notification unconstitutional. The Court refers to the fact that women capably work round the clock jobs in several industries today. From this, one may infer that the assumption that qualified women cannot work in a night shift or beyond 7 p.m. is the problematic stereotype in this case. If so, the application of Babita Puniya to this case is valid. 

However, this does little to detract from Section 66(1)(b) as it stands — that women cannot be employed for tasks beyond 7 p.m. The issues identified by Sivaraman J. in the notification therefore stand equally true for the main provision. Yet, the constitutionality of Section 66(1)(b) vis-à-vis the decision in Babita Puniya was not examined by the Court. 

There are two reasons as to why the Kerala High Court in Treasa Josfine may have refrained from entering into this discussion. First, the Judge sitting singly was bound by the previous Division Bench decisions in Hindustan Latex and Leela, and was obligated to follow the position taken in those decisions. Second, the petitioner appears to have challenged the constitutionality of Section 66(1)(b) only to the extent that it impacted her participation in the selection process. 

In this post, I now present reasons for why Section 66(1)(b) cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny under Article 15, in light of the same principles as identified by the High Court. 

Unconstitutionality of Section 66(1)(b)

The premise of Section 66(1)(b) is that women do not have the capability to protect themselves in a job that requires them to work at night. Thus, the denial of opportunity to women under Section 66(1)(b) is justified on the basis of a need for security. What are the issues with this approach?

First, it presumes women to be hapless victims requiring robust protection from the State. This is not to say that the workplace cannot be an unsafe environment for women, but this could be addressed without victimising them. Second, the approach under Section 66(1)(b) places the burden of this protection on women themselves by completely removing them from a “dangerous” work environment, as opposed to taking steps to remedy the threat therein. 

Another rationale behind Section 66(1)(b) was highlighted by the Kerala High Court in Leela — the provision ensures that women would be able to take care of their families and that their children would not suffer. A similar argument was made before the Madras High Court in Vasantha R v Union of India. The Madras High Court held that women holding household duties is not a universal phenomenon, and did not constitute a reason for denying a night shift. 

Interestingly, this rationale was also explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in Babita Puniya. There, Chandrachud J. observed that the argument that women could not meet their requirements of service due to domestic obligations was itself predicated on the stereotype of such obligations resting solely on women. Women are often pushed into and limited to the domestic sphere by the patriarchy itself. This is why it is problematic to deny employment opportunities or benefits on the basis that women have to devote time to the home, because it further entrenches the public-private divide. 

On the basis of the anti-stereotyping principle in Babita Puniya then, Section 66(1)(b) cannot pass muster. An obvious response to this argument is that even if it employs a stereotype, it is a special provision permitted under Article 15(3). For instance, the Kerala High Court maintains that Section 66(1)(b) is a special and beneficial provision for women, intended to protect them from exploitation. Admittedly, provisions such as Section 66(1)(b) have posed a legal conundrum, because courts generally conflate provisions protecting or prima facie in favour of women as necessarily being materially beneficial to them. 

The perils of this form of “protective discrimination” in favour of women have already been acknowledged by the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg v. Hotel Association. In Anuj Garg, a law prohibiting women from being employed in establishments serving intoxicants was struck down because it ended up “victimizing its subject in the name of protection”. Such laws presume that women inherently lack agency, and thus are examples of State sponsored paternalism. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pointed out a similar phenomenon in the United States in the aftermath of Muller v Oregon. In Muller, the US Supreme Court upheld a statute that prohibited women from working for more than 10 hours a day, due to the “unique vulnerability” of women. The decision in Muller resulted in a series of “protective” labor laws for women, which prohibited night shifts, limited the loads they could carry and excluded them from certain jobs completely. According to Ginsburg J., these laws prevented women from competing with men, resulting in lower paying jobs, and also reinforced traditional gender roles — all in the name of “protection”. Subsequently, in the first case Ginsburg J. argued before the US Supreme Court, Justice Brennan observed that protective labor laws placing women on a pedestal were, on closer inspection, often a cage.

Similar forms of gender discrimination are justified by Indian courts under Article 15(3). In response, Gautam Bhatia for instance has argued that “special provisions” must bear some relation to the historical and structural subordination of women. This would ensure that the State must identify and attempt to remedy specific forms of disadvantage, as opposed to provisions that pay lip service to equality and limit the agency of women. 


Notably, states such as Maharashtra and Kerala have altered the position under Section 66(1)(b) by permitting the employment of women post 7 p.m. provided that all safety and security safeguards are met by the employer. This leaves the employment of women entirely to the option of the employer, but does little to incentivise them, especially given the benefit of a statutory justification to deny employment in the first place. In light of these reasons, Section 66(1)(b) must not be understood as a “special or beneficial” provision for women. Instead, laws that mandate safeguards and security for women at the workplace without removing them from the workplace altogether would be better suited to the objective of a “beneficial provision” for women. 

Guest Post: Nisha Priya Bhatia vs Union of India – Redefining the Scope of Sexual Harassment?

[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 (e.g., the introduction of structural mechanisms to ensure accountability)]

[This is a guest post by Megha Mehta.]

On 19.8.2008, Nisha Bhatia, a senior RAW officer [‘appellant’] attempted suicide in the reception of the Prime Minister’s Office to protest the mishandling of her sexual harassment complaint by RAW [‘PMO Incident’]. In April 2020, her long-standing legal battle finally culminated in a judgement by a Division Bench of the Supreme Court (Nisha Priya Bhatia v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 394) awarding her Rs. 1 lakh as compensation for the violation of her fundamental right to life and dignity under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

In this essay, I argue two points: first, this decision paves the way for radically redefining sexual harassment by extending its scope from unwelcome sexual behavior to all forms of gender-based discrimination at the workplace. Furthermore, it imposes positive institutional liability for failure to provide a safe and gender-sensitive working environment over and above that stipulated in the Vishakha guidelines (Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011), and the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 [‘POSH’]. Second, the Court, however, fails to apply this understanding of sexual harassment as a form of workplace discrimination while analyzing the mala fides of the appellant’s compulsory retirement by RAW.

Expanding the Scope of Sexual Harassment

A brief summary of facts: the appellant was directly recruited to RAW in 1988. She was posted as Director, Training Institute (Gurgaon) and Director at the Delhi HQ in July and August 2007 respectively. It was while serving in this capacity that she filed a sexual harassment complaint on 7.8.2007 against Mr. Alok Chaturvedi (Secretary (R)-In-Charge of RAW) and Mr. Sunil Uke (Joint Secretary-In-Charge) alleging that they had victimized her for refusing to join an internal sex racket.

