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“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.

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:

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:

“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:

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

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).

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:

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).

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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)

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:

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.

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:

Justice Nariman observes:

And Chandrachud J.:

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.

Gautam Bhatia is a lawyer practicing in Supreme Court of India.

His article has been quoted by Justice DY Chandrachud in his Judgment in Navtej Johar v Union of India

This Article was first published in his blog Indian Constitutional Law And Philosophy.

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