Notes from a Foreign Field: “The Time has Come” – the Botswana High Court and the decriminalisation of homosexuality

Sodomy laws … deserve archival mummification, or better still, a museum peg, shelf or cabinet for archival display.” – Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General, High Court of Botswana, para 209

Two weeks ago, the High Court of Kenya handed down a disappointing judgment upholding the constitutional validity of the Kenyan sodomy law. Yesterday, however, confronted with almost identical legal provisions, the High Court of Botswana went the other way, decriminalising same-sex relations on the touchstone of the constitutional rights to privacy, liberty, equality, and dignity. The judgment in Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General makes for fascinating reading. This is because of its austere – but clear – reasoning, but also because it marks the fall of yet another progeny of what began life as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and then proliferated through the British colonies: the prohibition of “carnal intercourse/knowledge against the order of nature.”

As I mentioned in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, the constitutional arguments against the sodomy law are familiar ones, whetted by years of litigation in constitutional courts across the world. What is striking, however, is the diametrically opposite view that the Botswana High Court took from its Kenyan counterpart, in responding to virtually identical arguments, within the space of two weeks. What is also striking is the similarities between the overall approach adopted by the Botswana High Court on the one hand, and the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation and the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, on the other. Both are issues that I shall discuss.

As a preliminary point, the judgment stands out for its clear endorsement of the value of pluralism, which made its first appearance in the second paragraph. Pluralism – and the necessity of respecting diverse ways of being and life choices, which the Court defined as inclusiveness – form, in a sense, the intellectual scaffolding that allowed it to build and develop its substantive rights-based arguments. Tellingly, “pluralism” and “inclusiveness” were also two words that were at the heart of the Delhi High Court’s 2009 judgment in Naz Foundation; and perhaps equally tellingly, the Kenyan High Court’s judgment did not have a similar, framing value that would help to contextualise the constitutional challenge. Within that framework, let us now examine the judgment.


After a brief account of the Christian – and later, colonial – origins of anti-sodomy laws, the Court considered the first substantive challenge – that of vagueness. Like the Kenyan High Court – and unlike the situation in India, where judicial interpretation of Section 377 had been inconsistent – the Court found that there existed binding court judgments explaining what “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature” meant: in Botswana, it had been defined as anal sex. For this reason, the impugned sections – 164(a), (c) and 165 – of the Penal Code were not vague; and the question then became, did the blanket criminalisation of anal sex violate the Constitution of Botswana? (paragraph 96)

Acts and Identities: Liberty, Dignity, Equality

This, in turn, allowed the State to set up that old and familiar argument, which makes an appearance in every litigation around this family of legal provisions: that ultimately, the sodomy law only criminalised a certain kind of “sexual act.” It did not criminalise homosexuality – or homosexuals – per se, and therefore, none of the constitutional values of equality, dignity, or liberty, were relevant. As the Court recorded the Attorney General’s submissions:

In answer thereto, the Attorney General has submitted that the applicant is a “cry baby” and that he is free to engage in sexual activity as long as it is not sexual intercourse per anus. It is the respondent’s position that Sections 164 (a) and (c) are not discriminatory as they are of equal application to all sexual preferences, and that Section 15 of the Constitution provides limitations on the enjoyment of fundamental rights. (paragraphs 136 – 7)

Recall that this classification of sodomy laws as targeting only “acts” was accepted both by the Indian Supreme Court in Koushal and by the Kenyan High Court, and formed an important part of these Courts’ reasoning in upholding the laws. It was, however, rejected by the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, and the High Court of Botswana similarly gave it short shrift. At a very basic level, the Court noted that while the section may have been neutrally worded, it nonetheless targeted a form of sexual expression that, in effect, targeted homosexuals, because they could not – by definition – engage in penile/vaginal sex. (paragraph 144) This being the case, the section clearly denied to homosexuals the right to sexual autonomy and the right to a choice of a sexual partner, choices that fell squarely within the domain of individual liberty; it also denied them the right to sexual expression, which was a violation of individual dignity. (paragraph 151) As the High Court colourfully noted, “the impugned provisions force him [the individual] to engage in private sexual expression not according to his orientation; but according to statutory dictates.” (paragraph 144)

The Court then made a deeper argument about equality and discrimination. Section 15(3) of the Constitution of Botswana defines discrimination as “affording different treatment to different persons, attributable wholly or mainly to their respective descriptions by race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex.” Like Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, this is a “closed list.” Unlike Canada or South Africa, It does not use words like “including” or “among others” before “race, tribe…” etc., and therefore, textually, precludes a Court from adding in entirely new grounds into the Section.

However, working within these constraints, and citing the previous judgment of Attorney-General v Dow, the High Court noted that:

I do not think that the framers of the Constitution intended to declare in 1966, that all potentially vulnerable groups and classes, who would be affected for all time by discriminatory treatment, have been identified and mentioned in the definition in section 15(3). I do not think that they intended to declare that the categories mentioned in that definition were forever closed. In the nature of things, as farsighted people trying to look into the future, they would have contemplated that, with the passage of time, not only groups or classes which had caused concern at the time of writing the Constitution but other groups or classes needing protection would arise. (paragraph 158, citing Dow)

As I have argued elsewhere, this is exactly the approach that should be adopted towards an anti-discrimination provision. Assessing discrimination is always a contextual enquiry, and the groups that are identified and persecuted by virtue of their group identity can – and do – change from time to time. For this reason, ideally, an anti-discrimination provision should lay down the principle, set out the groups that are salient at the time of drafting, and remain open-ended (as in Canada or South Africa). However, where it isn’t, a Court should at least be able to interpret the existing grounds flexibly, even if it can’t add new ones. And this is precisely what the High Court did, following comparative jurisprudence to hold (like the Delhi High Court in Naz), that sex included “sexual orientation”, as “sex and sexual orientation, are associable signifiers of a similar scope and content.” (paragraph 161) Interestingly, the Court buttressed this finding by noting that the Employment Act already prohibited discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace; like the case of the 2017 Mental Healthcare Act in India, a poignant example of the first meaningful legal change coming through a statute.

Armed with this interpretation of Section 15(3), the Court returned to the question of acts and identities. Relying upon both comparative law and evidence (including evidence provided by the Applicant, a gay man), to hold that sodomy laws – whatever their wording – had the effect of stigmatising the LGBTQ population, “render[ing] the[m] … a criminal, or an “unapprehended felon”, always on tenterhooks, waiting to be arrested.” (paragraph 169) This, in turn, meant that the sections were discriminatory in effect (an argument similar to that made by Chandrachud J. in Johar) – a conclusion that was aided by the fact that the Constitution of Botswana explicitly prohibited indirect discrimination. Here again, the High Court’s approach was in stark contrast to that of its Kenyan counterpart: while the Kenyan High Court – like Koushal in India – found that there was no “evidence” for any of this, and that simply “pleading” rights violations in affidavits was insufficient, the High Court of Botswana took seriously the account of discrimination recounted by the Applicant, as well as relying upon scholarly studies for the stigmatic effect of sodomy provisions.


The High Court also engaged in an interesting discussion of the right to privacy. Like the American Constitution, the Constitution of Botswana – through Sections 3(c) and 9 – frames “privacy” in its classical sense, as pertaining to spaces – the home, property, freedom from an unreasonable search, and so on. Specifically acknowledging this (para 116), the Court nonetheless refused to limit privacy to the merely spatial, instead – in line with comparative jurisprudence – extending it to include decisional autonomy and the privacy of intimate choice, free from State control. (para 122)

The State’s Arguments

Interestingly, this was not the first time that the constitutionality of sodomy laws was being litigated. In 2003, in a case called Kanane, the Botswana Court of Appeal had held that it “was not yet time” to decriminalise same-sex relations. Much like Johar in India, therefore, and Lawrence in the United States, the Court was faced with a recent decision that had gone the other way. The High Court of Botswana, however, was quick to get around this, noting that no expert evidence had been presented in Kanane, and that the Court had not even dealt with the arguments on privacy, dignity, and indirect discrimination. (paragraph 171)

The State then argued that the purpose of the law was to protect and advance public morality and public interest. – another familiar argument. Applying the proportionality standard, the Court responded by noting that these were merely “bare assertions and or speculations that sexual anal penetration is contrary to public morality or public interest.” (paragraph 180). However, none of this had been demonstrated, it had not been shown that criminalisation was the least restrictive method of achieving the State’s goal (even of advancing public morality), and evidence of the harm caused to the LGBTQ community had not been rebutted. (paragraph 181). But in any event, the Court noted, public morality was relevant in a constitutional claim, but not dispositive. (paragraph 185) In this case, for the reasons advanced above, it fell well short of the proportionality standard; the same was true for the public interest justification, as criminalisation:

… disproportionally impacts on the lives and dignity of LGBT persons. It perpetuates stigma and shame against homosexuals and renders them recluse and outcasts. There is no victim within consensual same sex intercourse inter se adults. (paragraph 189).

The only other possible justification, the Court noted, was the Victorian, “Judeo-Christian” idea of the purpose of sex being for procreation. That premise, evidently, had long ceased being valid. (paragraph 208). The Court therefore struck down the provisions prohibiting carnal knowledge against the order of nature, and read down the provision criminalising “gross indecency” (Section 167) by severing and excluding acts done in private.

Points of Critique

The judgment of the High Court of Botswana is a powerful and eloquent defence of the rights of privacy, dignity, freedom, and equality; its clear and unequivocal holding, which decriminalises same-sex relations, is to be welcomed and applauded. However, while most of the judgment is a study in excellent rights-reasoning by a constitutional court, there are three discordant notes, which also need to be highlighted.

First, from time to time, the High Court got sucked into the question of whether sexual orientation was “innate” (paragraph 142); towards the end of its judgment, it held that sexual orientation is an “innate attribute that [people] have no control over.” (paragraph 190) As I pointed out in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court judgment, however, the “born this way” argument is controversial even within LGBTQ circles, but more importantly, it is a red herring. The question of whether sexual orientation is innate or not is irrelevant to issues of group discrimination (where, as the South African Constitutional Court pointed out, a homosexual identity is first “constructed”, and then subject to persecution), and to questions of decisional autonomy and individual freedom in making intimate choices.

Secondly, as part of its substantive reasoning, the High Court drops the odd claim that homosexuals can “only” have anal sex (and that’s why Ss. 164 and 165 take away sexual freedom). Now, it’s unclear where the High Court gets this from, but in any event, this also misses the point: the struggle around getting sodomy laws removed is not – and has never been – about legalising a particular sexual act, but about bringing down a range of discriminatory practices that deny to the LGBTQ community equal moral membership in society.