The organization constituted an Internal Complaints Committee (‘ICC’), as required by the Vishakha guidelines, after a gap of almost 3 months. Moreover the said ICC did not contain a “third party, either NGO or other body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment” as stipulated in Vishakha. The ICC was ultimately reconstituted with the addition of one Ms. Tara Kartha (Director, National Security Council Secretariat) as third-party member in April 2008-evidently not a NGO or person associated with sexual harassment issues. When the appellant refused to participate in the ICC proceedings citing non-compliance with Vishakha and the lack of authority vested in the ICC to proceed against Mr. Chaturvedi, the ICC ex-parte concluded that no allegation of sexual harassment was made out. It was only after the infamous PMO Incident that the PM constituted an External Committee under the chairmanship of a retired female IAS officer, which also concluded that the sexual harassment allegation was not proved. However the External Committee reported in its findings that the appellant’s complaint was not given proper redressal, and that Mr. Chaturvedi as an employer had committed gross violation of the Vishakha guidelines.

In the meanwhile, the PMO, through the Press Information Bureau, released a press note on the PMO Incident stating that the appellant was in a ‘disturbed state of mind’ and suffering from psychiatric ailments (This was later quashed by the Supreme Court vide order dated 15.12.2014 as violative of the appellant’s human rights and dignity, but an archived copy of the note is available here). Subsequently, the appellant was compulsorily retired under Rule 135 of the RAW (Recruitment, Cadre & Services) Rules, 1975 [‘1975 Rules’] due to her being ‘exposed’ as an intelligence officer. It is out of the appellant’s constitutional challenge to Rule 135 and her retirement order, along with the various writ petitions filed by her seeking injunctive reliefs against the respondents that the decision in Nisha Priya Bhatia has arisen.

The Court, relying on the External Committee’s findings, held that the respondents (Union of India and RAW) had violated the appellant’s fundamental rights and were liable to pay her compensation as follows:

102. The scheme of the 2013 Act, Vishaka Guidelines and Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) predicates that a non-hostile working environment is the basic limb of a dignified employment. The approach of law as regards the cases of sexual harassment at workplace is not confined to cases of actual commission of acts of harassment, but also covers situations wherein the woman employee is subjected to prejudice, hostility, discriminatory attitude and humiliation in day to day functioning at the workplace…The factual matrix of the present case is replete with lack of sensitivity on the part of Secretary (R) qua the complaint of sexual harassment. To wit, time taken to process the stated complaint and improper constitution of the first Complaints Committee (intended or unintended) in violation of the Vishaka Guidelines, constitute an appalling conglomeration of undignified treatment and violation of the fundamental rights of the petitioner, more particularly Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

104. In the present case, the petitioner had faced exceedingly insensitive and undignified circumstances due to improper handling of her complaint of sexual harassment. Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry into the stated complaint, the fundamental rights of the petitioner had been clearly impinged. Taking overall view of the circumstances, we consider this to be a fit case to award compensation to the petitioner for the stated violation of her right to life and dignity, quantified at Rs.1,00,000 (Rupees one lakh only). Had it been a case of allegations in the stated complaint of the petitioner been substantiated in the duly conducted inquiry (which the petitioner had failed to do), it would have been still worst and accentuated violation of her fundamental rights warranting suitable (higher) compensation amount. (emphasis supplied)

The above discussion is an important step forward in Indian sexual harassment jurisprudence. In the United States, employment law scholars have long since critiqued sexual harassment law for being based on a ‘desire-dominance’ paradigm which places inappropriate sexual advances by men towards female colleagues at the center of the problem. This ignores the underlying structures of gender discrimination at the workplace which facilitate such behavior (Schultz, 1998, 2005). In the present case, Mr. Chaturvedi had allegedly commented to the appellant that instead of being worried about her career and children, she should find herself a man to ‘have fun’ with. Thus the appellant’s grievances stemmed not just from her supervisors’ pressurizing to join a sex racket, but from their overall discriminatory attitude, and a general organizational unwillingness to impose consequences for such sexist behavior.

The ‘desire-dominance’ paradigm is apparent in Indian sexual harassment law, inasmuch as both the Vishakha guidelines and POSH define sexual harassment only in terms of unwelcome behavior of sexual nature, and exclude other non-sexual forms of gender-based discrimination. The creation of a ‘hostile work environment’ is treated as sexual harassment only when it is connected with unwelcome sexual behavior (Vishakha, ¶16.2; POSH, Section 3), though employers are generally obligated to ensure safe working environments.

Further, though Vishakha recognizes sexual harassment as a violation of working women’s fundamental rights under Articles 14, 15, 19(1)(g) and 21, it is curiously silent on Article 16. There is no legal framework in India for recognizing sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination akin to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States. Rather, there is little emphasis on institutional liability under Indian law-while Vishakha does not expressly provide for employer liability (though it is implied that constitutional remedies are available), POSH only provides for the imposition of a criminal fine extending to Rs 50,000 for those who contravene its mandate (POSH, Section 26). This posits non-compliance as a criminal offence against the State and does not provide for any civil compensatory remedy to the complainant, though arguably the courts may direct that such a fine should be deposited in favour of the complainant under Section 357 of the CrPC.

Therefore Nisha Priya Bhatia is radical insofar as it expressly recognizes that regardless of whether her allegation is proved or not, a female employee may, as a matter of constitutional right, claim compensatory remedies from her employer for the creation of a hostile environment at the workplace. Further, this is treated as a distinct violation from the conventional definition of sexual harassment as the commission of unwelcome sexual acts, though the decision notes that the victim may claim a higher amount of compensation if such acts are proved. The terms ‘prejudice’ and ‘discriminatory’ are used broadly in the decision, and can hence be construed to account for the intersectionalities of gender, caste and class-based discrimination which female employees experience at the workplace. It can be hoped that in due course of time this protection will be extended to persons of all genders and sexualities who experience discrimination on account of not conforming to hegemonic standards of masculinity at the workplace. However, as Part II elaborates, this decision does not really break out of the ‘desire-dominance’ paradigm.

Sexual Harassment as a Labour Rights Issue 

Unfortunately, the reconceptualization of sexual harassment discussed in Part I comes only towards the fag end of the judgement. The Court does not apply this understanding of sexual harassment as a form of workplace discrimination while dealing with the validity of the appellant’s compulsory retirement by RAW.

