Tag Archives: non-discrimination

Haji Ali Dargah: Bombay High Court Upholds Women’s Right to Access the Inner Sanctum

In an important judgment delivered today, the Bombay High Court upheld the right of women to access the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah, and also held that, consequently, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust’s decision to exclude them was illegal and unconstitutional. Previously, on this blog, we discussed some of the legal and constitutional issues arising out of this case, concluding that there were good constitutional arguments in favour of the right of access.

Coming in at 56 pages, the Bombay High Court’s judgment is a crisp and lucid elucidation of the existing state of religious freedom jurisprudence under the Constitution, as well as application of that jurisprudence to the facts of this case. The Court began by recounting the three reasons provided by the Trust for barring women’s entry; first, that “women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the Mazaar, thus showing their breasts… [secondly] for the safety and security of women; and [thirdly] that earlier they [i.e., the Trust] were not aware of the provisions of Shariat and had made a mistake and therefore had taken steps to rectify the same.” (paragraph 5) It is this last reason that needed to be considered in the greatest detail, since it went directly to the heart of the Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees, granted to both individuals and to religious denominations.

In dealing with this submission, the Court considered the minutes of the meeting which had led to the Dargah Trust passing the Resolution to exclude women. Four reasons emerged out of the minutes, which overlapped with (but were not identical to) the three submissions made in Court; first, that the women being in close proximity to the grave of a saint was a “sin” in Islam; secondly, that the Trust had the fundamental right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion under Article 26 of the Constitution; thirdly, that it was in the interests of the safety and security of women; and fourthly, at no point were women allowed to come within the proximity of the dargah (paragraph 22) This last issue was quickly disposed off by the Court, since the record made it clear that until 2011 -12, women were, as a matter of fact, allowed into the inner sanctum (paragraph 23).

This brought the Court to the core argument, which was based upon the Trust’s interpretation of Islam. The Trust argued that the Quran and the Hadith prohibited proximity of women to the tomb of a male saint, that menstruating women were ‘unclean’, and that men and women had to be separated at holy places. To substantiate this argument, it placed verses from the Quran as well as the Hadith before the Court. The Court found, however, that none of these texts stated that the presence of women in proximity to the tomb of a saint was a “sin”, and nor did they support “the absolute proposition” for banning the entry of women into the inner sanctum because of the need for “segregation”. While the Petitioners had also produced verses from the Quran in support of gender equality, the Court held that there was no need to go into these, since the Trust, on its own terms, had failed to show that the entry of women into the inner sanctum was a sin under Islam (paragraph 26).

The Court then turned to the arguments under Article 25 (freedom of religion), and Article 26(b) of the Constitution – namely, that every religious denomination, or section, had the right to mange its own affairs in matters of religion. On Article 25, relying upon the long-standing religious freedom jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, the Court first invoked the “essential religious practices test” – i.e., was the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of a shrine an “essential” or “integral” part of Islam? According to the Court, the test for an “essential practice” was that it must  “constitute the very essence of that religion, and should be such, that if permitted, it will change its fundamental character” (paragraph 29). This being the case, the Court found that the Trust had failed to demonstrate that Islam did not permit the entry of women into Dargahs/Mosques, a claim that was further weakened, given that women had been allowed entry up until 2011 – 2012 (paragraph 31). Of course, the Trust argued that it was only after 2011 that its attention had been drawn to what the Sharia actually required; to this, the Court’s swift response was that the Trust had placed nothing on record to show what specific aspects of the Sharia had been drawn to the Trust’s attention that changed the position so drastically (paragraph 31).

The Court then turned to Article 26(b), which guaranteed to religious denominations the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. The Court first went into the history of the Trust itself, and its operations. It noted that the Haji Ali Dargah stood on public land, leased to the Trust by the Government; a scheme for managing the Trust was drawn up by a government-appointed commissioner in 1936; the role of the Trustees was to prepare books of account, conduct business, maintain the properties, and so on (paragraph 33). This enquiry was important, because under the Supreme Court’s Article 26(b) jurisprudence, especially insofar as it concerns the rights of trusts or maths, a distinction must be drawn between religious activities on the one hand, and secular activities bearing the trappings of religion on the other (unlike the essential practices test, this distinction is actually grounded in the Constitutional text – for instance, Article 25(2)(a), which permits State intervention into secular aspects of religious practice – as well as the Constituent Assembly Debates). Consequently, the Court found that:

“The aims, objects and activities of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust as set out in the Scheme are not governed by any custom, tradition/usage. The objects of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust are in respect of purely secular activities of a non-religious nature, such as giving loans, education, medical facilities, etc. Neither the objects nor the Scheme vest any power in the trustees to determine matters of religion, on the basis of which entry of woman is being restricted.”

It’s important to note here that unlike many other cases before it, the Court did not here get into the question of whether the exclusion of women from the dargah was a “religious” question or not. It simply held that the Trust was never authorised to deal with matters of religion, and that therefore, Article 26(b) was not even attracted in the first place. And there was a further reason why Article 26(b) could not apply:

“Admittedly, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust is a public charitable trust. It is open to people all over the world, irrespective of their caste, creed or sex, etc. Once a public character is attached to a place of worship, all the rigors of Articles 14, 15 and 25 would come into play and the respondent No. 2 Trust cannot justify its decision solely based on a misreading of Article 26. The respondent No. 2 Trust has no right to discriminate entry of women into a public place of worship under the guise of `managing the affairs of religion’ under Article 26 and as such, the State will have to ensure protection of rights of all its citizens guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution, including Articles 14 and 15, to protect against discrimination based on gender.” (paragraph 36)

In other words, the Dargah’s public character took it out of the protective scope of Article 26(b), and made it subject to Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution. This is a fascinating point, especially given the long history of temple-entry movements in India. Ever since the time of Ambedkar, temple-entry movements have framed the basic question as being about access to public spaces, a right that could not be curtailed on grounds of caste etc. In this case, the form of the Trust – as well as the fact that the Dargah was “open” to all – allowed the Court to hold that the question of access was of a “public” character, and therefore, impliedly, outside Article 26(b).

The Court then went on to hold, however, that even if it was attracted, Article 26(b) could not override other constitutional provisions:

“Infact, the right to manage the Trust cannot override the right to practice religion itself, as Article 26 cannot be seen to abridge or abrogate the right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.” (paragraph 36)

With respect, this might not be correct. It is, in fact, Article 25 of the Constitution that contains the prefatory term “Subject to other provisions of this Part…” This suggests that when the framers wanted to subordinate one provision of Part III to the others, they did so expressly. The omission of this phrase in Article 26 would suggest, therefore, that it is 25(1) that is subject to 26 (in case of a clash), and that, at the very least, more work must be done before holding that Article 26(b) is subject to Articles 14 and 15.

Lastly, the Court swiftly disposed off the ‘women’s security’ argument, holding that it was for the Dargah (as well as the State) to take effective steps to guarantee the security of women, instead of banning them outright (paragraph 37). It ordered, therefore, that status quo be restored, i.e. “women be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men.”

The reader will note, at this point, that a final step in the argument appears to be missing. Even after holding that the arguments of the Dargah, based on Articles 25 and 26 failed, on what legal or constitutional basis were the women enforcing their right of access against the Dargah? The Dargah was not, after all, a State body, and consequently, there could be no direct relief against it under Articles 14, 15, or 25. The Court didn’t address this question separately, but the answer is found back in paragraph 18:

“… the State cannot deprive its citizens of the constitutional rights guaranteed under Articles 14 and 15. It would then be the Constitutional responsibility of the State to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution are upheld. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees that `the State shall not deny any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the law within the territory of India’ and Article 15 guarantees `the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. The State would then be under a constitutional obligation to extent equal protection of law to the petitioners to the extent, that it will have to ensure that there is no gender discrimination.”

