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Kirankumar Rameshbhai Devmani v. State of Gujarat [(2014) 71 VST 555 (Guj)]- Part 1

On the 28th of February, 2014, the Gujarat High Court sitting as a division bench considered whether the Gujarati film Meghdhanushya, which was on the topic of homosexuality, qualified for the entertainment tax exemption given to all Gujarati films since 1997. In brief, the court decided that the film qualified for the exemption as per the government policy regulating the issue, and that it was not caught within any of the exceptions to the policy. However, there are three remarkable features of this case: 1. the court’s attempt to give meaning to the morality of the constitution[1], and to apply this meaning in this case; 2. how legal incompetence at official levels can delay and frustrate day to day affairs of people; and 3. the place occupied by same sex sexual relations in the case. In this edition, I will summarize the arguments of both parties and the decision of the court. In the next edition, I will address the three remarkable features abovementioned.

WHAT THE FILM WAS ABOUT

Summarily, the film was about a boy who discovers that he is gay. Through the medium of this boy, the film depicts the various difficulties faced by gay persons in society.

THE STATE POLICY

The State of Gujarat framed a scheme dated June 8, 1999 exempting all Gujarati colour films produced after April 1, 1997 from entertainment tax. This measure was intended to lower the ticket prices of Gujarati films in the cinema halls, giving them a fighting chance against the Hindi film industry. As per para 4 of the policy, the only films that could not receive the exemption were films that depicted “evil customs, blind faith, sati, dowry, and such social evils and those which are against national unity.” The petitioner, being the producer (and director) of the abovementioned film, applied to the Commissioner of Entertainment Tax (hereinafter “commissioner”) for the tax exemption. After several rounds of back and forth with the commissioner, the petitioner’s application was rejected. The petitioner challenged the refusal in the present case arguing that as per the 1999 policy, his film should receive the tax exemption, and that it did not fall within any of the exceptions abovementioned.

ARGUMENTS OF THE STATE

It is to be noted that the commissioner was obligated to base his decision for refusal on the grounds mentioned in the exceptions to the policy. However, he did not. His reasons for refusal did not pin point the exact policy reason why the film was not eligible for exemption. The reader will note that the only reasons for refusal were either: 1. Evil customs; 2. Blind faith; 3. Sati; 4. Dowry; 5. Such social evils; and 6. Films against national unity. However, the commissioner’s reasons did not pertain to any of these grounds. Similarly, the State counsel’s arguments also did not pertain to any of these grounds though it is to be noted that the State counsel did attempt to make two thin arguments on policy grounds which he was not able to substantiate as per the judgment. As a result, the court had a more convoluted job ahead of itself. Instead of analyzing whether the reason for refusal reasonably fit into any of the grounds for exception, it had to counter the generalist objections of the commissioner and the State which neither pertained to policy, nor stemmed from it. As the court replies to each argument raised by the commissioner’s final order and the State counsel in his defence of the order, I will not separate the arguments by the commissioner and State. Instead, I will present them jointly as the total set of objections raised by the State and its instrumentalities to providing the tax exemption to the film. Here are the objections:

  1. The tax exemption is to be granted to films providing entertainment or carrying a “useful message” to society. Granting an exemption to such a film will create “friction between members of the society holding diverse ideologies.” This will likely cause “deterioration of law and order.” [para 6(i) of the judgment].
  2. The topic of the film is controversial and “no decent family can watch the film together.” [para 6(ii) of the judgment].
  3. The core of the film is to promote homosexuality which is not only a crime (S. 377, IPC)[2] but also a social evil.
  4. The film producer is free to exhibit the film even without the tax exemption.
  5. Granting tax exemption to the film would suggest that the government endorses the homosexual ideology.
  6. Homosexuality increases the incidence of AIDS.
  7. The film is a threat to national unity.

ARGUMENTS OF THE PETITIONER AND THE AMICUS CURIAE

The arguments of the petitioner’s counsel are not outlined in the judgment but the amicus argued three points:

  1. The film does not fall under any of the exceptions to the policy and therefore should receive the tax exemption.
  2. If the State denies exemption to the film without providing an intelligible differentia and a reasonable nexus, then it violates the Article 14 equality guarantee of the constitution by discriminating against the present film and other Gujarati films which have received the exemption.
  3. Denial of the tax exemption places a heavy financial burden on the producers of the film and indirectly restricts the Article 19(1)(a) freedom of speech and expression through an extra constitutional route.

