Tag Archives: sex discrimination

The Bombay High Court’s S. 56 CPC Judgment and the State of Indian Sex Discrimination Jurisprudence

In a brief judgment delivered in late October, a division bench of the Bombay High Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Section 56 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Section 56 of the Code states:

“Notwithstanding anything in this part, the court shall not order the arrest or detention in the civil prison of a woman in execution of a decree for the payment of money.”

The challenge was on the basis of Articles 14 (equal protection of laws) and 15 (non-discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, sex) of the Constitution. On the Article 14 question, the Court held:

Taking into consideration the object of such provision, the classification between men and women is quite reasonable, and the classification has sufficient nexus with the object.” (paragraph 5)

However, the Court at no point actually spelt out what the object of the provision was. Consequently, assessing the validity of this argument is somewhat difficult. More importantly, the Court then went on to hold:

“That apart, whilst Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, Article 15(3), in terms provides that nothing in Article 15 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. According to us, Section 56 of the CPC, which makes special provision for women, is clearly a provision relatable to Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India, and therefore, there is no reason to declare the same as unconstitutional.”

I have argued before that the invocation of Article 15(3) as a carte blanche to uphold laws that impose differential benefits and burdens upon men and women, ostensibly to the advantage of women, is unjustified. Article 15(3) is not a stand-alone constitutional provision, but nestled within the Articles 14-15-16 equality scheme. The use of the phrase “nothing in this Article“, as a precursor to Article 15(3) suggests that where a legislative classification might otherwise have fallen foul of the non-discrimination guarantee of Article 15(1), Article 15(3) would save it. However, given that Article 15(3) is itself a part of Article 15 suggests that the goal of such classification must also fit within the concept of equality. For instance, reservations or quotas for women in Parliament, which serve to correct a historical wrong, caused by the structural inequality between the sexes for many generations, can be justified by recourse to Article 15(3) because the differential benefits/burdens are aimed at mitigating the effects of a concrete, historical and institutional inequality.

Consequently, laws making “special provisions” for women (and children) ought to be judicially reviewed for whether or not they bear some connection with remedying the historical and structural subordination of women. With the partial exception of Anuj Garg vs Hotel Association, however, this form of reasoning has been entirely absent from Indian sex discrimination jurisprudence.

The Bombay High Court, in fact, relied upon the 1954 Supreme Court judgment that is the origin of the carte blanche approach to Article 15(3): Yusuf Abdul Aziz vs State of Bombay. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the adultery provision in the IPC, which is asymmetrical in that women cannot be prosecution for adultery. The Court upheld the law by a simple invocation of Article 15(3), ignoring the fact that the basis of the adultery provision was precisely the kind of stereotypical gender-based assumptions that the Constitution intended to do away with: i.e., that women are passive partners, lacking in sexual autonomy. This inattention to how Article 15(3) ought not end up becoming a shield to perpetuate sexual and gender-role based stereotypes has plagued the Court’s jurisprudence ever since.

An fascinating example of the rich and nuanced arguments that arise in cases of this kind is exemplified by the judgment of the South African Constitutional Court in President vs Hugo. In that case, Nelson Mandela granted a Presidential pardon to “all mothers in prison on 10 May 1994, with minor children under the age of twelve (12) years.” This was challenged on the basis that the refusal to extend a like pardon to fathers with minor children under the age of twelve years was sex-discriminatory, and based upon stereotypical assumptions that it was women’s primary responsibility to bring up children. By a majority, the Constitutional Court rejected the challenge. What is of particular interest is the debate between O’Regan J (concurring) and Kriegler J (dissenting). Both judges agreed that the affirmative action provisions of the South African Constitution could be invoked only where the ostensibly discriminatory legislation or executive act bore some connection with remedying a historical or current structural inequality; where they disagreed was the extent of fit that was required between the challenged provision or act, and the remedial goal. While O’Regan J. would grant the State a degree of leeway, Kriegler J. insisted on a tighter fit, and was suspicious of legislation or executive actions that relied upon stereotypes in order to achieve substantive equality.

The Bombay High Court’s judgment, unfortunately, represents a missed opportunity to break free of the carte blanche approach to Article 15(3), and to take steps towards a principled, equality-based interpretation of that provision.