Thirdly – and again, this comes at the end of its judgment – the High Court’s stress on the “private” sits ill at ease with its excellent analysis of freedom, equality, and discrimination. In Johar, the Indian Supreme Court was careful not to go down the Delhi High Court’s path and qualify decriminalisation by adding the words “in private.” Like Johar, the Botswana High Court also does not add any such qualification while striking down Ss. 164 and 165, but it does so in its analysis of S. 167 (gross indecency), where it strikes out “private”, and leaves the criminalisation of “gross public indecency” intact. But what is “public indecency” if not the same kind of socially-perceived “deviant” behaviour that the Court is otherwise so concerned to protect under the Constitution? Without a clearer definition, that is the only use it will ever be put to.

It is important to note, however, that none of these three points are central to the core of the decision; the decision would remain even if we jettisoned them. The High Court’s arguments on freedom, equality, and dignity, and its ringing endorsement of diversity, plurality and the protection of the marginalised, does not require it to commit to the “born this way” theory of sexual orientation; it does not require any holding on the mechanics of anal sex; and it does not need a re-entrenchment of the public/private divide. It is to be hoped, therefore, that in future, it is the rights-expanding, liberty-protecting aspects of the judgment that will stand the test of time, while these odd discordant notes will, ultimately, fade away.


Coming two weeks after the intense disappointment of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, Letsweletse Motshidiemang marks a welcome reversion to form: across the world, the fact that sodomy laws have no place in liberal democracies is increasingly becoming part of judicial common sense. Arguments from “public morality” and “deference”, which once held powerful sway over the minds of judges, are losing their purchase. The Botswana High Court’s clear, powerful, and unambiguous judgment gives us hope that what happened two weeks ago was a brief aberration, which will be swiftly set right by the Kenyan appellate courts; in the meantime, there is another judgment to celebrate.

Notes from a Foreign Field: A Critique of the Kenyan High Court’s Homosexuality Judgment

In a judgment delivered last week (EG v Attorney-General), the High Court of Kenya upheld the criminalisation of same-sex relations under the Kenyan Constitution. At issue was the constitutionality of Sections 162 and 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code. Section 162 prohibits having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” Section 165 criminalises acts of “gross indecency” between two male persons. In arguments that, by now, have attained a ring of familiarity, these provisions were challenged on the bases that they violated the rights to equality and non-discrimination, privacy and dignity, and health under the Kenyan Constitution, as well as being vague and over-broad.

In criticising the judgment of another country’s court, one must proceed with a degree of circumspection. Every nation’s constitutional jurisprudence is specific and unique, and the assumptions that one brings from a study of one’s own legal system may simply not hold. That said, however, on a reading of the judgment, the arguments advanced before the Kenyan High Court, and the manner in which the Court engaged with them have, by now, attained an almost universalistic cast: they have been litigated across a range of countries, and in supra-national forums, over many decades. It would, therefore, be almost remiss if one didn’t point out the ways in which the Kenyan High Court, with respect, appears to have delivered a seriously flawed judgment.

The Argument from Vagueness

It was argued before the Court that the phrases “carnal knowledge”, “against the order of nature”, and “gross indecency”, were impermissibly vague. This is, of course, a familiar argument, and readers will recall that in Kaushal, the Indian Supreme Court had dodged it entirely by recounting conflicting precedent, and then claiming that the question could be determined on a case-to-case basis. The Kenyan High Court, however, did a little better. Relying on precedent, it defined “carnal knowledge” as “sexual intercourse” (paragraph 270), “against the order of nature” as “anal sex” (paragraph 271), and “gross indecency” as contact between genital organs, or the breast and buttocks. (paragraph 273) Having defined each of these terms, the Court then held the two provisions were specific enough to pass constitutional muster.

That is fair enough in its own right, but notice that, having defined Section 162 in terms of a specific and particular sexual act, the implications of what that meant for the constitutionality of the statute could not, later, be dodged. However, when it came to the constitutional argument, this – as we shall see – was exactly what the Court did.

The Argument from Equality and Non-Discrimination

Article 27 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees equality before law, and prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on a host of specified grounds, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, and so on. While interpreting the provision, the Kenyan High Court borrowed from the ECHR and South African jurisprudence, to (correctly) note that “unfair discrimination” occurs when a law “treats some people as inferior or less deserving of respect than others. It also occurs when a law or conduct perpetuates or does nothing to remedy existing disadvantages and marginalization.” (para 288) However, after stating the position of law, the Court went on to hold in paras 295 and 296 that Sections 162 and 165 did not violate the Constitution, because:

The substance of the Petitioners’ complaint is that the impugned provisions target the LGBTIQ community only. If we understood them correctly, their contestation is that the impugned provisions do not apply against heterosexuals … [O]ur reading of the challenged provisions suggests otherwise. The language of section 162 is clear. It   uses the words “Any person.” A natural and literal construction of these words leaves us with no doubt that the section does not target any particular group of persons.

Readers will recall that this is a very old and very familiar argument, which was also employed by the Supreme Court in Kaushal: the supposed distinction between “acts” and “identities”. According to this argument, anti-sodomy laws only target a specific set of sexual acts (in the present case, as defined by the Kenyan High Court, the act of anal sex), which could – in theory – be committed by heterosexuals or homosexuals. They do not target same-sex relations and, therefore, do not attract equality and non-discrimination provisions.

However, as old as this argument is, its basic flaws have also been pointed out multiple times. For example, as the US Supreme Court pointed out in Lawrence v Texas, when the act that is criminalised “is closely correlated with being homosexual … there can hardly be more palpable discrimination against a class than making the conduct that defines the class criminal.” Likewise, in National Coalition, the South African Constitutional Court noted that “it is not the act of sodomy that is denounced by the law, but the so called sodomite who performs it.” The point, in other words, is that by criminalising a specific set of acts, anti-sodomy laws effectively construct the homosexual identity as legally salient, and go on to persecute it – a point that has, by now, been made in reams of scholarly literature. That point cannot be understood, however, if the statute is examined only on its own terms, and in the absence of the social context within which it is embedded and operates. And indeed, the text of Article 27 of the Kenyan Constitution does require the latter approach: by prohibiting both direct and indirect discrimination, it requires a court to examine the effect of a law (an enquiry that needs to be contextual), and not merely its formal language (which is what the Court limited itself to in the above paragraph).

In fact, when faced with Section 165, even the Court’s formal analysis began to border on the illogical. Section 165, it held, used the term “any male person”, and therefore targeted male persons in general, and not male persons of any particular sexual orientation. The Court seemed to miss the second half the provision, however, which uses the term “with another male person”! Now, when a statute criminalises “acts of gross indecency” only between two male persons, we don’t even need to go into questions of indirect discrimination – on its face, the statute clearly targets gay men.

That said, the Court did go on to consider questions of selective enforcement. After noting petitioners’ affidavits that set out various instances of discrimination and violence, the Court noted that “a party pleading violation of constitutional rights is at the very least expected to give credible evidence of the said violation and that it is not enough to merely plead and particularize a  violation.” In this case, “save for the allegations made in the Petition and the affidavits, no tangible evidence was given to support the allegations.” (paragraph 299)

But this is a bewildering argument. It is in the nature of social discrimination and prejudice that it is experiential: it takes the form of discrimination in access to services, taunts in public and private, physical violence, and so on. The only “tangible evidence” that can be produced in such cases is in the nature of the testimony of those affected by it – all of which was before the Court. And this is also the reason why there exist detailed sociological studies (see here) that discuss the interface between anti-sodomy laws and social norms. It is therefore unclear what kind of evidence the Court would have found satisfactory in this case (it did not specify).

The Argument from Privacy and Dignity

After moving quickly through some other arguments such as the right to health (I have refrained from analysing the Court’s analysis of this, because it appears to require access to the pleadings), the Court came to the final argument: that the provisions violated the rights to privacy and dignity. The Court made two arguments to reject this claim. First, it held that there was no conclusive evidence to support the proposition that homosexuals were “born that way.” (paragraph 393) And secondly, it held that the question of legalising same-sex marriage had been explicitly raised during the drafting of the Kenyan Constitution, and it had been answered in the negative, with Article 45 of the Constitution specifying that “every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex.” According to the Court, allowing same-sex relations would “indirectly open the door for unions among persons of the same sex”, something that would conflict with Article 45. (para 397)

Let us take both arguments in turn. On the first issue, the Court is right that there exists some scholarly debate on the issue of whether sexual orientation is “innate” or whether it is a product of biological and social factors. Where the Court is wrong, however, is on the question of whether that matters at all. As this piece puts the point: “Why should gay rights depend on being born this way?” Indeed, the question of whether sexual orientation is innate or not is irrelevant to a privacy/dignity claim, where one of the core elements is that of decisional autonomy, and, in particular, the right to make intimate choices in freedom and without State coercion. Therefore, wherever upon the innate/choice spectrum sexuality may lie, its position upon that spectrum does not change the fact that it is protected by the constitutional rights to privacy and dignity.

The second argument is even more difficult to parse. Article 45 uses the specific term “marry“, and in the absence of a claim for same-sex marriage, it is difficult to see where the conflict is. The Court attempted to get around this by observing that Section 3(1) of the Marriage Act defined “marriage” as the “voluntary union between of a man and a woman.” For the second time in the judgment, however, the Court appears to have engaged in a spot of selective reading. Section 3(1), in full, reads: “Marriage is the voluntary union of a man and a woman whether in a monogamous or polygamous union and registered in accordance with this Act.” This means that the Court’s attempts to equate “marriage” and “unions” when it says that legalising same-sex relations would “indirectly open the door for unions among persons of the same sex” is a piece of casuistry: by its very terms, a same-sex union would not amount to a marriage unless it is registered under the Marriage Act; and therefore, there is absolutely no conflict with Article 45 of the Kenyan Constitution.

It is also impossible to ignore the Court’s own shifts in meaning through the judgment: while considering the equality and non-discrimination claim, the Court held that Sections 162 an 165 only criminalised certain “acts”, and not persons. But when it came to the privacy and dignity claims, the Court switched tack, and found a seeming conflict with Article 45 of the Kenyan Constitution on the assumption that what Sections 162 and 165 did do was to outlaw same-sex relations, and not simply anal sex.


Article 27 of the Kenyan Constitution is a striking provision. It outlaws both direct and indirect discrimination. It provides a host of grounds: race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language, or birth. And it uses the word “including” just after “ground”, signifying that the definition is open-ended. This makes it one of the most progressive anti-discrimination provisions in any Constitution, anywhere in the world.

It would seem the easiest and most natural of analytical feats to hold that sexual orientation falls within Article 27. The multiple grounds in connection are united by two things: they are either “personal characteristics”, or the products of personal and intimate choices. And they are united, further, by one overarching theme: they have been the historical and continuing sites of discrimination, used in order to identify and single out groups of people, and then target and attack them. On every conceivable understanding of this provision, therefore, sexual orientation clearly comes within its terms.