The appellant had contended that Rule 135 of the 1975 Rules violates Articles 14 and 311 of the Constitution insofar as it confers the discretion to compulsorily retire an intelligence officer who is ‘exposed’, without the safeguard of an inquiry. Further, that her compulsory retirement was mala fide and an act of victimization. Though the Central Administrative Tribunal directed her reinstatement (while refraining from deliberating on the constitutionality of Rule 135), the Delhi High Court upheld the retirement order. The Supreme Court held, relying upon State of Bombay v. Saubhagchand M. Doshi, AIR 1957 SC 892 and State of U.P. v. Sri Shyam Lal Sharma, (1971) 2 SCC 514 that Article 311 is only attracted when the action being taken against a public officer is in the nature of a ‘punishment’ (¶29). Rule 135 is not covered by the scope of Article 311, as the order of compulsory retirement on grounds of ‘exposure’ did not entail any “charge, stigma or imputation” against the appellant (¶32). The Court further held, in reliance upon the Delhi High Court decision, that the order of compulsory retirement was not mala fide as it was justified on grounds of public interest (¶49) and that there is a presumption of “constitutional trust” in offices such as that of the PMO (¶57).

Additionally, the appellant’s prayer for amending the CCS (CCA) Rules, 1965, to provide adequate representation to sexual harassment complainants, was dismissed on the ground that it would infringe ‘separation of powers’ (¶94). This is even though the Court has, on previous occasion, directed the amendment of service rules and standing orders to give effect to the Vishakha guidelines (Medha Kotwal Lele v. Union of India, (2013) 1 SCC 311).

Therefore though the Court adopts a progressive understanding of sexual harassment while awarding compensation to the appellant, it sticks to the traditional gender-blind legal positivist perspective while upholding her retirement. The Court’s analysis fails to account for how transfers/premature retirements are frequently used as retaliatory tools in sexual harassment cases. Hence these can amount to ‘punishment’ so as to attract the application of Article 311. This is even though the decision notes that a ‘preliminary inquiry’ commencing 8.8.2008 (which is prior to the PMO Incident) had been conducted against the appellant on grounds that she was indulging in ‘misbehaviour’ and ‘unauthorized contact’ with the media. The Court observes that this inquiry indicates that the retirement order was not without application of mind (¶55). If that is so, then a certain level of ‘stigma’ was certainly sought to be attributed to the appellant. In this regard, the CAT order does a better job of analyzing how Rule 135 was ‘weaponized’, by noting that the reports recommending the appellant’s retirement may have been prepared by persons unfriendly to her (Nisha Priya Bhatia v. Secretary (PG & Coordination), Cabinet Secretariat, 2010 SCC OnLine CAT 549, ¶20-23).

It can be argued that from an intelligence organization’s perspective it seems perfectly rational to terminate the appellant’s services following such a highly controversial chain of events. However the conduct of the preliminary inquiry, along with the PMO’s press release, reveals a concerted effort to depict the appellant as a stereotypical hysterical/deluded female complainant, not a senior intelligence officer who was so traumatized by her hostile work environment that she was willing to set aside her repute (to the extent of stripping in court) and risk ‘exposure’ to bring attention to her cause. The fact that the appellant has borne such immense economic and psychological costs for bringing action against her employers, and their attempts to discredit her reputation, should prima facie have been interpreted as erasing any “constitutional trust” vested in them and prompted a more critical inquiry into their motivations for retiring her. Instead, the Court has effectively ‘settled’ the matter by awarding the appellant monetary compensation, which hardly corresponds to the loss of employment opportunity and the stigma of premature retirement.

Further, ¶99 of the decision notes that it was only after the PMO Incident that the sexual harassment inquiry was delegated to the External Committee, which ultimately found that there was gross violation of the Vishakha guidelines. The complete chronology of events (given in ¶53) strongly indicates that the appellant’s ‘exposure’ was a condition precedent to ‘exposing’ her hostile work environment. Upholding the appellant’s retirement effectively means that any female RAW officer who is sexually harassed by a superior would find herself in the catch-22 of either staying silent, or risking ‘exposure’ and losing her employment.

Pertinently, even in more conventional workplaces, Section 16 of POSH imposes a strict confidentiality requirement with respect to ICC proceedings. This is including the identity of the respondent therein, though information may be disseminated regarding ‘justice secured’ to a victim. Though this is presumably meant to safeguard the victim from stigma, it ties in with a general neo-liberal regulatory framework which ensures that workplaces can function without the hiccup of the inconvenience and disrepute caused by female labourers’ complaints.

If the Court had noted how sexual harassment is an institutional malaise as the starting point of its analysis, then perhaps the verdict on the compulsory retirement order would have been different. However, as the very first paragraph notes, the crux of the decision’s legal analysis is ultimately about maintaining the balance between the “security of a State organization” and the “individual interest of a person employed thereat as an intelligence officer”, not on holding the State responsible for ensuring safe working conditions for women. In this way labor rights jurisprudence treats sexual harassment at the workplace as the problem of the individual woman concerned, to be resolved discretely between her and her employer, rather than an employment discrimination problem for which the workplace is actively culpable.

As I write this, it is probable that labor laws in many states, if not nation-wide, will be suspended to facilitate industrial growth post the COVID-19 lockdown. This is even though the general negative economic impact of the pandemic is bound to exacerbate hostile work environments by forcing women trapped in financially precarious situations (particularly migrants and domestic workers) to submit to prejudicial and degrading conditions in exchange for work. Social distancing norms are likely to make workplaces prioritize the conduct of sexual harassment inquiries even lesser than they already do, though technology may be used to ease logistical difficulties. In such a situation it is all the more important that the State takes cognizance of preventing sexual harassment at the workplace as part of its constitutional obligation to ensure dignified working conditions, rather than just another brick in the wall of ‘crimes against women’.

All views expressed in the essay are personal.

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).


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 Sabarimala Judgment – III: Justice Chandrachud and Radical Equality

Justice Indu Malhotra’s dissenting opinion sets up a crucial constitutional question: how do you reconcile the Constitution’s commitment to pluralism – which entails respect for group autonomy – with the claims of equality and non-discrimination, addressed from within those groups? It is this question that is at the heart of Justice Chandrachud’s concurring opinion.