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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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Female Intestate Succession under Hindu Law: Analyzing its Constitutionality

(This is a guest post by Ayushi Singhal)

Under the present legal system of India, people from different religions are governed by their own personal laws in matters of inheritance, marriage, separation, guardianship etc. In this regard, the succession in Hindus is governed by the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (‘HSA’). A peculiar fact about this Act is that it makes a differentiation between the intestate succession of females and males. The female intestate succession is further dependent on the source from which the property was received by the deceased female. This post after critiquing the Act as it stands (it being discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional) discusses the development in law brought by a Bombay High Court decision, which I hope will be affirmed by the larger bench putting an end to the present scheme of female intestate succession amongst Hindus.

The property of a Hindu female under the HSA has been divided into three categories, viz. property inherited by a female from her father or mother, property inherited from her husband or father-in-law and the third kind, the properties which are not governed by the first two categories. This kind of differentiation, depending upon the source of property and gender, is not seen in any other religion across the world. Under §15 r/w §16 of the HSA, the general rule for succession of all kinds of the properties is that it will pass on to the children (or if children predeceased the female, to the predeceased children’s children) and the husband. However, in case there is no one in existence from the above at the time when succession opens, the first kind of property will be inherited by the heirs of her father and the second by the heirs of her husband. Perhaps, the intention of the legislature was that the property should go back to the source from which it was received. It is the succession procedure of the third kind of property, which includes the self acquired properties or properties received in any other manner or from any other source, provided the female has absolute rights in that property, which is under question in this post. §15(1) of the act provides for a specific order, in which this property divests;

“(a) firstly, upon the sons and daughters (including the children of any pre-deceased son or daughter) and the husband;

(b) secondly, upon the heirs of the husband;

(c) thirdly, upon the mother and father;

(d) fourthly, upon the heirs of the father; and

(e) lastly, upon the heirs of the mother”

The discriminatory nature of this law can be understood using the case of Om Prakash v. Radha Charan (‘Om Prakash’). The case pertains to Narayani, after whose death, there was a dispute regarding the succession of her properties. Ramkishori, the mother of Narayani, filed an application for grant of succession certificate under §372 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925. The respondents, who were the brothers of Narayani’s husband, also filed a similar application to get the succession of Narayani’s self acquired properties. To understand the complication in the situation, it is important to know the background of the way the properties were acquired.

Narayani’s husband died of snake bite within a short period after marriage. She was then thrown out of her matrimonial place by her in-laws who were the respondents here. She was never enquired of for the 42 years she stayed in her parents place after the husband’s death. She was educated by her parents and subsequently gained a well paid job. Therefore, she left a huge amount of property including bank accounts, provident funds, land etc. She died intestate at the end of these 42 years. Despite these facts, the Judges said that sentiments and sympathy cannot be a guiding principle to determine the interpretation of law and it should not be interpreted in a manner that was not envisaged by the legislature. The court stating so said that the HSA specifically mentioned that the self acquired properties will pass on to the husband’s heirs in the absence of any issues and husband, which was the case with Narayani also and so the court will have to pass the judgment in favor of the respondents.

Although it is understandable that the court couldn’t have gone beyond the intention of the legislature, however, neither did the court give full effect to what the Parliament intended. The argument of the advocate for Narayani’s mother holds weight in this regard. The lawyer argued that since the intent of the Parliament while introducing the said section was to send the property back to the source and not to a stranger, it is logical that since here the property was earned via the money spent by Narayani’s parents, the money so earned should be returned to her parents. This wasn’t accepted by the court.

It should be noticed that the succession laws are not only about the ones who are entitled to the property, but also about the ones who should be disentitled. The 21st edition of Principles of Hindu Law (Mulla) also observes that §15(2) is based on the grounds that property should not pass to the individual “whom justice would require it should not pass.” Here, the court granted the property to the very people who behaved cruelly with the deceased and did not maintain the relationship when she needed it the most. As has been argued by the scholar Dr. Poonam Pradhan Saxena, the court should have denied them the locus standi of asking the property of a person whom they had disregarded for more than four decades. Support can be drawn for the above argument from §25 of the HSA, where a murderer is disqualified from inheriting the property of the person he/she has murdered. It is based on the belief that the deceased person will never want the person who murdered him/her to inherit property.

On the other hand, §8 of the Act which deals with succession in the case of males, gives precedence to blood relatives over the relationships arising out of marriage. This prejudiced scheme of the act is evidently ultravires the constitution since the rules for males and females in the Act are different and thus they discriminate only on the basis of gender which is prohibited under Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution.

