Tag Archives: indirect discrimination

The Supreme Court’s Muslim Beard Judgment: A Missed Opportunity

Yesterday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld a Muslim airman’s discharge from the Indian Air Force for keeping a beard. At issue before the Court was Regulation 425 of the Armed Force Regulations, 1964, which prohibited the growth of hair by Armed Forces personnel, except for “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of face.” (425(b)) Although the Court referred to various policy directives issued by the Air Force from time to time, the case ultimately turned on whether the Airman was covered by Regulation 425(b). The Court held that he was not, although its reasoning on the point was rather brief:

“During the course of the hearing, we had inquired of Shri Salman Khurshid, learned senior counsel appearing on behalf of the Appellants whether there is a specific mandate in Islam which “prohibits the cutting of hair or shaving of facial hair”. Learned senior counsel, in response to the query of the Court, indicated that on this aspect, there are varying interpretations, one of which is that it is desirable to maintain a beard. No material has been produced before this Court to indicate that the Appellant professes a religious belief that would bring him within the ambit of Regulation 425(b) which applies to “personnel whose religion prohibits the cutting off the hair or shaving off the face of its members”.

Since the Court did not go into the question, it remains unclear what manner of evidence would have actually been sufficient to convince it that the airman’s case fell within Regulation 425(b). From the question that the Court put to the airman’s counsel, it appears that it was looking for some kind doctrinal evidence demonstrating that Islam prohibits the cutting of facial hair, regardless of the appellant’s own views on the issue. This is in line with the Court’s “essential religious practices” test, which I have criticised earlier.

However, a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of religious claims. Most of the cases that have come before the Court have involved the status of practices that can be broadly understood as group or community practices (for instance, the Supreme Court’s 2004 judgment on whether the public performance of the tandava dance was an essential part of the Ananda Margi sect’s beliefs). Although the essential religious practices test remains deeply problematic, in such cases, it is understandable that the Court might want to look for authoritative sources to ascertain the status of the practice within the religion/sect. However, the present case did not involve determining the status of a community practice – it involved, centrally, an individual’s judgment of what was required by his faith. In such a case, the essential religious practices test seems even less defensible, because effectively, it prohibits any individual departure from the officially sanctioned tenets of the religion. And in such cases, the test that is followed in other jurisdictions, throughout the world – the test that asks merely whether the individual in question had a sincere and genuinely held belief in the validity of the religious claim – seems far more appropriate.

Although the distinction between community-oriented and individual-oriented religious claims has not yet been drawn by the Supreme Court, in my view, a three-judge bench was ideally placed to do it, and to limit the scope of the essential religious practices test. The case, therefore, represents a missed opportunity by the Court to develop its religious freedom jurisprudence in a more progressive direction.

It is also unclear to me why, after having held that Regulation 425(b) was not applicable to the airman’s case, the Court found it necessary to make the following observations:

“The Air Force is a combat force, raised and maintained to secure the nation against hostile forces. The primary aim of maintaining an Air Force is to defend the nation from air operations of nations hostile to India and to advance air operations, should the security needs of the country so require. The Indian Air Force has over eleven thousand officers and one lakh and twenty thousand personnel below officers rank. For the effective and thorough functioning of a large combat force, the members of the Force must bond together by a sense of Espirit-de-corps, without distinctions of caste, creed, colour or religion. There can be no gainsaying the fact that maintaining the unity of the Force is an important facet of instilling a sense of commitment, and dedication amongst the members of the Force. Every member of the Air Force while on duty is required to wear the uniform and not display any sign or object which distinguishes one from another. Uniformity of personal appearance is quintessential to a cohesive, disciplined and coordinated functioning of an Armed Force.”

This was unnecessary, because the argument from uniformity/cohesiveness would arise only if the Court had first found that the airman had a right to keep a beard, and was then assessing whether the Air Force was justified in curtailing the right. As the Court correctly pointed out, Article 33 of the Constitution expressly permits Parliament to modify the application of fundamental rights to members of the Armed Forces – which it did, for instance, through Regulation 425. Consequently, the Court’s enquiry should have begun and ended with Regulation 425 (where, I have tried to show, it ought to have applied a different test).

