(This is a guest post by Karan Lahiri and Vrinda Bhandari. A condensed version of this piece appeared previously on Scroll.)
As a bleak year drew to a close, the Supreme Court delivered another distinctly underwhelming judgment, in The Kerala Bar Hotels Association & Anr. v. State of Kerala & Ors.. This judgment is disappointing not so much for its outcome, but because of a glaring omission.
This case was about whether the State of Kerala’s statutory amendment restricting the grant of FL-3 licenses (i.e. bar licenses that allow the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor or IMFL to the public) to Five Star Hotels was constitutional. Many may feel that in upholding this measure, the Court has justifiably approved the State Government’s legitimate attempt to curb alcoholism, which has statistically been shown to be an “acute social problem”.
The most important issue, however, is unrelated to the legitimacy of the Government’s ultimate objective, or whether there is a right to trade in liquor (which the Court dwells on at length). The key question relates to the exception that has been made in favour of (20 or so) Five Star hotels in the State, and, consequently, those who can access such hotels, and whether this amounts to discrimination based on wealth and social class, violating the right to equality guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution. In fact, this issue was specifically raised, and is recorded in Paragraph 17 of the judgment: –
“The classification at hand is based on social and economic class, as there is a clear distinction between the expense and resultantly the clientele of the hotels that have been allowed FL-3 licenses and those that have not. Therefore, a strict scrutiny test must be applied, and the Government must be asked to provide a rigorous, detailed explanation in this classification… [W]hen discrimination is based on class, it is more pernicious and needs careful judicial enquiry.”
Unfortunately, this argument is not dealt with at all. Instead, the Court quickly accepted the explanation that this exception was directed at encouraging tourism. This omission represents a lost opportunity for the Supreme Court to re-examine fundamental questions about equality and discrimination.
One Size Fits All
Are there certain kinds of discrimination that are worse than others, demanding a more searching judicial examination? As of now, when a law differentiates or discriminates between two sets or “classes” of persons, the constitutionality of this line-drawing process is examined on the basis of a two-step test. First, a Court looks at whether there is an “intelligible differentia”. In other words, the line dividing two or more groups must be clear, based on discernible characteristics shared by members of each group. Second, it examines whether this “differentia” bears a rational relation to what the impugned law seeks to achieve.
The problem is that this is a one-size-fits-all test. All laws, essentially, differentiate between two or more groups of individuals. The Delhi Government’s odd-even formula to curb pollution differentiates between different groups (by exempting CNG vehicles, for instance), but it is, intuitively, different from a law that, let us say, penalizes begging on the road by the indigent. Can the same test be used for both sets of cases?
The “strict scrutiny test”, referred to in the judgment, is a concept that is making inroads into our jurisprudence, and is based on a concept we have borrowed from the U.S. When a law in the U.S. is tested on the anvil of equality, the default rule is that it will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. However, where the law makes a suspect classification (i.e. discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality etc., or analogous “discrete and insular minorities”), the more rigorous “strict scrutiny” test is applied. To survive strict scrutiny: –
- A law must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.
- It must be the least restrictive means for achieving that interest.
Notice that this test weighs in the importance of the State’s ultimate objective, and ensures that the means used to reach that objective are closely fitted to the ends, and that these are the least onerous means. Further, the fact that “suspect classifications” triggers strict scrutiny signals that the nature of the rights being affected by a discriminatory law are factored in, where some kinds of discrimination (i.e. on the basis of race, nationality etc.) are worse than others (e.g. a law exempting CNG vehicles from Delhi’s odd-even rule).
Just to clarify, this is not about whether the “strict scrutiny” test is the best test out there. What we are saying is that this was an opportunity for the Court to re-examine what goes into making a robust litmus test in equality cases.
Conversations on Equality and Class Discrimination
First, the Court should have begun a useful conversation on whether the dominant two-step test used in India is adequate to analyze all equality-related cases. As Dr. Tarunabh Khaitan points out, the test used in India is inadequate, because it is blind to the impact on, and the nature of the group being affected, as it does not “balance” the State’s interests against the rights of affected persons. Further, it does not look at the importance of the State interest involved, or whether there is a less onerous alternative. Putting it simply, as per the dominant two-step test, described above, if measure “X” is challenged on the basis that it is discriminatory, it is, simply put, based on whether it is reasonable and suitable to achieve objective “Y”, namely the Government’s end goal. The law in India, as it exists looks only at whether X and Y are reasonably connected, without looking at who measure X is impacting, or looking closely at the nature of objective Y.
Secondly, the Court should have entered into whether certain classifications are inherently “suspect”, justifying closer scrutiny compared to other more benign cases of differentiation. A good textual starting point would have been Article 15(1), which enjoins the State from discriminating on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth. It could then have gone on to examine whether discriminating on the basis of wealth and social class is analogous.