Why then did the judgment of the Kenyan High Court come out the way that it did? Reading it, I was in fact struck by the similarities that it had with Kaushal: both judgments are characterised by a similar unwillingness – an unwillingness not to justify or to defend discrimination, but simply to acknowledge that it even exists. This is what explains the fact that in both Koushal and in EG, ultimately, the Court dodged the hard questions by holding that the equality and non-discrimination provisions of the respective Constitutions didn’t even apply, because, after all, the only thing prohibited was a set of acts. The contextual analysis that was required to link these apparent “acts” to the stigmatisation and persecution of sexual minorities was the missing step that the Courts seemed either unwilling – or unable – to take.

But the future of Kaushal perhaps give hope that in Kenya as well, this is an error that shall soon be rectified.

Guest Post: Navtej Johar v Union of India – What Remains of Section 377?

(This is a guest post by Vanshaj Jain.

Editor’s Note: The intersection between Sections 375 and 377, which constitutes the principal argument of this essay, has been examined by John Sebastian before the judgment in Navtej Johar, available here).

That consensual sex between adults lies outside the scope of s.377 is now certain, per Navtej Singh Johar. What remains within the confines of the provision, however, is perilously unclear. To understand the conceptual imprecision that lies at the heart of this decision, it is necessary to understand how the normative content of Section 377 has changed since its ignominious birth.

Sections 375 and 377 were originally intended to cover two mutually exclusive categories of sexual acts. While s.375 covered “sexual intercourse”, s.377 infamously covered “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Though these terms were left intentionally imprecise, over time their meaning became conceptually dependant on each other. In Khanu v. Emperor, sexual intercourse was considered intercourse ‘in the order of nature’ with “the possibility of conception of human beings” and carnal intercourse against the order of nature was understood to cover all non-procreative sexual acts. Similarly, in Lohana Vasantlal Devchand, the content of s.377 was defined in opposition to s.375 by describing carnal intercourse against the order of nature as “an imitative act of sexual intercourse”. This bifurcation of sexual acts was cemented by the Supreme Court in Sakshi v. Union of India, where ‘sexual intercourse’ in s.375 was restricted to penile-vaginal penetration, while all residual forms of intercourse (including “penile-oral penetration, penile-anal penetration, finger-vagina, finger-anal penetration and object-vaginal penetration”) were considered carnal intercourse against the order of nature under s.377. Thus defined, the relationship between the two provisions could be conceived as follows:


However, the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act put an end to the watertight separation between these provisions. Section 375 was altered to include acts that earlier fell only within the domain of s.377, including oral sex, anal sex and penetration by objects. Coupled with these changes, the section ceased to describe the actus reus of rape as ‘sexual intercourse’. In fact, the marital rape exception to s.375 which earlier covered only ‘sexual intercourse’ was specifically amended to except “sexual intercourse or sexual acts”. As Sekhri and Mukhopadhyay argue, this ended the binary separation of ss.375 and 377 under ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Indeed, it would be strange if the Amendment Act continued to restrict s.375 to ‘sexual intercourse’ alone since it was based on the Justice Verma Committee Report, which expressly recommended removing s.377 and abolishing the ‘sexual intercourse’/‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ division. Consequently, following the 2013 Amendment, the relationship between the provisions could be conceived of as follows:


It is this change in the conceptual interdependence of ss.375 and 377 that the Court seems to gloss over in Navtej Singh Johar. The opinions in Navtej erroneously presume that s.375 is still restricted only to ‘sexual intercourse’ and thus has no potential overlap with the actus reus of s.377. Per Chandrachud J., for instance, the 2013 Amendment shifts non-traditional male-on-female sexual acts [now covered in amended s.375(a)-(d)] from the category of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ to that of ‘sexual intercourse’. He reasons that:

…if ‘sexual intercourse’ now includes many acts which were covered under Section 377, those acts are clearly not ‘against the order of nature’ anymore. They are, in fact, part of the changed meaning of sexual intercourse itself. This means that much of Section 377 has not only been rendered redundant but that the very word ‘unnatural’ cannot have the meaning that was attributed to it before the 2013 amendment…[m]any of these acts which would have been within the purview of Section 377, stand excluded from criminal liability when they take place in the course of consensual heterosexual contact. Parliament has ruled against them being regarded against the ‘order of nature’, in the context of Section 375. Yet those acts continue to be subject to criminal liability, if two adult men or women were to engage in consensual sexual contact.

This misconception is repeated in the opinions of the other judges, compelling them to believe that the 2013 Amendment implies that consensual non-traditional male-on-female sex is legal because it displaces such acts from s.377 to s.375, the latter having a consent requirement. As is argued above, the language of amended s.375 betrays that this cannot be its effect; instead such acts remain within the meaning of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ but are to be covered both by s.377 and s.375 (under the phrase “sexual acts” added by the amendment).

Further, to add to the confusion, the judges seem to ascribe the intention of decriminalizing all consensual sex between a man and a woman to the 2013 Amendment. Per Nariman J., for instance:

…the legislature has amended one portion of the law in 2013, making it clear that consensual sex, as described in the amended provision, between two consenting adults, one a man and one a woman, would not be liable for prosecution.

The basis for this conclusion is never made clear in the opinions in Navtej, and cannot be located within the text of the 2013 Amendment Act or the Justice Verma Committee Report. Indeed, it is strange to reason that merely because the actus reus of one provision (here: s.375) is expanded but made contingent on a consent requirement, the implication it carries is that the same act cannot be penalized under any other provision (here: s.377), even if it falls within its definitional parameters. This seems patently incorrect.

The second concern with the manner in which the decision addresses s.377 relates to the phrase ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The concurring opinions indicate that this phrase lacks clear content:

In the contemporary world where even marriage is now not equated to procreation of children, the question that would arise is whether homosexuality and carnal intercourse between consenting adults of opposite sex can be tagged as ‘against the order of nature‘. It is the freedom of choice of two consenting adults to perform sex for procreation or otherwise and if their choice is that of the latter, it cannot be said to be against the order of nature. [CJI]

At the very outset, we must understand the problem with the usage of the term ‘order of nature’. What is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’? And who decides the categorization into these two ostensibly distinct and water-tight compartments? The simple question which we need to ask ourselves is whether liberty and equality can be made to depend on such vagueness of expression and indeterminacy of content…[i]f it is difficult to locate any intelligible differentia between indeterminate terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, then it is even more problematic to say that a classification between individuals who supposedly engage in ‘natural’ intercourse and those who engage in ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ can be legally valid. [Chandrachud J.]

…the phrase “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” in Section 377 as a determining principle in a penal provision, is too open-ended” [Malhotra J.]

While the reasoning is unimpeachable, the judges don’t seem to fully appreciate its consequence. The phrase ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ forms the crux of s.377; it is the actus reus on which the crime is based. If its content is unclear, as the judges rightly point out, only two consequences can follow: either the Court provides a clear guiding principle to determine the content of this phrase for future use or it strikes down the entire provision for vagueness. Troublingly, the Court does neither.

Instead, the Court reformulates the content of s.377 as follows:

“However, if anyone, by which we mean both a man and a woman, engages in any kind of sexual activity with an animal, the said aspect of Section 377 is constitutional and it shall remain a penal offence under Section 377 IPC. Any act of the description covered under Section 377 IPC done between two individuals without the consent of any one of them would invite penal liability under Section 377 IPC.” [CJI]


The phrase “act of the description covered under Section 377” could, reasonably, only refer to ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Yet, by virtue of the pronouncements highlighted above, this phrase no longer carries any positive content, since the Court has, in no uncertain terms, departed from the tests laid down in Khanu and Lohana Devchand, without providing a new test of their own. This renders the residual content of s.377 uncertain. It could, potentially, be conceived of in three possible ways:



Option A is the only one consistent with the Court’s statements on the unintelligibility of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. By undermining this phrase, it is conceivable that the Court wishes to put the divide between ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ to rest once and for all. Consequently, s.377 could be used to cover all non-consensual acts of sex (in addition to bestiality and paedophilia) that are not already covered by s.375 – this reinterpretation could raise the interesting possibility that marital rape and female-on-male rape are now subject to penal liability under s.377.

Option B indicates that s.375 and s.377 are not watertight categories; whereas s.375 criminalizes non-consensual male-on-female sexual intercourse and carnal intercourse (“sexual acts”), s.377 covers all remaining forms of non-consensual carnal intercourse. While this option best reflects the text of the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, it isn’t consistent with the court’s reasoning on the 375-377 relationship. Option C allows for ss.375 and 377 to retain their independent character, the former applying only to ‘sexual intercourse’ while the latter covers only ‘carnal intercourse’, and best reflects the court’s description of their interaction. However, given the Court’s twin reasoning, first, on the unintelligibility of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ and its clear dicta that non-traditional forms of sex are not ‘unnatural’, and second, that the 2013 Amendment Act has shifted non-traditional forms of sex from ‘carnal intercourse’ to ‘sexual intercourse’, it is possible that, both under Options B and C, s.377 could no longer be used to cover non-traditional intercourse when done non-consensually, rendering the provision redundant (outside the context of bestiality and paedophilia). This would also have the bizarre outcome that even though male-on-male rape was criminalised earlier under s.377, by virtue of this decision it now carries no sanction (due to the gendered nature of s.375’s text). However, if the phrase ‘carnal intercourse’ does have any residual content, this would again raise the possibility, under Option B, of trying marital rape and female-on-male rape (when it entails such carnal intercourse) under s.377.

In conclusion, the normative content of s.377 is uncertain, and will, in all likelihood, require further clarification. What is clear, however, is that the judgment unfortunately glosses over the conceptual boundaries of a criminal law provision whose content it was called upon to decide.

Guest Post: Navtej Johar v Union of India – Key Highlights

(This is a guest post by Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud.)

Much has already been written and said about the recent landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, where a bench of five judges of the Supreme Court partially struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which made “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” a criminal offence. Four separate judgments were delivered by the court, by Chief Justice Misra (supported by Khanwilkar J), and Justices Nariman, Chandrachud and Malhotra. Though the conclusions arrived at were the same, some of the reasoning was different. For example, Justice Nariman held that there is no presumption of constitutionality for pre-Constitution laws [Nariman J, paragraph 90], Justice Chandrachud rejected [Chandrachud J, paragraph 36] the “sex plus” test laid down in Air India v. Nergesh Mirza, (1981) 4 SCC 335, while the other judges didn’t dwell much on these subjects. This post therefore focuses on some of the key highlights of the reasoning of the majority in the case. All paragraph number references are from the original judgments published on the website of the Supreme Court of India.

What is “natural”?

Section 377 of the IPC bears the heading “unnatural offences” and it penalizes carnal intercourse which is against the order of “nature”. Some of the judges therefore asked themselves what was meant by the word “natural”. Chief Justice Misra and Justice Malhotra held that a person’s sexual orientation itself is natural [Misra CJ, paragraphs 4, 109; Malhotra J, paragraph 13.1]. Relying on scholars like Zaid Al Baset and Shamnad Basheer, Justice Chandrachud wrote that there are shortcomings in the conceptual categories of “natural” and “unnatural”, that the idea of the “natural” was manufactured by a majoritarian suppression of the history of the prevalence of sexual minorities, that merely because something is natural does not mean that it is desirable (e.g., death), and just because something is unnatural (e.g., a heart transplant) doesn’t mean that it ought to be criminal [Chandrachud J, paragraphs 28-29].

