S.377 Subjects LGBT Community To Discrimination; Used As A Weapon For Their Harassment: CJI Misra

S.377 Subjects LGBT Community To Discrimination; Used As A Weapon For Their Harassment: CJI Misra

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the 157-year-old law which criminalized consensual homosexual acts between adults. In a unanimous decision, a five-judge Bench declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional, insofar as it criminalizes consensual sexual acts of adults in private.

Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, writing for himself and Justice AM Khanwilkar, ruled, “Thus analysed, Section 377 IPC, so far as it penalizes any consensual sexual activity between two adults, be it homosexuals (man and a man), heterosexuals (man and a woman) and lesbians (woman and a woman), cannot be regarded as constitutional. 

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 IPC 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 the individuals without the consent of any one of them would invite penal liability under Section 377 IPC.”

“I am what I am, so take me as I am”

CJI Misra begins his opinion by quoting German thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had said, “I am what I am, so take me as I am”. He also quotes Arthur Schopenhauer who had said, “No one can escape from their individuality”, and John Stuart Mill’s quote:

“But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.”

The quotes were added to emphasise on the unique being of an individual being the “salt” of his/her life, explaining, “Denial of self-expression is inviting death. Irreplaceability of individuality and identity is grant of respect to self. This realization is one‘s signature and self-determined design. One defines oneself. That is the glorious form of individuality. In the present case, our deliberation and focus on the said concept shall be from various spectrums.”

LGBT community possess equal rights 

CJI Misra’s opinion candidly declares that the LGBT community possesses equal rights as all other citizens of the country under the Constitution of India. He even makes reference to the “rainbow”, which has become the symbol of LGBT pride throughout the world.

He wrote, “It is through times of grave disappointment, denunciation, adversity, grief, injustice and despair that the transgenders have stood firm with their formidable spirit, inspired commitment, strong determination and infinite hope and belief that has made them look for the rainbow in every cloud and lead the way to a future that would be the harbinger of liberation and emancipation from a certain bondage indescribable in words – towards the basic recognition of dignity and humanity of all and towards leading a life without pretence eschewing duality and ambivalence. 

It is their momentous ―walk to freedom and journey to a constitutional ethos of dignity, equality and liberty and this freedom can only be fulfilled in its truest sense when each of us realize that the LGBT community possess equal rights as any other citizen in the country under the magnificent charter of rights – our Constitution.”

Weapon in the hands of the majority

CJI Misra further acknowledges that the provision was being used as a “weapon in the hands of the majority to seclude, exploit and harass the LGBT community”. He explains that it “shrouds the lives of the LGBT community in criminality and constant fear mars their joy of life” and that the community consequently constantly faces prejudice, disdain and is subjected to “the shame of being their very natural selves”.

This was essential as the two-Judge Apex Court bench in Suresh Kumar Koushal and Anr. v. Naz Foundation and Ors., had opined that a "minuscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders” and that over the last 150 years, fewer than 200 persons had been prosecuted under Section 377, concluding from this that “this cannot be made sound basis for declaring that section ultra vires the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.”

Sexual orientation an essential facet of the right to privacy

Citing the judgment on the right to privacy in Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India, the CJI ruled that sexual orientation is an essential facet of the right to privacy, observing, “In view of the above authorities, we have no hesitation to say that Section 377 IPC, in its present form, abridges both human dignity as well as the fundamental right to privacy and choice of the citizenry, howsoever small. 

As sexual orientation is an essential and innate facet of privacy, the right to privacy takes within its sweep the right of every individual including that of the LGBT to express their choices in terms of sexual inclination without the fear of persecution or criminal prosecution.”

Summary of conclusions

The CJI summarised the Court’s conclusions as follows:

Reliance on the NALSA judgment to highlight the connection between human rights and the constitutional guarantee of right to life and liberty with dignity



  • The eminence of identity which has been lucently stated in the NALSA case very aptly connects human rights and the constitutional guarantee of the right to life and liberty with dignity. With the same spirit, we must recognize that the concept of identity which has a constitutional tenability cannot be pigeon-holed singularly to one‘s orientation as it may keep the individual choice at bay. At the core of the concept of identity lies self-determination, realization of one‘s own abilities visualizing the opportunities and rejection of external views with a clear conscience that is in accord with constitutional norms and values or principles that are, to put in a capsule, ―constitutionally permissible.