In other words, what the Court held was that under Part III, the State did not merely have a negative obligation not to infringe fundamental rights. Rather, it had a positive obligation to prevent a private party from infringing upon another private party’s fundamental rights (this, I argued before, was a move open to the Court in light of the Supreme Court judgments in Vishaka and Medha Kotwal Lele). In technical terms, this is called “indirect horizontality” (discussed previously here). If a private party is infringing my fundamental rights, I cannot move the Court directly against that private party, and ask the Court for relief against it; I must make the State a Respondent, and ask the Court to direct the State to take necessary action in order that I may vindicate my fundamental rights (by deploying police, security, or whatever else). And interestingly the petitioners in this case did make the State a party – in fact, the State was the First Respondent.

Let us now summarise the structure of the judgment:

  1. The Haji Ali Dargah Trust justified the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum on the basis of the freedom of religion (Article 25(1)), and the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in the matters of religion (Article 26(b).
  2. The Court rejected the Article 25(1) argument on the basis that the Trust had failed to place any material on record to demonstrate that the exclusion of women from dargahs was an “essential feature” of Islam. The Dargah’s claims were thrown further into doubt by the fact that women had been accessing the sanctum up until 2011 – 12.
  3. The Court rejected the Article 26(b) argument on the basis that:
    1. The Scheme of the Dargah Trust did not allow it to adjudicate upon religious matters. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
    2. The Dargah Trust was a public charitable trust, and the Dargah was a public space open to all. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
    3. Even if Article 26(b) was attracted, it was overriden by Articles 14, 15 and 25(1)
  4. The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of the Dargah violated their rights under Articles 14 (equality), 15(1) (non-discrimination) and 25(1) (freedom of religion).
  5. Consequently, insofar as the Dargah Trust was impeding the women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights, they were entitled to call upon the State to perform its positive obligations under Part III of the Constitution, and vindicate their rights by taking appropriate enforcement-oriented action.

By way of conclusion, let me make two points. On this blog, I have strongly opposed the “essential features” test as being a doctrinal, historical and philosophical mistake (see here), and proposed an alternative interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 (see here). If, however, there is to be a change, that change must be initiated by the Supreme Court, sitting in a bench of appropriate strength (at least seven judges). Whatever the Bench’s personal views on the essential religious practices test, sitting as the Bombay High Court, they had no choice but to follow and apply it. This they did. What is important to note, however, is that they applied it in a narrow, circumspect, and sensitive manner, and to the extent that they necessarily had to. They limited themselves to examining only the material placed on record by the Trust. Even though the Petitioners had placed on record material arguing that Islam mandated gender equality, the bench refused to make observations on that point, one way or another. Unlike far too many previous cases, they refrained from making grand, overarching claims about the religion before them. Given that the whole problem with the essential practices doctrine is that it allows judges to impose an external view upon the lived practices and traditions of the community, the Bombay High Court’s reticence in doing that must be applauded.

This brings me to the second, related point. Over the past few years, cases of this sort – which involve issues of fundamental rights, religion, and gender equality, among others, have seen much judicial grandstanding. There have been broad and sweeping statements, which do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, very little attention to the Constitution and to legal doctrine, and the privileging of rhetoric over reason. The Bombay High Court’s judgment is the exact opposite of all this. The bench decided the case on closely-reasoned legal grounds (as any court must) refused the obvious temptation of buccaneering into the political and religious thicket, and avoided doing anything more than was absolutely necessary for deciding the case. If we criticise the judiciary when it plays to the galleries, we must also praise it when it abstains from doing so. For that reason, apart from everything else, today’s judgment deserves much praise.

 

 

 

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Filed under Access to Religious Spaces, Essential Religious Practices, Freedom of Religion, Secularism

Guest Post: Women and the Constituent Assembly – II: The Framing of the Non-Discrimination Clause

Initial Drafts

The initial drafts of the equality and non-discrimination provisions were prepared by B.R.Ambedkar (B Shiva Rao Ed. “The framing of India’s Constitution- Select Documents’ Universal law publishing co. Pvt. Ltd Vol II (2004) PP 86-88) and K.M.Munshi (Vol II PP 74-75). Ambedkar’s draft referred to the ‘prohibition of disqualification inter alia on the ground of sex’ only once in respect of holding of public office or practicing of trade or calling (Vol II 84-88). The remainder of the draft provisions were gender neutral using either the words and phrases “all persons, person, public, or people (Vol II 84-88), or “all citizens or every citizen” Moreover, he did not recommend any special provisions for women or children.

However, in comparison to B.R. Ambedkar, K.M. Munshi’s draft attached more significance to gender (Vol II 74-75) in two respects;

  • Calling for treatment of women at equal basis with men generally and;
  • Providing justification for exceptions to the rule against sexual discrimination.

He was also less gender neutral in his approach than Ambedkar and used the words ‘women and men’ (rather than citizens). Clauses 1 and 3 of his draft are worth noting.

  • All persons irrespective of…….. sex are equal before the law and are entitled to the same rights and are subject to the same duties.
  • Women citizens are the equal of men citizens in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and are entitled to the civil rights and subject to same civil duties unless where exception is made in such rights or duties by the law of the Union on account of ‘sex’(Vol II 74)

Ironically, he did not advocate prohibition of ‘discrimination on the ground of sex’ in respect of equal access to public places and enjoyment of equal opportunities in spheres of public employment and office of power and honour, the exercise of trade, profession or calling and exercise of franchise (Vol II 74-75). Thus, unlike Ambedkar who espoused formal equality, the draft of Munshi was a combination of paternalism and formal equality and was influenced by cultural feminism.

Based on both drafts, the sub-committee on fundamental rights produced a non-discrimination provision: draft Article 5. This Article apart from recognizing the principles of equality before law and the equal protection of the law also prohibited discrimination on the ground of sex (but not gender). The obligation of non-discrimination was not only vertical but also horizontal, bringing into its scope ‘wells, tanks, roads, schools and places of public resort’ (Vol II P 138). Constitutional adviser B. N. Rau expressed concern that,

“…. The clause as drafted would prejudicially affect the institution of separate schools, hospitals etc for women” (Vol II P 148)

The Minorities Sub-Committee, endorsing the suggestion of Rau, decided to remove ‘sex’ as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, so far as ‘the use of wells, tanks, roads and places of public resort’ was concerned and also excluded ‘schools’ from this clause. (Vol II P 208)

The above views of both these committees were discussed by Advisory Committee. Although there was consensus in the committee to have a strong Anti-discrimination provision, it was also felt that,

“..the drafting of a clause which would prevent discrimination and at the time would serve the practical social ends was somewhat complicated.” (Vol II P 208, P 221, 253-255)

According to the Committee the same was crucial in respect of discrimination on the ground of ‘sex’. In order, therefore to redraft the Anti-discrimination clause, yet another sub-committee consisting of Munshi, Rajgopalachari, Pannikar and Ambedkar was constituted. (Vol II P 223)

This sub-committee drafted the general nondiscrimination provision, which read:

The State shall make no discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste or sex...’ (Vol II P 256).