Additionally, the questioning of balancing rights, in such cases, is a complex one, and requires a more detailed analysis than what the Court undertook. In some jurisdictions, for instance, a distinction is drawn between ostentatious or very visible religious markers of identity, and more innocuous ones; some jurisdictions require employers to demonstrate that their restrictions serve a “bona fide occupational requirement“, and furthermore, are reasonably tailored towards achieving it. Admittedly, after its finding on Regulation 425(b), the Court did not need to address this question; however, it nevertheless chose to do so, in doing so, its observations about unity and cohesiveness unduly simplify a very complex issue.

Furthermore, during the course of its observations, the Court ended up making a statement that is incorrect as a matter of law, but could have unfortunate consequences going forward. Towards the end of its judgment, the Court remarked that:

“Regulations and policies in regard to personal appearance are not intended to discriminate against religious beliefs nor do they have the effect of doing so. Their object and purpose is to ensure uniformity, cohesiveness, discipline and order which are indispensable to the Air Force, as indeed to every armed force of the Union.”

While it is nobody’s case that the regulations intended to discriminate against religious beliefs, it is incorrect to also state that they do not have that effect. The only basis for that claim would be the assumption that religious dicta and personal appearance are entirely separate from each other; a quick look at the core tenets of Sikhism demonstrates that that assumption is false. Indeed, the Court’s reference to “object and purpose” in the next line was itself a statement about legislative intent; but by running together intent and effect, in my view, the Court conflated direct and indirect discrimination in a manner that could stifle the future development of indirect discrimination jurisprudence in India (a concept still in its infancy).

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Filed under Disparate Impact, Essential Religious Practices, Freedom of Religion, Non-discrimination

Today: The Supreme Court’s nod to structural discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Delhi High Court on Pregnancy and Sex Discrimination

Recently, my attention was drawn to a fascinating judgment of a division bench of the Delhi High Court, delivered last month. Inspector (Mahila) Ravina vs Union of India concerned a challenge to the CRPF’s denial of promotion to a female inspector. The facts are somewhat complex. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the Petitioner, an inspector in the CRPF, was unable to attend a Pre-Promotional Course, conducted between July and August 2011, because she was pregnant. Consequently, after her pregnancy was over, she attended the next Course, conducted in July and August 2012, and qualified, thus fulfilling the requirements for promotion to the next-higher post. However, when the CRPF released its promotion list in 2014, the Petitioner’s name was not included, and consequently, she lost her seniority vis-a-vis her batchmates and juniors. When the Petitioner filed a representation before the CRPF, she was informed that she had lost her seniority because of her “unwillingness to attend the promotional course [held in 2011].” The Petitioner challenged this decision before the High Court.

The question before the High Court, therefore, was whether “the Petitioner’s pregnancy would amount to unwillingness or signify her inability to attend a required promotional course and if she is entitled to a relaxation of rules to claim seniority at par with her batchmates.” The Court upheld the Petitioner’s claim on two grounds, both of which merit close attention.

First, the Court held penalising the Petitioner for her pregnancy violated Article 21 of the Constitution. In paragraph 9, Justice Ravindra Bhat observed:

To conclude that pregnancy amounts to mere unwillingness – as the respondents did in this case- was an indefensible. The choice to bear a child is not only a deeply personal one for a family but is also a physically taxing time for the mother. This right to reproduction and child rearing is an essential facet of Article 21 of the Constitution; it is underscored by the commitment of the Constitution framers to ensure that circumstances conducive to the exercise of this choice are created and maintained by the State at all times. This commitment is signified by Article 42 (“Provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief- The State shall provide conditions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief”) and Article 45 (“Provision for early childhood care and education to children below the age of six years- The State shall endeavour to provide for early childhood care… ”)…”

There are two important points that need to be noted here. The first is that under the Court’s interpretation of Article 21, personal liberty is violated not only through coercive State action, but also State action that puts persons in a position where they must choose between availing a State benefit, or exercising a constitutional right. In other words, if “unwillingness” is to be construed as including absence due to pregnancy, then a woman is put in a position where she has to either forego her promotion, or forego her pregnancy. The State is therefore penalising women who exercise their constitutional rights by withholding the benefit of promotion from them. Readers will note the similarity between the argument here, and the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions discussed in the last post. The petitioner’s position here was even stronger, however, because denial of promotion is a more tangible and direct harm than withdrawal of a tax exemption.