View in Suresh Kaushal judgment “impermissible”



  • In Suresh Koushal (supra), this Court overturned the decision of the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation (supra) thereby upholding the constitutionality of Section 377 IPC and stating a ground that the LGBT community comprised only a minuscule fraction of the total population and that the mere fact that the said Section was being misused is not a reflection of the vires of the Section. Such a view is constitutionally impermissible.


Progressive interpretation of the Indian Constitution



  • Our Constitution is a living and organic document capable of expansion with the changing needs and demands of the society. The Courts must commemorate that it is the Constitution and its golden principles to which they bear their foremost allegiance and they must robe themselves with the armoury of progressive and pragmatic interpretation to combat the evils of inequality and injustice that try to creep into the society. The role of the Courts gains more importance when the rights which are affected belong to a class of persons or a minority group who have been deprived of even their basic rights since time immemorial.


Transformative constitutionalism dissuades discrimination



  • The primary objective of having a constitutional democracy is to transform the society progressively and inclusively. Our Constitution has been perceived to be transformative in the sense that the interpretation of its provisions should not be limited to the mere literal meaning of its words; instead they ought to be given a meaningful construction which is reflective of their intent and purpose in consonance with the changing times. Transformative constitutionalism not only includes within its wide periphery the recognition of the rights and dignity of individuals but also propagates the fostering and development of an atmosphere wherein every individual is bestowed with adequate opportunities to develop socially, economically and politically. Discrimination of any kind strikes at the very core of any democratic society. When guided by transformative constitutionalism, the society is dissuaded from indulging in any form of discrimination so that the nation is guided towards a resplendent future.


Constitutional morality v/s social morality 



  • Constitutional morality embraces within its sphere several virtues, foremost of them being the espousal of a pluralistic and inclusive society. The concept of constitutional morality urges the organs of the State, including the Judiciary, to preserve the heterogeneous nature of the society and to curb any attempt by the majority to usurp the rights and freedoms of a smaller or minuscule section of the populace. Constitutional morality cannot be martyred at the altar of social morality and it is only constitutional morality that can be allowed to permeate into the Rule of Law. The veil of social morality cannot be used to violate fundamental rights of even a single individual, for the foundation of constitutional morality rests upon the recognition of diversity that pervades the society.


Protection of the right to live with dignity



  • The right to live with dignity has been recognized as a human right on the international front and by number of precedents of this Court and, therefore, the constitutional courts must strive to protect the dignity of every individual, for, without the right to dignity, every other right would be rendered meaningless. Dignity is an inseparable facet of every individual that invites reciprocative respect from others to every aspect of an individual which he/she perceives as an essential attribute of his/her individuality, be it an orientation or an optional expression of choice. The Constitution has ladened the judiciary with the very important duty to protect and ensure the right of every individual including the right to express and choose without any impediments so as to enable an individual to fully realize his/her fundamental right to live with dignity.


Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violative of fundamental right of freedom of expression



  • Sexual orientation is one of the many biological phenomena which is natural and inherent in an individual and is controlled by neurological and biological factors. The science of sexuality has theorized that an individual exerts little or no control over who he/she gets attracted to. Any discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation would entail a violation of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.


Fundamental Rights not just for the majority



  • (viii)After the privacy judgment in Puttaswamy (supra), the right to privacy has been raised to the pedestal of a fundamental right. The reasoning in Suresh Koushal (supra), that only a minuscule fraction of the total population comprises of LGBT community and that the existence of Section 377 IPC abridges the fundamental rights of a very minuscule percentage of the total populace, is found to be a discordant note. The said reasoning in Suresh Koushal (supra), in our opinion, is fallacious, for the framers of our Constitution could have never intended that the fundamental rights shall be extended for the benefit of the majority only and that the Courts ought to interfere only when the fundamental rights of a large percentage of the total populace is affected. In fact, the said view would be completely against the constitutional ethos, for the language employed in Part III of the Constitution, as well as the intention of the framers of our Constitution, mandates that the Courts must step in whenever there is a violation of the fundamental rights, even if the right/s of a single individual is/are in peril.


