Rajasthan Policy Academy is planning to bring out a biannual journal. The major focus of the journal will be to sensitize and inform the readers to new developments and debates in the area like internal security, police science, police training, police reforms, peace, terrorism, insurgency, intelligence, criminology, forensic science, law and order, law enforcement, cyber crime, organized crime, white collar crime, violence against women, juvenile justice and delinquency, prison, human rights etc.
Your article/ paper on the above mentioned areas is welcome on the following address:Centre for Research and PublicationRajasthan Policy Academy,Nehru Nagar, Jaipur – 302 016.Webiste: www.rpa.rajasthan.gov.inEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Navigating the Noteworthy and Nebulous in Naz Foundation -- Part II
Having celebrated Naz Foundation’s glorious ramparts yesterday, I turn now to critically appraise the decision’s side streets and alleys. I thought I would be able to complete that task in a single post today. However, after further meditating on Naz Foundation’s meaning, I think I need another post to do full justice to the case (and to save you from the exhaustion of reading). There are several disparate elements of the judgment that I discuss in today’s post. But I'm especially interested in the court's privacy analysis and consequential holding. In tomorrow’s post, I will focus on Naz Foundation’s discussion of the “compelling state interest” standard as well as its handling of the equality and equality protection issue.Before I resume my analysis of the judgment, I want to pay special tribute to petitioners’ counsel (and their many advisers) for their superb litigation strategy in this case. They did an exceptionally good job of marshaling and submitting a complex mélange of arguments backed by solid and first-class research. The written pleadings and oral arguments reflect considerable hard work, much internal discussion and organization, and careful planning. I’m especially impressed by petitioners’ decision not to ask the high court to strike down Section 377. It was a potentially risky decision. But it was a responsible one that helped ensure a successful outcome. Now back to Naz Foundation.1. Format and Style. Let me start with some structural quibbles. First, many readers complain that the judgment is 105 pages. I suspect that, after it is edited for publication in the law reports, the page count will go down considerably. I am disappointed, however, that the bench chose to adopt the tedious, standard template for Indian judgments. That template requires a detailed, and mostly superfluous, summary of arguments before a discussion of the issues. Consequently, pages 6 to 25 of Naz Foundation are a rambling regurgitation of the arguments presented by both sides. If this section had been considerably reduced or even eliminated, the judgment could have been considerably abbreviated.Second, although the text is divided into convenient headings to facilitate easy reading, each of the headings has the same font with no numbering scheme or outline to indicate how they relate to each other. This makes it difficult to identify the boundaries between major parts of the decisions. Third, text is so evenly formatted that it is difficult to determine, in many instances, whether a certain sentence is the bench’s observation or a verbatim quote from one of the many authorities cited in the judgment.2. Legal and Legislative History. The judgment has a very brief section on the legal history of Section 377. This section appears largely to rely on the account presented in Naz Foundation’s original writ petition. However, that reliance is incomplete for the judgment omits a critical paragraph in the writ petition, which explains how the introduction of Section 377 “was contrary to then existing Indian traditions, which did not treat sodomy as a crime.” It is unclear why the judges chose to ignore this paragraph borrowed from an important collection of essays on same-sex attraction. Perhaps, they felt that this issue would take them down the slippery road of interpreting religious and spiritual sources -- a journey fraught with potential for controversy, as Chief Justice Chandrachud discovered after his Shah Bano decision. It would have also required the judges to accept, deny, or at least comment on the petitioners’ loaded submission that Section 377 was based on “traditional Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.” Accepting such a submission, even if substantiated by historical evidence, could have made the judgment appear unnecessarily divisive.Laconically observing that the “Penal Code was drafted by Lord Macaulay and introduced in 1861 in British India,” the judgment fails to mention anything about the statute’s colourful legislative history (“travaux preparatoires”). For instance, it could have referred to Macaulay’s decision to refrain from appending any guidance notes or illustrations to Section 377 (contrary to the practice for other parts of the Penal Code) motivated by his puritanical belief that the provision involved “an odious class of offences [about which] as little as possible should be said.” It could have mentioned, if the bench was so inclined, other historical nuggets, such as the fact that early offenders under this section could receive a whipping, in lieu of imprisonment, under the Whipping Act of 1864. In this respect, Naz Foundation is a bit of a disappointment, as I had fully expected it to discuss the statute’s Victorian background and why it had been enacted in order to understand why it is no longer relevant. In this respect, Naz Foundation is in stark contrast to the extensive discussion of legal history in the case it cites so extensively, Lawrence v. Texas.3. Review of Section 377 Caselaw. I find Naz Foundation’s discussion on Section 377’s case-law incomplete. Although the judgment refers to several leading cases (many from obscure and hard-to-find law reports), it does not tell us whether all or any of these cases involved same-sex conduct. Instead, after discussing the underlying holdings in each case, Naz Foundation argues that the “tests” for attracting Section 377 have changed from “the