The second is the Court’s use of the Directive Principles of State Policy – in particular, Articles 42 and 45. As I have attempted to argue before, a conceptually sound approach towards the DPSPs must respect the fact that the framers chose to make them unenforceable, while finding a textually and structurally relevant role for them in constitutional interpretation. There are two possible ways of doing this. One is that where a legal provision may be reasonably interpreted in two different ways, the interpretation that furthers the Directive Principles ought to be given precedence. The second is that the Directive Principles may be used to provide concrete content to the abstract concepts contained in Part III of the Constitution. In paragraph 9, the Delhi High Court does both. Referring to Articles 42 and 45, it holds that the guarantee under Article 21 is not merely a negative prohibition against coercive State action, but also casts a positive obligation upon the State “to ensure that circumstances conducive to the exercise of this [Article 21] choice are created and maintained by the State at all times.” In the instant case, this concretely translates into prohibiting the State from indirectly penalising a person if they choose to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to personal liberty. The Court also uses the DPSPs interpretively, by preferring an interpretation of the word “unwilling” that excludes pregnancy rather than one that includes it.

In its Article 21 analysis under paragraph 9, the Court stresses that pregnancy is a “deeply personal” choice. This is an ideal segue into the second part of the Court’s analysis. In paragraph 12, the Justice Bhat holds:

“It would be a travesty of justice if a female public employee were forced to choose between having a child and her career. This is exactly what the CRPF‟s position entails. Pregnancy is a departure from an employee‟s “normal” condition and to equate both sets of public employees- i.e. those who do not have to make such choice and those who do (like the petitioner) and apply the same standards mechanically is discriminatory. Unlike plain unwillingness – on the part of an officer to undertake the course, which can possibly entail loss of seniority – the choice exercised by a female employee to become a parent stands on an entirely different footing. If the latter is treated as expressing unwillingness, CRPF would clearly violate Article 21. As between a male official and female official, there is no distinction, in regard to promotional avenues; none was asserted. In fact, there is a common pre-promotional programme which both have to undergo; both belong to a common cadre. In these circumstances, the denial of seniority benefit to the petitioner amounts to an infraction of Article 16 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, which guarantee equality to all in matters of public employment, regardless of religion, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence etc. A seemingly “neutral” reason such as inability of the employee, or unwillingness, if not probed closely, would act in a discriminatory manner, directly impacting her service rights.

There are some crucial points here that need to be unpacked. The first is the express acknowledgment of pregnancy-based discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, which brings it within the non-discrimination guarantees under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. As we discussed recently on this blog, the Supreme Court in Nargesh Mirza’s case (1981), dealt a serious blow to Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence by failing to consider pregnancy on the touchstones of Articles 15 and 16, and instead considering it under the “arbitrariness” prong of Article 14. Bizarrely, in Nargesh Mirza, the Supreme Court held that termination on a first pregnancy would be unconstitutional because arbitrary, but termination on a third pregnancy wouldn’t be (since it helped the nation’s family planning program and helped women become good mothers!). The discontents of the arbitrariness approach under Article 14 are legion, and I do not need to recount them here. The Court’s analysis of pregnancy discrimination under Article 16 represents a significant advance.

What is even more important, however, is how the Court does it. Justice Bhat observes that “a seemingly “neutral” reason such as inability of the employee, or unwillingness, if not probed closely, would act in a discriminatory manner, directly impacting her service rights.” This is the language of indirect discrimination: facially “neutral” provisions have a discriminatory impact because they end up reproducing existing social inequalities and hierarchies. As we have seen in our discussion of the evolution of Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence, indirect discrimination still has only a tenuous hold upon the imaginations of our judges. A large number of cases have chosen to interpret the word “grounds” in Articles 15 and 16 as referring to the reasons, or motives, behind a law, and have consequently refused to find discrimination even when there is a clear case of differential impact. In my analysis of the text of Articles 15 and 16, I advanced an alternative reading of the word “grounds”, one that referred not to the motive of the law, but to the characteristics that were protected from adverse impact (sex, race, caste etc.). An effect or impact-based test was accepted by the Supreme Court in Anuj GargHowever, even in Anuj Garg, the law itself was directly discriminatory: it prohibited women from working as bartenders. The Delhi High Court, however, applies the framework of indirect discrimination to a facially neutral law, which discriminated not on the basis of sex, but on the basis of pregnancy. In this, it follows an analytical tradition, the finest exemplar of which is the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s judgment in 1983, which struck down the restitution of conjugal rights provision under the Hindu Marriage Act as discriminatory, because of its strongly adverse impact upon women.*