Constitutional Morality:

One of the central themes of the court’s decision in Johar is that the aim of the Constitution is to transform society, not to entrench and preserve the pre-existing values of the majority. In other words, though a majority of people in India may be heterosexuals, though the prevalent “social morality” in India might even dictate sexual intercourse only between a man and a woman, it is “constitutional morality” which must prevail [See, Misra CJ, paragraphs 110, 119; Nariman J, paragraphs 80-81; Chandrachud J, paragraphs 3, 24, 141]. Ambedkar himself had said that “our people have yet to learn” the “sentiment” of “constitutional morality” [Chandrachud J, paragraph 141].

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), Justice Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court famously wrote, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” In passages reminiscent of these words, the Johar court found: “Any attempt to push and shove a homogeneous, uniform, consistent and a standardised philosophy throughout the society would violate the principle of constitutional morality.” [Misra CJ, paragraph 116]; And: “Democratic as it is, our Constitution does not demand conformity. Nor does it contemplate the mainstreaming of culture. It nurtures dissent as the safety valve for societal conflict. Our ability to recognise others who are different is a sign of our own evolution.” [Chandrachud J, paragraph 5].

The Miniscule Minority:

In Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation, (2014) 1 SCC 1, the Supreme Court had previously upheld Section 377 of the IPC because only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population”, according to the court, belonged to the LGBTQI community. This argument was rejected by the court in Johar [Misra CJ, paragraphs 115, 120, 169; Nariman J, paragraph 95; Chandrachud J, paragraph 55; Malhotra J, paragraph 19(ii)]. The number of people asserting a fundamental right, said Chief Justice Misra, is “meaningless; like zero on the left side of any number.”

Unreasonable Classification:

Section 377 of the IPC was partially struck down by the court on the ground that it violates the rights to equality, free speech, and life under Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution. Two tests were applied to determine whether the provision fell foul of Article 14 – the old classification test, and the new manifest arbitrariness test.

Under the classification test, a law falls foul of Article 14 if it either classifies people into categories without applying an intelligible differentia, or if the object sought to be achieved by the law doesn’t bear any rational nexus with the intelligible differentia. Applying this test, Chief Justice Misra found that the object of Section 377 (“to protect women and children from being subjected to carnal intercourse”), did not bear a reasonable nexus with the classification of persons into those who have carnal intercourse against the order of nature and those who don’t [Misra CJ, paragraph 237]. Justice Chandrachud, on the other hand, held that it was “difficult to locate any intelligible differentia between indeterminate terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’” [Chandrachud J, paragraph 29]. Justice Malhotra held that “Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia.” [Malhotra J, paragraph 14.3]

Manifest Arbitrariness:

All the judges found that Section 377 was manifestly arbitrary [Misra CJ, paragraph 239, Nariman J, paragraph 82; Chandrachud J, paragraph 29; Malhotra J, paragraph 14.9]. The following were among the reasons given by the court in support of this conclusion: (i) Section 377 does not distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sexual intercourse among competent adults; (ii) it fails to recognize that such sexual intercourse is not harmful to society; (iii) it inflicts a stigma on members of the LGBTQI community; (iv) modern psychiatric studies have shown that members of the LGBTQI community are not persons suffering from mental disorders; (v) Section 377 inflicts life imprisonment, which is disproportionate; (vi) it is rooted in the belief that the sole aim of sexual intercourse is procreation; (vi) it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, over which a person has “little or no choice”; (vii) the phrase “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is too open ended and vague to be in a penal provision; (viii) after the 2013 amendment to the IPC, some consensual sexual acts between heterosexual adults would no longer be considered rape under Section 375, though they would still fall foul of Section 377 [Misra CJ, paragraph 220; Nariman J, paragraph 94; Chandrachud J, paragraph 31 (at pp. 39-41)].

Articles 19(1)(a) and 21:

The court found that Section 377 violates the right of members of the LGBTQI community to dignity, identity, and privacy, all covered under Article 21 of the Constitution [Misra CJ, paragraphs 143, 229; Nariman J, paragraph 83; Chandrachud J, paragraphs 51 (at p. 66), 58; Malhotra J, paragraphs 13.1, 14.5, 16]. Two judges found that it violates the right to health, because the criminalization of homosexual intercourse makes members of the LGBTQI community hesitate to seek medical advice and that they are therefore more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases [Chandrachud J, paragraphs 76, 83, 84, 87, 92; Malhotra J, paragraph 16.3]. The court also found that Section 377 violates the right to the freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) [Misra CJ, paragraphs 245, 247; Malhotra J, paragraph 17].

Partially Struck Down:

However, Section 377 of the IPC has not entirely been struck down. It still covers bestiality and non-consensual intercourse [See: Misra CJ, paragraphs 252, 253 (xvii), Nariman J, paragraph 97; Chandrachud J, paragraphs 7, 156(i)]. Since the court struck down the provision as far as it applies to consenting adults, the provision still presumably applies to consensual sexual intercourse among minors of the same gender. Under Section 375 of the IPC, as amended in 2013, even consensual sexual intercourse among heterosexual minors, if the girl is under 18 years of age, is considered to be rape.

(The writer is an advocate at the Bombay High Court)

“Civilization has been brutal”: Navtej Johar, Section 377, and the Supreme Court’s Moment of Atonement

Last year, in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v Union of India, the Supreme Court did a remarkable thing. While declaring that privacy was a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution, five out of nine judges also noted that the Court’s 2013 judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal v Naz Foundation (an entirely unconnected proceeding) had been wrongly decided. In Koushal, the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – that criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” – had been upheld, and the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment reading it down to exclude consenting same-sex relations had been overturned. How deeply the Koushal Court had erred (in the view of the Puttaswamy bench) was evident from the fact that in his plurality opinion, Chandrachud J. singled it out as one of the two “discordant notes” in constitutional history (the other was the Emergency-era ADM Jabalpur judgment).

The privacy judgment made it clear that Koushal was living on borrowed time. That time came to an end today, when a Constitution Bench of the Court, in Navtej Johar v Union of India, formally overruled Koushal, effectively restored the Delhi High Court judgment in Naz Foundation, and unambiguously held that the LGTB+ community was entitled to equal rights under Articles 14, 15, 19, 21, and the rest of the Constitution’s fundamental rights chapter.

Four concurring judgments were delivered in Navtej Johar. While concurring on the outcome of the case – that Section 377 violated Article 14 (equal protection of laws), 15(1) (non-discrimination on grounds of sex), 19(1)(a) (freedom of expression) and 21 (right to life and personal liberty) – the judges came at the issues from different angles. In this essay, I shall discuss the different strands of constitutional reasoning that we find in Navtej Johar, and their implications for the future.

A. The Chief Justice and the Primacy of Choice 

The Chief Justice wrote for himself and Justice Khanwilkar. His is a wide-ranging judgment, but at its heart lies the idea of choice. This is not as straightforward an argument as it seems at first blush. Recall that there has been a long-standing debate about whether sexual orientation is “natural” and “immutable”, a question of choice, or somewhere in between upon a spectrum. It has always been intuitively tempting to argue that sexual orientation is simply a question of having been “born this way.” It is tempting because if sexual orientation is “natural”, and something beyond the individual’s power to alter, then criminalising it is ipso facto irrational. Our criminal law is based upon the idea of holding people to account for acts that they are responsible for. How then can you criminalise something that is inherent, and which cannot be controlled?

The “born this way” discourse, however, has been strongly criticised. As this article points out, for example:

If biology determines our expression, then there is no reason to think about making better or different worlds. It has all been decided, from the moment we became Homo sapiens. Yet if we recognise sexuality as constructed, we open up essential discussions about some of the most important aspects of life. Who are we sexually intimate with, and how? What do we do with the consequences of sexual intimacy (offspring and health)? Who is responsible for children’s lives, development and education in a society? The arrangement of sexual relations is the key social building block of society’s reproduction. Hence the importance of gay marriage. Yet we have a surprisingly limited way of engaging this conversation; indeed, biological determinism helps us avoid the issue altogether. A host of social issues are pressing down upon us, and we cannot effectively address them if we deny the reality of the human condition, including sexuality, and thereby close off discussions before they begin.

And, as the work of Foucault and other scholars has demonstrated, essentialising sexuality (and sexual orientation) runs the risk of trapping people in pre-constructed identities, in a manner that – in the long run – is anything but emancipatory.

To the judgment’s merit, it keeps both these propositions in an equilibrium, and refrains from choosing one over the other. So, in paragraph 9, the Chief Justice observes:

When we talk about identity from the constitutional spectrum, it cannot be pigeon-holed singularly to one‘s orientation that may be associated with his/her birth and the feelings he/she develops when he/she grows up. Such a narrow perception may initially sound to subserve the purpose of justice but on a studied scrutiny, it is soon realized that the limited recognition keeps the individual choice at bay.

“Natural orientation” and “choice” are discussed in a complementary manner throughout the judgment (see, e.g., paragraphs 109 and 148). Admittedly, at various points in the judgment, the Chief Justice comes close to slipping back into the former type of vocabulary, using words such as “inherent”, “innate”, “by birth”, and so on (paragraph 143 – 144). A holistic reading of the judgment, however, makes it clear that the concept of choice (that he also frames as individual self-determination) is as important to the exercise of constitutional rights as the “naturalness” of sexual orientation. Indeed, in paragraph 140, while defining the aspects sexual orientation, the Chief Justice refers both to “inherent orientation” and “demonstration of choice.”

And, perhaps most importantly, it is in the language of choice that the Chief Justice rejects Koushal’s argument (indeed, the only argument actually made in Koushal) that as Section 377 only criminalises “acts” and not “persons”, it does not violate constitutional guarantees:

… individuality of a person and the acceptance of identity invite advertence to some necessary concepts which eventually recognize the constitutional status of an individual that resultantly brushes aside the ―act‖ and respects the dignity and choice of the individual. (paragraph 81)

Additionally, the argument from dignity is also framed in the language of choice:

Dignity while expressive of choice is averse to creation of any dent. When biological expression, be it an orientation or optional expression of choice, is faced with impediment, albeit through any imposition of law, the individual‘s natural and constitutional right is dented. (paragraph 132)

This articulation of “choice” then becomes an important basis of the Chief Justice’s finding that Section 377 violates the Constitution. Because it disrespects individual choice, Section 377 is both irrational and “manifestly arbitrary”, and violates Article 14 (paragraph 240). This is, of course, in addition to the violation of expressive rights under Article 19(1)(a), and the right to privacy under Article 21 – which too is defined in terms of “intimacy in privacy as a matter of choice” (Conclusion X).