In contrast to the Parsi, Muslim or Christian law, where the blood relatives of the women inherit even in the presence of her husband or her husband’s relatives, the blood relations of a Hindu woman are given an inferior position in contrast to her husband’s heirs. This leads to a situation where her own relatives will never be able to inherit in case there is even a remote heir of the husband. There is judicial imposition of the husband’s relatives over her own blood relations. The entire group of husband’s heirs inherits from her, whereas she does not inherit from them. The marriage of a man doesn’t make a difference on the way his property gets devolved, but the marriage of a woman changes the pattern of inheritance for her properties. This is a result of the thinking that a woman has no family of her own, it is either the husband’s or the father’s that she lives in. The woman is not treated as an independent individual capable of transferring her property to her blood relatives, but an epitome of her husband. The law is also a suggestion of the discarded view that the woman has a limited stake in the property. This view which was sought to be removed by §14(1) of the HSA, still clearly lingers in the scheme of succession.

However a recent Bombay High Court decision in Mamta Dinesh Vakil v. Bansi S. Wadhwa has tried to change the position in this respect. The case is a regular female intestate succession issue, however one of the few to challenge the constitutionality of the law as it stands today. To understand the basis of the judgment, one needs to understand the principles on which affirmative discrimination is made in the law.

Under Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, discrimination cannot be made “against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. This being the case, discrimination based only on the above grounds is unconstitutional, but not the one which is based on the above factors coupled with some other criteria like social and educational backwardness. Taking this argument further, it was argued in the Bombay High Court case that the inequality which exists in §15(1) of the Act, is not based on gender alone but also on family ties. Building it further, it was said, “that the woman, upon marriage, goes into the family of her husband; the converse is not true. A woman gives up her maternal/paternal ties upon her marriage and assumes marital ties. Hence, intestate succession for Hindus takes into account this ground reality.” It was argued that it is considering this reality that the legislature has provided for the heirs of the husband in the woman’s property.

It needs to be noticed that the constitutional validity of the section in question was also brought to the judiciary in an earlier case of Sonubai Yeshwant Jadhav v. Bala Govinda Yadav. It was held there that

“… the object of the legislation was to retain property with the joint family upon marriage which brought males and females together forming one institution. It, therefore, accepted that in recognition of that position when the wife’s succession opened, the class known as heirs of the husband were permitted to succeed as a result of initial unity in marriage upon which the female merged in the family of her husband”.

The court in the present case, rejected this argument, and added that the discrimination in the section is only based on gender and not also on family ties. The court analyzed the succession scheme of the male intestates under the HSA to check the viability of the argument. It noticed that keeping the property within the family wasn’t being envisaged, otherwise the property of a male Hindu wouldn’t be inherited by daughters, sister’s sons and sister’s daughters, since they marry off to homes of other people. It was thus observed that the only basis of this classification was gender. It was further concluded that the Section is extremely discriminatory in as much as the female’s property even if self acquired is not inherited by her core heirs. Further a Hindu female who would expect to inherit from the estate of another “receive(s) setback from distant relatives of husband of deceased not even known to her or contemplated by her to be her competitors”. Therefore the Section is ultra vires the scheme of the Constitution and hence invalid.

The question that judiciary shouldn’t interfere in personal laws was also brought up. The court considered that it will be a blemish that even when the Hindu society was thriving towards gender equality, the succession laws discriminate. It was said that a legislation which discriminates only on the basis of gender, can be questioned, as was done when §§ 10 and 34 of the Indian Divorce Act were amended (in the cases of Ammini E. J. v. Union of India and N. Sarda Mani v. G. Alexander). Moreover, there have been progressive changes in the Hindu law itself, e.g. the amendment in §6 giving women the right to coparcenary and deletion of §23 which deprived women of sharing the dwelling house by the 2005 amendment. It was recognized that although there can be different laws for different religions, there cannot be different laws for different sexes and thus the judiciary has a right to interfere in the latter case.

Although a magnum opus, this judgment has been passed by a single bench of the High Court and needs to be affirmed by the division bench. Once it is so done, it will be a watershed judgment to bring in equality in the Hindu law. Once declared unconstitutional, the government can use the recommendations of the 207th Law Commission Report to bring reforms in the law. The report suggests two options, one of bringing the intestate succession laws in parity with the males, and the other of dividing the property equally among the matrimonial and natal heirs taking into note the ground reality that the woman ultimately leaves her natal place and works under the constant support of her in-laws. Either of these options will be progressive changes in the Hindu law.

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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 – 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 – VI: The Discontents of Air India v Nargesh Mirza

With the exception of its 1954 judgment, Yusuf Abdul Aziz, which cursorily upheld the constitutionality of adultery, the Supreme Court did not have occasion to seriously deal with sex discrimination under Article 15(1) in the first three decades after the Constitution. The cases that we have discussed so far were all decided by various High Courts. That changed in 1981, with the decision of a three judge bench in Air India v Nargesh Mirzawhich remains one of the landmark Supreme Court judgments on the issue. It is also, as I shall argue, an analytically unsatisfactory decision, which fails to take into account the nuanced and reflective sex discrimination jurisprudence which, as we have seen, was in the process of being developed by various High Courts across the country.

