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Poonam Rani and Ors. v. State of UP and Ors. Writ C No. 1213 of 2021

1.PROTECTION ORDERS

On the 20th of January, 2021, a Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court granted a protection order to two women in a live-in relationship. I have previously argued[1] that protection orders are privacy enhancing tools for queer women and transgender men in live-in relationships. Recorded cases show that live-in relationship related litigation is a unique category of litigation that queer women and transgender women face in the queer community. In this blog, I will discuss why protection orders can be an important legal instrument for queer women in live-in relationships and then specifically discuss the case at hand and the protection order granted therein. Protection orders can be utilized not just by queer couples but more generally by members of the queer community.

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Legal Discourses on Queer Women- Privacy

What are the legal experiences of queer women in India? This is a severely under-researched topic from the legal point of view. Most of the academic work on the experiences of queer women in India lies in the area of literature and culture and associated fields.

In the present blog, I will discuss one aspect of an article that I recently wrote about the legal issues of queer women. That article had the following aims: 1. to study the case law and understand the legal narrative surrounding queer women in India; 2. theorize about the main legal problems faced by them; 3. analyze the Navtej judgment to see whether it provides solutions for those problems; and 4. begin a conversation to address the problems.

Queer women are women, i.e., persons who are socialised as women, who have, romantic and/or sexual feelings for/relations with, other women. The history of activism on this issue in India has shown that a variety of terms have been used to refer to them. Examples include, lesbians, bisexual women, ekal mahila, gender non-conforming women, women in a husband-wife relationship. Some of these terms reflect personal choices, but some also reflect what was possible to say at a particular time in history. In this article, I argued that the experiences of transgender men may have commonalities with queer women since many of them may have been socialized as women. Therefore, to that extent, the findings of the article were relevant to understand the problems faced by that community as well. I identified the core issues faced by queer women through two distinct methods. The first was a case-law method where I identified cases pertaining to queer women using a keyword search on Manupatra. The second was to study various scholarly articles and stock-taking reports that have concentrated on queer women in India. These two methods allowed me to cull out the seemingly core areas of concern for queer women that law needs to address. They were: 1. Privacy; and 2. Live-in relationships; 3. Marriage pressure; and 4.allegations of lesbianism in divorce cases. In this blog, I will discuss the issue of privacy as it relates to the legal entitlements of queer women.

1. PRIVACY

The lack of privacy is a major area of concern for women, and queer women India. The Navtej judgment has allowed sexual relationships between two consenting queer adults in private. This formulation of the sexual right has failed to take into account the realities of the lives of queer women. Women in general, including queer women, do not have access to privacy within their homes, and little say over how they would like to exercise their sexuality. In the first known large-scale Indian study to understand the violence faced by lesbians, Bina Fernandez and NB Gomathy found that the family was the main source of violence for lesbian women. They faced physical, mental, and sexual violence from their family members, which only ever abated when they either left their homes or lied about not being attracted to women anymore. Thus, for this section of the queer community, granting a right in private was no grant at all, not unless the idea of privacy was connected to the idea of access to public spaces.  What those spaces could be, whether hostels, or cafes, or parks, etc. is a question that can be best answered by taking the views of a wide cross-section of queer women, and the State and funding bodies should devote funds to this enterprise. In the meanwhile, within existing structures, two options can be further strengthened; 1. Access to shelter homes; and protection orders.

1a. ACCESS TO SHELTER HOMES

Shelter homes have their own set of problems. They restrict the mobility of women, and their ability to take up employment among other things. Many of them are queerphobic, and either refuse to take in queer women or claim to cure them. Still, being able to take shelter in a shelter home offers immediate access to a physically safe place for queer women who leave their home, and are in need. They also offer a bargaining position to women who can then negotiate better terms of treatment with their families.