It is also fascinating to note that Justice Bhat places the word “normal” within quotation marks. In the first part of the paragraph, he notes that “pregnancy is a departure from an employee’s “normal” condition…” This reveals the crucial understanding that our intuitive ideas about the existing baseline, the “normal” from which we judge deviations, is a political and social construct. In other words, the “normal” is constructed form the perspective of a privileged subject position. Previously on this blog, I have cited the work of Joan Williams, who makes the point in the context of workplace discrimination:

“... society is structured so that everyone one, regardless of sex, is limited to two unacceptable choices – men’s traditional life patterns or economic marginality. Under the current structure of wage labor, people are limited to being ideal workers, which leaves them with inadequate time to devote to parenting, and being primary parents condemned to relative poverty (if they are single parents) or economic vulnerability (if they are currently married to an ideal worker). Wage labor does not have to be structured in this way… [the recent] massive shift in the gendered distribution of wage labor has produced intense pressures to challenge the assumption that the ideal worker has no child care responsibilities. But this pressure is being evaded by a cultural decision to resolve the conflicts between home and work where they have always been resolved: on the backs of women. In the nineteenth century, married women “chose” total economic dependence in order to fulfill family responsibilities.’ Today, many women with children continue to make choices that marginalize them economically in order to fulfill those same responsibilities, through part-time work, “sequencing,” the “mommy track” or “women’s work.” In each case, the career patterns that accommodate women’s child-care responsibilities often are ones that hurt women’s earning potential.

The “normal” worker, therefore, being male, is not expected to become pregnant, and consequently, the baseline rules (penalisation for “unwillingness” to attend the promotional course) are constructed from his perspective. It is this edifice of exclusion that the Delhi High Court’s judgment interrogates, and then finds to be inconsistent with the Constitution.

By de-mythologising “normalcy”, the Delhi High Court has made another significant advance towards a jurisprudence of discrimination that is true to the Constitution’s commitment of ensuring social justice. In his dissenting opinion in Volks vs Robinson, Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court observed that “the purpose of constitutional law is to convert misfortune to be endured into injustice to be remedied.” The Constitution guarantees not only formal equality, but also promises that entrenched power structures which, over decades, even centuries of sedimentation, have attained the status of facts of nature, will no longer be treated as immutable in the very existence of things, but as human-caused instances of injustice, and will be dismantled. In a very profound sense, this judgment implements Justice Sachs’ vision of the transformative Constitution.

(*NB: The case before the Delhi High Court was an easier one than the one before the AP High Court, because while only women can get pregnant, both men and women can invoke the restitution of conjugal rights provision. The AP High Court rested its decision upon the unequal power relations within the family, which would mean that restitution of conjugal rights would adversely impact wives to an enormous degree, while having very little impact upon the lives of husbands. That judgment was reversed in one year by the Supreme Court. Perhaps it was too far ahead of its time. One hopes that thirty years later, as indirect discrimination continues to struggle for a foothold within Indian discrimination jurisprudence, the Delhi High Court has not also committed the error of being far ahead of its time.)

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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – XII: Indirect Discrimination in Sareetha vs Venkatasubbaiah

Before ending our discussion on sex discrimination under the Constitution, it would be interesting to take note of two (overruled) High Court cases that pushed interpretive boundaries in their understanding of Article 15(1). The first is the Delhi High Court’s judgment in Naz Foundation vs NCT of DelhiAs is well-known, the High Court invalidated Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (read: homosexuality), on grounds of Articles 14, 15 and 21. One of the things the High Court did was to read “sexual orientation” into the word “sex”. In a guest post last week, Vansh Gupta examined this issue in some detail, so I won’t reiterate the argument in full. Briefly, there are two ways of understanding the Court’s interpretive move. The first – which is what the Court itself seems to say – is that sexual orientation is read into Article 15 as a ground “analogous” to sex. This, I believe, is a mistake, since the text of Article 15(1) makes it clear that the “grounds” stated therein constitute a closed list (compare, e.g., with the anti-discrimination provisions of the South African and Canadian Constitution). However, the other – more acceptable – reading is that the criminalisation of homosexuality constitutes sex discrimination, properly understood. This is because, at its heart, it rests upon the same gender stereotypes (including assumptions about sexual roles) that form the basis of sex discrimination.