The facts and history that led to the case are extremely complex, and involve two entities (Air India and Indian Airlines Corporation), and multiple rounds of litigation before two tribunals, and then the courts. The following is a highly simplified summary. Briefly, Regulations 46 and 47 of the Air India Employees Service Regulations were challenged. These Service Regulations had created a significant amount of disparity between the pay and promotional avenues of male and female in-flight cabin crew (in accordance with Air India’s designations, the male cabin crew shall be referred to as “Air Flight Pursers” [“AFPs”], and the female cabin crew as Air Hostesses [“AH”]).  For instance, under Regulation 46, while the retirement age for Flight Pursers was 58, Air Hostesses were required to retire at 35, or on marriage (if they married within four years of joining the service), or on their first pregnancy, whichever occurred earlier. Under Regulation 47, this period could be extended, subject to the absolute discretion of the Managing Director.

The first round of litigation took place before two Tribunals, which had successively upheld the Regulations, making observations such as the necessity of having “young and attractive” air hostesses to deal with temperamental passengers. The case finally came to the Supreme Court, which upheld the regulations in part, modified them in part, and struck them down in part.

Before the Supreme Court, the constitutional provisions at issue were Articles 14 (equality before law), 15(1) (non-discrimination on grounds of sex), and 16(2) (non-discrimination on grounds of sex in public employment). In order to have a clear understanding of the Court’s reasoning, it will be important to consider them separately.

Article 14 (the classification test): The Court began by observing that “Art. 14 forbids hostile discrimination but not reasonable classification. Thus, where persons belonging to a particular class in view of their special attributes, qualities, mode of recruitment and the like, are differently treated in public interest to advance and boost members belonging to backward classes, such a classification would not amount to discrimination.” It then noted that Air Flight Pursers and Air Hostesses formed different classes (in service law terminology, separate “cadres”): they had different recruitment conditions and different promotional avenues. Consequently, the “inescapable conclusion that follows is that … there are two separate and different classes having different conditions of service and different incidents, [and] the question of discrimination does not arise.”

But there is something extremely puzzling about this reasoning. Admittedly, in service law, there are different cadres within the same department, with their own separate recruitment rules, promotional avenues and service conditions. This, in itself, does not raise any Article 14 issue. These cadres are constituted in order that persons doing one kind of work are streamlined into a single category when it comes to the rules governing them. In Nargesh Mirza, however, the constitution of the cadre was itself on the basis of sex. That is to say, by definition, only women could become air hostesses, and only men could become Air Flight Pursers. Instead of starting off by examining whether this initial sex-based classification was in conformity with Articles 14, 15 and 16, the Court instead began by noting that because the service conditions and promotional avenues of the two cadres were different, therefore they formed separate classes, and could legitimately be treated separately! This is strange reasoning. It effectively means that the guarantees under Articles 15 and 16 are useless; in order to get around them, all I need to do is to divide my workforce along sex, caste or religious lines, give them different names, treat one class in a manner far inferior to the other, and then justify it by invoking that very separateness of treatment to argue that the two form separate cadres. To put it another way, the Court used the fact that women were being treated less favourably than men to hold that women and men formed separate classes, and that therefore inferior treatment was justified. The vicious circularity of his reasoning is exhibited by the fact that in order to prove that AFPs and AHs formed different cadres, the Court observed that one of the recruitment conditions for AHs was that they must be unmarried, whereas there was no such condition for the AFPs. As we have seen before, imposing marriage as a disqualification upon women but not upon men is itself discriminatory; here, the Court uses that as proof that AFPs and AHs form different classes, for different treatment!

What is stranger, however, is that in its initial formulation, the Court seemed to be aware of this. It noted that “where persons belonging to a particular class in view of their special attributes, qualities, mode of recruitment and the like, are differently treated in public interest…”, there would be no discrimination. In its actual analysis of the flight pursers/air hostess distinction, though, the “special attributes” and “qualities” somehow dropped out of the analysis, and the Court only focused on the recruitment, service conditions and promotional avenues. Indeed, one of the major issues before the Court was whether AFPs and AHs performed different functions. The Court emphatically rejected Fali Nariman’s submissions that the functions of the two sets of cabin crew were different; it held that “a perusal of the job functions which have been detailed in the affidavit, clearly shows that the functions of the two, though obviously different overlap on some points but the difference, if any, is one of degree rather than of kind.” And yet, despite this finding, the Court nonetheless was able to hold that there was no Article 14 violation.