B. Justice Nariman and the Presumption of Constitutionality

Justice Nariman’s opinion shares many of the interpretive commitments of the Chief Justice. He too holds that Section 377 violates dignity (paragraph 79), and that it is “manifestly arbitrary” (paragraph 82). Nariman J. arrives at the second conclusion from a slightly different route. He examines the 2017 Mental Healthcare Act, which expressly prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation (in the domain of mental health). Combining this with scientific evidence, he notes that the natural/unnatural distinction that is at the heart of Section 377 has no rational basis, and consequently, violates Article 14 (paragraph 82).

By far the most interesting aspect of Nariman J.’s opinion, however, is his holding that pre-constitutional laws do not enjoy any presumption of constitutionality. He notes that:

The presumption of constitutionality of a statute is premised on the fact that Parliament understands the needs of the people, and that, as per the separation of powers doctrine, Parliament is aware of its limitations in enacting laws – it can only enact laws which do not fall within List II of Schedule VII of the Constitution of India, and cannot transgress the fundamental rights of the citizens and other constitutional provisions in doing so. Parliament is therefore deemed to be aware of the aforesaid constitutional limitations. Where, however, a pre-constitution law is made by either a foreign legislature or body, none of these parameters obtain. It is therefore clear that no such presumption attaches to a pre-constitutional statute like the Indian Penal Code.

While I believe this is a correct argument, it is nonetheless an incomplete argument. Nariman J. does not tackle one important objection: that Parliament’s failure to repeal a pre-constitutional law indicates an implicit acceptance. It also seems to prove too much (for example, could someone challenging the Indian Contract Act of 1872 argue that there is no presumption of constitutionality?). Consequently, I would suggest that Nariman J.’s argument requires to be slightly deepened: the reason why pre-Constitutional laws should not carry a presumption of constitutionality is because, insofar as they affect fundamental rights, they impose a double-burden upon the individuals they impact: first, these individuals had no say in the framing of these laws (since they were passed by a non-democratic colonial regime); and secondly, now that these laws exist, it is those who suffer their effects who have to mobilise and convince parliament to repeal them. It is this double-burden that is unacceptable, and therefore mandates that the presumption of constitutionality be withheld from those colonial laws that affect fundamental rights (I have made this argument in greater detail elsewhere).

C. Justice Chandrachud and Indirect Discrimination

For me, the most interesting – and complex – argument in the case was that Section 377 violates Article 15(1) (non-discrimination on grounds of sex), and a combined reading of Articles 15 (non-discrimination) and 14 (equality before law). In Chandrachud J.’s opinion, this argument receives detailed treatment. As a prelude, he begins with the following, critical observation:

Equating the content of equality with the reasonableness of a classification on which a law is based advances the cause of legal formalism. The problem with the classification test is that what constitutes a reasonable classification is reduced to a mere formula: the quest for an intelligible differentia and the rational nexus to the object sought to be achieved. In doing so, the test of classification risks elevating form over substance. The danger inherent in legal formalism lies in its inability to lay threadbare the values which guide the process of judging constitutional rights. (paragraph 27)

This is an important rebuke, not just to the Koushal Court, but also to the dominant strand of equality thinking on the Supreme Court, which – even in 2018 – continues to apply the “classification test” to judge equality violations (i.e., a law is unconstitutional if there is either an “unintelligible differentia” between the things that it classifies, or if the classification bears no rational nexus to the State goal).

Chandrachud J. goes on to note:

Article 14 has a substantive content on which, together with liberty and dignity, the edifice of the Constitution is built. Simply put, in that avatar, it reflects the quest for ensuring fair treatment of the individual in every aspect of human endeavor and in every facet of human existence.

What does this “substantive content” of equality entail? This takes us to the heart of Chandrachud J.’s judgment, which his treatment of the Article 15(1) claim. As he notes, Indian courts have historically interpreted the statement “The State shall not discriminate on grounds … only of sex” in a highly formalistic manner, and have upheld laws that – in their language – use more than one or a differently worded ground (for example, in Koushal, the Court held that because Section 377 only criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, there was no question of discriminating against identities). This, however, is flawed: what matters is the effect of law upon the exercise of fundamental rights. (paragraph 34)

The effect of law must be understood by taking into account the broader social context within which law is embedded. It must therefore take into account “the intersectional nature of sex discrimination, which cannot be said to operate in isolation of other identities, especially from the socio-political and economic context.” (paragraph 36) Drawing from progressive gender equality judgments such as Anuj Garg, Chandrachud J. concludes that:

A provision challenged as being ultra vires the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds only of sex under Article 15(1) is to be assessed not by the objects of the state in enacting it, but by the effect that the provision has on affected individuals and on their fundamental rights. Any ground of discrimination, direct or indirect, which is founded on a particular understanding of the role of the sex, would not be distinguishable from the discrimination which is prohibited by Article 15 on the grounds only of sex.

The words “direct or indirect” are crucial, since this is the first time that the Supreme Court has explicitly recognised the concept of indirect discrimination (i.e., where facially neutral laws – such as S. 377 – nonetheless have a disproportionate impact upon a segment of the population).

How must Section 377 be analysed within this constitutional framework? After recording the experiences of LGBT+ individuals subjected to the “shadow of criminality”, Chandrachud J. notes that “Section 377 criminalizes behaviour that does not conform to the heterosexual expectations of society. In doing so it perpetuates a symbiotic relationship between anti-homosexual legislation and traditional gender roles.” (paragraph 44) How does it do so? The answer comes immediately afterwords:

If individuals as well as society hold strong beliefs about gender roles – that men (to be characteristically reductive) are unemotional, socially dominant, breadwinners that are attracted to women and women are emotional, socially submissive, caretakers that are attracted to men – it is unlikely that such persons or society at large will accept that the idea that two men or two women could maintain a relationship. (paragraph 44)

It is in this manner that Chandrachud J. draws together the indirectly discriminatory character of the facially neutral S. 377, the effects test, the prohibition of “sex” discrimination under Article 15(1) in a case about “sexual orientation”, and the importance of social context to the enquiry.  Here is how the argument goes:

  1. Article 15(1) prohibits sex discrimination.
  2.  Discrimination on grounds of sex is premised upon stereotypes about appropriate gender roles, and the binary between “man” and “woman”.
  3. It is these stereotypes about gender roles that constitute the bases of criminalising same sex relations.
  4. Section 377 may be neutrally worded, but it’s effect is primarily – and disproportionately – upon the LGBT community. It is therefore indirectly discriminatory on grounds of sexual orientation.
  5. Since the basis of that indirect discrimination lies in stereotypes about gender roles (the background social context), S. 377 violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution.

Consequently, to sum up:

Statutes like Section 377 give people ammunition to say “this is what a man is” by giving them a law which says “this is what a man is not.” Thus, laws that affect non-heterosexuals rest upon a normative stereotype: “the bald conviction that certain behavior-for example, sex with women-is appropriate for members of one sex, but not for members of the other sex. (paragraph 51)

As Terry Eagleton wrote in Saint Oscar, his play about Oscar Wilde:

You hold that a man is a man and a woman is a woman. I hold that nothing is ever purely itself, and that the point where it becomes so is known as death. I therefore demand to be defended by metaphysicians rather than by lawyers, and that my jury should be composed of my peers – namely, poets, perverts, vagrants and geniuses.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today represents the most advanced interpretation of Article 15(1) and non-discrimination that has come out of the Supreme Court thus far.

Chandrachud J.’s judgment then goes on to examine Article 19(1)(a), focusing on how S. 377 inhibits the sexual privacy of the LGBT+ community, by forcing them into the closet (paragraph 61). He is careful to notice perhaps the only shortcoming of the Delhi High Court judgment, which was to restrict the right to “private spaces.” Like his judgment in Puttaswamy, Chandrachud J. once again critiques the facile public/private binary, and notes that “the right to sexual privacy, founded on the right to autonomy of a free individual, must capture the right of persons of the community to navigate public places on their own terms, free from state interference.” (paragraph 62) He goes on to discuss the rights to privacy and autonomy (paragraph 65), holds that Article 21 also protects a right to intimacy (paragraph 67), and includes a detailed discussion on how Section 377 inhibits the right to health (including the right to mental health) (Part G). There is also an extended discussion of the limits of criminal law, which concludes with the now-familiar observation that harm to others is the only adequate ground for criminalisation. (paragraph 137)

D. Justice Malhotra and a Truer Vision of Equality  

Justice Malhotra penned a brief, concurring judgment, that discussed Articles 14, 15, 19(1)(a) and 21 in turn. Her judgment, however, takes immutability as the basis for the 14/15 violation. In her view, Section 377 violates Article 14 because:

[It] creates an artificial dichotomy. The natural or innate sexual orientation of a person cannot be a ground for discrimination. Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia. (paragraph 13)

In my analysis of the Chief Justice’s opinion, I have noted that this view is controversial. Here, however, I want to focus on something else: the second sentence. Malhotra J. argues that where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an “intrinsic or core trait”, it ipso facto fails Article 14; that is, it cannot be counted as a reasonable classification. However, there is nothing inherent about such discrimination that makes it an “unintelligible differentia”, or precludes it from having some “rational nexus” with a possible goal. Consequently, Malhotra J. actually advances a more radical reading: she argues that the very concept of equality under Article 14 rules out certain kinds of classifications at the threshold. In her view, legislation based on an “intrinsic or core trait” fails that threshold inquiry. I would put it slightly differently: legislation based on a core trait (related to personal autonomy), a trait that has been a historical or present site of systemic discrimination, is ruled out under Article 14. This is because, for the reasons given above, I believe that the language of “intrinsic” or “immutable” characteristics is a dangerous road to go down. That, however, is a minor point of difference: what is crucial is that Malhotra J.’s reasoning – in its own way, as Chandrachud J in his way – opens up the transformative potential of Article 14 and 15(1).

Malhotra J.’s argument is important for another reason. In Dipak Sibal, the Supreme Court held that in addition to intelligible differentia and rational nexus, Article 14 also required a “legitimate State purpose.” However, neither Dipak Sibal nor any subsequent case clarified what State purposes may be illegitimate. In Malhotra J.’s opinion, we now have an answer: whatever the differentia, and whatever the nexus, the State is not permitted, under Article 14, to disadvantage groups on the basis of an “intrinsic or core” trait.

