A Transformative Approach to Personal Laws

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Indian Supreme Court with both gains and loses. Notably, in the Sabarimala judgement, Justice Chandrachud observed that the rationale used by the Bombay High Court in Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay, which held that personal laws should not be subject to fundamental rights, is not sustainable. Chandrachud, however, only overrules Narasu on the point that customs are not subject to fundamental rights.

This exposition in itself is unremarkable since the Supreme Court in Sant Ram v. Labh Singh had already held that customs are subject to a fundamental rights challenge. The ratio of Narasu Appa Mali only extended to uncodified religious law which hasn’t been modified by either custom or usage. Thus, while the outcome remains unchanged, the observation by Chandrachud that the reasoning of Narasu is flawed, segues into the question of whether personal law can be counted as law and thereby lays the groundwork for a challenge to personal laws when it arises.

What are personal laws?

To set some context to the debate, it might be useful to understand what personal laws are. The idea that religious sphere is entirely distinct is of recent vintage it was through a process of construction during the British era that a separate space was carved out for certain religious laws, generally governing family matters like marriage and divorce. Thus, the first point to note is that there is nothing inherently personal about personal laws. The scriptures gained jurisdiction over certain matters because the colonial state said so, and this determination was due to sociopolitical rather than religious reasons.  It is untenable therefore to think that the body of laws referred to as “personal laws” derive their validity from religion, rather than the state. Second, personal laws were shaped by male elites of each religious community using the colonial state. For example, with regard to Hindu personal law, there was a forced homogenization and enforcement of Brahmanical law. Today, many personal laws are alleged to promote the subordination of women and other minorities. However, to have a fundamental rights review, ‘personal laws’ has to fall under the definition of ‘law’ or a ‘law in force’ in Article 13 of the Constitution.

Narasu Appa Mali v State of Bombay

The petition in Narasu challenged validity of the Bombay Prevention of Bigamous Hindu Marriages Act, 1946 which sought to render bigamous marriages void as well as criminalize the offence of bigamy. What the Court ultimately ended up deciding was the question of whether coming into force of constitution, muslim polygamy is void because it violates Art. 15. This might be explained by the dominant narrative prevailing in the country during the early 1950s. At the time the judgement was pronounced, the Hindu Code Bill was still in deliberation and the general sentiment was that only the Hindus were being ‘punished’. It might be useful to keep this context in mind while evaluating the rationale of the two judge bench.

Prior to determining whether muslim polygamy is unconstitutional, the Court had to answer the question of whether it is law in the first place. To answer this question, the Court looked at Article 13 and applied the principle of ‘Expressio Unius Exclusio Alterius’ i.e. the expression of one excludes the other, and its present application. It characterised customs & usages as deviations from personal laws and relied on Article 112 of the Government of India Act, 1915 which had discussed customs as different from personal laws, to say that personal laws cannot be laws under Article 13. The inclusion of various provisions in the Constitution that relate to state regulation of personal law, such as Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability), Article 25 (Freedom of Religion) would be redundant had the drafters wanted to include personal laws within the definition of law. It further relied on Art. 44, which asks the state to endeavour to build a Uniform Civil Code, to say that there is a presumption by the drafters that different personal laws will exist even after independence. Moreover, Article 44 and Entry V of the Concurrent List seems to suggest that the drafter’s intent was to give this power to the legislature and not the judiciary. It also referred to Article 372 of the Constitution. Pre-constitutional laws continue in force by virtue of this Article, and that they can be amended by the President. The Court reasoned that since the President had no power to modify personal laws, personal laws do not derive their validity from Article 372 of the Constitution.

Re-evaluating Narasu Appa Mali

Narasu has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. Previous decisions such as John Vallamottam v Union of India and C Masilamani Mudaliar v Idol of Sri Swaminathaswamiswaminathaswami which are commonly cited as examples of the Court subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights review, only dealt with codified personal law.