non procreative to imitative to sexual perversity.” If the judges intended to use “tests” as a moniker for “standards,” I’m afraid that the cases they cite offer them very little support. Those cases appear to have been discussing the object or intent of Section 377 (which varied from case to case) instead of the ingredients of the offence or the standards for sustaining a conviction under it.4. What Should We Call "Them?" The decision suffers from some taxonomical confusion about what to call those with same sex attraction given the diverse nature of groups involved. Discussing the petitioners’ standing in paragraph 6, the judgment refers to Naz Foundation’s work with the “gay community or individuals described as “‘men who have sex with men.’” It then states that, “for sake of convenient reference, they would hereinafter be referred to as ‘homosexuals’ or ‘gay persons’ or gay community.” Now, it does not seem particularly convenient to use three terms as a substitute for two. And where do these definitions leave lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons? Are they subsumed within “homosexuals” or “gay persons”? What about those men who aren’t conventionally bisexual or homosexual but aren’t straight either because they have sex with men? Are they also homosexuals or gay persons under paragraph 6?The confusion over nomenclature is further compounded in subsequent paragraphs of the judgment because either the judges forget about the definition in paragraph 6 or simply decided against using it. Paragraph 50 refers to the “MSM and [the] gay community” (emphasis mine). But paragraph 52 mentions “MSM,” “lesbians,” and “transgenders.” And paragraph 61 reverts to the phrase “MSM and [the] gay community.”5. Government's Legal Representation. In paragraph 11, the bench notes that a “rather peculiar feature” of the case involved the Home Ministry and Health Ministry filing separate and contradictory affidavits about Section 377. Yet, the judgment goes on to accept the Home Ministry’s affidavit and arguments as the Union of India’s position without providing any explanation. The choice may have been obvious to the court, but it is not for a bystander like me.As a related matter, it is worth mentioning that, at various points in the judgment, the bench justifiably rejects the bizarre and absurd submissions made by the Additional Solicitor General (who appeared on the Union of India’s behalf) and castigates him for making them (see especially paragraphs 70-72). It even offers him a little civics primer when he questions the court's competence to exercise judicial review. It is amazing that the government’s position was presented so poorly and crudely in such an important case.Among the Additional Solicitor General’s arguments, which the bench rebuked, was his contention that Section 377 is not “prone to misuse as it is not enforced against homosexuals.” Now, besides the high court’s cogent reasons for rejecting this unsubstantiated statement, there was an additional justification for not accepting it. Under our federal scheme of governance, it is the state governments who control police and law-enforcement agencies. The Central Government has very little direct role in determining whether or not to prosecute a case under Section 377. Thus, it would have not been appropriate for the high court to have relied on the Additional Solicitor General’s statement on Section 377 prosecutions because he was not representing any of the states (they were not even parties to the proceedings).6. The Christmas Tree Effect. Reflecting the growing cosmopolitanism of the Indian judiciary, the case cites a large number of international and comparative constitutional sources. But unlike other contemporary decisions, the foreign citations in Naz Foundation are not mere ornaments or serial lights to make the decision sparkle. The case is among a handful of decisions in which judges rely on foreign precedents to actually shape an imaginative domestic outcome. References to Hong Kong, Fiji, and Nepal decisions in Naz Foundation are particularly important because they remind the reader that gay rights aren’t some luxurious western construct. The dates of many citations reveal that the bench continued to research the case long after it had been reserved for judgment.Yet, precisely because it includes so much material, Naz Foundation is like an over-decked Christmas tree with decorations obscuring virtually every bit of green. In some parts, the decision seems like the work of magpies: no shred of information seems to be too obscure for inclusion in its great kitchen sink of ideas. It is surely the Indian first case to actually cite a webcast!Furthermore, Naz Foundation is among the first cases that I’m aware of in which statements of the prime minister, health minister, and solicitor general are used as “unilateral declarations” (in the sense of the International Court of Justice’s 1974 Nuclear Tests Case) of the government’s position on Section 377 and attitudes towards men having sex with men. I suppose the court intended to formulate something like an estoppel doctrine using statements of high constitutional functionaries.Naz Foundation also relies on several international “soft-law” sources, such as the “Yogyakarta Principles,” and the “London Declaration of Principles on Equality” to argue that there is an emerging norm of international law on sexual orientation. As appealing as these principles might be, they hardly qualify as authentic sources of international law for they have been adopted by very few states. They are not general principles of international law, much less customary international law.7. Dignity Dimension. I liked the bench’s discussion of “dignity,” in paragraph 26. But I felt that the judgment could have elaborated a bit more on the reference to the “dignity of the individual” in our Constitution’s preamble (borrowed word-for-word from the Irish Constitution). Moreover, it is very surprising that Naz Foundation did not cite Kharak Singh here. In paragraph 16 of Kharak Singh, Justice Ayyangar makes a direct link between privacy and individual dignity enshrined in the preamble. This paragraph was subsequently reproduced as a block quote in Gobind. Why