However, in regard to access to trading establishments, public restaurants and hotels and use of wells, tanks and places of public resort, it omitted ‘sex’ as one of prohibited grounds of discrimination. During the debates, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur objected, arguing that this went against the basic principles of social equality. Rajgopalachari tried to defend it by pointing out,

“…in dealing with particularities, separate provision for women would be necessary and if we say that there shall be no discrimination, we will have to follow it.” (Vol II P 257)

Another member Panikkar added a new dimension to the debate by pointing out,

“..discrimination for women means discrimination against men…when you say no discrimination shall be made on the ground of sex, it also means it should not be discriminated against men...” (Vol II P 257)

However, the debate ultimately resulted in adoption of redraft of the clause suggested by Rajgopalachari, which apart from accepting the objection of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, also had a proviso, ‘provided that nothing contained in this clause shall prevent separate provisions being made for women.’ (Vol II P 258). Draft Article 11 was then debated by Constituent Assembly on 29th April 1947 but the discussion did not result in any material changes in the provisions dealing with discrimination on the ground of Sex. (B Shiva Rao Vol V P186-187)

The Final Wording and the Debates over the Word “Only”

This clause however was qualitatively modified along the lines of Section 87 of Charter Act, 1833 which became Section 298(1) of Govt. Of India Act 1935 by Constitutional Adviser and remained part of both the Draft Constitutions. When the I visited HANSARD to gather the legislative intention of British Parliament behind enactment of section 87 and 298, I did not find any discussion on the same. (B Shiva Rao Vol III (2004) P 7-8, P 521)

To have an idea of the changes made by Constitutional Adviser B.N. Rau, it is necessary to compare the language of the clause 11 (1) and clause 9(1) in the draft Constitutions with the earlier clause 4 of draft of subcommittee. He substituted the following clause as clause 1 of draft Article 11. The changes made are italicized. ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or any of them.’ 

It is also interesting to note that, B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Durgabai, Mahavir Tyagi,Thakurdas Bhargava. B.V. Keskar, T.T. Krishnamachari, M. Anathasayanam Ayyangar and k. Santhanam raised objections about the inclusion of the word ‘only’ and recommended its deletion wherever it occurred viz. draft article 9 and 10 etc (presently Articles 15 and 16 of Constitution of India). However, the same was rejected by B.N. Rau, by giving following justification,

“[There is an argument that] there are advantages in retaining this wording. For example, suppose because of discrimination against Indians in South Africa, India decides to discriminate against South African Europeans in India. Such discrimination would be on grounds of race, but not on grounds only of race: the Constitution as it stands, would permit it, but not if it is amended as proposed”… In my opinion, It is not clear how this example would explain the insertion of the word ‘only’ in draft clause 10 (presently Article 16 of constitution of India) dealing with non-discrimination in the public employment. Rau also did not offer any justification or articulated his thought on the insertion of the words ‘only’ ‘or any of them’ in his book. (B. Shiva Rao Vol IV (2004) PP 27)

During the final debate on this Article on 29th November 1948, the above amendment of B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya and others was not taken up. (P 673) But on same day, during the final discussion of draft article 10 ( present article 16 of constitution of India), Naziruuddin Ahmad moved amendment no 333, by observing “That in clause (2) of article 10, for the words ‘on grounds only’ the words, ‘on grounds’ be substituted. It is really a motion for deletion of the word ‘only’ which seems to be redundant or rather causing some difficulty. The same difficulty has been felt by a large number of honorable members, as is evidenced by several amendments to the same effect”.

The other similar amendments were amendment no. 335 and first part of 337. It is also necessary to point out another amendment no. 336 moved by Naziruddin Ahmad, also doing away with the word “only”: “thus for clause (2) of article 10, the following clause be substituted, ‘(2) every citizen shall be eligible for office under the state irrespective of his religion, caste, sex, descent or place of birth’.. the only reason for suggesting this amendment is that it is more direct in form” Amendment 341 was similar to the amendment 336 and was not moved.

During his reply to the discussion ,B.R. Amebdkar pointed out, “Mr. Vice President… that I cannot accept amendment 334 by Misra nor I can accept the two amendments moved by Mr Nazruddin Ahemad , nos. 336 and 337…”

I submit that the observations of B.R. Ambedkar in respect of the amendments moved by Nazruddin Ahmad sidestepped the real issue as to what in substance were the objections raised by the members.

Anti-discrimination vs Non-discrimination

Furthermore, an amendment suggested by Jaypraksh Narayan to add a sub-clause to clause 1 of Article 9, so as to afford protection against discrimination on the ground of ‘sex’ for interalia ‘possession of property, exercising or carrying of any occupation etc’ was also rejected by pointing out interalia,

“ … Under Hindu Law there are certain disabilities with regard to the possession of property on the ground of ‘sex’….it may for example be necessary to impose restrictions on the carrying out of certain occupations by women such as the occupation of rickshaw-puller, the occupation of laborer in mines etc….the amendment if accepted, will not enable the State to impose any such restrictions…..” (Vol IV (2004) PP 29-30)

On the basis of this, I submit that B.N. Rau introduced a subtle distinction between ‘Anti-discrimination and non-discrimination’ because although as a part of strategy of Anti-discrimination, he retained all the prohibited grounds as suggested by Rajgopalachari Committee, but he seriously watered down the scope of Non-discrimination. Thus, he envisaged the possibility of legitimizing the discrimination even on prohibited grounds, if State could suggest some other non-prohibited grounds as compelling justification for the discrimination and could prove that it is not a discrimination ‘only’ on one of the prohibited grounds. Of course in one way the draft of B.N. Rau was quite ahead of time. By incorporating the words ‘or any of them’ he not only recognized the phenomenon of Multiple discrimination but also created a potential for invocation of ‘Principle of Intersectionality’. There is neither discussion in the constituent assembly about the significance of these words, nor has the judiciary has taken their due cognizance during the interpretation of articles 15 and 16. Indeed, it is ironical that at one hand, B. N. Rau contracted the scope of Non-discrimination, while on the other hand, like a visionary, he also opened up the possibilities of placing innovative and creative interpretation on Articles 15 and 16. Similarly, he also severed the Proviso as suggested by Rajgoplachari from draft clause and incorporated a separate clause by making some qualitative and material changes, which was adopted finally as present Article 15 (3). The clause reads as, ‘Nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children.’

Prior to the introduction of the final draft of the Constitution before the Constituent Assembly on 4th Nov 1948, one of the members, Tajamul Husain had sought the complete deletion of clause 2 of Article 11 (Present Article 15 (3). However, his suggestion was not accepted by Constitutional adviser B.N. Rau, who opined,

“ ..this clause is necessary as obviously special provision would be required in the case of employment of women and children in factories and mines…” (Vol IV (2004) PP 29)

On the other hand, during the final debate, K.T. Shah had moved an amendment to this clause to also include in its scope ‘scheduled castes and backward tribes ‘along with women and children. However, B.R. Ambedkar rejected this amendment by drawing a distinction between SC/STs and women:

“… with regard to amendment no.323 moved by Professor K.T. Shah ,the object which is to add ‘the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes’ along with women and children, I am afraid it may have just the opposite effect. The object which all of us have in mind is that the scheduled caste and scheduled tribes should not be segregated from the general public. for instance none of us, I think would like that separate schools should be established for Scheduled Caste , when there is a general school in a village open to the children of the entire community…if these words are added, it will probably give a handle for a State to say, well , we are making special provisions for the scheduled caste. To my mind they can safely say so by taking shelter under the Article if it is amended in the manner …..