However, there is some literature offering a contrary view. Krishnan argues that the term ‘includes’ in Article 13 is an inclusive definition. For example, Art. 13(3)(a) does not use the word “common law” and yet we subject that to Part III. There is no evidence to suggest that the drafter were referring to the Government of India Act, 1915 in drafting this section. As Bhatia argues, Article 17 could have just been incorporated by way of abundant caution. The corrosive and pervasive nature of caste discrimination could have made the framers include a specific article prohibiting untouchability as an extra measure to leave nothing to chance.  Moreover, the scope of Article 25 is way broader than personal laws.  It protects an individual’s right to practice her religion rather than protecting religious norms or rules. Article 44 is located in Part 4 of the Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy) and therefore casts no positive obligation on the State. Many Directive Principles duplicate obligations that would arise from fundamental rights themselves.

However, the question ultimately comes down to how we understand our constitution. Should we read the Constitution textually, debating the technical points of law or should we read it as a transformative document capable of bending the moral arc of the Indian polity towards justice. In the words of Chandrachud-

“Custom, usages and personal law have a significant impact on the civil status of individuals. Those activities that are inherently connected with the civil status of individuals cannot be granted constitutional immunity merely because they may have some associational features which have a religious nature. To immunize them from constitutional scrutiny, is to deny the primacy of the Constitution.”

Not only was the Constitution transformative in the sense that it indicated a break from India’s past, but it also has a transformative potential. At the heart of transformative constitutionalism is vision of change, a redemptive potential. By subjecting personal laws to a fundamental rights challenge would mean acknowledging how some of these laws have becomes sites of hierarchy and subordination, where minorities like women and lower castes are denied equal moral membership of society. A transformative vision places the individual dignity at the forefront of its endeavours and values constitutional morality over societal morality. Here’s hoping that when the challenge to personal laws comes, it is also on these grounds.

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The Role of Mercy in India

There has been such a sustained focus on the right to impose death that it sometimes eclipses its essential corollary, namely the sovereign right to spare life. In India’s modern political system, this power to spare life remains in the form of executive clemency. Executive clemency, enumerated in Article 72 of the Indian Constitution, represents an escape valve where officials unaffiliated with the judiciary can survey the landscape and make decisions on factors beyond the law. Thus, the most logical use of clemency powers is when an individual wrongly convicted, can demonstrate that the system failed or that they are innocent. Critics, however, have argued that this conflicts with the demands of justice and equality, demands a liberal state presumably must heed. Due to mercy’s arbitrary and capricious nature, the state, they argue, should be lawful, not merciful. A study of the mercy petitions rejected by various Presidents in recent history lends some merit to their argument since it reveals a trend of politicization of mercy.

For example, the rejection of Saibanna’s mercy petition came right after the December 16 gang rape; a time when the government needed a facile gesture to show that it was tough on crime against women. He had been sentenced to death for murdering his second wife and daughter after having been convicted for murdering his first wife, however his case was riddled with glaring judicial blunders from start to end. Both the trial court and the High Court convicted and sentenced Saibanna under s. 303 of the Indian Penal Code which provided for mandatory death sentence but had been struck down as unconstitutional some twenty years earlier. The Supreme Court took full notice of the s. 303 issue but then noted that the session’s court faulty finding did not prejudice the cause of the accused since there was no record of any mitigating circumstances.

However what the Court failed to consider was that in cases under s. 303 there is no sentencing hearing, and hence no opportunity to bring on record mitigating circumstances. Moreover, the Court squarely based its death sentence verdict on the erroneous view that Saibanna, already undergoing a life sentence, could not be sentenced to life imprisonment again, and therefore the death sentence was the only available punishment. Thus in effect, the Supreme Court revived mandatory death sentencing. So glaring were these errors that a campaign had been launched pursuant to which fourteen eminent retired judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court
wrote to the President asking him to commute these death sentences. They said that it would be unconscionable and a blot on the administration of justice to execute Saibanna whose petition had been pending for 25 years. These factors should have necessitated the commutation of the death sentence by a government with even an iota of respect for the rule of law. Continue reading