Progressive realization of rights



  • There is a manifest ascendance of rights under the Constitution which paves the way for the doctrine of progressive realization of rights as such rights evolve with the evolution of the society. This doctrine, as a natural corollary, gives birth to the doctrine of non-retrogression, as per which there must not be atavism of constitutional rights. In the light of the same, if we were to accept the view in Suresh Koushal (supra), it would tantamount to a retrograde step in the direction of the progressive interpretation of the Constitution and denial of progressive realization of rights.


Concept of identity sacred



  • Autonomy is individualistic. Under the autonomy principle, the individual has sovereignty over his/her body. He/she can surrender his/her autonomy wilfully to another individual and their intimacy in privacy is a matter of their choice. Such concept of identity is not only sacred but is also in recognition of the quintessential facet of humanity in a person's nature. The autonomy establishes identity and the said identity, in the ultimate eventuate, becomes a part of dignity in an individual.


Absence of concept of consent under Section 377



  • A cursory reading of both Sections 375 IPC and 377 IPC reveals that although the former Section gives due recognition to the absence of “wilful and informed consent” for an act to be termed as rape, per contra, Section 377 does not contain any such qualification embodying in itself the absence of “wilful and informed consent” to criminalize carnal intercourse which consequently results in criminalizing even voluntary carnal intercourse between homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders. Section 375 IPC, after the coming into force of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, has not used the words “subject to any other provision of the IPC”. This indicates that Section 375 IPC is not subject to Section 377 IPC.


“Against the order of nature”: Definition



  • The expression “against the order of nature” has neither been defined in Section 377 IPC nor in any other provision of the IPC. The connotation given to the expression by various judicial pronouncements includes all sexual acts which are not intended for the purpose of procreation. Therefore, if coitus is not performed for procreation only, it does not per se make it “against the order of nature”.


Testing Section 377 on the pedestal of Articles 14 and 19



  • (xiii)Section 377 IPC, in its present form, being violative of the right to dignity and the right to privacy, has to be tested, both, on the pedestal of Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution as per the law laid down in Maneka Gandhi (supra) and other later authorities.


Discrimination and unequal treatment to the LGBT community violative of Article 14



  • (xiv)An examination of Section 377 IPC on the anvil of Article 14 of the Constitution reveals that the classification adopted under the said Section has no reasonable nexus with its object as other penal provisions such as Section 375 IPC and the POCSO Act already penalize non-consensual carnal intercourse. Per contra, Section 377 IPC in its present form has resulted in an unwanted collateral effect whereby even “consensual sexual acts”, which are neither harmful to children nor women, by the LGBTs have been woefully targeted thereby resulting in discrimination and unequal treatment to the LGBT community and is, thus, violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.


Section 377 arbitrary, subjects LGBT community to “societal pariah and dereliction”



  • Section 377 IPC, so far as it criminalises even consensual sexual acts between competent adults, fails to make a distinction between non-consensual and consensual sexual acts of competent adults in private space which are neither harmful nor contagious to the society. Section 377 IPC subjects the LGBT community to societal pariah and dereliction and is, therefore, manifestly arbitrary, for it has become an odious weapon for the harassment of the LGBT community by subjecting them to discrimination and unequal treatment. Therefore, in view of the law laid down in Shayara Bano (supra), Section 377 IPC is liable to be partially struck down for being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.


Article 19(1)(a): Section 377 places unreasonable restriction



  • (xvi)An examination of Section 377 IPC on the anvil of Article 19(1)(a) reveals that it amounts to an unreasonable restriction, for public decency and morality cannot be amplified beyond a rational or logical limit and cannot be accepted as reasonable grounds for curbing the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and choice of the LGBT community. Consensual carnal intercourse among adults, be it homosexual or heterosexual, in private space, does not in any way harm the public decency or morality. Therefore, Section 377 IPC in its present form violates Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.


Section 377 unconstitutional, but any sexual activity with any animal still an offence



  • (xvii)Ergo, Section 377 IPC, so far as it penalizes any consensual sexual relationship between two adults, be it homosexuals (man and a man), heterosexuals (man and a woman) or lesbians (woman and a woman), cannot be regarded as constitutional. 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.


Decision in Suresh Koushal overruled



  • (xviii)The decision in Suresh Koushal (supra), not being in consonance with what we have stated hereinabove, is overruled.