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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A Handshake and the Right to Bodily Integrity

Recently, France’s highest administrative court upheld a ruling denying citizenship to a woman who has been married to a French national since 2010. Media outlets reported that the woman cited her “religious beliefs” as a reason for not shaking hands with a male official during the citizenship ceremony. As a result, she was denied citizenship due to the government’s assessment that she was “not assimilated into the French community.” According to the civil code of France, the government has the right to deny citizenship on grounds of “lack of assimilation, other than linguistic.”

There are a number of cases in France and other European countries that are using this concept of assimilation to take away a privilege or penalize those that are perceived as not assimilating. There are arguments supporting both sides of the debate but I thought it may be interesting to use a rights framework to examine these types of cases.

If you are advocating for the woman in this case, a major argument would be that individuals have freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, along with many other domestic and international law instruments. The challenge with this argument is that countries have different histories that lead them to a divergence in the understanding of freedom of religion. For example, in the United States, freedom of religion was loosely based on a concept of pluralism. You can argue that it is not completely the case in practice.  Nonetheless, children in U.S. schools are taught that some immigrants to the United States came to practice their religion freely and openly and this is one of the positive aspects of living in the U.S. This concept remains to be an integral part of American education and understanding. In some other secular countries, governments adopted a definition of freedom of religion that involved relegating religion to the private sphere—essentially practicing freedom from religion in the public sphere. This is mainly due to historical relationships with religious institutions. The history is even more complex than this summary, which highlights the difficulties in advocating a position based a freedom of religion argument alone. Therefore, putting this religious freedom argument to the side for now, I started thinking about the concept of the body and the rights of a person to her or his own body. Continue reading

Failing to Face the Gender Challenge – note on the European Court of Human Rights Jurisprudence

The intersection of religion and gender equality in the context of international human rights law has been exceptionally controversial and poignant, touching the very essence of peoples’ personal beliefs and generating intense social and political tensions. Yet, the failure of international law-making institutions to develop substantial legal analysis on this monumental issue is more than a political issue. It is a substantive failure of human rights law to protect women.

Thus far, it can be argued that there is a general rule and agreement in international law by which women’s equality is considered as a higher norm such that freedom of religion and conscience cannot justify discrimination against women. However, even so, there are still several outstanding problems. For instance, it is simply not clear when and how this rule should be applied. What are religious discriminatory practices and how should we identify them? In what circumstances gender equality is really more important than religious freedoms, and under which conditions and exemptions? More generally, how should gender equality be understood in the religious context and what can be a proper balance. Another difficulty is that so far this general rule has been addressed in a binary manner by which gender equality is put against religion while in fact reality brought much complex claims (for instance, by many women who wish to assume their equality within the religious context and within their religious communities). While international law has been useful for obvious and extreme cases (where religion practices aggressively violated women’s rights), it has either avoided the complexity or over simplified the principle of equality in more complicated cases.

The European Court of Human Rights demonstrated these problems in recent case law over the bans on religious garments, much of it surrounding the wearing of veils, headscarves, and other modest garments by Muslim women in public spaces. Very briefly, on one side, proponents of the bans on religious veils have put forward justifications such as preserving state secularism in the public sphere, ensuring state’s religious neutrality, and promoting gender equality (as these garments are often seen as an oppressive practice). On the other side, opponents of the bans have claimed that they violate many aspects of the right to equality and women’s right to manifest their religion, as well as other sets of related rights (such as the right to personal autonomy, the right to privacy, access to public spaces and education, and the right to employment).

In the cases brought before it (most recently in SAS vs France, Dogru, Sahin and Dahlab), the Court dismissed the claims of women who pleaded for the right to manifest their religion and wear headscarves in educational settings or other public places. Generally, the Court ruled that the limitations on religious freedoms were necessary in a democratic society for “… the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (as prescribed by article 9(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights). In three of the cases, the Court decisions further approved as a legitimate aim the governments’ claim to promote gender equality as these garments were introduced as an oppressive practice towards women and as a threat to democratic values.

However, it is not the results of the rulings that are most concerning. It is the court’s disappointing failure to fully engage in the legal complexity of the debate. In the course of its rulings, the Court avoided confrontation with the competing set of rights, and did not develop any comprehensive legal assessment or methodology on the tension between women’s equality, human rights and religious freedoms, to tackle these conflicts in a systematic manner.

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Spanish Supreme Court Overturns Municipal Ban on Burqas

In a ruling made public on February 28, the Spanish Supreme Court voided the Catalan city of Lleida’s 2010 ban on wearing the

Women wearing burqas in the street

Women wearing burqas in the street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

burqa in public places, which included a fine of up to 600 euros. The Court held that the city lacked authority to limit constitutional rights such as freedom of religion, which could be curtailed only through Acts of Parliament, and that it had acted beyond the scope of local authority in enacting the law. However, the Court refused to reach the broader question of whether a national law prohibiting the wearing of burqas throughout Spain would be constitutional.

In so holding, the Court rejected the city’s contention that use of the burqa by Muslim women disrupts everyday life, finding no support for this proposition. The Court also rejected the city’s argument that the burqa should be banned because Muslim women are compelled to wear it, speculating that a ban could have the effect of forcing such women to stay at home because they would not be allowed to walk in public without it. Last, the Court contemplated the treatment of this question by other national jurisdictions but found no unanimity. The appeal before the Court was filed by the Watani Association for Liberty and Justice.

(Hat tip to Prof. Nicolas Zambrana Tevar for sending this report.)