DECISION OF THE COURT

The court noted that providing the tax exemption was the rule and not providing it was an exception. The exemption was not a matter of discretion in that sense. To be disqualified from the exemption, the film had to necessarily fit into one of the categories mentioned in the policy.  Most importantly, the court noted that its decision was guided by the policy alone and not by its own personal opinion on homosexuality. In the words of the court, “we have no personal views and beliefs. Our only personal view is to uphold the rule of the law…” [para 51 of the judgment]. Accordingly, the court replied to each State objection in the following manner:

  1. The purpose of the government policy is to grant tax exemption to all Gujarati colour films made after April 1, 1997, en masse, and not just to films which send “useful” messages to society. Here the court had to contend with the preamble to this policy which outlined its purpose as the promotion of high quality Gujarati cinema. However, the court concluded that the tax exemption is given to all films and not just high quality films or films judged by any other standard. Accordingly, the true purpose of the policy was to enable Gujarati films to compete with the Hindi film industry by making them a little cheaper to watch. There was no evidence of a law and order threat by allowing the tax exemption to the film. Neither the State nor the commissioner had presented any data to support this claim and the police and the Home Ministry had expressed no fears akin to the “spark in the powder keg” standard necessary to invoke an Article (19)(2) restriction on the airing of the film.
  2. Regardless of how controversial a topic is (the court used the phrase “thought provoking”) a topic is, a film can only be denied exemption if it fell into the exception categories. The court noted that a film can be denied exemption if it promotes an evil custom. However, the court noted that to fall within this exception category, a thing needs to be a custom first. Homosexuality was not a custom. Therefore, it could not fall within this category. The other categories of blind faith, dowry, sati and such evil practices, do not apply to this case. The court noted that perceptions change from time to time and generation to generation. What a family can and cannot do together may also change accordingly, from time to time, generation to generation, and from region to region. In any case, that was not a ground to deny a film exemption.
  3. The film does not promote homosexuality. It merely talks about the struggles of being a gay person in society. The court concludes that, “[e]ven a person with homosexual preference as human being has right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the [c]onstitution.”[3] This point however, raises the following question: would the film have been denied exemption if it promoted homosexuality? In the Suresh Kumar Koushal case [para 38], the Supreme Court had held that it is not a crime to be gay; only the sex act is criminal. Movies do promote some messages, intentionally or unintentionally. A film like Bahgban, for example, does convey what it means to a good son. A film like Hum Saath Saath Hain, does convey, what it means to have a happy marriage, and a happy family. Similarly Hindi films have traditionally conveyed other messages about a good wife, good love etc. Arguendo, this film promoted homosexuality, would it have been denied the exemption? Arguably not as it does not fit into any of the exception categories which are admittedly the only grounds on which tax exemption can be denied.
  4. The question was not whether or not the producer could still exhibit the film but that whether the film qualified for tax exemption.
  5. The only ideology the government endorses is that all Gujarati films produced after April 1, 1997 are eligible for tax exemption unless they fall in any of the exception categories. Granting of the tax exemption does not signify that the government endorses the message of the film. Lots of films are released every year and the government cannot be said to endorse the message of each of the film. The government is a neutral by-stander. Significantly, “[e]ndorsing one’s right of expression does not imply endorsement of his point of view.” [para 50 of the judgment].
  6. Men having sex with men have a higher incidence of AIDS because a lot of people do not come out in the open to seek medical facilities or help owing to fear of law enforcement agencies.
  7. There is no evidence to prove that the airing of the film will any way hamper national unity nor was the court able to see how the airing of this film could do so.

Accordingly, the court noted that the film was illegally denied tax exemption available to all other films in the same category, and that there was no reasonable basis to treat this film differently, which lead to the violation of Article 14 of the constitution. Additionally, this illegal taxation made this film more expensive to watch which would severely drain the audience for the film and in this manner place a restriction on the freedom of speech and expression of the film producer, which is neither reasonable, nor sanctioned by law, and for those reasons violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution. In keeping with its decision, the court ordered the State to provide the film the requisite entertainment tax exemption and issue a certificate to that effect.

[1] All references to the constitution in this post refer to the Constitution of India, 1950.

[2] Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[3] Para 27 of the judgment.