Chandrachud J. sets up the issue in the introductory part of his judgment, where he observes that the Indian Constitution is transformative in two distinct ways: first, in setting up the governing institutions of an independent republic, transitioning from colonial rule; but also, “placing those who were denuded of their human rights before the advent of the Constitution – whether in the veneer of caste, patriarchy or otherwise – … in control of their own destinies by the assurance of the equal protection of law” (paragraph 2). The reference to caste and patriarchy is important, because it acknowledges that discrimination is not limited to State action, or even to hostile individual action, but that it also flows from institutional design: caste and patriarchy are neither “State” nor an agglomeration of individual acts where you can attribute discriminatory agency to identifiable individuals. They are social institutions.

And because they are social institutions, their impact upon the lives of the people that they touch is not merely a private matter. In paragraph 5, therefore, Chandrachud J. observes:

Essentially, the significance of this case lies in the issues which it poses to the adjudicatory role of this Court in defining the boundaries of religion in a dialogue about our public spaces. (paragraph 5)

The use of the word “public spaces” is crucial, and especially when you juxtapose it with Malhotra J.’s dissenting opinion, which we discussed in the previous post. Recall that for Malhotra J., there was a distinction between a “social evil” like Sati – where a Court could potentially intervene – and a case like Sabarimala, where the challenge was based on irrationality or immorality. It is this public/private binary – social evil (public) and bare immorality (private) – that Chandrachud J. rejects, by framing the issue as about access to public spaces.

It is within this framework that Chandrachud J. begins his substantive analysis.

Essential Religious Practices 

After surveying the body of precedent concerning the ERP test – and also noting the shift from “essentially religious” to “essential religious”, that we have discussed on this blog – Chandrachud J.’s judgment has a section titled “The engagement of essential religious practices with constitutional values.” At the threshold, Chandrachud J. finds that the Respondents have failed to establish that the exclusion of women from Sabarimala is either an obligatory part of religion, or has been consistently practiced over the years. The evidence, at best, demonstrates the celibate nature of Lord Ayappa, but this in itself does not establish that exclusion of women is part of ERP (paragraph 51).

However, apart from the traditional and straightforward analysis of whether or not a religious claim amounts to an essential religious practice, Chandrachud J. also advances an important alternative argument: that “the test of essentiality is infused with … necessary limitations” (paragraph 50), limitations that are grounded in constitutional morality, and the constitutional values of dignity and freedom. So, at paragraph 55, Chandrachud J. notes:

The Respondents submitted that the deity at Sabarimala is in the form of a Naishtika Brahmacharya: Lord Ayyappa is celibate. It was submitted that since celibacy is the foremost requirement for all the followers, women between the ages of ten and fifty must not be allowed in Sabarimala. There is an assumption here, which cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. The assumption in such a claim is that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers would be caused by the presence of women. Such a claim cannot be sustained as a constitutionally sustainable argument. Its effect is to impose the burden of a man’s celibacy on a woman and construct her as a cause for deviation from celibacy. This is then employed to deny access to spaces to which women are equally entitled. To suggest that women cannot keep the Vratham is to stigmatize them and stereotype them as being weak and lesser human beings. A constitutional court such as this one, must refuse to recognize such claims. (paragraph 55)

As a piece of discrimination law reasoning this is, of course, impeccable. But there is something more at work here, which I want to highlight. Chandrachud J.’s observation that the effect of the celibacy argument “is to impose the burden of a man’s celibacy on a woman” is the crucial link between the denial of the right to worship (which Malhotra J., in her dissent, regards as a private, internal matter to religion) and the public aspect of this case. What Chandrachud J. recognises is that the justification offered to exclude women is an integral part of a far broader discourse that is founded on the exclusion and subordination of women in social and community life. This becomes clear two paragraphs down, where he discusses the stigma around menstruation (another justification that was advanced by the Respondents), and observes:

The stigma around menstruation has been built up around traditional beliefs in the impurity of menstruating women. They have no place in a constitutional order. These beliefs have been used to shackle women, to deny them equal entitlements and subject them to the dictates of a patriarchal order. (paragraph 57)

The phrase “patriarchal order” is an important one. It indicates that the exclusion of women from Sabarimala is not simply – as Malhotra J. would have it – a unique and particular feature of that specific religious community, and something that can be isolated from the broader world around it. Rather, the exclusion of women from Sabarimala on the grounds of celibacy and menstruation is one among countless ways in which patriarchy – as a social institution – works to keep women in a position of subordination.

Justice Malhotra and Justice Chandrachud, therefore, come at the issue from opposite angles. What Malhotra J. sees as a claim requiring that religion be subordinated to the diktats of morality, Chandrachud J. understands as challenge to one manifestation of patriarchal subordination itself. According to Chandrachud J., you cannot divide social life into different silos, and say that discrimination and subordination are fine as long as they stay within a defined silo. At least as far as religion and society are concerned, in the context of India, the silos are forever merged. As Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer said in the Constitutional Drafting Committee, “there is no religious question that is not also a social question.”

It perhaps needs to be noted that history is on Justice Chandrachud’s side. In India, temple-entry movements have a long history, and have always been framed in the language of civil rights, and access to public spaces. This was especially true of the great caste-based temple-entry movements of the 1920s and 30s (which are discussed later in the judgment). This substantiates the argument that in India, the “thick” character of religious life implies that you cannot simply wall it off from the rest of social life. Consequently, discrimination within religion is hardly an isolated event, like – for example – the non-appointment of a woman to a clerical post in an American Church, which was upheld by that Supreme Court. Rather, at the heart of Chandrachud J.’s judgment is the understanding that discrimination within religion both reinforces and is reinforced by, discrimination in broader social life.


This understanding is reinforced in what is undoubtedly the boldest and most radical part of Chandrachud J.’s judgment. An argument was made by the intervenors that the exclusion of women from Sabarimala amounts to “untouchability” within the meaning of Article 17. The Chief Justice and Nariman J. do not address this argument, and Malhotra J. rejects it on the ground that “untouchability” under the Indian Constitution is limited to caste-based untouchability.