Subhash Kashyap points out that according to Constitutional adviser B.N. Rau, this clause [Present Article 15(3)] was an exception to the general anti-discrimination clause (Dr. Subhash Kashyap Ed. Vol V P 187). He also demonstrates how B.N. Rau found support for insertion of clause 2 of Draft Article 9 ( Present Article 15 (3) of Constitution of India) , during his discussion with Justice Frankfurter of US Supreme Court by noting ,“ ..Justice Frankfurter emphasized that legal provision might occasionally have to be made for women e.g. to prohibit employment for a certain period before and after child-birth ”. (Dr. Subhash Kashyap Ed. Vol V P 187)

 

 

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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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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – XI: The Justification of the Anti-Stereotyping Principle

We have seen that in Anuj Garg, the Supreme Court adopted the anti-stereotyping principle: sex-based classifications could not be saved under Article 15(1) if their only justification was to invoke stereotypes about women’s sexual or social roles in the community. What, however, is the basis of this principle? Since the Supreme Court borrowed it from American jurisprudence, we must take a brief detour, and examine the history of constitutional sex discrimination claims in the United States. That history throws up a surprising link: between sex equality, and the right to vote.

Until 1919, women in the United States did not have the right to vote. The denial of this right was justified – among other things – on a theory of virtual representation: that the interests of women were represented (before marriage) by their fathers and (after marriage) their sons, so there was no need for a separate vote. The idea of virtual representation was not restricted to the sphere of voting, but extended to an entire legal regime known as coverture: through which men disposed off property, entered into contracts and engaged in commercial relations on behalf of their wives or daughters. The social philosophy underlying the law of coverture is now called “the separate spheres” theory: i.e., it holds that men and women belong to naturally-ordained separate spheres – the public sphere for men, and the private sphere for women. To perform the functions required of one’s sphere is a natural obligation, and the two spheres are exclusive and non-overlapping.

The denial of the right to vote, therefore, rested upon the legal framework of coverture, which, in turn, was justified by the social theory of the separate spheres. So when the women’s suffrage movement in the United States’ concretely demanded the right to vote, it was not simply asking for access to the ballot box, but challenging the legal regime of coverture and the philosophy of the separate sphere itself. This is evident from the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration, widely believed to herald the start of the suffrage movement. The Declaration accused man of “claiming it as his right to assign for [woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience“, and attempting to “destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen herself-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” The twin ideas of dependency and an imposed restriction of social roles formed the heart of the claim for suffrage. This was understood by opponents of the movement as well, who linked the right to vote and the transformation of the separate spheres, askingif our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows? where our domestic firesides and the holes in our stockings?” The American legal scholar, Reva Siegel, argues therefore that “the arguments of suffragists and their opponents tied the idea of women voting to the prospect of women’s emancipation from traditional roles in marriage and the market. Once the question of woman suffrage was infused with this social meaning – once the question of woman suffrage was known simply as the “woman question” – the nation’s debate about whether women should vote turned into a referendum on a whole range of gendered institutions and practices.”

Of course, between 1848 and 1919, the suffrage movement developed multiple currents, not all of which were in harmony. Around the turn of the century, for instance, another strand of the movement began to invoke the separate sphere to justify the claim for suffrage, arguing that because of women’s unique knowledge about issues related to welfare, the bringing up of children, sanitation and hygiene etc., they ought to be allowed the power of the ballot box in shaping policy. A decade later, yet another strand raised the spectre of the recently-enfranchised African-American community overwhelming the Whites at the polls, and asked for the vote to counteract this threat (See Alieen Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement). As is the case with al social movements, it is impossible to tell which strand had the greatest contribution towards ultimate constitutional success. However, what is important to note is that the 19th Amendment, which granted the women the vote, was framed as a right. Neither the second, nor the third arguments for the vote, that we have outlined above, were framed in the language of constitutional principles or rights. It was only the first, and original suffragist argument against the theory of the separate spheres, that was framed in the vocabulary of rights. Consequently, whatever the intentions of the drafters of the Nineteenth Amendment, its very language reflects the constitutional acceptance of the anti-separate spheres movement. More importantly, this is how the Courts understood it – at least initially. In 1923, in Adkins vs Children’s Hospital, the Supreme Court struck down differential working hours of men and women. In so doing, it overruled the pre-Nineteenth Amendment case of Muller vs Oregon (which some of our courts have relied upon), noting that “… the ancient inequality of the sexes, otherwise than physical, as suggested in the Muller Case has continued ‘with diminishing intensity.’ In view of the… revolutionary changes which have taken place since that utterance, in the contractual, political, and civil status of women, culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment… these differences have now come almost, if not quite, to the vanishing point.” Fifty years later, in Frontiero vs Richardson, the judgment which kickstarted the modern American law of sex discrimination, Justice Brennan referred to “traditional belief that the “paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and divine offices of wife and mother”, before stating:

“As a result of notions such as these, our statute books gradually became laden with gross, stereotypical distinctions between the sexes and, indeed, throughout much of the 19th century the position of women was, in many respects, comparable to that of blacks under the pre-Civil War slave codes.”

Justice Brennan’s opinion makes the link between the anti-stereotyping principle and the separate spheres theory. The transformative moment that changed separate-sphere based stereotypes from accepted classificatory tools to unconstitutional, discriminatory ones, was the Nineteenth Amendment, which repudiated virtual representation and its underlying justifications by affirming the right of women to vote.

It is, of course, dangerous to draw connections between jurisdictions in too facile a manner. Two things ought to be noted, however. The first is that the link between the right to vote and the repudiation of separate spheres is a conceptual link, and not jurisdiction-specific. And the second is that a brief look at our pre-Constitutional history reveals some striking similarities. Scholars like Partha Chatterjee and Tanika Sarkar have demonstrated that the public/private divide in the form of ghar/bahir (although in a subtly different form) arose in India towards the end of the nineteenth century, with British efforts at social reform resisted on the grounds of interference with the “inner domain” of community life, which was often represented by the figure of the woman. Chatterjee notes, for instance:

“The world is [deemed to be] a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material interests, where practical interests reign supreme. It is also typically the domain of the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world – and woman is its representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of social space into ghar and bahir.”

This, as we can see, closely corresponds to the separate spheres theory (again, one must be careful of too much reductiveness in comparisons – for the purposes of this argument, however, a rough analogy will suffice). The separate spheres theory spilt over powerfully into the nascent demand for self-representation during the 1920s and 1930s phase of the freedom movement. Initially, during the first opening up of suffrage by the colonial government, separate electorates were proposed for women. As Wendy Singers points out, these “characterized a candidate as a stand-in for her constituency. In other words, separate electorates for women made manifest the idea of a women’s constituency that represented women’s issues and was embodied by the candidate.” (See Singers, A Constituency Suitable for Ladies 25) This was strongly resisted by the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and other organisations; on the other hand, as Gerladine Forbes points out, the proposition that only women could represent the interests of the “home” was endorsed by leading figures such as Sarojini Naidu, who urged “women to utilize their housekeeping skills to put the ‘national house’ in order.” This was also reflected – as Forbes notes – in initial demands to restrict suffrage to educated women, who were better placed to advocate social reform. The fact that suffrage was being demanded on two very different grounds, which were based on two incompatible visions of society, was clearly understood by the representatives of the women’s movement during the Second Round Table Conference. Mrinalini Sinha notes that “the representatives speaking on behalf of the Indian women’s movement had insisted that women were neither a “minority” nor a “special interest”, but an integral part of the people… Hence they demanded only universal adult suffrage and a declaration of fundamental rights in the new constitution that removed sex, along with caste, class and religion, as the grounds for any political disqualification.” (Mrinalini Sinha, Spectres of Mother India 223) Here, for the first time, we see the implicit connection between the right to vote, separate electorates, separate spheres, and equality and non-discrimination, being made explicit.