We believe that this analysis, on discrimination based on social class, should have gone something like this.
- Given that both the Preamble and Article 38(2), have woven equality of status into the Constitution, there is a constitutional justification for treating discrimination based on status and social class as a “suspect classification”, warranting a higher degree of scrutiny, as opposed to cases where an underlying constitutional norm is not violated.
- Further, the Court ought to have looked at the additional question of whether the poor in India constitute what Dr. Khaitan calls a “vulnerable group”. In our opinion, poverty is about more that the lack of money or assets. It is characterized by a lack of social membership, meaningful citizenship, and dignity. Such a structural conception of poverty helps explain why the poor, as a separate class – independent of their caste or religious identities – are marginalized actors with little influence in the political process, deserving of judicial protection by means of more rigorous standard of scrutiny.
- Applying strict scrutiny standard, we believe the Kerala amendment ought to have been struck down. This is because even a universal ban on public drinking would have been a more narrowly tailored solution to the State’s objective of reducing alcoholism, since alcoholism afflicts rich and poor alike.
We must remember here that the Kerala amendment is about more than the price of alcohol. It is fundamentally different from a law raising the MRP of liquor, or imposing a tax on liquor across the board. What makes the Kerala amendment “pernicious” is that it singles out only those with the means to purchase liquor in a Five Star hotel, as also the status to enter and access a Five Star hotel, thereby giving them the exclusive privilege of drinking in public. At the same time, poorer sections of the population, who do not have the status to access such elite establishments (let alone afford the prices), are deprived of this privilege. Surely, the rich are not immune to alcoholism? However, this is almost exactly what the Court seems to suggest, when it says – “There is also little scope for cavil that the guests in Five Star hotels are of a mature age; they do not visit these hotels with the sole purpose of consuming alcohol.” The Supreme Court has, previously, in the Maharashtra dance-bars case, frowned on such logic, stating: –
“Our judicial conscience would not permit us to presume that the class to which an individual or the audience belongs brings with him as a necessary concomitant a particular kind of morality or decency.”
The Supreme Court itself is not blind to fact that the Five Star hotel rating implies both a higher price and higher status for access. In dealing with allegations that Five Star hotels have opened out some of their premises for consumption of liquor at depressed rates in less salubrious surroundings, the Court encourages the State to end such “malpractice”, because, according to it, Five Stars are “violating the ambiance which they portray by enabling drinking in specially created bars at lower prices.”
What we have outlined above is what we believe to be the correct line of reasoning. We believe that gradualism and experimentation cannot be used as arguments to defer to legislative judgment (as the Court has done in this case), when groups are singled out based on social class and status. You may not agree either with the reasoning or the result we have proposed. That’s what makes Constitutional Law exciting – the fact that it inspires healthy and vibrant debate. Unfortunately, our Supreme Court has chosen to steer clear of such debate – a strange choice for an institution in a democratic polity, given that conversation and debate lie at the heart of democracy.
Karan Lahiri and Vrinda Bhandari are both practicing lawyers. Karan Lahiri assisted in representing one set of Appellants in the Kerala liquor ban case before the Supreme Court.
 There is empirical evidence to suggest that the poor, India, rarely come together as a class in a way that makes democratic institutions respond to their preferences. This ties is with the writings of certain American Constitutional scholars, who speak of the poor as an “anonymous and diffuse” group that cannot organize itself effectively.
Blog Editor’s Note: Previously, I’ve made the case for a higher threshold of Article 14 scrutiny in election cases here (unfortunately, we know how that turned out!), and Mihir wrote a guest post examining how the arbitrariness doctrine serves an alternative to the unsatisfactory one-size-fits-all nature of the rational review standard. To the persuasive arguments made in this post, I have a quick addition: a higher threshold of scrutiny would insist not only on the showing of a compelling State interest and a narrowly-tailored law, but would also place the evidentiary burden upon the State to demonstrate the connection. For instance, in this case, instead of making the State’s case for it by the blanket observation that people going to 5-Star Hotels are “more mature”, the Court would require the State to bring hard evidence forward showing that drinkers in 5-Star Hotels are less prone to be alcoholics, or indulge in violence, or something of that sort. Needless to say, it’s rather unlikely that there would be evidence of this sort forthcoming, and the law would have to fail. The purpose of this imposing this evidentiary burden is precisely to forestall the State from relying upon gross and invidious stereotypes about people (“uneducated persons can’t distinguish between right and wrong”, “5-Star alcohol drinkers are mature”) which, in itself, is a profound denial of the principle of equal concern and respect.