Navtej Singh Johar and Ors. v. Union of India Writ Petition Criminal (No.) 76/2016

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King (cited by Justice D.Y.Chandrachud).

On the 6th of September, 2018, a 5 judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court unanimously found that S. 377 of the penal code violates Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India[1]. This means that consensual sexual activity between adults is no longer criminal, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Bestiality, sex with minors, and non-consensual sexual activity between LGBT persons continue to be criminal. The decision was unanimous in the sense that all judges reached the conclusion mentioned above. However, the judgment was plural in the sense that they offered different reasons for reaching those conclusions. While this judgment is rich in many philosophical strains, this blog will study those reasons.

  1. 377 of the Indian Penal Code

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“377”) criminalized carnal intercourse against the order of nature which was punished by an imprisonment term extending up to 10 years:

  1. Unnatural offences.—Whoever voluntarily has carnal inter­course against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with impris­onment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation.—Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section. [Emphasis mine].

Agitation against the section began in the late 1980s after the outbreak of AIDS in India and the section was challenged for the first time in the Delhi High Court in 1994. This challenge was quickly dismissed. Since then, this section has been challenged multiple times. The longest running legal challenge to this section was initiated by Naz Foundation, a NGO working in the field of HIV/AIDS. This action started in 2001 in the Delhi High Court (Naz Foundation case) and in 2013, the matter reached the highest court of the land, which found it constitutional (Koushal decision). That decision was awaiting a curative admission hearing when the Navtej Writ was filed in 2016 alleging that 377 violated the right to, sexuality, sexual autonomy, and sexual partner, rights that the petitioners argued, were protected under the fundamental right to life (Article 21). By this decision, the court resolved the 377 matter and overruled Koushal. In other words, this decision concludes the 377 question and there will be no admission hearing on the curative petition filed in the Koushal case. For more on curative petitions, see here. Before delving into the specific rights, I mention below, 3 notable philosophical strains that frame the decision:

  1. Transformative constitutionalism: it is the idea that the constitution is created for the progressive realization of more and more rights. It is accompanied by the concept of non-retrogression which states that the march of rights must be forward and not backward.
  2. Constitutional morality: it is the idea that the constitution embeds commitment to certain values, which must be upheld even if they are not overtly mentioned in an Article. All judges had different conclusions as to what these values were.
  3. Fundamental rights apply regardless of number: fundamental rights are not meant for the protection of the majority. These are guarantees that each and every person/citizen enjoys. These rights cannot be denied to a community just because they are a small community. That said, the court accepted the research that 8-10% of the population is LGBT. The court uses the term LGBT so I use it here. However, it is a shorthand for all non-heterosexual sexual desire regardless of labels.

Right to Equality

Article 14

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to equality, to all persons:

“14. The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”

While “equality before the law” has been understood as a command to the State to treat all persons equally, “equal protection of the laws” has been understood as a command to the State to create conditions of equality between different members of the society (for example through affirmative action measures). Suppose A alleges that a particular law treats them unequally compared to B. The test applied to check a violation of equality is to ask: 1. Whether there is any intelligible differentia separating A from B or is this an arbitrary division?; and 2. Whether there is a reasonable nexus between this differential treatment of A and B and the proposed legitimate State goal, or is the connection tenuous?

Difference Between Natural and Unnatural?: A majority of the court[2] found that there is no intelligible way to differentiate natural forms of having sex from unnatural forms of the same activity, especially because sex is no longer associated just with procreation even in legal discourse. On the contrary, they said that natural sex is whatever kind of sex 2 consenting adults decide to participate in. Mental health studies worldwide have found that being LGBT is not a mental disorder or a psychological problem. 1500 species occurring in nature display homosexual orientation and it is a natural variation of sexuality. 377 criminalized sexual acts based only on the fact of sexual orientation, a naturally occurring trait. Justice Chandrachud went so far as to deconstruct the meaning of the word “natural” itself and made 2 notable points: 1. “natural” was a social construct that has historically been used to create a hierarchical society. He cited miscegenation laws which segregated between black and white populations as an example. 2. Not all “naturally” occurring things were desirable (e.g. death) and not all “unnatural” things were undesirable (e.g. heart transplant). In fact, all justices found that this law disproportionately targeted LGBT persons such that the real distinction created by this law was not between natural and unnatural, but between LGBT and non-LGBT persons.