This is, admittedly, a sketchy history; what is worth pointing out, however, is that the Indian Constitution rejected both separate electorates for women and educational qualifications for suffrage. The intentions behind the framers’ decisions are complex, but what matters is that the text of the Constitution merely speaks about adult suffrage. This, in turn, would suggest – based upon our previous arguments – a rejection of the separate spheres theory, much along the lines of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States.

The anti-stereotyping principle, therefore, is grounded in the transformative nature of the Constitution, which – in simultaneously guaranteeing women the unconditional right to vote along with a guarantee of non-discrimination, rejected separate spheres (and therefore, stereotypes) as justifications for sex-based classifications. Consequently, the line of High Court cases culminating in Anuj Garg was correctly decided, and should be followed in the future. Of course, as Reva Siegel points out, “anti-stereotyping” is an empty phrase without more; to decide whether or not classifications are based on stereotypes needs detailed historical enquiry, tracing the roots of the classifications and their evolution over time. It is an enquiry that the Court is yet to seriously embark upon, but Anuj Garg has, at least, laid the foundation for the future.

(A more detailed version of my argument drawing a link between sex equality, anti-stereotyping, and the right to vote, is available here)

 

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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – X: The Culmination of the Anti-Stereotyping Principle in Anuj Garg

In the last three essays, we discussed the complex intersections between labour and service laws, and sex discrimination. Let us now return to our original line of cases, which present discrimination claims in a simpler and starker background. In A.M. Shaila vs Chairman, Cochin Port Trust, decided by the Kerala High Court in 1994, the question was whether the Cochin Port Trust’s decision to exclude women from working as shed clerks violated Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. The Court held that it did not, noting that if women are excluded from employment of a particular category because of their physical structure and special susceptibilities, it means that women have been placed in a class by reason of the distinct circumstances. In such a case the denial of opportunity of employment, though it strikes at women ceases to be “solely” on the ground of sex.” In noting some of the differences in “physical structure” and “special susceptibilities”, the Court relied upon American cases that had referred to the “natural functions of motherhood” and “social and moral hazards, which had already been pointed out as having been overruled in Rajamma, twelve years before. Summing up, the Court held:

The continuous work while standing or moving and the movement at the shipping wharf amidst the menacing movement of cranes and forklifts demand protective restriction on the right to employment. The policy of the Port Trust indeed protects women from the hazardous effect of such work on their well being. Therefore the policy is not based only on sex. A woman working at the shipping wharf away from the main office, isolated and alone can be an object of violence on her person-especially at night. That is why Curt Muller v. The State of Oregon (supra) used the words” protect her from the greed and passion of man”. The policy of the Prot Trust impugned in this case does not violate Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution of India for these reasons.”

 The problems with this line of reasoning have been examined at length before, and need not be repeated. In the 2000s, however, numerous High Courts were moved against provisions of the Factories Act that allowed governments to prohibit women from working in certain kinds of employment between 7 PM and 6 AM. In 2001, in Vasantha vs Union of India, this was challenged before the Madras High Court. Much like in A.M. Shaila’s case, this was justified on the ground that it was a “benign” measure designed to protect women, so that they could avoid “strenuous work”, and fulfill their household duties. Rejecting the argument, the Court noted that “it is not always so easy to verify whether discrimination that is claimed to be “affirmative action” or “benign” whether really is and at times it is demonstrably established that such a discrimination actually reinforces a negative and untrue stereotype of them.” In other words, it was not enough for the State to simply claim that it was enacting measures to benefit women under Article 15(3) (as the Supreme Court had held earlier, in its adultery decision). The measure itself would be subjected to judicial review, to confirm whether it was based on negative stereotypes. The Court struck down the provision, and also issued guidelines by requiring employers to take steps in order to prevent sexual harassment, provide secure working conditions, separate canteen and transportation facilities for women, etc. That same year, in Triveni vs Union of India, the Andhra Pradesh High Court followed suit, expressly agreeing with the Madras High Court and disagreeing with the Kerala High Court. The Court also observed:

“We have been told that there is a G.O. by which certain safeguards have been provided to the women who are working in Fish industry during the night hours. The same safeguards shall be given to women workers in other industries during the night time.”

Recall Catherine MacKinnon’s observation that the judgment upholding the prohibition of women from working in jails took the viewpoint of the “reasonable rapist.” The Madras High Court’s guidelines, and the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s observation are important, because they make it clear that the State cannot invoke social realities as grounds to burden women, but rather, has a positive obligation to change that reality in order that the need for discrimination disappear. In A.M. Shaila, the Court held that the dangers to women from “the greed and passion” of man formed part of the immutable background conditions (along with the “physical structure” of the sexes), which, if taken into account by the State in classifying the sexes for differential treatment, would be constitutionally valid. In this case, however, those “immutable background conditions” were treated as human-made social structures, which were allowed to flourish through State inaction – consequently, placing a duty upon the State to remedy them. The difference between A.M. Shaila and Vasantha and Triveni reflects, yet again, that the analytical baseline chosen by the Court, which is a deeply political choice, will end up having a profound effect upon the final judgment, even though the assumptions remains hidden.

Three years later, however, when the same provision was challenged before the Kerala High Court, the Court adopted the opposite reasoning, once again invoking the place and role of women in society: “the very nature of their commitment to the family and the social environment require that they cannot be entrusted with all those duties which men may be asked to perform… The place of women has been recognized in the Indian society since the hoary past. The Constitution has made a special provision in Article 15(3). It is calculated to protect and promote the interest of women, The impugned provision clearly falls within the protective umbrella of Article 15(3). It does not embody a principle of discrimination on sex, but is calculated to save women from the hazards of working during night in factories.”

 Examples need not be multiplied. But by now, the deep conflict in the basic understanding and interpretation of Article 15(1) should be evident, across time and place. In 2007, however, it would appear that the Supreme Court finally definitively settled the issue, in favour of the anti-stereotyping principle. In Anuj Garg vs Hotel Association of India, which we have discussed previously on this blog, the validity of Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act, which prohibited the employment of women (and men under 25 years) in premises where liquor or other intoxicating drugs were consumed by the public, was challenged. The Delhi High Court struck down the statute, which was carried in appeal. Before the Supreme Court, it was defended by the State on the grounds of maintenance of security, akin to the arguments in A.M. Shaila and Triveni. The Court rejected the argument, holding – as in Triveni – that “new models of security must be developed, if necessary.” In a separate paragraph titled “Stereotype Roles and Right to Options”, it then quoted with approval the judgment in Frontiero vs Richardson, USA vs Virgnia, and Justice Marshall’s dissent in Dothard vs Rawlinson, all of which were based upon the anti-stereotyping analysis, and observed:

“The impugned legislation suffers from incurable fixations of stereotype morality and conception of sexual role. The perspective thus arrived at is outmoded in content and stifling in means.”

The High Court’s judgment in striking down the Section, therefore, was upheld.

There has been some controversy over whether the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg incorporated a standard of “strict scrutiny” in dealing with sex discrimination claims. In paragraph 44, the Court stated that “strict scrutiny should be employed” in cases assessing the validity of sex-based legislation. In paragraph 47, however, the Court seemed to adopt a proportionality test: “the legislative interference to the autonomy in employment opportunities for women is justified as a legitimate aim and proportionate to the aim pursued”, before going on to cite cases from the ECHR. It is important to note that strict scrutiny in sex discrimination claims is not the existing position of law, even in the United States. Such claims are adjudicated under a less exacting, “intermediate scrutiny” standard of review, which is fairly close to the proportionality review employed by the ECHR. It is therefore unlikely that the Supreme Court meant to adopt the standard of strict scrutiny as followed in the United States, given the rest of the tenor of its judgment.