Naz Foundation did not use the quote is a mystery to me especially since it was attempting to telescope privacy with dignity – a maneuver first undertaken in Kharak Singh, a six-judge-bench decision of the Supreme Court.8. Privacy and Indian Constitutional Law. In yesterday’s post, I hailed Naz Foundation for expanding the doctrinal understanding of privacy. However, I believe that the bench’s analysis of privacy under our Constitution is far from adequate. Let us start with paragraph 35, which is located immediately below the caption “development of law of privacy in India.” This paragraph is devoted to a discussion of Kharak Singh (the largest Supreme Court bench to discuss privacy in any meaningful sense). In Kharak Singh, Justice Ayyangar, speaking for the majority, explicitly held that “the right to privacy is not a guaranteed right under our constitution.” However, he found that a state regulation, which permitted domiciliary visits by the police, was unconstitutional because it violated a “common law right to privacy.” He located this common-law right under the expression “personal liberty” under Article 21.In a separate and concurring opinion, Justice Subba Rao went much further than Justice Ayyangar and affirmed that the Constitution protects a fundamental right to privacy. In discussing Kharak Singh, Naz Foundation notes that the majority “did not go into the question” whether the police domiciliary visits “violated the right to privacy.” Yet, after referring to Subba Rao’s concurring opinion, Naz Foundation blithely concludes: “in effect, all seven learned judges held that ‘right to privacy’ was part of the ‘right to life’ in Article 21.” The High Court does not explain the basis for this sweeping sentence. It appears to have simply lifted it -- without proper attribution -- from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Canara Bank. Canara Bank is an embarrassingly bad opinion for a number of reasons, including its completely unnecessary digression into American constitutional theory, Just read it and you’ll see what I’m talking about!After Kharak Singh, Naz Foundation mentions Gobind (a somewhat maverick decision of Justice Mathew, which has been criticized for glossing over the majority holding in Kharak Singh) and Rajagopal (where Justice Jeevan Reddy largely followed Gobind on the privacy issue). In both decisions, the Supreme Court cautioned that privacy was not an absolute fundamental right and it would “necessarily have to go through a process of case-by-case development.” Yet, that admonition was conveniently forgotten by the Supreme Court in Canara Bank. As Naz Foundation accurately reports, Canara Bank concluded that the right to privacy has been accepted as “implicit in our Constitution.”While I acknowledge that Canara Bank is binding precedent on the Delhi High Court, I believe that Naz Foundation could have undertaken a more rigorous privacy analysis without simply cutting and pasting from Canara Bank. This is not unreasonable to demand from a bench, which demonstrated great skill in cherry-picking among conflicting Supreme Court decisions on application of the strict scrutiny test.Upon holding that there is a right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, Naz Foundation proceeds to articulate an untethered and delocalized understanding of privacy. Relying on that broad notion of privacy, paragraph 47 contains the poignant declaration that “[a] person cannot leave behind his sense of gender or sexual orientation at home.” It is unclear, however, whether this sentence is the high court’s own words or simply a quote from another source. Then, we stumble upon following statement (also in paragraph 47): “privacy allows persons to develop human relations without interference from the outside community or from the State (emphasis mine).” I’m tempted to stop and reflect further on the practical meaning of this remarkable observation, but I need to move on. So, I’ll defer to your comments about its wisdom.9. Privacy and the Vires of Section 377. Naz Foundation’s substantive commentary on privacy ends with the observation that Section 377 denies a gay person a right to full-personhood, which is implicit under Article 21 of the Constitution. Presumably, this is because Section 377 violates the unarticulated fundamental right to privacy. Yet, the thickness of this important conclusion is substantially undercut by the decision’s actual findings on the merits in paragraph 132. That operative paragraph of the judgment states that Section 377 is unconstitutional “insofar as it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private” (emphasis mine).Based on the wording of paragraph 132, one cynical, but plausible, way to interpret Naz Foundation is that the new constitutional bar on Section 377 prosecutions applies only to sexual acts in a private dwelling or establishment. Under this interpretation, the section may still be freely applied to prosecute “non-private” conduct in a public place. Such a result would be particularly unfortunate because many documented instances of 377 harrassment have involved conduct in parks and other public places. They are quite unlike the police raid on John Lawrence’s bedroom, which was later declared a zone of privacy in the US decision, upon which Naz Foundation appears to have strongly relied.In some sense, the substantial disconnect between Naz Foundation’s soaring rhetoric on the concept of privacy and its parsimonious finding regarding the applicability of Section 377 illustrates the limitations of using privacy as a legal theory to challenge morality-based legislation. At first blush, privacy is a convenient and tempting shield to prevent the government from intruding into gays’ bedrooms. But it does not protect them when they leave their homes and affirm their bonds (even in the most benign manner) in public. It can be especially problematic in the Indian context because the “private” of many Indian gays is usually in the long shadows or dark corners of public places, like parks or beaches. For them, paragraph 132 does not seem to be a particularly liberating and emancipating holding.(This post, written entirely in my personal capacity, will be concluded tomorrow).