1b. PROTECTION ORDERS AS PRIVACY ENHANCING TOOLS

Understanding privacy from the point of view of queer women also offers up other legal solutions to their concerns. One such solution is a protection order which is available through the writ jurisdiction of the High Court. Recorded cases show that women who exercise their choice to live with one another have taken recourse to these orders. These orders typically place the local station house officer in charge of the physical safety of the couple, with the responsibility to determine the safety protocol for the couple. Usually the phone number of a beat constable is shared with the couple to call in case of any actual or apprehended danger. Lawyers working on these cases have shared that these orders provide an immediate sense of physical safety to the couple, even if they can provide only limited protection from emotional blackmail from the families involved.

The discussion on other areas identified by this blog, along with a fuller discussion on privacy can be found in the forthcoming article, Surabhi Shukla, The L World: Legal Discourses on Queer Women 13 NUJS Law Review 3 (September 2020). Update (Oct, 2020): The article can be found here.

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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 express their relationships 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. However, it is to be noted that the right to sexual intercourse has only been granted in private spaces by a majority of the court.

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 Marriage This 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. [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.

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Justice Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors. Writ Petition (Civil) No. 494/2012

Note: Part 2 of Kirankumar has been postponed 
to October 2017 in light of the privacy decision.

1. THE PRIVACY DECISION[1]

On the 24th of August, 2017, a nine judge bench of the Supreme Court of India decided whether there is a fundamental right to privacy. Summarily and without tracing it’s constitutional genealogy, the court decided that there exists, in the Indian constitutional scheme, an inalienable, fundamental right to privacy drawing life blood primarily from Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950 (“constitution”). However, this right was found not to be absolute and different judges on the bench stated different reasons and tests for State interference with it. In this blog, I will discuss implications of the judgment on the 377[2] case and rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), generally.

Before doing that, we need to be clear that there is no clear majority opinion, in the ordinary sense of the word, in this case. It is a nine judge bench and therefore, an opinion endorsed by five or more judges would count as a majority opinion. However, here, there is one opinion endorsed by 4 judges (Chandrachud opinion) and 5 individual opinions, all of which find a fundamental right to privacy but are different in particulars. Such a situation is called a plurality and to find a majority on any one point, 5 or more judges should have the same opinion on that point.

2. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE 377 CASE

a. 377 Matter is Still Undecided

To be sure, the court did not decide the 377[3] issue. In fact, 5 judges of the court categorically stated that the 377 matter is pending before another bench and so they leave its validity be decided by the appropriate proceeding:

Since the challenge to Section 377 is pending consideration before a larger Bench of this Court, we would leave the constitutional validity to be decided in an appropriate proceeding.” [para 128] (Chandrachud opinion)

“It is not necessary to delve into this issue further, other than in the context of privacy as that would be an issue to be debated before the appropriate Bench, the matter having been referred to a larger Bench.” [para 81, Kaul J., upon finding that the fundamental right to privacy extended to LGBT persons regardless of how minuscule they were in numbers.]

b. Sexual Orientation Recognized as a Fundamental Right

5 Judges of the court clearly found that sexual orientation is “undoubtedly”[4] an essential attribute of privacy.[5] If privacy is a fundamental right and sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy then the right to sexual orientation is a fundamental right as well. The Supreme Court in National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India [“NALSA”] had noted that self defined sexual orientation is, “integral to … personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom” [NALSA, para 20], and had in Suresh Kumar Koushal[6] noted that S. 377 does not criminalize any particular sexual orientation.[7] However, neither of the judgments had gone so far as to expressly declare the right to sexual orientation as a fundamental right.