E. Odds and Ends 

Malhotra J.’s transformative understanding of Article 14 is the best point for us to segue into some of the overarching themes of the judgment. Why is it that discriminating on the basis of an “intrinsic or core” trait is ruled out by the constitutional vision of equality? Two themes – present in all four judgments – answer the question: constitutional morality and transformative constitutionalism. The Chief Justice notes, for example:

Any attempt to push and shove a homogeneous, uniform, consistent and a standardised philosophy throughout the society would violate the principle of constitutional morality. Devotion and fidelity to constitutional morality must not be equated with the popular sentiment prevalent at a particular point of time. (para 116)

Justice Nariman observes:

It must not be forgotten that Section 377 was the product of the Victorian era, with its attendant puritanical moral values. Victorian morality must give way to constitutional morality as has been recognized in many of our judgments. Constitutional morality is the soul of the Constitution, which is to be found in the Preamble of the Constitution, which declares its ideals and aspirations, and is also to be found in Part III of the Constitution, particularly with respect to those provisions which assure the dignity of the individual. (para 78)

And Chandrachud J.:

The Constitution envisaged a transformation in the order of relations not just between the state and the individual, but also between individuals: in a constitutional order characterized by the Rule of Law, the constitutional commitment to egalitarianism and an anti-discriminatory ethos permeates and infuses these relations. (para 52)

The wheel has turned full circle. It was the Delhi High Court, in Naz Foundation, which first introduced all of us to the grammar of “constitutional morality”, and linked it to the Objectives Resolution, and the qualities of inclusiveness and pluralism at the heart of the Constitution. And, nine years later, this vision of constitutional morality lies at the heart of the decriminalisation of same-sex relations. The reason why Malhotra J. is correct when she holds that legislation discriminating on the basis of “intrinsic or core” traits is ipso facto violative of equality, is because equality – viewed through the lens of constitutional morality – is defined by the values of pluralism and inclusiveness: different forms of life and different ways of being are guaranteed equal treatment, equal concern, and equal respect under the transformative Indian Constitution.

The Road Ahead 

What lies ahead? This was, after all, a limited case: it was a constitutional challenge to Section 377 of the IPC. But as the judges themselves acknowledge, there is much work to be done ahead. As the Chief Justice notes, in his judgment:

Equality does not only imply recognition of individual dignity but also includes within its sphere ensuring of equal opportunity to advance and develop their human potential and social, economic and legal interests of every individual and the process of transformative constitutionalism is dedicated to this purpose. (paragraph 104)

Chandrachud J. likewise notes, in his conclusion, “members of the LGBT community are entitled, as all other citizens, to the full range of constitutional rights including the liberties protected by the Constitution.” This, clearly, indicates at a future beyond mere decriminalisation. It indicates towards civil rights, a guarantee against horizontal discrimination in the domains of housing, education, and access to services (under Article 15(2)), a potential right to affirmative action (on the lines of the NALSA v Union of India), and of course – eventually – equal marriage, if demanded. How rocky the road will be towards full and equal moral membership, of course, remains to be seen.

What of other domains? The judgments of Chandrachud J and Malhotra J, as I have argued above, open new windows for understanding and interpreting Articles 14 and 15(1). Will we see them play out in the future? Will Chandrachud J.’s observations about the limits of criminal law have an impact on litigations concerning bans upon dietary preferences? Will the salutary observations about transformative constitutionalism and the value of the individual percolate into other cases concerning State power and individual rights? In the coming months and years, these questions will be answered.

For today, it remains to be said: five years ago, the Supreme Court committed a grievous error in Koushal v Naz Foundation. Today, the Court has atoned. “Civilization“, observes Chandrachud J., “can be brutal.” That brutality was felt on 11th December 2013, and in the days and months that followed. But today is about the Constitution, and today is about emancipation and liberation.

Navtej Johar v Union of India is a judgment worthy of our transformative Constitution.

(Disclaimer: The author was one of the lawyers representing Voices against 377, a coalition of organisations challenging S. 377 before the Court.)

Guest Post: Against Natural Rights—Why the Supreme Court should NOT declare the right to intimacy as a natural right

(This is the third and final guest post by Professor Tarunabh Khaitan on the 377 Hearings, which concluded today.)

As the Supreme Court prepares to defang the provision of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, it might be tempted to rely on its recently-revived ‘natural rights’ jurisprudence in order to do so. It is not hard to imagine that some of the judges might be tempted to hold that the ‘right to intimacy’ is an inherent and irrevocable ‘natural right’ (or, simply, declare it to be a facet of the right to privacy, which in turn has been held to be a natural right—I do not doubt that intimacy is a facet of privacy, or that privacy is indeed a fundamental right—my only complaint is against their characterisation as natural rights).

The rhetorical implications of such a move could be significant—the Court would be saying that the ‘natural order’, far from condemning homosexuals, requires their protection. Unlike the two previous posts on these hearings (available here and here), which urged the Court to be expansive in its holdings, I will argue in this post that the Supreme Court should not rely upon the language of natural rights in its judgment in this case. In fact, it would do well to retreat from the expansive embrace of natural rights in Puttaswamy to the extent it is possible for a smaller bench to do so.

Let us begin with Golaknath, that famous precursor to Kesavananda Bharati, where the Supreme Court held by a majority in 1967 that fundamental rights in the Constitution were unamendable:

“fundamental rights … are embodied in Part III of the Constitution and they may be classified thus : (i) right to equality, (ii) right to freedom, (iii) right against exploitation, (iv) right to freedom of religion, (v) cultural and educational rights, (vi) right to property, and (vii) right to constitutional remedies. … ‘Fundamental rights’ are the modern name for what have been traditionally known as ‘natural rights’. … Our Constitution, in addition to the well-known fundamental rights, also included the rights of the minorities, untouchables and other backward communities, in such rights.” [Paragraph 22, Justice Subbarao]

Even as Justice Subbarao equated fundamental rights with natural rights, he noted that although the right to property counted as a natural right, the rights of disadvantaged minorities against discrimination did not (although the more general right to equality did). This is the nub of the problem with the natural rights discourse—it has traditionally had a libertarian orientation which robustly protects the right to property (including, arguably, intellectual property) and the right to life of a foetus, but becomes faint-hearted when it comes to the enforcement of socially transformative rights like the right against discrimination or the right to employment. And it has had an intellectual history in recent Western thought that has been hostile to LGBTQ rights.

In Kesavananda Bharati, the Court spoke in multiple voices on all sorts of questions, including on the place of natural rights in the Constitution. The rightly-overruled judgment of the Supreme Court in ADM, Jabalpur conducts a superficial exegesis of what the majority actually held in Kesavananda with regard to natural rights, claiming that 7 judges on the Kesavananda bench rejected the natural rights thesis [at para 548]. This reading of Kesavananda is confirmed in another Emergency-era case called Bhanudas Gawde [para 41-2]. I must confess to not having checked myself whether this reading of the meandering and complicated judgment in Kesavananda is correct, ie whether a majority in that case did indeed hold that natural rights jurisprudence has no place in Indian law.

At least according to Justice Khanna, however, whose judgment came to be seen as the opinion of the Court in Kesavananda:

“It is up to the state to incorporate natural rights, or such of them as are deemed essential, and subject to such limitations as are considered appropriate, in the Constitution or the laws made by it. But independently of the Constitution and the laws of the state, natural rights can have no legal sanction and cannot be enforced.” [para 1509]

This must be seen as the correct position on natural rights in Kesavananda. Any other reading of the case would suggest that there are two independent, if overlapping, limits on the power of amendment—the basic structure of the constitution and some pre-constitutional, irrevocable, natural rights. Such a reading would entail that Kesavananda merely added a new ground for reviewing amendments to Golaknath. We know, however, that the Court in Kesavananda expressly overruled Golaknath. Thus, the only reading of Kesavananda’s position on natural rights that is compatible with the basic structure doctrine as the sole ground for limiting the amending power is the one articulated in Justice Khanna’s judgment.

Recent cases, however, have resurrected the natural rights discourse. In Basantibai Khetan, the Bombay High Court held in 1983 that the right to property was a natural right [para 19]. In NALSA, a 2-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that “Article 19(1) guarantees those great basic rights which are recognized and guaranteed as the natural rights inherent in the status of the citizen of a free country.” [para 62]. Perhaps most crucially, in Puttaswamy, several judges on the 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court—some selectively citing passages from Kesavananda Bharati—declared the right to privacy to be an inherent, inalienable natural right [Chandrachud J, para 40-46, 119; Justice Bobde, para 12, 16; Nariman, para 92]. Justice Chelameswar was the only judge on the Puttaswamy bench who did not join the natural rights bandwagon.

Whatever individual judges in Kesavananda might have said, if my argument above that Justice Khanna’s position on natural rights is the most coherent reading of the case on this point is correct, Indian courts are permitted to note that an express or implied fundamental right embodies or recognises some natural right (as the courts in Khetan and NALSA do), but are not permitted to directly enforce or recognise any natural rights without the mediation of the constitutional framework. To the extent that Puttaswamy does this, it would be bad in law (caveat: I believe that Puttaswamy rightly held that the right to privacy is an implied right that flows from other fundamental rights, my only challenge is to any additional justification for the ruling supplied by relying on privacy as a natural right).

Apart from being potentially in breach of stare decisis, the resurrection of the natural rights discourse in Puttaswamy is unfortunate and unnecessary. It is unnecessary because everything the Court needs doctrinally and normatively is already available in the constitutional provisions and values, its historical ethos, and its basic structure. These constitutional resources are sufficient to hold that habeas corpus cannot be suspended, that transgender persons have a fundamental right to equality, non-discrimination and liberty, and that the right to privacy is a fundamental, irrevocable, constitutional right. Seeking additional support from a dubious notion of natural rights does no good, and has the potential to do harm.

The resurgence of the natural rights jurisprudence—rooted in a conservative Christian ethos—is unfortunate because of its traditionally regressive role in promoting libertarian values, including its hostility to the right to abortion, homosexuality and material redistribution. It will be particularly galling for the Court to use a philosophical concept that whose main intellectual proponent, John Finnis, advocated for the continued criminalization of homosexual conduct.

Apart from its conservative roots, the natural rights discourse is too amorphous to be entirely safe in the hands of the courts. True, the basic structure doctrine is also amorphous, but our constitutional text and history place limits on what a court can find as part of the basic structure of our Constitution. The natural rights discourse places no such limit—what is to prevent a court from saying that my interest in a copyright or in hate speech is my natural right?

Lastly, LGBTQ activists have long challenged ideas of ‘naturalness’, a notion that has typically reflected values and mores of the powerful sections in a society. As noted queer theorist Judith Butler wrote in Gender Trouble, her “dogged effort to ‘denaturalize’ gender” emerged “from a strong desire … to uproot the pervasive assumptions about natural or presumptive heterosexuality that are informed by ordinary and academic discourses on sexuality.” It is hardly surprising that Butler sees denaturalization of gender and sexuality as a precondition for true liberation. The concept of a preordained natural order is, after all, status-quoist in its essence. Its naturalness is only evident to those who benefit from things as they are.

The petitioners have asked the Court to recognise their constitutional rights. The Court will do them a disfavour to insist that their rights are not just constitutional, but also somehow natural. The natural order of things has seemed unfair from the vantage point of those on its margins. Arguments invoking the natural order have a habit of getting in the way of things as they should be. Ours is a transformative rather than an acquiescent constitutional heritage. It is a tradition informed by voices from the margins of society, and not just its natural core. That is the tradition we need to invoke as we extend the ethos of inclusiveness to a long-excluded minority, rather than rely on an at-best elusive, at-worst reactionary, notion of natural rights.