It is also unlikely for another reason: the Supreme Court in Anuj Garg did not merely settle the controversy about whether or not stereotypes about women’s sexual and social roles could be invoked to justify a discriminatory law on “sex-plus” grounds. It also settled the controversy about whether an Article 15 enquiry was limited to the motive, or purpose of law, or whether it also included its effects. The Court held:

“Legislation should not be only assessed on its proposed aims but rather on the implications and the effects.”

And again:

“No law in its ultimate effect should end up perpetuating the oppression of women.”

In Anuj Garg, the law at issue was directly discriminatory – i.e., the law, in its very wording, created two categories (men and women), that were composed entirely and exclusively by the two sexes. However, note that the effects test necessarily includes both direct and indirect discrimination: a pregnancy-based classification, for instance, has the effect of disproportionately burdening women, even though the classification is not along the lines of sex. This is extremely important, since – as we have seen before in this series – it tracks an interpretation of the word “grounds” in Article 15 that qualifies not the motive/intent of the law (or lawmakers), but protected personal characteristics. Although the Court did not follow this analysis in Anuj Garg, it is clear that an effects-oriented interpretation of Article 15 must necessarily be based on the second meaning of “grounds”.

In most other jurisdictions, indirect discrimination is analysed within a proportionality framework, making it more likely that the Court’s invocation of strict scrutiny was not in its technical sense.

However, if the framework within which Article 15(1) is to be analysed is an effects-based one, then where does anti-stereotyping come in, which is concerned with motivations? In Anuj Garg, while responding to the State’s contention that the purpose of the law was to protect women, the Court noted that two conditions would have to be satisfied in such cases:

“… (a) the legislative interference (induced by sex discriminatory legalisation in the instant case) should be justified in principle, (b) the same should be proportionate in measure.”

The anti-stereotyping principle is relevant insofar as it rules out certain kinds of principled justifications (i.e., those based on stereotypes). In other words, at the first stage of enquiry, the effect of a statute will be analysed, to ascertain whether Article 15(1) is infringed. At the second stage, if the State then advances a justification (whether based on Article 15(3) or otherwise), it will be prohibited from relying upon stereotypes.

Anuj Garg, therefore, is authority for two crucial interpretive propositions: first, that both direct and indirect discrimination are covered under Article 15, within the framework of a broad, effects-based test; and secondly, the State may not rely upon stereotypes to justify prima facie discriminatory legislation. While there are many issues it does not deal with (and did not need to), such as whether different standards apply for direct and indirect discrimination, it nonetheless lays the foundation for a conceptually solid jurisprudence on sex equality. Whether and how it will be followed remains to be seen.

 

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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – IX: Rajendra Grover, the Culmination of the Air Hostess Cases, and Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Institutional Role

After two decades of litigation, Air Hostesses, Air Flight Pursers and the Union of India met again, in one final battle before the Courts. After the decision of the Supreme Court in Yeshaswinee Merchant, refusing the merger of cadres, the struggle for equalisation was taken (again) outside the judiciary. In 2003, Air India allowed its female cabin crew members (who had been recruited after the first equalisation in 1997) to undertake flying duties until the age of 58, bringing them on par with the male cabin crew. Two years later, in 2005, Air India also decided that henceforth, executive female crew members would be eligible for the post of “In Flight Supervisor” (IFS), thus effectively merging a promotional category that had only been open to men. In Rajendra Grover vs Union of India, this was challenged by the male cabin crew that had been recruited before 1997.

Recall, once again, the tortuous history. In 1995, for the first time, the management and cabin crew of Air India had entered into an understanding, clarifying that for new recruits, cabin crew functions would be interchangeable, but without affecting promotional avenues. Promotional avenues up until the first executive level were themselves merged in 1997, when one cadre – that of “cabin crew” was created. It was the 1997 settlement that had been challenged by the Air Hostesses who were part of the executive class, leading to the Bombay High Court order creating absolute parity between male and female cabin crew – which, in turn, had been struck down in Yeshaswinee Merchant. But now, what Nargesh Mirza and Yeshwasinee Merchant had refused to do via the Constitution, had been done by Air India through Office Orders: complete equalisation of male and female cabin crew.

Before the Delhi High Court, the Petitioners argued that Air India was not entitled to disturb the status that had been guaranteed to them by Nargesh Mirza and Yeshaswinee Merchant, as well as by numerous prior settlements. They contended that the “In-Flight Supervisor” was a promotional post, specifically part of the male cabin crew cadre, which had clearly been held to be separate and different from the Air Hostess cadre in both Nargesh Mirza and Yeshaswinee Merchant, as well as by the Settlements. Consequently, “the impugned administrative order inasmuch as it seeks to grant parity between two unequal classes and separate and distinct cadres is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.” The Respondent Air Hostesses, on the other hand, argued that the IFS was an entirely functional post (and not a promotional one), and that it was therefore not bound to any one particular cadre. In any event, the equalisation did not affect either the Nargesh Mirza judgment or the settlements, since IFS was a supervisory or executive post, whereas the controversy in the prior cases had been between cabin crew who constituted “workmen” within the meaning of labour law. The Air Hostesses countered the male cabin crew’s invocation of the Constitution by making constitutional claims of their own: “denying a woman the functions of the IFS and maintaining it as a male preserve is violative of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution.”

The Delhi High Court found that, on a close reading of Nargesh Mirza and Yeshaswinee Merchant, those cases had only held that the existing status quo did not constitute hostile discrimination. They had not, however, barred the government from changing the status quo by exercising its executive prerogative. This, indeed, was what had happened: “Post 1997, there has been a merger of the cadres of the male and female members of the cabin crew. This is quite different from what prevailed at the time of the judgment in Nergesh Meerza. It is nobody’s argument that such a merger is unconstitutional or invalid or that it runs contrary to what was held in Nergesh Meerza. In fact, in Yeshaswinee Merchant also, the Supreme Court recognized that the employer can take a policy decision to re-organise its organizational structure to remove elements of discrimination.

The last line is particularly interesting, because of course it was the Court’s opinion in Nargesh Mirza and Yeshaswinee Merchant that unequal service conditions of male and female cabin crews did not amount to discrimination. Taken literally, the Delhi High Court’s sentence would lead to the odd result that the Supreme Court had acknowledged that discrimination existed, but contrary to the requirements of the Constitution, left it to the State to deal with them (of course, our argument throughout this series has been that that was what the Court effectively did, but that is neither here not there).

In any event, the Court concluded the matter by saying that after the merger of cadres in 1997, “in the matter of either flying duties or in the matter of seeking avenues of promotion, the rights of one cadre need not be to the exclusion of the rights of the other. In fact what has happened is that in terms of the impugned order both the pre-1997 male and female cabin crew have an equal chance of being considered for performing the function of IFS in accordance with their seniority.”

The Delhi High Court’s decision was carried in appeal to the Supreme Court which, in 2011, dismissed the appeal with a few perfunctory lines that need not concern us. Thus, the decades-long battle ended. But the thirty-year long litigation compels us to ask a few important questions about the Supreme Court’s institutional role.