Thursday, July 09, 2009
Navigating the Noteworthy and the Nebulous in Naz Foundation -- Part III
This third, and final, post builds on posts of yesterday and the day before on the Naz Foundation Case. In today’s post, I discuss, among other things, the Delhi High Court’s use of “compelling state interest” as a standard for assessing fundamental rights infringements as well as its handling of the equality and equal protection issue.
1. Compelling State Interest and Morality. Paragraph 75 of Naz Foundation appears under the caption “morality as a ground of a restriction to fundamental rights.” This paragraph discusses restrictions on the conjoined fundamental right to privacy-dignity as well as the fundamental right to health. The bench begins by stating that a law infringing a fundamental privacy right must satisfy a “compelling state interest.” It correctly attributes this standard to Justice Mathew’s Gobind opinion. It then travels beyond Gobind to hold that the enforcement of public morality is not a compelling state interest to “justify invasion of the zone of privacy of adult homosexuals engaged in consensual sex in private.” To paraphrase Justice Mathew’s own words in Keshavananda, “I have tried, like Jacob of the Old Testament, to wrestle all night with the angel,” namely, the use of the “compelling state interest” standard in Indian constitutional adjudication.
I certainly have no quarrel with the general proposition that enforcement of morality is not a compelling state interest, much less an important or even a marginal interest. However, I believe that Naz Foundation’s use of the “compelling state interest” standard here is completely out of line with prevailing Indian precedents. It is true that Justice Mathew proposed and used the “compelling state interest” standard in Gobind to determine whether the regulations at issue in that case past constitutional muster. I believe he was so greatly enamored with recent American decisions on contraception and abortion that he readily imported their teachings to India without adequate due diligence. It is one thing to refer to foreign precedents to expand the meaning of the fundamental rights, it is quite another to import constitutional standards to assess restrictions on those rights from a jurisdiction with a different analytical framework for constitutional questions.
It should be pointed out that the “compelling state interest” standard, which Justice Mathew enthusiastically adopted in Gobind, is part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s strict-scrutiny test to screen restrictions on fundamental rights. That test was judicially developed largely because the American Constitution provides little textual guidance on what restrictions can be imposed on fundamental rights. In India, the situation is rather different because our Constitution has “in-house” rules with specific grounds on which “reasonable” restrictions can be imposed on most fundamental rights (see, e.g., Article 19 (2)).
In fairness to the Naz Foundation bench, I should point out that Justice Mathew was a fairly consistent advocate for varying applicable of judicial review depending on the subject involved. For instance, in Ambica Mills, he argued that laws regulating economic activity should “be viewed differently” from laws which concern freedom of speech and religion, voting, procreation, or criminal procedure. He would defer to legislative wisdom on economic laws and exercise greater vigilance in other areas (of course, his deference to economic laws was in the context of India’s flirtation with socialism during the 1970s!).
Aside from Gobind, I am hard pressed to find any major decision that either affirms or applies the “compelling state interest” standard. Rather, as Naz Foundation, itself, says in paragraph 25, after Menaka, any interference with life or personal liberty “must be right and just and fair and not arbitrary, fanciful, or oppressive.” This “just, fair, and reasonable” standard has been the generally applicable benchmark to assess governmental action for past three decades now. One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between paragraphs 25 and 75 in Naz Foundation would be to apply both standards together. In others words, every governmental action that violates a fundamental right must henceforth satisfy Menaka’s test of “just, fair, and reasonable” as well as Gobind’s requirement of furthering a “compelling state interest.” If this interpretation of Naz Foundation is correct, I’m afraid it is a rather radical restatement of the law.
Another way to resolve this conundrum would be to only apply the Gobind + Menaka formula to questions about penumbral or uncodified rights like privacy and health. Questions concerning codified rights would only have to meet the Menaka standard. But this solution would imply a higher constitutional bar for actions affecting penumbral rights than those actions affecting textual rights. This outcome would be irrational since penumbral rights are, in fact, derivatives of textual rights.
2. Substitution of Morality Standards. Let me turn now to the impressive manner in which Naz Foundation redefined the morality argument and turned it on its head. Rebutting the notion that public disapproval of homosexual conduct is an accurate barometer of morality, Naz Foundation brilliantly argues that it is “constitutional morality” rather than popular morality that ought to be the applicable yardstick. This aspect of Naz Foundation is, perhaps, what I like most about the case and underscores why I believe it is a landmark decision. The idea of a controlling “constitutional morality” is in, some sense, a continuation of the bench’s insistence on a secular approach in the judicial process case without risking a footfall into religious or sectarian ditches.
At the same time, I do not believe that Naz Foundation’s substitution of constitutional morality for popular morality is a silver bullet. Just consider the spaghetti bowl of inconsistent Supreme Court decisions on whether there is a constitutional right to trade in liquor or if it is res extra commercium. Some of our most enlightened justices have tied themselves up in knots over this issue because of their concern about its underlying moral implications. I should also point out that Naz Foundation does not imply that any morality-based legislation or governmental action is no longer permitted. Rather, it argues that that public disapproval is not an adequate reason to restrict a fundamental rights.