(Dr Tarunabh Khaitan is an Associate Professor in Law at Oxford and Melbourne, and the General Editor of the Indian Law Review. The views expressed are his own, and not attributable to any of these institutions. I am grateful to Ira Chadha-Sridhar for her help with caselaw research.)

Section 377 Referred to a Constitution Bench: Some Issues

In an order passed today, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice, referred the correctness of the judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation to a Constitution Bench. Because of the complex history of this case, some background is essential to understand the implications of today’s order. Recall that on December 11, 2013, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in Koushal, had upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises carnal intercourse against the order of nature. In doing so, the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 judgment of the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation vs NCT of Delhi, which had read down Section 377 and decriminalised consensual same sex relations between adults. Although the Supreme Court did not specify what constituted “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, its judgment was widely understood to recriminalise homosexuality in effect, if not in so many words.

Soon after the judgment in Koushal, a different two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered judgment in NALSA vs Union of India, where it upheld and affirmed the constitutional rights of transgender persons under Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. As I argued at the time, Koushal and NALSA rested on mutually irreconcilable foundations – the exact arguments that had been rejected in Koushal had been accepted in NALSA, and so, the only way out was to review the correctness of Koushal.

In the meantime, review petitions contesting the correctness of Koushal had been dismissed. Petitioners then took the last route open to them: they filed curative petitions. A curative petition is an extraordinary remedy developed by the Supreme Court in its 2002 judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra. It is basically a remedy of the last resort: even after a review is rejected, the Court may still reconsider its judgment in certain exceptional circumstances. Hurra set out the exceptional circumstances:

“… this Court, to prevent abuse of its process and to cure a gross miscarriage of justice, may re-consider its judgments in exercise of its inherent power. The next step is to specify the requirements to entertain such a curative petition under the inherent power of this Court so that floodgates are not opened for filing a second review petition as a matter of course in the guise of a curative petition under inherent power. It is common ground that except when very strong reasons exist, the Court should not entertain an application seeking reconsideration of an order of this Court which has become final on dismissal of a review petition. It is neither advisable nor possible to enumerate all the grounds on which such a petition may be entertained. Nevertheless, we think that a petitioner is entitled to relief ex debito justitiae if he establishes (1) violation of principles of natural justice in that he was not a party to the lis but the judgement adversely affected his interests or, if he was a party to the lis, he was not served with notice of the proceedings and the matter proceeded as if he had notice and (2) where in the proceedings a learned Judge failed to disclose his connection with the subject-matter or the parties giving scope for an apprehension of bias and the judgment adversely affects the petitioner… we are of the view that since the matter relates to re- examination of a final judgment of this Court, though on limited ground, the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench (as far as possible) which may pass appropriate orders.”

The rarity of the curative remedy is reflected by the fact that in the fifteen years since Hurra, only four curative petitions have been allowed. However, in 2014, Petitioners won a significant victory when the Court agreed to hear the Naz curative in “open court” – most curative petitions are dismissed by circulation in judges’ chambers.

The Naz curative was then listed for hearing on the 2nd of February, 2016, before the three senior-most judges at the time – Chief Justice Thakur, and Justices Dave and Khehar. After some oral argument, the Court passed the following order:

“All that we need say is that since the issues sought to be raised are of considerable importance and public interest and since some of the issues have constitutional dimensions including whether the Curative Petitions qualify for consideration of this Court in the light of the Judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra’s case (Supra), it will be more appropriate if these petitions are placed before a Constitution Bench comprising five Hon’ble Judges of this Court.”

In other words, all questions – including the question of whether the curative petition could be admitted for hearing – were to be decided by a five-judge bench.

Later that year, however, a fresh petition was filed challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377.  Navtej Johar vs Union of India was filed by five LGBT individuals as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution (and not a public interest litigation, like Naz Foundation was), alleging direct violation of fundamental rights. When this petition came before a two-judge bench of the Court on 29th June 2016, the Court passed the following order:

“The issue pertains to the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. We are informed that the Constitution Bench of this Court is hearing the issue. Post this matter before Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India for appropriate orders.”

Both the curative petitions and this petition then went into cold storage. In late August 2017, however, the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court handed down the famous “Privacy Judgment”. As we have discussed before, the a majority of judges in the privacy judgment directly held that sexual orientation was a facet of privacy, and very publicly doubted the correctness of Koushal. In his plurality, Justice Chandrachud observed:

…  we disagree with the manner in which Koushal has dealt with the privacy – dignity based claims of LGBT persons on this aspect. Since the challenge to Section 377 is pending consideration before a larger Bench of this Court, we would leave the constitutional validity to be decided in an appropriate proceeding.” (para 128)

While, therefore, judicial propriety and discipline prevented the nine-judge bench from overruling Koushal, there was little doubt that the bottom was entirely knocked out of that judgment – and it was only a question of when – not if – Koushal would be overruled.

It is in this context that we must understand today’s referral order. The order was made in the Navtej Johar petition, which had been filed after the initial curative hearing, and had not been tagged with the curative petitions. In the order, the Court observes the existence of the NALSA judgment, and also Puttaswamy. It then notes:

“… the said decision [Puttaswamy] did not deal with the constitutional validity of Section 377 IPC as the matter was pending before the larger Bench. The matter which was pending before the larger Bench is a Curative Petition which stands on a different footing.”

After noting that the issue of consensual same-sex relations “needs to be debated”, the Court concludes as follows:

“Taking all the aspects in a cumulative manner, we are of the view, the decision in Suresh Kumar Kaushal’s case (supra) requires re-consideration. As the question relates to constitutional issues, we think it appropriate to refer the matter to a larger Bench.”

A few questions arise from this. The first and most important is: what is status now? In Puttaswamy, the Court specifically declined to overrule Koushal on the basis that it was already being considered by a Constitution Bench. Today’s order effectively authorises the Chief Justice to set up a parallel Constitution Bench that will also consider Koushal. In that case, what happens to the curative proceedings? Today’s order observes that the curative proceedings “stand on a different footing”; that is, of course, true. The curative petitions have to be argued according to the very strict Hurra standard (see above), and cannot also invoke NALSA or Puttaswamy. A judgment asking for reconsideration of Koushal, however, is not bound by the Hurra standard.

That, however, leads to a conceptual problem: given that a curative petition in Koushal is pending and has been specifically referred to a Constitution Bench, clearly, Koushal is already under reconsideration. Or, to put it another way, the judgment in Koushal has not yet attained finality – it is subject to the outcome of the curative proceedings. From that perspective, today’s order appears to either mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is already being reconsidered (if you take the judgment itself as final), or to mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is not yet final (if you take the conclusion of curative proceedings as the point of finality).

The situation is further clouded when you consider the fact that – as the Court held in Hurra “the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench.”

In other words, the task of a curative bench, if the curative petition succeeds, is to send the matter back for a fresh hearing (and not to decide the case on merits itself). That is, if a curative petition succeeds, then the judgment under challenge is to be reconsidered.

But that is exactly what today’s order, in effect, achieves, when it says that “the decision in Suresh Kumar Koushal’s case requires reconsideration.” Or, in other words, today’s order effectively allows the curative petitions by a side-wind. Suddenly, the most difficult hurdle before the original petitioners – to meet the threshold requirements under Hurra – has been swept away.

The upshot, therefore, is this: the pending curative petitions have now been made effectively infructuous (by that I mean that while the curative petitions are still pending, and technically due to be heard, their subject matter – crossing the Hurra threshold – has effectively been decided separately now, so in substance, there is nothing that remains to be argued when they do come up for hearing). By virtue of today’s order, the issue of the constitutional validity of Section 377 is to be heard afresh, and the correctness of Koushal to be reviewed from scratch. There will of course be some procedural issues to untangle – the petitioners in the curative petitions will now have to either get those petitions tagged with Johar or file fresh intervention applications. The basic point, however, is that today’s order marks a very significant advance in the legal struggle against Section 377.

One last point: today’s order calls for a reconsideration of Koushal primarily by invoking the judgments in NALSA and PuttaswamyPuttaswamy, of course, was entirely about the right to privacy, and the relevant portion of NALSA cited by the Court also refers to privacy (in the context of Article 21). This should not result in the future Supreme Court hearing reviewing Koushal only on the grounds of privacy; Koushal‘s analysis of Articles 14 and 15 was every bit as wrong-headed as its “understanding” of Article 21. If the Court is now going to hear the case afresh, then it will, hopefully, rule not only on Article 21, but on issues of equality and non-discrimination as well.

Notes from a Foreign Field: The Supreme Court of Belize Strikes Down its Anti-LGBT Law

Two days ago, in Caleb Oroczo vs The Attorney-General of Belize, the Supreme Court of Belize struck down Section 53 of the country’s Criminal Code, which penalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The Supreme Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, and non-discrimination. The judgment stands out for the brevity of its reasoning, its close attention to evidence of LGBT discrimination, and its humanity, three qualities which, experience has taught us, cannot be taken for granted in cases of this kind.

The Court began its scrutiny of the Section by a quick foray into the history of anti-sodomy laws. In paragraph 9, it observes that the antecedent of sodomy laws in the Caribbean was Section 377 of the colonial Indian Penal Code, brought into force in 1860. The Belize Criminal Code of 1888 penalised “unnatural carnal knowledge”, but only if it was non-consensual. By an amendment of 1944, the requirement of non-consent was removed, and the Section was given its present form.

The Court then went into the question of the interpretation of Section 53. Before the Supreme Court, a number of Churches had also impleaded themselves in support of the Section. These Churches argued that Section 53 did not only apply to homosexuals, but also covered anal sex as well as oral sex between men and women. On a consideration of the evidence, however, the Court found that Section 53 had been primarily used to target male homosexuals, and therefore, despite its ostensibly gender-neutral language, was unevenly applied to men.

The Claimant before the Court was a homosexual man. From paragraphs 27 to 33, the Court considered his evidence, extracting two paragraphs from it to demonstrate “constant harassment, mocking and stigmatisation”, as well as taking note of the fact that he had been subjected to abuse and threats of violence on multiple occasions. The Court also recorded his evidence to the effect that members of the LGBT community often shun tests for HIV/AIDS because of the stigma involved, as well as the threat of criminal prosecution. This evidence was buttressed by formal reports that had reached the same conclusion, as well as UNIBAM, an NGO representing LGBT persons.

After considering the Claimant’s personal evidence, the Court then took notice of expert reports by psychiatrists, which pointed out that homosexuality is not a mental disorder (it was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders), and that “conversion therapy” was damaging and dangerous. It also took notice of a report filed by Executive Director of the Belize Family Life Association, which showed that criminalisation had the effect of driving LGBT people underground, and was consequently a threat to their health (paragraph 38). This was corroborated by two other expert reports.