As we have seen, the basis of the dispute was the undeniable fact that male cabin crew and female cabin crew were treated differently. In the first round of litigation before the Supreme Court, the treatment of the female cabin crew was clearly inferior: compulsory retirement upon first pregnancy or within four years of marriage, or on attaining the age of 35. Despite the fact that the entire basis of division was the sex of an employee, the Court managed to find that there was no discrimination under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. The Air Hostesses took their case to the Parliament, and won important concessions, such as an increase in retirement age (although still not on par with men) – and, in 1997 – an equalisation of functions. Partly based upon this, the Bombay High Court then ordered complete parity and a merger of the cadres. The Supreme Court reversed this decision, and reinstated the old, unequal system. Parity was finally made complete through executive action, which – ultimately – was upheld by the Court.

Notably, all three institutions of the State were involved in various stages: the Supreme Court, Parliament and the Government. Out of these, the Air Hostesses failed to find relief in only one of the three: the Court. Equalisation was repeatedly rejected by the Courts, which refused to find unconstitutional discrimination, but was won before the Parliament and the Government. If you agree with the basic analysis that constitution of cadres (with unequal service conditions) is clearly sex-based discrimination (as even the Delhi High Court seemed to do in Rajendra Grover), then this entire litigation is strangely counter-intuitive: civil rights were, ultimately, protected not by the institution that is constitutionally mandated to do so, but by the institutions that they are supposed to be protected from.

The Air Hostess litigation, and the area of non-discrimination law, is not an isolated example. In the domain of free speech, the Supreme Court in 1952 upheld the constitutionality of the draconian Press (Emergency) Powers Act, which had been passed by the colonial British government in 1931, with sweeping powers of censorship designed at controlling newspapers. The Act was repealed five years later by Parliament. In the domain of personal liberty, the Court upheld the stringent provisions of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which systematically denuded criminal procedure safeguards. The TADA was repealed by Parliament soon after, in the face of sweeping criticism. More recently, the draft women’s rights bill put out by the Delhi government has the first mention of non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, two years after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 377.

While these are merely anecdotal references, there is something amiss when whatever protection is accorded to civil rights, is won in majoritarian institutional fora, and lost in the constitutional court. I think this points to a need to fundamentally reappraise the institutional role of the Supreme Court within the Indian constitutional scheme. Over the last three decades, a narrative has developed that has characterised the Court as activist and interventionist, aggressively going beyond the text of the Constitution to find and enforce new rights, and coaxing or goading a moribund executive into performing its mandated functions. This narrative is based entirely on the Court’s PIL jurisprudence. Supporters have praised the Court for fulfilling the vacuum left by a non-functioning executive and fractious coalition politics, and for interpreting the Constitution in a way that is “pro-people”; critics have accused the Court of violating the separation of powers and encroaching into the domain of elected representatives. But in all this debate over whether the Supreme Court has gone beyond its mandated functions and whether that is justified, the question is rarely asked now whether the Court is effectively doing what it is uncontroversially required to do: protect civil rights under Part III of the Constitution. Does the fact that the Court has, more and more, begun to resemble the executive in its sweeping directions and its rhetoric, bear any connection with the gradual erosion of its counter-majoritarian role in protecting civil rights? We need to ask not only what (if anything) we have gained through “social action litigaton” (what one scholar describes – in my opinion with extreme inaccuracy – as “demosprudence”), but what we have lost with a Court that has become – as Lord Atkin once said – “more executive-minded than the executive.” And my sense is that with an honest analysis, we might find that what we have lost has not been worth losing after all.

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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – VIII: The further discontents of Air India Cabin Crew vs Yeshaswinee Merchant

Air India vs Nargesh Mirza was only the first salvo in a legal battle that was to last thirty more years. After losing in the Supreme Court, the air hostesses took their battle to the political arena: in 1989, they petitioned the Lok Sabha against the discrimination in retirement ages and other service conditions. In response to the recommendations of the Petition Committee, the Central Government issued a direction to the Air india, requiring them to allow both male and female cabin crew to serve until the age of 58. After some resistance from Air India, the government clarified that while the retirement age for both men and women was now 58, air hostesses could be given “suitable alternate jobs on the ground” after they had crossed the age of 35. Accordingly, in 1990, Air India issued a circular stating that air hostesses who had attained the age of 45 would be given ground employment. In 1993, this was extended to 50, subject to tests for medical fitness for flying duties.

Soon afterwards, through legislation, Air India and Indian Airlines became two separate entities. Air India (now a new company) entered into an agreement with the Air India Cabin Crew Association in March 1995. According to this agreement, there would be complete interchangeability of functions between male and female cabin crew members for new entrants to the service; however, for all recruits who had joined before 1997, the old policies would apply. This agreement was enshrined in a formal settlement in June 1997, where it was also clarified that all previous settlements and agreements, entered into between Air India in is previous avatar and its employees, would continue to hold where applicable.

In accordance with the new settlement, a revised promotion policy for cabin crew was brought into force the same month. At this point, fifty-three Air Hostesses, most of whom were nearing the age of 50, formed an Association (Air India Air Hostesses Association), and filed a petition before the National Industrial Tribunal, asking for a merger of the cadres, including for recruits who had joined before 1997. Interestingly, this claim was resisted by other Air Hostesses (a majority, in fact), who stated that they wished to retain their right to early retirement (and, consequently, accelerated seniority), and therefore, to continue to be treated as a separate cadre. The Tribunal rejected the petition for merger. Accordingly, a writ petition was filed in the Bombay High Court.

Before the High Court, the Air India Cabin Crew Association asked to be impleaded as a party, but the High Court only allowed them to file an intervention application (this fact is important, because it seemed to weigh significantly with the Supreme Court; we shall return to it later in this essay). It was argued by Air India and the AICCA (as intervenor), that the interchangeability of jobs between male and female cabin crew was applicable only after 1997; it was a policy decision, and did not imply the pre-existing position was discriminatory. The High Court, however, was not convinced; after some prodding from Justice Shah, Air India submitted a proposal for the merging of cadres. According to the proposal, the male and female cadres would be merged, and service conditions would be equalised. A corollary of this was that female air hostesses would lose the accelerated promotions and higher allowances that they were entitled to by virtue of their early retirement.

The Air India Cabin Crew Association approached the Supreme Court. It claimed to be the only recognised union entitled to represent the cabin crew (with 684 air hostesses out of a total of 1138 being a part of it), and argued that the 53 air hostesses who had claimed parity (and were working in executive posts) were “unmindful of the interest[s] of the larger number of air hostesses who are of the workmen category and have agreed for an early retirement age.”

The Supreme Court handed down its judgment in 2003, in a case called Air India Cabin Crew Association vs Yashaswinee Merchant, agreeing with the claims of the Association. It began by noting that the correct test for determining whether there was discrimination “on grounds” of sex was the “but-for” test: i.e., the question that needed to be asked was whether, but for his/her sex, an individual had been disadvantaged. Notice that the but-for test makes no mention of the discriminator’s reason – but in the very same paragraph, the Court undid its own analysis by stating that “women [cannot] be deliberately selected for less favourable treatment because of their sex.” The use of the word “deliberately” was entirely unnecessary, because it fixes the locus of discrimination within the conscious mental state of the discriminator, which is something that is in no way required by the but-for test.