Objective of the Law: 2 judges found that the objective of 377 was to protect women and children subjected to unwilling carnal intercourse. On the other hand 2 other judges found that the objective of the law was to impose Victorian mores of sex on the Indian society – i.e. sex only for procreation.[3] One justice did not overtly identify any State objective behind the law. Whichever objective they identified, they all agreed that 377 does not meet it. If the objective was to protect women and children then the new rape law and POCSO met it[4]. In fact by virtue of the new rape provision all kinds of non-consensual sexual acts by men against women were rape[5]. Therefore, the justices reasoned, all consensual acts, being not rape, were natural and out of the purview of 377. However, all sex acts of LGBT persons was per se “unnatural.” Therefore LGBT persons were subjected to a criminal law just by virtue of being LGBT. The judges found this distinction based on a naturally occurring trait and supported only by prejudice[6], a constitutionally unjustifiable reason. If the objective was to impose Victorian mores of procreative sex then of course 377 only unevenly met it because all forms of sex, whether or not procreative, were allowed between heterosexual couples.[7]

Article 15

While Article 14 provides a general equality guarantee, Article 15 specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex:

“15. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth:

(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”

While traditionally this Article has been used to strike down discriminatory laws against women, 2 judges of this court endorsed a growing trend to understand Article 15 to include a freedom from sexual orientation discrimination as well. They reasoned that the constitution prohibited sex based discrimination because sex was the site at which gender roles became fixed and freedom and capacities became pre-determined. Article 15 intended to strike at these presumptions which included the presumption that men desire only woman and woman desire only men. Consequently, as 377 furthered this sex based stereotype, it violated Article 15 of the constitution. Other judges did not engage with this thread.

Right to Freedom of Expression

Article 19 of the constitution guarantees to every citizen, freedom of expression, among other things. This freedom can be reasonably restricted in the interest of decency and morality.[8] Not all justices dwelled on this Article but a majority[9] of the court found that freedom of expression includes the freedom to express oneself sexually, with a consenting partner of any sex. Justices Misra and Khanwilkar specifically pointed out such expression does not violate decency or morality, because these concepts are not majoritarian in character. Therefore, societal disgust with this population is not a constitutionally permissible reason to restrict the freedom of expression of LGBT persons.

Right to Life and the Scope of Privacy

Article 21 of the constitution guarantees to every person, life and liberty:

“21. No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

Previously, another bench of the same court had found that a fundamental right to privacy was implicit in this guarantee.[10] That court had found autonomy of choice and dignity i.e. respect for the choice, to be the building blocks of privacy. That court had also found the right to sexual orientation to be intrinsically protected by privacy. A majority of this court endorsed that reasoning and extended it further to say that an autonomy based conception of privacy recognizes the freedom of persons to a sexual partner of their choosing and to make other intimate decisions.[11] A majority of the court also noted that sexual expression of LGBT persons needn’t be confined to spatially private places. In other words, LGBT persons can sexually express themselves even in public subject to other laws that regulate public displays of affection.[12] In fact, Justice D.Y.Chandrachud went so far as to deconstruct the word “private” by pointing out that many a times, homes are also not private places because they are the epicentre of heteronormativity.

Ratio of the Case

Although, it is doubtful that this judgment will ever be read in a narrow technical way, if we must, we can zero in on a ratio decidendi of the case–i.e. the reasons for the decision. A ratio decidendi will emerge when: 1. 3 or more judges find that the same legal provisions have been violated; 2. For the same reasons. As such, the following ratio emerges from this case.

    1. Although the distinction between natural and unnatural sex is indeterminate, 377 classed all consensual non-heterosexual sexual activities as “unnatural” whereas all consensual heterosexual activities were “natural.” This distinction was based only the sexual orientation of persons involved and does not further any legitimate State objective being rooted only in prejudice against LGBT persons. Therefore, it violated Article 14 of the constitution. All forms of consensual sex between adults is natural.
    2. 377 violated Article 19 because the freedom of expression includes freedom to express oneself sexually with a consenting partner regardless of sexual orientation.
    3. 377 violated Article 21 because the right to life includes the right to sexual partner of choice. They can exercise this right in public and private, subject to the same laws which apply to non-LGBT persons.
  1. On MarriageThis case was concerned expressly with 377 and the marriage question was not addressed by any judge directly, except J. Chandrachud, who stated that all persons should be eligible for this institutional recognition of their love regardless of sex and gender. Justices Misra and Khanwilkar also opined that Article 21 protects a person’s right to a union. However, they immediately mentioned that this case was not about marriage. As such it would be incorrect to say that this case has provided marriage rights to LGBT persons. However, it has certainly laid the philosophical foundation for marriage, and many other rights—anti-discrimination, parenting etc., just to name a few.  Law will incrementally advance to provide all these rights to LGBT persons. The future is equal.

    [1] Constitution of India, 1950.

    [2] Justices Dipak Misra, A.M. Khanwilkar, Indu Malhotra and Justice D.Y.Chandrachud. Justice Nariman did not address this strain.

    [3] Justices Rohinton Nariman and D.Y.Chandrachud.

    [4] Except marital rape. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

    [5] Except marital rape.

    [6] Justices Dipka Misra, A.M.Khanwilkar, Rohinton Nariman, D.Y.Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra.

    [7] Justices Rohinton Nariman and D.Y.Chandrachud.

    [8] (1) All citizens shall have the right

    (a) to freedom of speech and expression;

    (2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

    [9] Justices Dipka Misra, A.M.Khanwilkar, and Indu Malhotra.

    [10] Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors. (“Puttaswamy”), (2017) 10 SCC 1.

    [11] Justices Dipka Misra, A.M.Khanwilkar, Rohinton Nariman, D.Y.Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra.

    [12] Justices Dipka Misra, A.M.Khanwilkar, and D.Y.Chandrachud.