Articles 15 and 16: In comparison with its exposition of Article 14, the Court’s analysis of Articles 15 and 16 was threadbare. It dismissed the challenge in a couple of paragraphs. It noted, first, that under Section 16 of the Equal Remuneration Act, it was stated that “where the appropriate Government is, on a consideration of all the circumstances of the case, satisfied that the differences in regard to the remuneration, or a particular species of remuneration, of men and women workers in any establishments or employment is based on a factor other than sex, it may, by notification, make a declaration to that effect, and any act of the employer attributable to such a difference shall not be deemed to be a contravention of any provision of this Act.” In this case, the government had passed a notification under Section 16. The Court held that “the declaration by the Central Government, therefore, completely concludes the matter.”

The matter, however, is not quite as simply as that. There are three reasons why the Section 16 notification should not have concluded the issue in this case. First, as the text of the Section makes clear, the deeming fiction is limited in nature: the Government’s notification only exempts a classification from liability under the Equal Remuneration Act, and doesn’t give it immunity from a constitutional challenge. Secondly – and most importantly – Section 16 deals with situations where the classification is deemed by the government to be based on a factor other than sex. This, as we have seen before, is an approach to discrimination law that focuses on the discriminator’s reasons, and not on the law’s effects upon protected constituencies. But, as we discussed in the previous essay, there are overwhelming jurisprudential reasons for holding the effects-based test to be the correct one for adjudicating constitutional claims against discrimination. Consequently, Section 16 could have no effect upon the Article 15(1) or 16(2) enquiries. And lastly, even if we take Article 15(1) to incorporate a reason-based model, S. 16 clearly cannot be read to foreclose an independent constitutional enquiry by the Court! If that were to be the case, then S. 16 effectively becomes the following: “where the Appropriate Government makes a declaration that a classification does not violate Article 15(1) of the Constitution, any such classification will be deemed not to violate Article 15(1).” At the very least, such a reading would make Section 16 suffer from the vice of excessive delegation. Therefore, it seems evident that the Supreme Court was incorrect in holding that “the declaration by the Central Government… completely concludes the matter.”

After noting this, the Supreme Court observed that “even otherwise, what Articles IS (l) and 16 (2) prohibit is that discrimination should not be made only and only on the ground of sex. These Articles of the Constitution do not prohibit the State from making discrimination on the ground of sex coupled with other considerations.” It then cited excerpts from Yusuf Abdul Aziz and M.C. Muthamma, before observing “for these reasons, therefore, the argument of Mr. Setalvad that the conditions of service with regard to retirement, etc., amount to discrimination on the ground of sex only is overruled and it is held that the conditions of service indicated above are not violative of Art. 16 on this ground.”

Yet there is absolutely no reasoning by the Court to link the premise to the conclusion. It made no effort to adduce the “grounds” apart from sex that were at play in the impugned classification. There are very good reasons for this: it would have required the Court to ask the principal question that it had avoided throughout its judgment: what was the basis for the initial classification into Air Flight Pursers (male) and Air Hostesses (female), upon which the different conditions of service were superimposed? Especially after finding that the work performed overlapped, the Court would have been left with no option but to hold that the classification was only on the basis of sex. Instead, and unfortunately, it evaded the question.

Article 14 and Arbitrariness: With the classification test under Article 14, and the discrimination claims under Articles 15 and 16 having been rejected, there was one last arrow left in the bow of the challengers: to impugn the Regulations as “arbitrary” under Article 14. As we all know, there are two parallel tests under Article 14: first, the classification test, which requires there to be an intelligible differentia between the two groups that are created by a classification, and a rational nexus with a State objective; and secondly, the judicially-invented “arbitrariness” test: legislation will fail under Article 14 if it is “manifestly unreasonable” or “absolutely arbitrary”. In the history of the Court, the “arbitrariness test” has never really been provided strong conceptual or definitional foundations. Its manipulability was in evidence again, in Nargesh Mirza. On the condition that the Air Hostess’ employment would be terminated if she married within four years of joining, the Court noted:

“So far as the question of marriage within four years is concerned, we do not think that the provisions suffer from any constitutional infirmity. According to the regulations an AH starts her career between the age of 19 to 26 years. Most of the AHs are not only SSC which is the minimum qualification but possess even higher qualifications and there are very few who decide to marry immediately after entering the service. Thus, the Regulation permits an AH to marry at the age of 23 if she has joined the service at the age of 19 which is by all standards a very sound and salutary provision. Apart from improving the health of the employee, it helps a good in the promotion and boosing up of our family planning programme. Secondly, if a woman marries near about the age of 20 to 23 years, she becomes fully mature and there is every chance of such a marriage proving a success, all things being equal. Thirdly, it has been rightly pointed out to us by the Corporation that if the bar of marriage within four years of service is removed then the Corporation will have to incur huge expenditure in recruiting additional AHs either on a temporary or on ad hoc basis to replace the working AHs if they conceive and any period short of four years would be too little a time for the Corporation to phase out such an ambitious plan.”

One need not dwell too long on the outright stereotyping that the Court engaged in here, apart from noting, yet again, that the elephant in the room – i.e., that men were not subjected to the same standards with respect to marriage which, according to the Court, were crucial for “health” and “family planning”. While upholding the marriage requirement, the Court nonetheless found the requirement of termination on the first pregnancy to be unconstitutional, observing: “It seems to us that the termination of the services of an AH under such circumstances is not only a callous and cruel act but an open insult to Indian womanhood the most sacrosanct and cherised institution.” In response, Fali Nariman proposed replacing “first pregnancy” with “third pregnancy”, and subjecting Air Hostesses to a series of requirements, such as taking leave without pay during the pregnancy period and having to undergo an annual fitness examination “in the interests of maintenance of efficiency”. These Amendments were described by the Court as “quite reasonable“. Bizarrely, even as it upheld termination on third pregnancy, the Court also accepted the dissenting judgments in the American case of General Electric Company vs Martha Gilbert, which had held that a classification on the basis of pregnancy amounted to sex discrimination! The two standpoints are impossible to reconcile, and the Court’s attempts to do so perhaps highlight the intellectual aridity of the “arbitrariness” doctrine:

“In the first place, the provision preventing third pregnancy with two existing children would be in the larger interest of the health of the AH concerned as also for the good upbringing of the children. Secondly, as indicated above while dealing with the rule regarding prohibition of marriage within four years, same considerations would apply to a bar of third pregnancy where two children are already there because when the entire world is faced with the problem of population explosion it will not only be desirable but absolutely essential for every country to see that the family planning programme is not only whipped up but maintained at sufficient levels so as to meet the danger of over population which, if not controlled, may lead to serious social and economic problems throughout the world.”

It would, by now, be multiplying repetitions to point out, yet again, that at the heart of the Court’s reasoning are stereotypes: here, it is the stereotype that the responsibility for bringing up children lies with women, and the assumption the burden of controlling population explosion (!) may also be imposed only upon women.

Lastly, the Court struck down the absolute discretion vested in the Director to terminate the employment of Air Hostesses after they reached the age of 35, holding that the uncanalised discretion amounted to excessive delegation of power.

The above analysis should be sufficient to bring out the discontents of Air India vs Nargesh Mirza. To recap:

(1) In holding that AFPs and AHs constituted separate classes, and therefore different service conditions were valid, the Court ignored the fact that the classes themselves were constituted along the lines of sex. In effect, the Court used the fact that women’s service conditions were inferior to men’s to hold that the two constituted separate cadres in service law, and that therefore the difference in service conditions were justified. This argument is viciously circular.

(2) In holding that the Government’s notification under Section 16 of the Equal Remuneration Act was dispositive of the question of whether the Regulations discriminated on the grounds of sex, the Court made three mistakes: first, extending the scope of Section 16 to the Constitution; secondly, treating the government’s statement on a question of fundamental rights as conclusive; and thirdly, ignoring the difference between the phrases “on the basis of” (ERA), and “on grounds… of“. (Article 15)

(3) The Court made no attempt to show why, independent of the Government’s notification under Section 16 of the ERA, Articles 15(1) and 16(2) were not applicable to the facts at hand.

(4) The Court’s arbitrariness enquiry ended up perpetuating and endorsing the exact stereotypes that discrimination law is designed to obliterate. These included the role of women as care-givers and vessels of “family planning”.

All in all, Nargesh Mirza is a highly disappointing judgment in the annals of Indian sex discrimination law. As we shall see in subsequent essays, its harm was not only in the reasoning that it employed, but its role as precedent. Some of the most important sex discrimination cases in India (and elsewhere) have been brought to the Court in the context of service and labour law. Nargesh Mirza initiated a constitutional jurisprudence where the rules of service law overshadowed rigorous constitutional analysis, and were even giving primacy over the latter. This, as we shall see, would lead to a progressive undermining of constitutional analysis under the non-discrimination guarantee of Articles 15 and 16.