In any event, the Court then reiterated the Nargesh Mirza holding, stating that on the “but-for” test, it had been found that because air hostesses and air flight pursers formed separate cadres, there was no discrimination on grounds of sex. The problems with this analysis have been explained in detail in a previous essay, and need no repetition. The Court then went on to observe, however:

“The constitutional prohibition to the State not to discriminate citizens only on sex, however, does not prohibit a special treatment to the women in employment on their own demand. The terms and conditions of their service have been fixed through negotiations and resultant agreements, settlement and awards made from time to time in the course of industrial adjudication. Where terms and conditions are fixed through collective bargaining as a comprehensive package deal in the course of industrial adjudication and terms of service and retirement age are fixed under agreements, settlements or awards, the same cannot be termed as unfavourable treatment meted out to the women workers only on basis of their sex and one or the other alone tinkered so as to retain the beneficial terms dehors other offered as part of a package deal. The twin Articles 15 and 16 prohibit a discriminatory treatment but not preferential or special treatment of women, which is a positive measure in their favour.”

First of all, the Court’s recourse to Article 15(3) is strange. If the Court had already decided to follow Nargesh Mirza on the point that Articles 15 and 16 were entirely inapplicable to the dispute, because the discrimination was not on the basis of sex, then the constitutional questions ended right there – there was no need to additionally justify the classification under Article 15(3). Secondly, if Article 15(3) was invoked, then clearly there was an element of discrimination under Article 15 and 16. But if that was the case, then how could the Court invoke Article 15(3) to override the barrier on discrimination in public employment under Article 16(2)? The scheme of Article 16 has no provision equivalent to Article 15(3); in fact, Article 16(4) makes it clear that affirmative action under the Article 16 scheme is limited to socially and educationally backward classes. In a previous essay, we have seen how High Courts were split over the issue of the relationship between Article 15(3) and 16(2). In blithely invoking preferential treatment for women, the Supreme Court simply ignored this fraught textual question.

Lastly – and most problematically – is the Court’s assumption that the Settlement was a positive measure in favour of women. To buttress this opinion, it observed:

“We have taken a resume of several agreements, settlements and awards made after negotiations from time to time and periodically, between Air India and the AICCA being the recognised association with majority of male and female cabin crew members. In all the demands, it insisted on maintaining two separate cadres for pre-1997 recruits and agreed for early retirement age to air hostesses compared to males from flying duties with option to go for ground duty between 50 to 58 years of age. In the course of industrial adjudication through conciliation and negotiation the employer could legitimately acknowledge women’s perspective, their life experience and view point. After giving consideration to the same, the employer could agree for terms and conditions which suited the air hostesses.”

But there are two key questions that the Court entirely ignored. First, is discrimination no longer discrimination, if I have agreed to it? And if the answer to the question is no, if discrimination is at least partially an objective fact, then can I contract out of my right not to be discriminated against? The Court’s stress on the negotiated settlement between the Employer and the Association as solving the problem of discrimination relied upon the answer to at least one of those questions being in the affirmative. But these are crucial questions of constitutional philosophy, that require a detailed analysis – not blanket assumptions. Philosophical thought experiments such as that of the happy slave warn us about the dangers of a subjectivist approach to discrimination; and the question of whether it is permissible to waive one’s fundamental rights is controversial even within Indian jurisprudence (waiver was expressly rejected for Article 14 in Basheshar Nath’s Case).

Admittedly, the fact situation in Yashaswinee Merchant was nowhere near as straightforward or obvious as the happy slave hypothetical. Arguably, the service conditions of air hostesses (accelerated promotions and allowances in return for early retirement) were not significantly worse than that of air flight pursers. Consequently, the negotiated settlement certainly ought to have played a part in the Court’s reasoning. However, it could not have replaced  the overriding requirement of a constitutional analysis, which would call upon Air India to justify why there existed all-male and all-female cadres with different service conditions in the first place. Notice that the enquiry would not have ended at that point, even if, all things considered, it had been found that the air hostesses’ service conditions were more beneficial. As we have seen earlier, Article 15(3) cannot be interpreted to present a blank cheque to the State to impose any policy that advantages women over men. The purpose of Article 15(3) is to redress long centuries of structural disadvantage faced by women, which cannot be wiped out through formal a non-discrimination guarantee. Consequently, measures based upon the same stereotypes and prejudices that contributed to this structural disadvantage surely cannot be justified by taking recourse to Article 15(3). However, towards the end of the judgment, it became clear that this was precisely what motivated the opinion of the Court:

“Duties on flight demand of air hostesses physical fitness, agility and alertness. Duties in air are full of tension and sometimes hazardous. They have, therefore, agreed for comparatively early age of retirement with option to accept duties on the ground. There is nothing objectionable for air hostesses to wish for a peaceful and tension-free life at home with their families in the middle age and avoid remaining away for long durations on international flights.”

The implication (as we have seen innumerable times by now) is, of course, that women somehow lose the physical fitness, agility, alertness and ability to deal with tension after crossing the age of 50, while men retain it until the age of 58; and that the fulfillment of family obligations is the sole preserve of women. And what’s crucial to notice here is that the Court’s framing of the issue as one of consent and choice was a sleight of hand: after crossing the age of 50, it was mandatory for an air-hostess to accept ground employment. In fact, this, precisely, was why the policy had been challenged – i.e., that it actively denied women eight year of in-flight employment that was available to men, for no other reason that they were women.

It is this aspect, indeed, that constitutes the most disturbing part of the judgment; because what seemed to sway the Court was not simply the fact of a settlement, but that it was entered into by a majority of the employees, including air hostesses. The Court noted: “A small number of air hostesses nearing the age of 50 years and who are now in executive cadre cannot wriggle out of the binding agreements and settlements to which they were parties through the association.”

But why should “small numbers” matter in a constitutional claim based upon the non-discrimination guarantee of Article 15? Civil rights would be meaningless if their enforcement was dependent upon a showing of numbers; in fact, the very purpose of civil rights is to serve as a counter-majoritarian bulwark for the protection of basic liberties. And in this case, the Court effectively held that a majority of air hostesses could impose their preferences upon a minority, regardless of whether or not they were discriminatory. Thus, the question in Yashaswinee Merchant was not merely one of waiver, because not every air hostess had waived her right against non-discrimination. But not only did the Court assume the legitimacy of waiver, it also effectively held that some could waive their rights on the behalf of others. Needless to say, this is deeply problematic.

Attentive readers will, of course, have noted that the “small numbers” of Yashaswinee Merchant would, twelve years later, be transmitted into the “minuscule minority” of Koushal vs Naz Foundation. The pathology remains the same.

Yashaswinee Merchant, therefore, suffers from many of the discontents that plague Nargesh Mirza. Apart from the stereotypes that play both an overt and a covert role in the judgments, there is something else that unites them: a clear-headed constitutional analysis is muddied and obscured by the technicalities of service law (cadres, service conditions, settlements) and statutory provisions (in both cases, those of the Equal Remuneration Act). It seems that the scope and ambit of constitutional rights flows from service law and the Equal Remuneration Act, instead of the latter being held to the standards of the former. The broader question that crops up repeatedly in these cases is the relationship between specific domains of law and the Constitution. This is not limited to service law: recall that the competition regime raises questions about free speech (in the case of media holdings), the intellectual property rights regime intersects with free speech (copyright) and access to health (patents); and so on. The Air Hostess cases reflect a deeper problem with the Court’s approach to constitutional adjudication: according primacy to these specific domains, deciding cases with references to the internal norms that govern them, and – consequently – subordinating the Constitution to those norms. Unlike the South African Constitutional Court, which examined trademarks in the context of free speech, or the Canadian Supreme Court, which analysed copyright in the context of user’s rights to educational materials, the Indian Supreme Court is yet to create a constitutional framework within which it can analyse these laws. That time, we can only hope, comes sooner rather than later.

 

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