With the help of this evidence, the Court was able to find that the Claimant had locus standi to pursue this case, since by engaging in same-sex intercourse, he ran the “perpetual risk” of being charged and prosecuted under Section 53. The Court also swiftly disposed off another preliminary objection, based upon the separation of powers. Rejecting the argument that this was an issue best left to the Parliament, the Court clarified that “the Supreme Court is the designated guardian of the rights conferred under the Constitution. It cannot shirk from such responsibility by by asserting that any change to legislation is a matter best left to the legislature. To do so would be to act in defiance of the mandate of the Constitution itself.” (paragraph 53) The Court also addressed the issue of strong religious sentiments against homosexuality, noting that “[while] the respect and influence of the Churches in Belize cannot be ignored… Belize is a secular state that with a written Constitution that provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” (paragraph 56)

With these preliminary objections out of the way, the Court proceeded to consider the merits of the argument. Starting with the right to dignity, it adopted the language of the Canadian Supreme Court in understanding dignity as being about “self-respect” and “self-worth” (paragraph 63). Evidence of stigmatisation had already been placed on record earlier, and in light of this, the Court found that Section 53 violated the claimant’s constitutional right to dignity (paragraph 67). The Court made a similar finding with respect to the right to privacy which, it held “emanated” from the right to dignity (paragraph 68). Under the Constitution of Belize, the right to privacy could be curtailed under certain circumstances, one of which was public morality. The State argued that Section 53 legitimately curtailed the right to privacy on the basis of public morality. However, this argument was rejected by the Court, on the basis that it was “a bald assertion not supported by any evidence.” (paragraph 69) The Churches also raised “public health” as a ground, citing a study about the Belize Central Prison that had found that men having sex with men (MSM) led to a higher risk of HIV-AIDS. However, on considering the balance of evidence, the Court held that there was enough professional scientific material on record (referred to above) that demonstrated the opposite. It therefore rejected the public health argument on grounds of evidence as well (paragraph 73). Finally, the Court considered the public morality argument made by the Churches, who claimed, in detailed affidavits, that homosexuality went against the moral sentiments of the majority of the people of Belize. In paragraph 81, the Court rejected this argument in the following terms:

There can be no doubt that the Reverend gentlemen deposed to views that that they sincerely and conscientiously hold, and that are representative of a majority of the Christian community and perhaps of the population of Belize. However, from the perspective of legal principle, the Court cannot act upon prevailing majority views or what is popularly accepted as moral. The evidence may be supportive but this does not satisfy the justification of public morality. There must be demonstrated that some harm will be caused should the proscribed conduct be rendered unregulated. No evidence has been presented as to the real likelihood of such harm. The duty of the Court is to apply the provisions of the Constitution.”

In other words, the Court rejected the notion of a free-standing, pure “moral harm”, contained solely in hurt feelings or outraged sentiments. Mere moral outrage could not be a sufficient ground for restricting basic rights, unless an accompanying harm could be demonstrated. Although the Court did not elaborate upon what it understood the term “harm” to mean, it was clear about what it did not mean.

Lastly, the Court held that Section 53 violated the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sex. Citing the famous Toonen vs Australia, that had interpreted “sex” in the non-discrimination clause of the ICCPR to include “sexual orientation”. The Court held that since Belize had ratified the ICCPR, it was bound by the authoritative interpretation of that instrument by the UN Human Rights Committee (paragraph 94). Consequently, “sex” under the non-discrimination clause of the Belize Constitution included “sexual orientation”, and Section 53 was therefore unconstitutional. As I have argued before, there are two ways of understanding this contention: one (which I find unconvincing) is that sexual orientation is an “analogous” ground to “sex”, and is therefore read into a non-discrimination clause as a separate right altogether. This seems to me to be textually insupportable. However, the other way of understanding this is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has its origins in sex: it is precisely the non-conformity to sexual roles that open up LGBT persons to legal and social persecution. Consequently (as has been argued by certain American scholars), discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation should be considered as part and parcel of sexual discrimination, since both are caused by the same set of underlying stereotypes.

Having found multiple constitutional violations, the Court then finished by reading down Section 53, stipulating that “this section shall not apply to consensual sexual acts between adults in private” (paragraph 99).

At 38 pages, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Belize is a model of crisp, lucid, and tightly-reasoned legal prose. There are a few salient features that I would like to quickly recap (and attentive readers will note that the structure of reasoning is virtually a mirror image of the judgments of other constitutional courts that have upheld sodomy laws as constitutional):

  • Although the language of the section is ostensibly gender neutral, the Court holds that it admits of uneven application, and has indeed been unequally applied; consequently, it gives rise to a constitutional cause of action
  • The Court rejects the argument that this is a matter best considered by Parliament, reasoning that its constitutional mandate is to uphold fundamental rights
  • The Court rejects justifications based purely on grounds of religion, on the basis that the Constitution commits the nation of Belize to being a secular polity. In other words, religious justifications for curtailing fundamental rights do not count as constitutionally admissible reasons
  • After the claimant has demonstrated prima facie infringement of his rights, the Court places the burden of justifying the curtailment upon the State. It engages with the evidence on record (especially with respect to the medical evidence), and finds that on its own terms, the State has failed to discharge the evidentiary burden upon it
  • In considering the public morality argument, the Court refuses to constitutionalise hurt moral sentiments, and insists upon demonstration of actual harm
  • The Court engages throughout with comparative constitutional jurisprudence in order to determine the meanings of fraught terms such as “dignity”.

In terms of legal clarity, intellectual rigour, and of course, in terms of humaneness, sensitivity, and empathy in dealing with the so-called rights of the minuscule minority, one probably could not ask for more. The Supreme Court of Belize has joined numerous other judiciaries in upholding one of the most basic human rights that there is. One can only hope that other constitutional courts will eventually follow it.

Guest Post: Sex, Sexual Orientation, and the Courts

(In this guest post, Vansh Gupta explores a recent ruling of the US Equal Opportunity Commission that speaks directly to the Indian debate over the constitutionality of s. 377)

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a ruling (available here) recognising discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as discrimination on the basis of sex. Its immediate impact is that employees can invoke the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) when they are discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, even though sexual orientation is not an explicitly prohibited basis for making employment decisions. As an interpretive exercise, however, the decision has wide-ranging ramifications. It affirms the position that ‘sex’ can be read to include ‘sexual orientation’ in statutory material.

The Commission considers that sexual orientation cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex (a gay man is gay precisely because he attracted to males). The Commission finds that there is ‘an inescapable link’ between sexual orientation discrimination and sex discrimination as discrimination on the basis of orientation is premised on ‘sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes or norms’. It describes this link in the following 3 ways-

  • Sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it will require a person’s sex to be taken into account, for instance when a lesbian woman is reprimanded for speaking about her female partner in the workplace, but a straight man isn’t.

The treatment of the person is different precisely because the employee’s sex is different. The equivalence therefore that is drawn here is not between gay men and lesbian women (i.e. both would be reprimanded for demonstrating same-sex affection), but rather between a woman (who happens to be lesbian) and a man, for engaging in the same conduct (speaking about a female affectionately).

  • There is also the understanding that sexual orientation discrimination is associational discrimination on the basis of sex (sex must be taken into account when an employee is treated differently for associating with a person of the same sex). This follows from a line of rulings concerning interracial marriage or friendship. (A white man being punished for marrying a black woman, necessarily takes into account his race), but the EEOC expands the reasoning to apply to sex discrimination as well.
  • And finally, the third rationale is that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it involves discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes, which has already been held to prohibited by the term ‘sex’ in the Civil Rights Act. Courts have already held that claims against gender stereotyping can be brought by lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals if they are treated adversely for being inadequately ‘masculine’/’feminine’, based on their appearance, mannerisms or conduct. The EEOC also recognises however that discrimination of LGB individuals on the basis of gender stereotypes is about more than assumptions about what behaviour is masculine or feminine; there is also an element of enforcing ‘heterosexually defined gender norms’. Real men are not just masculine, but also straight.

India does not have an omnibus Civil Rights Act as in the US or an Equality Act as in the UK, but reference to the principle of sex(ual?) equality is found in statute (see S.4 and 5 of the Equal Remuneration Act) and A. 15 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination which is only on the basis of sex.

Readers will recall that the Delhi High Court had invoked A. 15 in its analysis while deciding the now-overturned Naz petition. Although the court read down S. 377 of the IPC on the basis of a web of reasoning concerning A. 14 (equal protection of laws), 15 and 21 (privacy), the intent and the result insofar as A. 15 is clear: the term ‘sex’ in A. 15 must be read to include ‘sexual orientation’.

“104. We hold that sexual orientation is a ground analogous to sex and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not permitted by Article 15. Further, Article 15(2) incorporates the notion of horizontal application of rights.”

While the Court has dealt with A. 14 and 21 extensively, its A. 15 analysis is limited to the a few paragraphs, relying primarily only on the conclusions of a number of foreign judgements. The High Court does however make an effort at explaining how an unenumerated ground can be the basis for holding discrimination. (“There will be discrimination on an unspecified ground if it is based on an attributes or characteristics which have the potential to impair the fundamental dignity of persons as human beings, or to affect them adversely in a comparably serious manner”, following from the South African constitutional Court’s decision in Harksen v. Lane.”)

The difference between the treatment of the matter by the Delhi High Court and the EEOC is that the EEOC relies on an understanding and interpretation of ‘sex’ to determine that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination, whereas the High Court considers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be analogous to sex discrimination.

This difference is not trivial. A. 15 specifically enumerates prohibited categories of discrimination. By including an analogous ground, the Court opened the way for A. 15 to be read expansively vis-à-vis other grounds as well. But the Civil Rights Act can only be used for the grounds that it specifies (necessitating Americans with Disabilities Act to be enacted to provide similar protections for persons with disabilities).

There is also the consideration that A. 15 is a constitutional provision, and is more amenable to expansive interpretation than a statutory term. EEOC-like reasoning would perhaps be necessary for interpreting ‘sex’ in statutory provisions such as S. 4 and 5 of the Indian Equal Remuneration Act.

Naz offered a promising start to a new way of dealing with A. 15 altogether in terms of both its method and result. Since its total reversal by Suresh Kumar Koushal, this possibility is now gone as Naz losing all its precedential value. It is another matter that in doing so the Supreme Court did not rule or comment on the High Court’s treatment of A. 15 at all, choosing to notice only that the High Court struck down S. 377 inter alia on the basis of 15, recording the contentions of the parties on its applicability, and after a (shoddy) analysis of only 14, concluding that the High Court was unjustified in finding S. 377 to be ultra vires both A. 14 and 15. The curatives pending before the Supreme Court highlight this glaring omission, but for the moment, sexual minorities remain a ‘miniscule fraction of the country’s population’ undeserving of the protection of their so-called rights.

(Vansh is a law researcher with Justice Ravindra Bhat at the High Court of Delhi)