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Sex Discrimination and the Constitution – V: The Kerala High Court and the Anti-Stereotyping Principle

The decisions of the Kerala High Court in Vijayamma (1978) and A.N. Rajamma (1983), sandwich the Supreme Court’s landmark holding in Air India vs Nargesh Mirza (1981). Nonetheless, in this essay, I will break chronology and discuss the two decisions together, and then turn to Nargesh Mirza. This is primarily because many of the discontents of the Nargesh Mirza holding can be better understood in light of the Kerala High Court’s analysis in these two cases.

In Vijayamma, the Kerala Police Department refused to promote women typists to the post of Stenographers, on “public order grounds.” In its counter-affidavit, the Police Department submitted that “due to the peculiar nature of the work of the stenographers of the department (touring along with the officers and working at odd hours) it decided not to appoint ladies as stenographers in the Police Department.” This contention was rejected by the Court. As we discussed in the last essay, however, cases that found an Article 15 violation divide along two different lines: a reasons-based test, which looks at the “additional” reasons behind the classification, and finds that they are indistinguishable from sex; and an effects based test, which simply looks at the impact of the classification. Vijayamma is a significant case because the Kerala High Court clearly accepted the impact test and, what is more, firmly located it within Indian jurisprudence. The Court observed:

“In Punjab Province v. Daulat Singh (A.I.R. 1946 P.C. 66) Lord Thankerton construed these words as : Beaumont, J. holds that in applying the terms of Sub-section (1) of Section 298, it is necessary for the Court to consider the scope and object of the Act which is impugned, so as to determine the ground upon which such Act is based. Their Lordships are able to accept this as the correct test. In their view, it is not a question of whether the impugned Act is based only on one or more of the grounds specified in Section 298(1), but whether its operation may result in a prohibition only on these grounds. The proper test as to whether there is a contravention of the sub-section is to ascertain the reaction of the impugned Act on the personal right conferred by the sub-section, and, while the scope and object of the Act may be of assistance in determining the effect of the operation of the Act on a proper construction of its provisions, if the effect of the Act so determined involves an infringement of such personal right, the object of the Act, however laudable, will not obviate the prohibition of Sub-section (1)... the Supreme Court adopted this construction in State of Bombay v. Bombay Education Societywith reference to Article 29(2) of the Constitution. On behalf of the Court S.R. Das, J., said : “The object or motive attributed by the learned Attorney-General to the impugned order is undoubtedly a laudable one but its validity has to be judged by the method of its operation and its effect on the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 29(2). A similar question of construction arose in the case of -Punjab Province v. Daulat Sing A.I.R. 1946 P.C. 66(J).”

Readers will also recall that the “object and purpose” test to determine the infringement of fundamental rights was accepted by the Supreme Court in Sakal Papers vs Union of India, but subsequently rejected in Bennett Coleman vs Union of Indiain favour of the effects test. Admittedly, the context in the newspaper regulation cases was slightly different, and was focused more upon the degree of proximity between the impugned State action and its impact on fundamental rights; however, this much seems to be clear, following Daulat SinghBombay Education Society and Bennett Coleman: in adjudicating a fundamental rights violation under Article 15(1), the Court is not supposed to ask the grounds on which the impugned law was framed, but whether its “operation results in a prohibition only on [those] grounds.” As we discussed in previous essays, the effect test is therefore linked with the interpretation of the word “grounds” under Article 15(1) that has it qualify “race, sex, religion” etc., and not “The State shall not discriminate…” It also means that the line of High Court cases which accepted the State’s “sex-plus” argument, are incorrect.

If Vijayamma brought clarity to the issue of the meaning of “grounds” under Article 15(1), A.N. Rajamma is the first case to explicitly identify what we now know as the anti-stereotyping principle. The factual matrix of A.N. Rajamma is highly complex, and need not be delved into in any great detail. Suffice it to say that in effect, once again, “the arduous and special nature” of certain duties were cited to deny women appointments as peons in the Last Grade Service. The opening paragraph of the Court’s judgment is particularly striking, and set the tone for the rest of the opinion:

“The attitude of courts in the United States of America in dealing with the plea of discrimination against women, in the early cases, is often referred to as romantic paternalism. The social thinking and the approach to the question of the role women had to play in society was, even in that country, tradition bound for more than a century after equal rights of woman had been recognised as an inviolable civil right. The marked change in the attitude of courts on the question of gender based discrimination is a post 1970 phenomena in that country. The protectionist policy has now given way to the realization that woman is in every respect entitled to claim equal rights with man. Bradwell v. State of Illinois (1873) 16 Wall 131 to Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) 411 U.S. 677 is a hundred years of interesting case history. Much more tradition bound, as we are in this country, we may perhaps take some time to get out of the hangover of our past to realise that under the Indian Constitution woman has equal rights with man.”