3. Implied Desuetude of Section 377. I want to end my discussion of morality in Naz Foundation by focusing on a most intriguiging sentence in paragraph 86, which reads:
In fact, the admitted case of the Union of India that Section 377 IPC has generally been used in cases of sexual abuse or child abuse, and conversely that it has hardly ever been used in cases of consenting adults, shows that criminalization of adult same-sex conduct does not serve any public interest.
In this passage, the court was referring to the Additional Solicitor General’s argument that Section 377 should be saved because it was not being enforced against homosexuals. The high court initially rejected this contention in paragraph 74 as contrary to evidence and testimony proffered by the petitioners. Yet, interestingly, the bench returns to this argument in paragraph 86, but only to turn tables on the government. It reasons that, if Section 377 has not been used to prosecute adult same-sex conduct, one can legitimately question whether such conduct should at all be criminally proscribed. In other words, if a statutory provision has fallen into disuse, why bother maintaining it?
Although Naz Foundation does not refer to it, there is, in fact, an old common-law doctrine called “desuetude” that supports this line of reasoning. This doctrine has, in fact, been recognized by the Indian Supreme Court in Municipal Corporation v. Bharat Forge, (1995) 3 S.C.C. 434, and it is a pity that it was not considered in this case. Perhaps, it was because petitioners were not confident that they could satisfy all the elements of the doctrine. For desuetude to set in, the statute in question must have been in disuse for a substantial period of time and some form of contrary practice must have evolved during this period.
4. The Equality Detour. As a threshold matter, I wonder why the bench even bothered addressing the equality argument. It had already resolved that Section 377 violated the penumbral fundamental right of equality-dignity, which was sufficient ammunition for its conclusion that Section 377 was unconstitutional. In fact, it is for this reason that the bench felt it was unnecessary to deal with the argument based on the fundamental freedoms in Article 19. Could not the same approach have been taken with respect to equality?
In my view, the equality section is Naz Foundation’s Achilles' heel. The discussion on equality begins with the bench conceding in paragraph 94 that Section 377 is facially neutral. Yet, the bench points out that the “sexual acts, which are criminalized are associated more closely with one class of persons, namely the homosexuals as a class” (emphasis mine). I’m afraid this part of the judgment is not completely watertight and may not convince an appellate court. As a textual matter, the section proscribes sexual acts involving carnal intercourse that are considered “unnatural” irrespective of whether they involve same-sex or opposite sex partners. Case law under the section shows that it has been used in prosecutions involving oral sex and anal sex. There is ample evidence to suggest that anal sex is not an exclusive homosexual preserve; many heterosexual couples routinely engage in it. And oral sex is commonly practiced by both same-sex and opposite sex partners. Therefore, this aspect of Naz Foundation could be particularly vulnerable on appeal.
To bolster its reasoning that Section 377 is hostile to gays, the bench cites Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Lawrence in which she held that the underlying statute in question targets homosexuals as a class. But what it fails to mention is that the Lawrence statute only targeted homosexual conduct; it was even called the “Texas Homosexual Conduct Statute.” This made it convenient for Justice O’Connor to find it violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. It is for this reason, that Justice O'Connor was able to file a concurring opinion in Lawrence (Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in that case was completely silent about equal protection). In fact, O'Connor remained unrepentant for her previous opinion in the Bowers Case, where the underlying statute, like Section 377, applied to both same-sex and opposite-sex conduct.
I entirely agree with Naz Foundation that, in implementation, Section 377 “does end up unfairly targeting a particular community.” However, I'm skeptical about whether the Supreme Court will accept this argument. There do not appear to be many cases in which a facially neutral law has been successfully challenged on the ground that it is enforced in a discriminatory manner. Perhaps, I'm influenced by what happened in Rathinam with respect to Section 309 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes an attempt to commit a suicide. Initially, the Bombay High Court struck down Section 309 on the ground of equal protection. It found that the provision did not provide adequate guidance and was susceptible to arbitrary application. However, the Andhra Pradesh High Court took a contrary view. The Supreme Court agreed with the Andhra Pradesh High Court, both in Rathinam as well as in Gian Kaur (which overruled Rathinam). Justices in both cases rejected the challenge to Section 309 on equal protection grounds. Don’t get me wrong; I strongly believe that Section 377 has a disparate and invidious impact on gays. I just don't think that this argument could be a winning one under prevailing Indian jurisprudence. I'll be very happy to be proved wrong.
5. The Dynamite of Non-Discrimination. I am still trying to unravel the true meaning of the high court’s holding on Article 15 (1). However, I must applaud the bench's precedent-setting conclusion that sexual orientation is a valid anti-discrimination marker under Article 15 (1). In fact, this aspect of Naz Foundation is sheer dynamite! If this holding is sustained on appeal by the Supreme Court, it has the potential to fundamentally reorder the Indian legal system. Just think about it. Article 15 (1) makes it illegal for the State to discriminate on various grounds, such as sex, place of birth, race, caste, or religion. If sexual orientation is now included as one of these prohibited grounds, several existing laws, including those that define marriage as being between a man and woman, are in constitutional jeopardy. Regretably, on this issue, the homophobic appellants before the Supreme Court do have a point.