Chandrachud J. disagrees. After a detailed survey of the Constituent Assembly Debates (which we have discussed previously on this blog, here), he correctly observes that there was no consensus in the Constituent Assembly over the precise scope and ambit of the phrase. But when you place the moment of constitutional framing within broader history, you have an answer:

The answers lie in the struggle for social emancipation and justice which was the defining symbol of the age, together with the movement for attaining political freedom but in a radical transformation of society as well. (paragraph 73)


Reading Dr Ambedkar compels us to look at the other side of the independence movement. Besides the struggle for independence from the British rule, there was another struggle going on since centuries and which still continues. That struggle has been for social emancipation. It has been the struggle for the replacement of an unequal social order. It has been a fight for undoing historical injustices and for righting fundamental wrongs with fundamental rights. The Constitution of India is the end product of both these struggles. It is the foundational document, which in text and spirit, aims at social transformation namely, the creation and preservation of an equal social order. The Constitution represents the aspirations of those, who were denied the basic ingredients of a dignified existence. (paragraph 74)

This reminiscent of Granville Austin’s famous line, that the fundamental rights chapter was framed amidst a history of fundamental wrongs. In these paragraphs, Justice Chandrachud argues that the meaning of fundamental rights ought be determined by asking the following question: what was the legacy of injustice that the Constitution sought to acknowledge, and then transform? That legacy was defined by social hierarchies and social subordination. At its most virulent form, this took the shape of caste untouchability. However, caste was not the only axis for exclusion from, and subordination within, the social order. There were others, prime among which was, of course, sex. Consequently, as Justice Chandrachud observes:

The incorporation of Article 17 into the Constitution is symbolic of valuing the centuries’ old struggle of social reformers and revolutionaries. It is a move by the Constitution makers to find catharsis in the face of historic horrors. It is an attempt to make reparations to those, whose identity was subjugated by society. (paragraph 75)

It is, of course, important not to overstate the case. Not every form of discrimination or prejudice can fall within Article 17. The framers did after all use the specific word “untouchability”, limiting the sweep of the Article only to the most horrific kind of discrimination. Chandrachud J. is aware of this, because he then goes on to justify why exclusion based on menstruation falls within Article 17:

The caste system represents a hierarchical order of purity and pollution enforced by social compulsion. Purity and pollution constitute the core of caste. (paragraph 76)

And of course, it is purity and pollution that are at the heart of excluding menstruating women – not just from temples but, as regularly happens in our country – from all forms of human contact during the menstrual period. Chandrachud J.’s important insight, therefore, is this: the social exclusion of a set of people (who are in any event historically subjugated), grounded in ideas about purity and pollution, amounts to a manifestation of the kind of “untouchability” that the Constitution seeks to prescribe. This does not mean, of course, that it is not caste-based untouchability that is at the heart of Article 17; nor does it seek to dilute the severity of that institution, or the Constitution’s commitment to wipe it out. What it does acknowledge, however, is that the same logic that is at the base of caste-based untouchability, also takes other forms and other manifestations. These manifestations may not be at the core of Article 17, but they do deserve its protection:

Article 17 is a powerful guarantee against exclusion. As an expression of the anti-exclusion principle, it cannot be read to exclude women against whom social exclusion of the worst kind has been practiced and legitimized on notions of purity and pollution. (paragraph 75)

And therefore:

The caste system has been powered by specific forms of subjugation of women. The notion of “purity and pollution” stigmatizes the menstruation of women in Indian society. In the ancient religious texts and customs, menstruating women have been considered as polluting the surroundings. Irrespective of the status of a woman, menstruation has been equated with impurity, and the idea of impurity is then used to justify their exclusion from key social activities. (paragraph 81) (internal footnotes omitted)

In an important way, this links back to the previous argument about essential religious practices. It is obviously absurd to compare the exclusion of women (and mostly upper-caste women at that) from a temple with “untouchability” as we understand it. But that is something that Chandrachud J. very consciously does not do. What he does do is to link the underlying basis of the exclusion in Sabarimala with something that goes far beyond, and permeates very layer of society: this is why he specifies that the idea of impurity justifies exclusion from “key social activities.” In other words, it is not about exclusion from worship, but – yet again – how that exclusion both reinforces and is reinforced by an existing and overarching set of discriminatory institutions and systems.

Exist, Pursued by a Bear: Narasu Appa Mali 

There is one more important thing that Chandrachud J. does in his concurrence. Noting that the exclusion of women has also been justified on the basis of “custom”, he examines – and overrules – the Narasu Appa Mali judgment on the specific point that customs are not subject to fundamental rights.

In terms of outcomes, this is not new: in Madhu Kishwar v State of Bihar, the Supreme Court has already held that customs are subject to fundamental rights. However, that case did not examine Narasu: here, Chandrachud J. does, and specifically finds that its reasoning is flawed.

This is very important, because Narasu also held that “personal law” – that is, uncodified religious law – was outside the scope of fundamental rights review. The reasoning for that was the same, and so, also stands discredited. As Chandrachud J. points out, the reasoning given by the Bombay High Court in Narasu – that, for example, the existence of Article 17 shows that the framers intended to specifically include customs that they wished to proscribe – does not hold water. More importantly, however, is the affirmative case that Chandrachud J. advances:

Custom, usages and personal law have a significant impact on the civil status of individuals. Those activities that are inherently connected with the civil status of individuals cannot be granted constitutional immunity merely because they may have some associational features which have a religious nature. To immunize them from constitutional scrutiny, is to deny the primacy of the Constitution. (paragraph 99)

In other words, there cannot be islands of norms and prescriptions that are granted constitutional immunity.  As with the ERP and the untouchability argument, the rationale is the same: the individual is the basic unit of the Constitution, and norms, practices, prescriptions, rules, commands and whatever else that have the potential to impair individual dignity or block access to basic goods in society, must pass constitutional scrutiny (paragraph 100).

And indeed, Chandrachud J. goes on step further with this thought, noting that the ERP test itself ought – in future – give way to a test that asks not whether a practice is “essential” (which is, after all, a question that the believers, and not the Court, should answer), but asks whether the impugned practice is socially exclusionary, and denies individuals access to the basic goods required for living a dignified life (Disclaimer: this part of the judgment cites an article of mine, and I will readily admit to being biased in favour of the anti-exclusion argument.)


In the previous post, we discussed Malhotra J.’s dissent. We saw how Malhotra J. raises an important question: how do we reconcile the Constitution’s commitment to pluralism with judicial intervention into internal religious affairs? We have now seen how Chandrachud J. has answered it: the commitment to pluralism and respect for group autonomy must be understood within a Constitutional framework that places individual freedom and dignity at its heart. The Constitution recognises group autonomy because, often, group life promotes individual freedom and dignity. Community, after all, is crucial to self-development. But groups can also restrict freedom and dignity, and it is in those circumstances that a Court must step in and balance the competing claims.

In Sabarimala, Chandrachud J. attempts to demonstrate how, in fact, the proscription in question does restrict freedom and dignity, and therefore, should be judicially invalidated. He does so by telescoping outwards from the singular event itself (exclusion from worship in one temple), and showing how this single event of exclusion is nested in an entire social and institutional order that is characterised by hierarchy, subordination, and exclusion. We may call this patriarchy, or we may call this something else, but the argument is clear: it’s not about worship at Sabarimala (which is what Malhotra J. limits it to, and therefore classifies it as simply about seeking morality or rationality), but about what exclusion from worship means in a broader context. To take an example: think of a Whites-Only signboard outside a restaurant in Apartheid South Africa. The point is not that one private restaurant owner has decided to exclude blacks from his private property. The point, rather, is how that signboard is an integral element of the practice and institution of apartheid. The crucial insight that Chandrachud J. brings in his judgment is that recognition of the institutional character of discrimination and inequality, and how that must be constitutionally combatted. As he notes, towards the end:

In the dialogue between constitutional freedoms, rights are not isolated silos. In infusing each other with substantive content, they provide a cohesion and unity which militates against practices that depart from the values that underlie the Constitution – justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Substantive notions of equality require the recognition of and remedies for historical discrimination which has pervaded certain identities. Such a notion focuses on not only distributive questions, but on the structures of oppression and domination which exclude these identities from participation in an equal life. An indispensable facet of an equal life, is the equal participation of women in all spheres of social activity. (paragraph 117)

It is that which makes it a transformative judgment.

The Sabarimala Judgment – II: Justice Malhotra, Group Autonomy, and Cultural Dissent

I had originally intended this series to follow a more familiar chronology – moving through the concurring opinions, and ending with Justice Indu Malhotra’s dissent. However, on a closer reading of the judgment, it strikes me that Malhotra J.’s dissent raises some crucial points, which remain unanswered in the opinions of the Chief Justice and Nariman J. – but are addressed in Chandrachud J.’s concurrence. For this reason, I will use this post to discuss the dissenting opinion, and flag its foundational arguments, and then – in the next post – examine Chandrachud J.’s concurrence.


How unusual – but how refreshing – to see a judge taking maintainability seriously, and that too in a PIL! Malhotra J. starts her analysis with the following observation:

The right to move the Supreme Court under Article 32 for violation of Fundamental Rights, must be based on a pleading that the Petitioners’ personal rights to worship in this Temple have been violated. The Petitioners do not claim to be devotees of the Sabarimala Temple where Lord Ayyappa is believed to have manifested himself as a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’. To determine the validity of long-standing religious customs and usages of a sect, at the instance of an association/Intervenors who are “involved in social developmental activities especially activities related to upliftment of women and helping them become aware of their rights”, would require this Court to decide religious questions at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this faith. (paragraph 7.2).

Malhotra J. goes on to warn that the issue of maintainability is not a “mere technicality” in this case, but something more important. It would open the floodgates for “interlopers” to question all kinds of religious beliefs and practices, something that would cause even graver peril for “religious minorities.” (paragraph 7.3) Malhotra J. then sums up:

The right to equality under Article 14 in matters of religion and religious beliefs has to be viewed differently. It has to be adjudged amongst the worshippers of a particular religion or shrine, who are aggrieved by certain practises which are found to be oppressive or pernicious. (paragraph 7.4).

While Malhotra J.’s concern about the floodgates is well-taken, I am not sure that that, by itself, can be a ground for rejecting the PIL on the basis of maintainability. However, I believe that in observing that “[The Article 14 claim] has to be adjudged amongst the worshippers of a particular religion or shrine“, Malhotra J. articulates a crucial point, which demonstrates why, even in the PIL era, the issue of maintainability is particularly crucial to this case.

To understand why, let us examine the nature of the claim. The claim is for women between the ages of ten and fifty to be allowed to enter Sabarimala. This claim is set up against the argument of the Sabarimala priest (and certain other devotees), that the entry of women is barred by religious custom. Sabarimala, therefore, is a classic example of what Madhavi Sundar calls “cultural dissent“: norms and values defined and imposed by cultural gatekeepers and dominant groups, have been challenged.

That cultural dissent is at the heart of Sabarimala is recognised by both the Chief Justice and Nariman J., in their opinions. The Chief Justice notes that Article 25(1) protects both inter-group and intra-group rights. In a very interesting observation, Nariman J. suggests that when there is internal dissent about a practice, its “essential” character to the religion (and therefore, its claim to protection under Article 25(1)) will be thrown in doubt. However, what is crucial to note is this: by its very nature, a claim to cultural dissent has to be articulated by the dissenters themselves. Because what is under challenge – as Justice Malhotra recognises – is the question of whether certain practices – internal to the religion – are “oppressive” or not. And given that religions are self-contained and self-referential systems of belief and practice, the question of what constitutes “oppression” will, in most cases, be an internal question.

Let me be clear: this is not an argument against the Courts interfering in religious practices on the touchstone of equality and non-discrimination. Quite the opposite: when marginalised groups within cultures or religions challenge oppressive norms or practices, more often than not, they will need an external authority (such as Courts, acting under the Constitution) to support them in that struggle. But what I am saying is that the claim must originate from the marginalised groups themselves. An external authority cannot assume the mantle of speaking on their behalf.

There is, of course, a significant exception to this: when the marginalised group is (literally) silenced from articulating its claims. But I feel considerable hesitation in applying that standard to Sabarimala. Are we going to say that every woman devotee at Sabarimala is either too brainwashed or too terrorised to approach the Court for her rights? That would seem to me to be not only factually incorrect, but highly demeaning as well – a saviour complex redolent of Lila Abu-Lughod’s excoriation of liberal interventionism in her tellingly-titled article, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?

I recognise that this is an unpopular position, I believe that the Majority should have voted with Malhotra J. to dismiss the PIL on grounds of maintainability, while granting liberty to any affected party to approach the Court through a writ petition.

Group Autonomy

Running through Malhotra J.’s judgment is a vision of group autonomy. She believes that the Constitution’s religious freedom clauses act to insulate religious groups from having their beliefs and practices subjected to constitutional scrutiny. As she observes:

It would compel the Court to undertake judicial review under Article 14 to delineate the rationality of the religious beliefs or practises, which would be outside the ken of the Courts. It is not for the courts to determine which of these practises of a faith are to be struck down, except if they are pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati. (paragraph 8.2)

The devil, of course, is in the detail. Malhotra J. concedes that practices that are “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil” can be reviewed by Courts. But that, indeed, was the Petitioners’ argument in Sabarimala: excluding women from the temple was a pernicious and oppressive practice, even though it did not (of course) reach the level of Sati. How does Malhotra J. respond to this? There is no immediate answer, but we do get something of an answer late in the judgment. In paragraph 10.13, Malhotra J. observes:

Judicial review of religious practises ought not to be undertaken, as the Court cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity. Doing so would negate the freedom to practise one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs. It would amount to rationalising religion, faith and beliefs, which is outside the ken of Courts. (paragraph 10.13)

The argument, therefore, appears to be this: a practice like Sati is not simply “religious”. In actually killing women, its impacts go far beyond, and into the “real world.” The question of the right to worship at Sabarimala, however, remains a question internal to the religion: its a moral issue, a question of whether within the community of Sabarimala devotees, men and women are treated equally. For Justice Malhotra, that is not something that Courts can go into. As she observes towards the end of the judgment:

Worship has two elements – the worshipper, and the worshipped. The right to worship under Article 25 cannot be claimed in the absence of the deity in the particular form in which he has manifested himself. (paragraph 13.9)


For Malhotra J., therefore, unlike Sati, Sabarimala is a pure question of faith, and therefore immune from judicial review and the application of constitutional norms of equality and non-discrimination.

Why is this so? Malhotra J. buttresses this point by two further arguments, both of which are grounded in principles of group autonomy. The first is that of “essential religious practices” [ERPs]. Malhotra J. takes strong issue with the Majority for holding that the exclusion of women is not an essential religious practice (and therefore not protected by Article 25(1)), and argues, instead, that this determination should be left solely to the religious community itself (paragraph 10.10). In the present case, Malhotra J. relies upon the statements of the Sabarimala Thanthri and the Travancore Devaswom Board to the effect that “the limited restriction on access of women during the notified age of 10 to 50 years, is a religious practise which is central and integral to the tenets of this shrine, since the deity has manifested himself in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’.” (paragraph 13.7)

This is an important point, because it goes entirely against the grain of six decades of ERP jurisprudence, where the Court – relying upon textual and scriptural materials – makes this determination. It is also, in my opinion, correct (as I have pointed out on this blog before): the Courts – as a number of scholars have argued for a while now – is entirely unequipped to make determinations about what practice is or is not “essential” to religion: it lacks both the competence and the legitimacy to do so.

There is, of course, a latent peril in advocating this view: and that is that in any community (religious or otherwise) norms and practices are inevitably imposed top-down by dominant groups, who are invariably male. But this is exactly where Malhotra J.’s initial point about maintainability comes in: it is one thing when within a group, norms and practices are challenged, and the marginalised sub-groups invoke the Court’s aid. But it is another thing when an external party comes to Court, and is opposed by the religious community’s gatekeepers: in that situation, Malhotra J.’s views about the nature and scope of the ERP test make eminent sense.

The second argument advanced by Malhotra J. pertains to constitutional pluralism. It was argued by the Petitioners that discrimination against women runs counter to constitutional morality. Malhotra J. turns this argument on its head, noting that constitutional morality in India’s plural society requires respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs, which have their own sets of practices that might nevertheless appear immoral or irrational to outsiders (paragraphs 11.2, 11.4, 11.6 & 11.8).

The full argument, therefore, is this: our Constitution respects religious pluralism. Pluralism entails granting to the diverse religious groups and communities within our nation, the freedom of internal self-government, and the freedom to decide what norms and practices are integral to their existence and functioning. Where these norms or practices result in actual social harm, the Court can step in; however, the Court cannot intervene when the grounds of challenge are limited to bare immorality, irrationality, or unequal treatment. And the Court can especially not do so when the challenge is brought by external parties.

Religious Denomination

Malhotra J. then addresses the statutory point: that is, the question of whether, in view of Section 3 of the 1965 Act (guaranteeing non-discriminatory access to “all” classes), whether Rule 3(b) (that allows for excluding women if custom demands it) is ultra vires. Malhotra J. holds that it is not, on the ground that the worshippers of Lord Ayappa at Sabarimala constitute a separate “religious denomination”, and is therefore exempted from the operation of Section 3 as per the Act itself (through a specific proviso).

Unfortunately – and in stark contrast with the rest of Malhotra J.’s judgment – this part is disappointingly sketchy. On the basis of a Government notification, Malhotra J. asserts that the worshippers of Lord Ayappa at Sabarimala “follow a common faith, and have common beliefs and practises.” (paragraph 12.3) She then goes on to note, on the basis of precedent, that:

If there are clear attributes that there exists a sect, which is identifiable as being distinct by its beliefs and practises, and having a collection of followers who follow the same faith, it would be identified as a ‘religious denomination’. (paragraph 12.8)

Malhotra J. recognises, however, that this is a considerably more relaxed threshold than that articulated by previous judgments, and followed by the Majority. She tries to get around this by once again implicitly invoking the group autonomy principle, and arguing that a “liberal” interpretation should be accorded to the question of what constitutes a “religious denomination.” But this will not do: unlike the question of essential religious practices, which are required for threshold protection under the Constitution’s religious freedom clause, religious denominations are entitled to special and differentiated rights under Article 26: maintenance of institutions, acquisition and administration of property, and (textually) a greater autonomy in determining internal religious matters. For this reason, the critique of the essential religious practices standards cannot be uncritically applies to the definition of religious denominations: there are good reasons for a higher threshold, adjudicated by Courts. To depart from that principle would require a detailed and persuasive argument, which Malhotra J. does not offer. And indeed, she appears to recognise this herself, when she notes at paragraph 12.10:

The proper forum to ascertain whether a certain sect constitutes a religious denomination or not, would be more appropriately determined by a civil court, where both parties are given the opportunity of leading evidence to establish their case.


Malhotra J. makes two further findings. She rejects the argument – advanced by Amicus Curae – that Article 15(2) includes temples under the definition of “places of public resort.” And she also rejects the argument – advanced by the Interveners – that exclusion of women on grounds of menstruation amounts to “untouchability” under Article 17 of the Constitution. Both these arguments are based on the structure and the drafting history of the Constitution. With respect to Article 15(2), I believe the Malhotra J. is unarguably correct. Article 17 will be addressed in the next post.


Justice Malhotra’s dissent is powerful and persuasive on many counts. On maintainability, on essential religious practices, and on constitutional pluralism, I believe that her arguments are correct, and truer to the constitutional text and history than prevailing Indian religious freedom jurisprudence, which the opinions of CJI Misra and Nariman J. closely hew to.

Where then lies the disagreement? At one level, it is statutory: if Malhotra J.’s religious denomination argument is incorrect, then her case falls purely on statutory grounds, and the Majority is vindicated. I have a deeper disagreement, however, with the foundational assumption of Malhotra J.’s dissent, which comes through in her paragraph differentiating Sabarimala and Sati: the assumption is that in India, you can cleanly separate the religious and the social. This is a reality that has been recognised throughout history: in the Drafting Committee, Alladi Krishnawamy Iyer wryly remarked that “there is no religious matter that is not also a social matter.” In the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar memorably spoke about how vast religious conceptions are in India, covering everything from birth to death. In his dissenting opinion in Saifuddin, Chief Justice Sinha discussed how religious excommunication had a debilitating impact upon civil rights. And so on. The point is this: it is a mistake to uncritically assume that Sabarimala is simply a right-to-worship case, a straightforward internal dispute within a religious community. It is a mistake, because it ignores how deeply intertwined religious, social, and public life is in India, and how discrimination within one sphere inevitably spills over into other spheres. Therefore, Malhotra J. is entirely correct when she says that practices that are “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil” can be subjected to judicial review. But the question of what constitutes “oppressiveness” is more nuanced and complex than she allows.

It is that nuance which forms the heart of Chandrachud J.’s concurrence, which is what we shall turn to in then ext post.

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.


Preliminary Thoughts on the Triple Talaq Case

The Supreme Court is presently considering the legal validity of triple talaq under Muslim personal law. According to reports, yesterday, the Centre filed its affidavit before the Court, stating that triple talaq violates gender equality and women’s dignity, and also that “no undesirable practice can be elevated to the status of an essential religious practice.”

While I do not have access to the Centre’s affidavit, the phrase “essential religious practice” appears to have been used in response to the Muslim Personal Law Board’s affidavit, which, inter alia, sought protection for triple talaq under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. In my view, this indicates a line of argument which would take the Supreme Court down the wrong path, and ought to be resisted. The use of the phrase “essential religious practice” (as has been discussed many times on this blog) is an integral part of the Supreme Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence under Articles 25 and 26, and acts as a threshold test for according constitutional protection to religious practices. Conceptually, however, triple talaq does not come within the category of practices that fall within the scope of Articles 25 and 26.

There are two reasons for this. The first is based in precedent. In Narasu Appa Mali, the Bombay High Court held that personal laws (which had not been codified under a statute) were not to be tested on the touchstone of Part III of the Constitution. This proposition was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Krishna Singh vs Mathura Ahir. Article 25 of the Constitution expressly states that “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” If personal laws fell within the scope of Article 25, therefore, they would be “subject to other provisions of [Part III]”. At the same time, as per Narasu Appa Mali and Krishna Singh, personal laws are exempt from Part III scrutiny. In its counter-affidavit, therefore, the Muslim Personal Law Board rests its case upon two legal prongs that are contradictory. It cannot say that personal laws are exempt from Part III scrutiny, and simultaneously argue that they are protected by Articles 25 and 26.

The proposition that personal laws do not fall within the scope of Articles 25 and 26 is further buttressed by the debates during the framing of the religious freedom clauses. As Ambedkar famously argued, in a speech that we have discussed often on this blog:

“The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death. There is nothing which is not religion and if personal law is to be saved, I am sure about it that in social matters we will come to a standstill. I do not think it is possible to accept a position of that sort. There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious. It is not necessary that the sort of laws, for instance, laws relating to tenancy or laws relating to succession, should be governed by religion.”

I focus on succession, because marriage – like the law of succession – belongs in the domain of personal law (i.e., the law that is based upon the personal status of the parties) which, as Ambedkar pointed out, was never meant to be protected by Articles 25 and 26. This, along with Narasu Appa Mali and Krishna Singh, makes it clear that the issue of whether triple talaq is an “essential religious practice” under Islam is irrelevant to the present enquiry, and the Court should refrain from going into a question that will – yet again – make it the arbiter of religious doctrine (note, in particular, that the Centres affidavit seems to argue that any religious practice that runs counter to constitutional principles cannot, by that reason, be called an “essential religious practice”. This is an interesting legal fiction to press before the Court – and the Court is no stranger to adopting such legal fictions – but it remains a highly problematic one, for reasons that have been extensively discussed before.)

There are, of course, other avenues open to the Court. While issuing notice, the Court called triple talaq a “customary” practice. In Madhu Kishwar vs State of Bihar, the Supreme Court held that customary laws would be subject to Part III (while personal laws remained exempt). However, the distinction is superficial at best, and furthermore, if – as in Narasu Appa Mali – bigamy under Hindu traditions was held to fall within the domain of personal law, then it is unclear how triple talaq will not fall within personal law. Another option would be to import the “essential religious practices” test from Article 25 into the domain of personal law, on the basis that personal law, like claims under Article 25, pertains to religion. This, however, would be a somewhat odd innovation sixty-three years after Narasu Appa Mali, especially in light of the fact that the Bombay High Court, in that case, applied the essential practices test specifically while adjudicating under Articles 25 and 26, and refrained from applying it in holding that personal laws were not subject to Part III.

I would suggest, therefore, that under existing constitutional jurisprudence, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, being bound by Krishna Singh, cannot invalidate triple talaq. Of course, that is not dispositive of the issue. The judgment in Narasu Appa Mali was controversial, and there are strong legal and constitutional arguments against its reasoning. Anirudh Krishnan, for instance, persuasively argues that Narasu was incorrectly decided (see, also, the comprehensive debate between Anirudh Krishnan and V. Niranjan, in the comments section of the same post). Perhaps, then, in 2016, it is time a Supreme Court bench of three judges reviewed Narasu and Krishna Singh, and overruled them as incorrectly decided.

In my view, there is no doubt that triple talaq is an unconstitutional practice, and should be judicially invalidated. However, the Supreme Court ought to refrain from the temptation of repeating its mistake in the Make-Up Artists Case, and riding roughshod over existing precedent in order to achieve a progressive outcome. There is a correct and constitutional way of doing this, which is to refer the case to a three-judge bench, which can then re-examine the question of whether personal laws are subject to Part III of the Constitution, and correct its earlier errors on this score.

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,”