We shall have occasion to study the development of American sex equality law in some detail at a later point in this series, but for now, it suffices to remark that this is an extremely accurate summary of American constitutional law on the point: for a long time, classifications on the basis of sex were allowed on the reasoning that men and women had different roles to play in public and private life (“the separate spheres theory“), and that legislation cognisant of this fundamental difference was valid. The cases cited by the Punjab & Haryana High Court in R.S. Singh, as justifications to deny the woman police officer’s claim to be appointed as a Superintendent in a men’s jail, were from this era (Muller vs Oregon). Starting with Adkins vs Children’s Hospital in 1923, however, and culminating in Frontiero vs Richardson, which the Kerala High Court cited, the American Supreme Court moved to a position where invoking stereotypes about the role of men and women in society could no longer be cited as a justification for classification on the basis of sex. This came to be known as the anti-stereotyping principle.

The Kerala High Court’s invocation of the principle is important, because as we have seen, the State’s sex-plus arguments in all the previous cases were based on stereotypes: of women’s inability to manage property, women’s lack of agency in sexual relationships, the preservation of women’s “modesty”, and women’s incapacity to handle male prisoners. Of course, a pure stereotyping-analysis has its own defects, as Catherine MacKinnon’s critique shows; what is clear, however, is that justifications of sexual classifications on the basis of stereotypes is completely unacceptable, and the Kerala High Court’s decision in Vijayamma is the first explicit acknowledgment of that. The Court then observed:

“If the work of say, a Duffadar, a Cleaner-cum-Conductor, Court Keeper, Chairman, Housekeeper or a Field Worker does not suit a woman or she would feel humiliated by such work it is for her to decide whether she should apply for the concerned job and not for the male dominated legislature or the male dominated bureaucratic machinery which may be functioning as a delegated legislative body to decide whether women should be permitted to do such work or not… It is regrettable that decisions of material consequence said to be in the so called interests of women purporting to protect the position of women are generally taken not after any consultation with representative bodies of women, but unilaterally by the administrators, most of whom carry with them the hang over of the past, the past of male domination in our social set up…”

While this might seem like a trivial point, it is of some significance. Recall that the fundamental legitimating principle of democracy is that of representation. Parliament’s laws enjoy presumptive legitimacy because they are deemed to be the outcome of deliberations in which the society, as a whole, is represented by its lawmakers (through a process of elections). As John Hart Ely famously pointed out in Democracy and Distrust, however, even in a functioning electoral system, many constituencies often go unrepresented. This could be because they are “discrete or insular minorities”, the victims of political prejudice and therefore unable to form political alliances, or simply because a past history of oppression has imposed a significant barrier upon effective political participation. Ely argued that the purpose of fundamental rights was to protect the interests of precisely such constituencies, which could not protect themselves through the political process; and that the interpretation of fundamental rights should take this fact into account. Drawing upon Ely’s argument, the American constitutional scholar Akhil Amar argues, for instance, that laws affecting the interests of women, which were passed before women were given the right to vote, should not enjoy the presumption of legitimacy. While Amar’s focus is on the right to vote as a watershed moment, as we have seen, Ely’s argument goes beyond that, and highlights the fact that the right to vote need not translate into effective political power.

In pointing out that laws ostensibly “in the interests of women” were framed by legislative bodies composed overwhelmingly of men, the Kerala High Court was tapping into this basic insight: that one reason why sex-based classifications need special scrutiny is because women’s participation in the framing of such classifications has been negligible, and for structural reasons. Applying such scrutiny – i.e., not taking the State’s claims of “sex-plus” grounds at face value, the stereotypical bases of such laws will almost invariably become clear.

In Vijayamma and Rajamma, therefore, the Kerala High Court made clear what had been the latent tensions in Indian sex discrimination law thus far. Vijayamma clarified that it was the effect of the law upon the protected “ground” that mattered, and not the “ground” for the law. Rajamma emphasised that stereotypes about the public and private role of mean and women in society could not be invoked as a justification for sex-based classifications. A combination of these two cases, therefore, provides us with a powerful and progressive sex discrimination jurisprudence, true to the original purpose of the Constitution.

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