The reader will recall that the Supreme Court has already noted in NALSA that the right to self determined gender identity is a fundamental right.[8] Therefore, the sum total of all these cases is that now there is an expressly declared fundamental right to sexual orientation in addition to gender identity.

c. Two Arguments for Personal Intimacies to be Essential Entitlements under Privacy

The recognition of sexual orientation as a fundamental right should by itself lead the court to find S.377 unconstitutional as the section stands in the way of the fulfilment of a core aspect of sexual orientation—sex, with a person of choice, and in a manner of choice. 2 other opinions in the judgment should be highly persuasive of this point. The first is the 4 judge Chandrachud opinion finding that “personal intimacies” are an entitlement under the right to privacy [Conclusion P]. As per the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “intimacy” means familiarity, friendship, but also sexual intercourse.[9] If the right to privacy is an inalienable fundamental right and it includes personal intimacies then S.377 which criminalizes the personal intimacies of LGBT persons[10] cannot stand constitutional scrutiny because it will violate the fundamental right to privacy. This conclusion is doubly solidified in light of the court’s restatement of a crucial constitutional law principle: to withstand constitutional scrutiny, an impugned section should survive the scrutiny of all fundamental rights. The second is the Justice Nariman opinion which finds that the fundamental right to privacy will protect “fundamental personal choices.”[11] Although he does not explain what that phrase means, his judgment illustrates “personal choices” as including “rights of same sex couples—including the right to marry…”[12] This provides grounds for arguing that Nariman J. too, finds that personal intimacies of all persons, regardless of SOGI, is protected by the fundamental right to privacy.[13]

3. APPLICATIONS OF THE JUDGMENT MAY OPEN UP MARRIAGE AND PARENTHOOD TO LGBT PERSONS

Finally, the 4 judge Chandrachud opinion has recognized the following list of non- exhaustive entitlements under privacy: decisions about personal intimacies, family life, procreation, home and sexual orientation [Conclusion (3)(F)]. Privacy itself has been housed primarily under Article 21. Article 21 guarantees life and liberty to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Accordingly, the aforementioned entitlements also extend to all persons, regardless of SOGI. This means that this opinion has affirmed that even LGBT persons have a fundamental privacy right to home, procreation, family life etc. This coupled with Justice Nariman’s finding that personal choices protected by privacy include, “rights of same sex couples—including the right to marry…”[14] provides extremely persuasive grounds for arguing that 5 judges have stated that all persons have a right to marry, regardless of SOGI.  Additionally, the logic of the 4 judge Chandrachud opinion may also open up avenues for LGBT persons to argue for procreation related rights like surrogacy etc.

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[1] My thanks to Mariyam Kamil, DPhil (law) student at the University of Oxford for hearing out and confirming my various legal conclusions re. SOGI from this decision. Mariyam researches on the constitutional right to privacy in India.

[2] S.377, Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[3] All references to 377 in this blog mean the issue of the constitutional validity of S. 377, Indian Penal Code, 1860 which criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, and which is pending in the Indian Supreme Court.

[4] Kaul J. Opinion; para 80.

[5] For example, paragraph 126 and Conclusion (3)(F) of the Chandrachud opinion.

[6] Suresh Kumar Koushal and Anr. v. Naz Foundation and Others (Civil Appeal No. 10972 of 2013).

[7] Suresh Kumar Koushal and Anr. v. Naz Foundation and Others (Civil Appeal No. 10972 of 2013) para 38.

[8] “Self-determination of gender is an integral part of personal autonomy and self-expression and falls within the realm of personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.” [para 69, NALSA].

[9] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/intimacy.

[10] S.377 criminalizes the sexual lives of all those persons, whether or not LGBT, who have non-peno-vaginal sex. However, in keeping with the scope of the website, I have referred only to LGBT persons in the main text.

[11] Nariman J.; Para 81.

[12] Nariman J.; Para 46.

[13] Additionally, Chamaleshwar J. suggests that “intimate decision” is an aspect of privacy and it includes most personal life choices [Para 36]. He does not elaborate on what personal life choices are and for this reason, I have left it out of the above reasoning.  Similarly, Bobde J. states that privacy has “deep affinity” with intimacy, among other things. In its literal sense, the word affinity means closeness, liking, similarity as per the Oxford English Dictionary and therefore its unclear whether Bobde J. has counted intimacy as an aspect of privacy. For this reason, I have left it out of the reasoning. In this blog, I have tried to present the strongest arguments from the judgment for personal intimacies to be counted as a privacy entitlement.

[14] Nariman J.; Para 46.