Let us now consider the judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in T. Sareetha vs Venkatasubbaiah. The constitutionality of S. 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, which provides for the “restitution of conjugal rights”, was challenged. According to Section 9, “when either the husband or the wife has without reasonable excuse withdrawn from the society of the other, the aggrieved party may apply by petition to the district Court for restitution of conjugal rights and the Court, on being satisfied the truth of the statements made in such petition and that there is no legal ground why the application should not be granted, may decree restitution of conjugal rights accordingly.” According to an Explanation, the burden of proving reasonableness lies upon the party who has withdrawn from the society of the other. Under the CPC, a decree under S. 9 may be enforced through attachment of property, or detention in a civil prison.

A full history of this concept would be beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say here that the “restitution of conjugal rights” is a common law doctrine, introduced into India by the British, and the subject of some notorious court battles in the late-19th century, at the dawn of the women’s movement.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down Section 9, primarily on the ground that it violated the right to privacy. The judgment’s conception of privacy is novel and fascinating, and repays close study. What is of particular significance, however, is that towards the end of its judgment, the Court also invalidated the provision on the grounds of Article 14. This seems prima facie counter-intuitive, since Section 9 clearly applies to “the husband or the wife“, and makes no distinction between the two. It is, therefore, facially neutral. The Court observed, however:

“… by making the remedy of restitution of conjugal rights equally available both to wife and husband, it apparently satisfies the equality test. But the requirements of equal protection of laws contained in Article 14 of the Constitution are not met with that apparent though majestic equality at which Anatole France mocked… the question is how this remedy works in life terms.  

In our social reality, this matrimonial remedy is found used almost exclusively by the husband and is rarely resorted to by the wife. A passage in Gupte’s Hindu law in British India’ page 929 (second edition) attests to this fact. The learned author recorded that although the rights and duties which marriage creates may be enforced by either spouse against the other and not exclusively by the husband against the wife; a suit for restitution by the wife is rare”.

The reason for this mainly lies in the fact of the differences between the man and the woman by enforcing a decree for restitution of conjugal rights the life pattern of the wife is likely to be altered irretrievably whereas the husband’s can remain almost as it was before this is so because it is the wife who has to beget and bear a child. This practical but the inevitable consequence of the enforcement of this remedy cripples the wife’s future plans of life and prevents her from using that self-destructive remedy. Thus the use of remedy of restitution of conjugal rights in reality becomes partial and one-sided and available only to the husband. The pledge of equal protection of laws is thus inherently incapable of being fulfilled by this matrimonial remedy in our Hindu society. As a result this remedy words in practice only as an engine of oppression to be operated by the husband for the benefit of the husband against the wife.”

There are two important aspects of this analysis. The first is a factual finding that a facially neutral statute has a disproportionate effect upon a certain class (although one would have liked statistical evidence beyond a quotation from Gupte’s Hindu Law in British India!) The technical term for this is “disparate impact”. The second is that the reason for the disparate impact cannot be linked with any constitutionally justifiable purpose. Here, the Court finds that, in light of the deeply unequal familial power structures prevailing within Indian society, a textually neutral legal remedy operates to the severe disadvantage of women. The two findings together constitute the vice of indirect discrimination (in other jurisdictions, a finding of disparate impact shifts the burden upon the discriminator to show that his or her actions could be justified by a legitimate and proportional purpose).

It is important to acknowledge indirect discrimination as a form of constitutionally proscribed discrimination, since statutes and policies are not always consciously designed to exclude groups and classes. As we have seen before, prejudices can be subconscious or unconscious, and entire exclusionary social and economic structures can be erected without the intention of harm anyone. Anuj Garg’s focus on the effect of policies upon protected groups, and the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s factual and normative analysis of Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, together constitute a powerful foundation from which to place indirect discrimination at the heart of the non-discrimination guarantee.

Two things remain to be noted. The first is that T. Sareetha examined indirect discrimination within the context of Article 14, and not Article 15. The logic, however, remains exactly the same, especially when coupled with the effects test under Article 15. Secondly, Sareetha was quickly overruled by the Supreme Court, which warned against bringing constitutional law into the domestic sphere. Whatever the merits of that ruling, Sareetha is no longer good law. However, much like Koushal and Naz on “sex” and “sexual orientation” under , there was no specific finding by the Supreme Court on the issue of indirect discrimination. Neither of these two propositions, therefore, have been expressly rejected by the Court. As such, their normative power and attractiveness makes them ideal candidates to be adopted in some future time.

 

 

 

 

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