6. Obiter on Horizontal Discrimination. In my view, the bench went on a “frolic of its own” by declaring in paragraph 104 that Article 15 (2), the Constitution's public-access provision, proscribes “horizontal discrimination” on the ground of sexual orientation. This was a completely unnecessary observation that had nothing to do with the underlying case. The writ petition did not contain any allegation about private discrimination against gays, and there does not appear to have been any substantial discussion of this issue during oral arguments. Therefore, I can only conclude that the bench misdirected itself to address this non-issue. Accordingly, I believe that the bench’s observations regarding Article 15 (2) are only in the nature of obiter.
7. Strict Scrutiny. Just as I take issue with Naz Foundation’s use of the “compelling state interest” standard under Article 21, I have serious reservations about its wisdom in needlessly importing the American doctrine of strict scrutiny to invalidate Section 377. As the bench admits in paragraph 110, the use of strict scrutiny has been decisively rejected by the Supreme Court in Ashok Kumar Thakur. Yet, Naz Foundation insisted that it could still use strict scrutiny based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Anuj Garg. The bench reasoned that, upon a “harmonious construction” of the two Supreme Court judgments, strict scrutiny would not apply to affirmative action, while it would to apply to disadvantaging measures targeting a vulnerable group based on personal characteristics.
I’m afraid I find the high court’s reasoning on this issue to be rather disingenuous for several reasons. First, Anuj Garg was a decision of a two-judge bench while Ashok Kumar Thakur was a constitution bench decision. Second, Ashok Kumar Thakur was the later decision, handed down several months after Anuj Garg; and ordinarily the subsequent larger bench decision should carry more weight than an earlier decision from a smaller bench. Third, there is nothing in Ashok Kumar Thakur to indicate that its refusal to apply strict scrutiny was only confined to affirmative action. Fourth, how do we reconcile the high court’s cute reasoning with the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in John Vallamattom. The case involved the constitutionality of Section 118 of the Indian Succession Act (affecting the right of Indian Christians to make so-called death-bed charitable dispositions. It was not an affirmative action decision by any stretch. Yet, in it, Justice Khare said he was skeptical about the application of strict scrutiny in India.
I have the same concerns about using strict scrutiny to evaluate equality and equal protection claims under our Constitution as I do about using the “compelling state interest” standard to assessing fundamental rights violations under Article 21. The two American doctrines are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. Strict scrutiny was invented to scrutinize classifications because the U.S. Constitution does not contain anti-discrimination provisions, such Articles 15 and 16, of our Constitution, and it requires a showing of a compelling state interest in order for a suspect classification to be upheld.
In India, our Supreme Court has generally applied rational-basis review to evaluate most classifications. From a tactical perspective, the bench could have applied this long-standing test and concluded, based on the evidence, that Section 377 flunked it. This would have been a better strategy, in my view, than subjecting Section 377 to a more stringent test, whose application is likely to be challenged before the Supreme Court.
8. Concluding Observations. Naz Foundation’s use of the severability-in-application doctrine is certainly a creative extension of the Supreme Court’s decision in Chamarbaugwala (ironically, that case advocated caution in the use of American precedents). However, I should note that the Supreme Court’s observations on severability, which Naz Foundation relied upon, were made in the context of a legislature’s competence to enact a statute based on the division of powers in the Seventh Schedule. They did not involve a statute that was found unconstitutional for violating fundamental rights. Be that as it may, Naz Foundation effectively used Chamarbaugwala to retain Section 377 on the statute book even though it was found to be unconstitutional on several grounds. I have some concerns about this Solomonic solution, but I respect the high court’s pragmatic decision under the circumstances.
Finally, my friend and classmate, Ramaswamy, offers an interesting alternative road that the high court could have taken in resolving this matter. According to him, the case could have been presented as a matter of statutory interpretation rather than constitutional law focusing on the phrase “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” in Section 377. The high court could have ruled that sex between consenting same-sex adults was not “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” I leave it to you, our readers, to tell us what you think of this idea.
Is the Naz Foundation decision the Roe v. Wade of India?
There are surprisingly few constitutional cases in India which have had the same symbolic power that cases like Roe v. Wade (affirming the right of abortion) or Brown v. Board of Education (dissolving racial segregation in schools) have had in the political history of the United States. For sure, there are a number of important constitutional cases which have contributed significantly to the democratic history of India. Kesavananda Bharati’s espousal of the basic structure doctrine, Maneka Gandhi’s introduction of due process in Art.21, but these cases seem to have an appeal largely within the legal fraternity. They are also cases where the relief sought by the petitioners have had little to do with the final outcome of the case, and it is highly doubtful whether his Holiness Kesavananda Bharati had any investment in the long term impact of the basic structure doctrine (not to mention that Kesavananda Bharati just doesn’t roll of the tongue as easily- in terms of recall value). Is it possible then that Naz Foundation v. Government of Delhi is the first equivalent of a case whose name conjures up the history of particular struggle, celebrates the victory of a particular moment and inaugurates new hopes for the future.
Before we argue about why Naz has the potential to become a Roe v. Wade, it would perhaps be useful to establish what Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of education did for the history of struggles for rights in the US. R v. Wade stands as the dividing line between the Liberals and the Conservatives in the US and in the third presidential debate between Obama and McCain, a significant portion of time was spent discussing judicial nominations, particularly to revisit Rv. Wade. Every Republican president since 1980 has asked for an overturning of Roe v. Wade.
R v. Wade emerged at a time when many feminists and women’s rights activists were encouraging State legislatures is to liberalise their abortion laws. Given the rather haphazard success in the arena of legal reform, another strategy was to shift the battle to the courts and success in cases like R v. Wade made it irrelevant whether or not there was a success in policy reform. There have been a fair number of critics of this strategy too, with people arguing that political reform is generally more desirable and longer lasting than judicial reform. Ruth Ginsberg for instance has argued that Roe v. Wade actually halted a political process that has been moving in a reform direction.So the first characteristic of cases like Wade is the use of the judiciary and innovative interpretations of the Constitution to settle a controversial area and establish rights for unpopular minorities or to establish a ruling against public morality as defined by the majority. But if this were the only criteria then there would be many more cases with the same appeal and power as Wade and Brown. Both Wade and Brown represent moments in the history of struggle that finally culminated in a judicial victory. These victories have been higher significant because they generally exist in the realm of what we could call the radical politics of impossibility. What would have been impossible to imagine is suddenly made possible through an innovation that does not merely change the conditions of the group whose rights and demands are in question, but changes the horizon of possibility for the law and for constitutional interpretation itself.
Thus Roe v. Wade did as much for the expansion of the idea of privacy as it did in establishing the right of women to terminate their pregnancy. These cases are also marked by the fact that they often open a Pandora’s box and are in that sense not the culmination of struggle, but the beginning of one. But even these two reasons would not be enough to establish what is special and enduring about Brown and Wade. These are after all matters of public reason, and public reason rarely the accounts for why things have a special place in our hearts. It therefore might be appropriate then to turn to reasons of the heart to see why something becomes a Roe v. Wade.When Obama was a senator, he voted against the confirmation of John Roberts, the current chief justice of the United States, and a well known conservative. In his speech in the Senate, Obama said Justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or a footnote in a casebook. It is about how our laws affect the daily reality of people’s lives – whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation. Obama added that while he would agree with 95% of the decisions arrived at by Roberts, ‘ in those 5% of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decision about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination or whether the general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right for women to control their reproductive decisions, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.
The real success of Wade, Brown and Naz foundation can then be measured not only by their contribution to democratic ethos or the Jurisprudence that they inaugurate but by the tears that they provoke. The spontaneous outburst of emotion on the pronouncement of the Delhi High Court, the tears of joy that people had while listening to the judgment in Court hall No. 1 of the Delhi High court, or from people following it on the news, the telephone calls with people wishing each other happy Independence Day after the judgement – these are the things that legendary cases like Wade and Brown are made of. And these are all the ingredients that seemed to be present in the Naz foundation decision. When was the last time you remember crying about a constitutional decision? Naz foundation decision has also enabled the rekindling of our romance with a text whose recent career has left one a little brokenhearted – the constitution. Justice Pathak in Kesavananda Bharati says that “the constitution is not an arena of quibbling by lawyers with long persons. It is a Heritage or possession and it should be the object of your love”.The Naz foundation judgement once again makes the constitution worthy of our love and affection. It is of course too early to say whether this romance with Naz will stand the test of time, and like all relationships there will be disenchantment, disgruntlement and perhaps even cynicism that will creep in, but for now let us enjoy the slightly trippy lightheadedness that only a new love is capable of providing and toast the much delayed but very welcome arrival of the Roe v. Wade of India.
Date:06/07/2009 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2009/07/06/stories/2009070655810800.htm
Opinion - Leader Page Articles From ‘perversion’ to right to life with dignity
The Delhi High Court judgment makes the articulation of LGBT rights a torchbearer for a more general understanding of discrimination, oppression, social exclusion and the denial of liberty, on the one hand, and the meaning of freedom and dignity, on the other.
“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it.” — B.R. Ambedkar quoted in para 79 of the Naz Foundation judgment.
The recent judgment of the Delhi High Court in the Naz Foundation versus Government of NCT of Delhi and Others is a milestone in the jurisprudence on diversity and pluralism in India. Importantly, it also inaugurates intersectional jurisprudence that examines questions of constitutionalism in relational terms that underscore inclusiveness. By this token then, it is not merely a judgment that bears significance for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender peoples (LGBT). It makes the articulation of LGBT rights a torchbearer for a more general understanding of discrimination, oppression, social exclusion and the denial of liberty, on the one hand, and the meaning of freedom and dignity, on the other.
The Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity launched on March 26, 2007 were drafted by experts from 25 countries representative of all regions of the world. These principles delineate in painstaking detail the obligation of states to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. On December 18, 2008, the United Nations General Assembly was presented with a statement endorsed by 66 states from around the world reaffirming in substance the Yogyakarta principles. It is these international efforts along with the movement for LGBT rights within India that provided the context and arguments for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Drawing on Dr. Ambedkar, the court rejected the argument that homosexuality was contrary to public and popular morality in India, upholding constitutional morality instead, the diffusion of which was contingent on Dr. Ambedkar’s ideas of notional change, as evident in the lines quoted above. To quote from the judgment: “The Constitution of India recognises, protects and celebrates diversity. To stigmatise or to criminalise homosexuals only on account of their sexual orientation would be against the constitutional morality” (para 80). Linked to this is the observation of the Court on the question of the horizontal application of rights, with specific reference to Article 15(2), a barely remembered but critical part of Article 15: No citizen shall obstruct another from access to public places on grounds of caste, sex and other specified grounds (para 104). This purposive and intersectional reading of Article 15(2), hitherto restricted largely to practices of untouchability vis-À-vis Dalits, opens out an important strategy in constitutional interpretation.
Applying the U.N. Human Rights framework to an understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity, the judgment sets out three categories: (a) non-discrimination; (b) protection of private rights; and (c) the ensuring of special general human rights protection to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Perhaps the most important issue the judgment addresses is the meaning of “sex” in Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India: “The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” Does the term “sex” in this context refer to attribute or performance? Is sex to be applied in a restricted fashion to gender or can the multiple resonances of its common usage be taken into account, so that sex is both gender (attribute) and sexual orientation (performance)? This is particularly significant because, as the judgment demonstrates through an extensive review of case law and principles from different parts of the world, gender and sexual orientation are an intrinsic and inalienable part of every human being; they are constituents of a person’s identity. In the words of Justice Sachs of South Africa, the constitution “acknowledges that people live in their bodies, their communities, their cultures, their places and their times” (Sachs J. in The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v. The Minister of Justice). It is this composite identity of every person that is affirmed through a nuanced reading of “sex” in Article 15(1): “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 (Para 104).”
Justice P.N. Bhagwati’s delineation of the right to dignity in Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi and others, that “the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessaries of life, … expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings,” provides the starting point for the discussion on the importance of self-respect, self-worth and privacy to human social life, recognised nationally and internationally. And privacy is particularly important in the area of sexual relationship where the thumb rule is simply that “[i]f, in expressing our sexuality, we act consensually and without harming one another, invasion of that precinct will be a breach of our privacy (Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, (413 US 49 (1973), page 63).”
The criminalisation of homosexuality, the judgment says, by condemning in perpetuity an entire class of people, forcing them to “live their lives in the shadow of harassment, exploitation, humiliation, cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of the law enforcement machinery” denies them “moral full citizenship (para 52).” Because Section 377 is aimed at criminalising private conduct of consenting adults, the court held that it comes within the meaning of discrimination, which “severely affects the rights and interests of homosexuals and deeply impairs their dignity(para 93).” It is “unfair and unreasonable and, therefore, in breach of Article 14 of the Constitution of India (para 98).”
The right to public health is another aspect of human rights that is seriously undermined through the criminalisation of same sex behaviour. There are two parts to this right, both of which lead back to the fundamental right to life under Article 21. The first is the right to be healthy. In this context, the concerns of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) are pertinent. Fear of the law-enforcement agencies obstructs disclosure, which in turn impedes HIV/AIDS prevention programmes and increases the risk of infection in high-risk groups.
The second part of the right to health is more expansive and includes the right to control one’s health and body, the right to sexual and reproductive freedom, the right against forced medical treatment and the right to a system of health that offers equality of opportunity in attaining the highest standard of health. While several documented testimonies of LGBT persons speak of the treatment of their sexual orientation as a psychiatric/mental disorder, the judgment importantly affirms the findings worldwide that sexual orientation is an expression of human sexuality — whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. “Compelling state interest,” instead of focussing on public morality, the judgment says, “demands that public health measures are strengthened by de-criminalisation of such activity, so that they can be identified and better focused upon (para 86).”
Asserting that there is no presumption of constitutionality where a colonial legislation is concerned, the judgment holds that Section 377 fails the test of “strict scrutiny” which would require proportionality between the means used and the aim pursued. And when it is a question of “matters of ‘high constitutional importance’” like the rights of LGBT persons, the courts are obliged to discharge their sovereign jurisdiction, in this case, reading Section 377 down to apply only to child sexual abuse.
It is pertinent to point out here that the Andhra Pradesh (Telangana Areas) Eunuchs Act specifically targets Eunuchs and Hijras in far more direct ways than Section 377 does. We hope that the momentum of the movement for LGBT rights will turn its full force on obsolete legislation like this as well, so that transgender communities in areas where such laws are in force begin to enjoy the fullest freedoms and life with dignity.
(Kalpana Kannabiran is a sociologist based in Secunderabad.)
© Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu