The “Balancing” Test and Its Discontents

At the heart of the Supreme Court’s upholding of criminal defamation is the argument that the right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) must be “balanced” against the right to “reputation” under Article 21 (as I pointed out in my post about the judgment, the Court’s examination of the reasonableness of criminal defamation under Article 19(2) simply merges into its balancing test. No finding is returned with respect to the former – thus leaving balancing as the sole basis of the judgment).

The criminal defamation judgment is not the first time that the Court has resorted to “balancing” the textually guaranteed right under Article 19(1)(a) against unenumerated rights under Article 21 (R. Rajagopal and In Re Noise Pollution are two others). One problem is that the method of balancing has never been described – the “balancing” invariably leads to subordination of free speech to whatever right the Court decides to find under Article 21.

There is a deeper problem, however. The Court never justifies the balancing test in the first place. To understand why this is a problem, consider the famous American Supreme Court judgment in United States vs StevensPut simply, United States vs Stevens was about the constitutionality of a statute that prohibited the dissemination of videos depicting cruelty to animals. The State attempted to defend the statute by arguing that the “value” of such speech was far outweighed by the social interests advanced by its prohibition. Rejecting this argument by an 8 – 1 majority, the Court observed:

“As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document “prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.””

There is little I can add to the soundness of this reasoning, except to note that this applies with even greater force to the Indian Constitution than it does to the American. Textually, the American First Amendment is a broad, freedom of expression clause that contains no restrictions. On the contrary, Article 19(2) lists out eight restrictions upon the freedom of speech that can be imposed by law. The argument that the “balancing” between free speech and various social interests has already been achieved within the constitutional text is therefore far more compelling in the Indian context. Given that the framers (and then the amenders) specifically enumerated eight restrictions upon the freedom of speech within the constitutional text strongly suggests that the process of balancing has already been undertaken in the drafting of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2). It is not for the Court to further “balance” the freedom of speech against interests that do not form part of Article 19(2) (and certainly not by invoking the DPSPs and Fundamental Duties!)

Three further textual points support this reasoning. The first is that Article 19(2) does not contain a “public interest” restriction (as opposed to, say, Article 19(6)). This suggests a deliberate choice on the part of the framers to reject a general balancing between the freedom of speech and those “social interests” not specifically enumerated under Article 19(2). The second point is that where the Constitutional text intends such a balancing, it specifically says so. Article 25(1)’s freedom of religion guarantee, for instance, is expressly made “subject to” the other provisions of Part III. Article 19(1)(a) is not. A purely textual analysis, therefore, precludes “balancing” Article 19(1)(a) against other provisions of the Constitution. And the third point is that in Constitutions where the balancing test is part of free speech jurisprudence, it is based on specific textual guarantees that allow the State to limit free speech in the interests of “the rights of others” (something similar to Article 25(1)). Article 19(2) contains no such limitation.

Over the last twenty years, it has become established judicial wisdom that Article 19(1)(a) is to be “balanced” against Article 21 (in its capacious, ever-proliferating avatar), and even “balanced” against Part IV, and the fundamental duties chapter. This has come to a point where, in the criminal defamation judgment, the Court hasn’t even returned a finding on Article 19(2), preferring instead to decide the case on the basis of balancing. However, the Court has never interrogated the foundation of that claim (Shreya Singhal, which implicitly holds that restrictions upon freedom of speech must meet the test of Article 19(2) is an exception, as it is an exception in many other ways). Because of the strong textual evidence against this balancing exercise, the Court must show overwhelming reason why this method is constitutionally mandated. So far, it has not done so.

(Ed. My thanks to Jawahar Raja, whose strong objections to the balancing test made me rethink my own intuitive acceptance of it)

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Why the Supreme Court’s Criminal Defamation Judgment is Per Incuriam

In common law, a judgment that is per incuriam has no legal force or validity, and does not count as precedent. Classically, per incuriam is a very narrow concept, applicable only in two circumstances: to a judgment that is passed in ignorance of a relevant statutory provision, or without considering binding precedent of a coordinate or larger bench. In 2015, however, in Sundeep Kumar Bafna v State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of per incuriam, noting that:

“It cannot be over-emphasised that the discipline demanded by a precedent or the disqualification or diminution of a decision on the application of the per incuriam rule is of great importance, since without it, certainty of law, consistency of rulings and comity of Courts would become a costly casualty. A decision or judgment can be per incuriam any provision in a statute, rule or regulation, which was not brought to the notice of the Court. A decision or judgment can also be per incuriam if it is not possible to reconcile its ratio with that of a previously pronounced judgment of a Co-equal or Larger Bench; or if the decision of a High Court is not in consonance with the views of this Court. It must immediately be clarified that the per incuriam rule is strictly and correctly applicable to the ratio decidendi and not to obiter dicta. It is often encountered in High Courts that two or more mutually irreconcilable decisions of the Supreme Court are cited at the Bar. We think that the inviolable recourse is to apply the earliest view as the succeeding ones would fall in the category of per incuriam.”

The expansion of the doctrine of per incuriam in the Indian context makes sense, for at least two reasons. The first is the proliferation of two-judge benches of the Supreme Court pronouncing on important constitutional issues, and invariably at odds with each other. Recent examples include Koushal and NALSADevidas Tuljapurkar and Aveek Sarkar, and (as I shall explain) Subramaniam Swamy (the present judgment) and R. Rajagopal. As the Supreme Court correctly notes in Bafna, “certainty of law” and “consistency of rulings” is a very important principle (one of the basic constituents of the rule of law), and given the sheer volume of cases being decided by two-judge benches, it must be applied with greater rigour.

The second reason is that at present, judgments tend to reproduce submissions of counsel at great length, including cases cited by counsel. The reasoning of the judgment, however, fails to engage with those judgments in any meaningful way, apart from – once again – reciting them while describing the law on the point. A good example is Rajbala vs State of Haryana, where the Justice Chelameswar held that the arbitrariness doctrine under Article 14 could not be used to strike down legislation. This was contrary to the binding decision in Mardia Chemicals. That case was not considered while arriving at the above conclusion, but is nonetheless found in the judgment, in a footnote while reproducing counsel’s submissions. A strict application of per incuriam in such a situation would defeat the purpose of the doctrine itself, since what it stipulates is that a Court is bound to consider precedent (although, having once considered it, it can choose to read it in a way that is obviously incorrect – in such a situation, the latter decision will then become binding law.

It is my submission that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam on both the narrow and the broad conceptions of the doctrine. It is per incuriam because of its failure to consider the ratio of R. Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu, that is, the finding that a regime of no-fault liability in defamation causes a chilling effect upon free speech.

Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India mentions Rajagopal at exactly one point in the 268-page long judgment: at page 5 of the judgment (paragraph 2), where it cites the passage in Rajagopal stating that:

“In all this discussion, we may clarify, we have not gone into the impact of Article 19(1)(a) read with clause (2) thereof on Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. That may have to await a proper case.”

Let us now come to Subramaniam Swamy’s consideration of the chilling effect. The Court holds:

“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression.”

Previously, I have argued that this paragraph makes some fundamental conceptual errors in its understanding of what the chilling effect is. Be that as it may, let us now consider R. Rajagopal’s Case

In R. Rajagopal’s Case, the Supreme Court modified the common law of civil defamation. It replaced the no-fault liability standard with either a New York Times v Sullivan standard of actual malice, or the English standard of reasonable publication (I say “either” because the judgment seemingly adopts both tests, which are actually very different). Crucially, it cited New York Times v Sullivan, and cited that exact paragraph where Sullivan held that no-fault liability causes a chilling effect upon free speech. It then made the following finding:

“… in the case of public officials, it is obvious, right to privacy, or for that matter, the remedy of action for damages is simply not available with respect to their acts and conduct relevant to the discharge of their official duties. This is so even where the publication is based upon facts and statements which are not true, unless the official establishes that the publication was made (by the defendant) with reckless disregard for truth. In such a case, it would be enough for the defendant (member of the press or media) to prove that he acted after a reasonable verification of the facts; it is not necessary for him to prove that what he has written is true.”

In other words, Rajagopal holds that in case of statements defaming public officials, the standard is the (Sullivan) standard of reckless disregard for the truth. It’s reason for doing so is the chilling effect caused by a no-fault liability standard (and in fact, that can be the only reason for doing so, since that was at the heart of Sullivan). Consequently, the proposition that a no-fault liability standard causes a chilling effect in case of defamation is part of the ratio decidendi of Rajagopal. As recently as 2015, in M/s Fibre Boards v CIT, the Supreme Court clarified that the ratio of a case includes the reasons that form part of its conclusion (paragraph 27)

It may be argued at this stage that Rajagopal was a civil defamation case, and the question of what to do about criminal defamation was left open by that bench. That is true; however, that a no-fault liability provision for defamation causes a chilling effect upon speech is agnostic about whether the liability might take civil or criminal form. The reasoning given in Sullivan was that an individual who will be required to take the stand and prove the truth of his statement in order to avoid liability, will tend to self-censor, and “steer clear of the unlawful zone”, thus impoverishing public discourse. In other words, the chilling effect is caused by the legal standard (no-fault liability), and not by the nature of the liability (chilling effect).

For this reason, Subramaniam Swamy’s finding that criminal defamation’s no fault liability does not chill speech is reached in ignorance of Rajagopal, and is therefore per incuriam.

Even if this argument fails – i.e., even if one believes that since Rajagopal was about civil defamation, it’s ratio cannot be extended to cover cases of criminal defamation – Subramaniam Swamy remains per incuriam under the broader definition of Sundeep Kumar Bafna. This is a much simpler case to prove. After Swamy, the legal standard for imposing criminal liability (no-fault) is lower than civil liability (Sullivan) in case of public officials. This overturns the legal system on its head, and leads to an illogical position as long as both decisions continue to hold the field. In terms of Bafna, it is impossible to “reconcile the ratio” of Subramaniam Swamy with R. Rajagopal.

I submit, therefore, that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam, and therefore a judgment that has no legal validity and does not serve as precedent for future cases. It is to be hoped that on an appropriate occasion, a future bench of the Supreme Court will consider these arguments while deciding whether or not to refer another constitutional challenge to criminal defamation for resolution by a bench of five judges (as Article 145 of the Constitution requires).

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The Uttarakhand Incident: Thinking through the Anti-Defection Law

(In this Guest Post, Udit Bhatia, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, examines the question of anti-defection laws, in light of the recent political and legal tussle in Uttarakhand)

The anti-defection law, introduced by the 52nd amendment to the Indian Constitution, prohibits legislators from voting against their party’s whip on any legislation, or voluntarily giving up membership of their party. Legislators who act otherwise are expelled from the legislative body. This rule was formulated in response to what was perceived as large-scale dubious floor-crossing by legislators in response to monetary incentives to bring down governments. What the amendment forbade, however, was not just the practice of legislators voting against their party in a trust motion, or vote of no-confidence, but from voting against it on any legislative matter where the party chooses to issue a whip. The anti-defection law was at the forefront of a recent Supreme Court ruling over President’s Rule in the state of Uttarakhand. While much of that debate focused on the centre’s seemingly unjustified intervention in the state’s legislative affairs and its trust vote, it seems to have been yet another missed opportunity to deliberate upon the justifiability of an anti-defection law in the first place.

Before I examine that debate further, I wish to emphasize that such strict policing of party boundaries might be somewhat less problematic if parties themselves were internally democratic units. As with legislation, then, the coercive nature of party positions on those legislations could derive legitimacy through their being voted upon after a discursive process open to all members. Political parties in India, however, remain far from this model of intra-party democracy. The selection of candidates for elections remains a highly centralised process for a large majority of the national parties. Additionally, the executive committees themselves are products of insufficient, if not non-existent, procedures in most cases. Although there exists little research on this, the opaqueness with which parties respond—when they do finally respond—to the Election Commission’s requests for information about internal elections is telling. Their reports say little about the method through which the executive committees were chosen. It remains unknown whether such selection takes place through unanimous nomination, or election; and if the latter, how many votes were polled in favour of those selected.

The debate over defection can be located in the wider one over the relationship between elected representatives and their constituents. Political theorists have long debated whether representatives are best understood as trustees or delegates. The trusteeship model sees representatives as free to engage in political actions with adequate leeway on behalf of their constituents provided that they shall be held accountable ex post through elections. On the delegate model, representatives are elected to try and execute a mandate given to them by their constituents. They are not free to engage in whatever political actions they see fit, but must advocate and attempt to secure their constituents’ wishes. There might of course, be a clash with other constituents’ wishes, or turn out to be contextual limitations to how far representatives can do this. However, they are required to adhere as closely as possible to what their constituents elected them to do.

One might defend the anti-defection law as a component of the delegate model. On this explanation, representatives are elected by constituents to demonstrate adherence to political parties through which they have been chosen. The mandate of the representative lies in ensuring that the party’s platform, as determined by the organisation’s leadership is fulfilled as far as possible. On the other hand, we may even defend the anti-defection law as a component of the trusteeship model. On this reading, the agent to which leeway extends in fulfilling constituents’ wishes is the party and not the representative herself. Thus, we ought to give adequate room to parties to operate in whichever way they see fit in order to execute their platform insofar as they are accountable later through elections. The party’s control over the representative is a part of the leeway afforded to it.

I suggest that such defences of the anti-defection law would be misguided for at least two reasons. Firstly, any appeal to either a pure trusteeship or delegate model appears misguided. As constituents, we often work with both models in choosing our representatives. Thus, I might choose the Aam Aadmi Party, viewing my vote as having delegated it to enact a Jan Lokpal law. On the other hand, I may remain indifferent or unsure of my stand on its policies with respect to monitoring of public schools. I find it sufficient that I have a vote that I can exercise later to reward or punish what it decides to do, but do not hold a fixed view on the matter for myself. Further, it might also be that I amend my delegate-view as a result of the Aam Aadmi’s political actions. The party may decide to not execute the Jan Lokpal law, and explain that there are good reasons for not doing this. I may change my mind as a result of their explanation even though I originally viewed my vote as having delegated the party to enact that law. Therefore, the appeal to pure delegate or trustee models to defend the anti-defection law are mistaken because (a) it is unclear that constituents subscribe exclusively to one view (b) whatever stance constituents take on their vote is itself subject to change as a result of the political process.

Secondly, the emphasis on the party’s wishes to the complete exclusion of the choices of individual legislators does not square with elements of the democratic process. We do, after all, elect individual legislators belonging to certain parties, rather than voting for a party and allowing it to choose parliamentarians in its own wisdom depending on its vote-share. We also care about whom we vote for, as is evident in processes requiring scrutiny of individual candidates, their antecedents, and their wealth. It seems strange that we would invest as much in the individual characteristics of representatives when, at the end of the day, they are bound by the wishes of their party’s leadership.

One might now suggest that my argument does not provide compelling evidence for favouring complete autonomy for legislators. It might be true that we do not adopt pure trustee or delegate models in electing representatives. But it might be that on this particular choice—adherence to the party’s platform—we did, indeed, view our vote as an act of delegation. It might be that we do care about individual features of representatives, but we also elect them qua members of a party. My argument so far only seems to have led to further doubt in relation to the relationship between parties, representatives and their constituents. I will now argue that there is one way of resolving the debate: through a democratic process rather than a philosophical one.

It seems that the reason why debates over trustee versus delegate models are inconclusive is because the matter is not one that should be entrusted to a purely philosophical debate. Rather, it is precisely the kind of matter that democratic processes are intended to resolve. Whether legislators should lose their seat for voting against party lines or not seems precisely the kind of matter that voters ought to be entitled to determine since their can be reasonable disagreement on this issue. So far, it seems that my argument leads to the conclusion implied by the anti-defection law: if legislators defect from their party, they ought to face re-election. However, this does not follow from the principle sketched above. Contrary to the the Supreme Court’s assertion in Kihoto Hollohan, that “What might justify a provision for recall would justify a provision for disqualification for defection”, there is a distinction between the two.

Giving persons the ability to determine whether or not I have acted in accordance with their wishes does not require asking them this on every occasion. After all, it might be that my wish is precisely that I do not have to offer my judgment on each particular occasion. Rather, one need only provide persons the choice of offering their judgment. Thus, there is a difference between constituents having to give their judgment on whether their defected MP still represents them, and between constituents having the choice to give their judgment. The former results in an election being triggered as soon as the MP defects from the party. The latter allows constituents to trigger an election if they believe they are no longer represented as a result of the MP’s defection. The former is more consistent with democratic principles since it does not take a stand on the delegate or trustee model, instead leaving matters to the electorate. Unlike the pure trustee model, it does not leave constituents merely with the option of offering their judgment at the next electoral cycle. Rather, it affirms that a defection might be a worthy ground for loss of the MP’s ability to represent constituents at a particular moment. On the other hand, unlike the delegate model, it does not suggest that defection necessarily disqualifies MPs from being seen as representative of their constituents’ wishes. Instead, it affords them leeway to claim that their defection was an extension of their role as their constituents’ representatives—as long as their constituents do not repudiate this claim and ask to hold them to account.

As a result, one way out of the debate on defections seems to be awarding citizens a right to recall representatives where defection counts as one of the grounds for triggering recall. Does this move not threaten the political stability and social utility of political parties as the Court argued in Kihoto Hollohan? Firstly, such fears seem unfounded once one surveys the several democratic systems where parties continue to thrive in spite of defections. Secondly, such an argument ignores the considerable power parties anyway enjoy over their legislators, for instance, through the possibility of denying ministerial berths of future tickets for elections. Finally, my proposal sketched here also ensures that defection comes with an additional cost: the fear of facing a recall election. This makes it likelier that legislators would expose themselves to such risk only when such defection is perceived as consistent with their constituents’ demands rather than on extraneous grounds.

Specifying the proportion of constituents needed for triggering recall elections, and other legitimate grounds for  doing so is beyond the scope of this piece. Further, I will also refrain from assessing whether or not defection in a trust vote ought to be subject to a possible recall or the more drastic measure of by-election. This is because one might suggest that there are good practical reasons for disqualifying defectors in trust votes since these have more severe consequences for the stability of government, and it isn’t possible to curb corrupt practices. One might also argue that even though legislators can reasonably claim disagreement upon particular moves of the party, wholesale rejection of party membership ought to be subject to a greater threshold of scrutiny. However, even in this more limited form, the option of recall elections on grounds of defection would be more consistent with democratic principles than automatic disqualification for such a move.

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The Supreme Court’s Criminal Defamation Judgment: Glaringly Flawed

In a judgment delivered today, a two judge bench of the Supreme Court rejected the constitutional challenge to criminal defamation, and upheld the validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. The opinion was written by Justice Dipak Misra. In this post, I shall discuss the judgment which, unfortunately, commits several glaring errors. Before that, however, let us briefly recall the case against criminal defamation. Article 19(2) of the Constitution permits “reasonable restrictions” upon the freedom of speech, “in the interests of… defamation.” Article 19(2) is silent about whether “defamation” includes both civil and criminal defamation. The word “reasonable”, according to the judgments of the Supreme Courts, requires a relationship of proportionality between the degree to which free speech is infringed, and the corresponding interest at stake. In its public order cases, for instance, the Supreme Court has held that “reasonable” restrictions upon the freedom of speech in the interests of public order must only be limited to speech that “incites” others to public disorder.

The first attack against Section 499 was that by criminalising what is essentially a private wrong, the Section amounted to a disproportionate restriction upon free speech. Private wrongs – that is, wrongs to individuals at the hands of other individuals – are meant to be pursued through the civil courts, with damages and compensation as the remedy. It is only when there is a public element to the wrong (e.g., murder endangering the peace of the society as a whole) that the State steps in (interestingly, there was a public element involved at the time that defamation was first criminalised, in England – it was to stop people from resorting to duels in order to vindicate their honour).

Secondly, iR. Rajagopal’s Case, decided in 1994, the Supreme Court considered the relationship between free speech and civil defamation. The Court held that the common law of defamation, as it then stood, unreasonably restricted speech under Article 19(1)(a). This was because common law defamation imposed a regime of no-fault liability: in case of factual errors, the speaker could not escape liability by showing that she had taken reasonable care in checking the veracity of her statement. Following the established jurisprudence from the United States and Europe, which had modified civil defamation law in order to bring it in line with the guarantee of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court adopted the “Sullivan test“: in making statements about public officials, speakers were liable only if it could be shown that they had acted with “actual malice” – that is, having knowingly spoken falsely, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The concept of “reasonableness” in the context of defamation and free speech, therefore, was considered and decided by the Court in Rajagopal. Now criminal defamation, under Section 499 of the IPC, contains a far lower threshold than this. It follows pre-Rajagopal law in criminalising false statements without regard for due care, and also adds an additional “public interest” requirement to the defence of truth (in civil law defamation, if it can be shown that the statement was true, there is no liability). The core of this argument, therefore, is that the regime of criminal liability set up by Sections 499 and 500 goes beyond the “reasonableness” requirement of Article 19(2).

It is vitally important to distinguish the first and the second argument. According to the first argument, criminalising defamation per se is unconstitutional. According to the second argument, the legal regime of defamation as set out in Sections 499 and 500, is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, it is a distinction that is entirely lost upon the Court. In its judgment, the Court spends reams and reams of pages dealing with the apparent importance of reputation, and how criminalising defamation is proportional. However, it pays no attention to the fact that the language of Section 499 sets up an even harsher regime than was found to be unconstitutional in Rajagopal, in the context of civil defamation. As a result, we now have a truly bizarre position in Indian law: civil defamation law is more speech protective than criminal defamation law. This turns jurisprudence entirely on its head.

The judgment itself is difficult to read and analyse. It is 268 pages long, and most of it is irrelevant, since it either describes various judgments, or incorporates quotations from various sources such as the Gita, and Patrick Henry. Very broadly, however, this seems to be the flow of the judgment. The first 69 pages are spent in rehearsing the submissions of counsel. Pages 69 to 73 are spent discussing the meaning of “defamation” (on which there was really no controversy). On Page 73, there is a heading titled “Concept of Reputation“, with sub-headings such as “Vision of the Ancients” and “Thoughts of Creative Writers and Thinkers.” Following this, judgments from various Courts are excerpted that talk about the importance of “reputation”, with the conclusion that the right to reputation is an “inseparable facet of Article 21.” (page 97) This goes on until page 97.

From page 98, the Court considers the freedom of speech and expression. It spends about twenty-five pages dealing with a submission that seems to be something of a straw man: that the word “defamation” under Article 19(2) ought to be read in conjunction with “incitement to an offence“, which follows it, and therefore be given a restricted meaning. After citing extensively from the Constituent Assembly Debates, the Court rejects this submission. Without going into the merits of the Court’s examination of the Constituent Assembly Debates, this argument proves nothing. The core of the case against criminal defamation is not that the word “defamation” under Article 19(2) must be read to exclude criminal defamation, but that criminalising defamation in the manner that the Indian Penal Code does is an unreasonable restriction upon free speech.

From page 123, the Court considers the argument that criminalising defamation is disproportionate, since defamation is a private wrong. The Court observes:

“Individuals constitute the collective. Law is enacted to protect the societal interest. The law relating to defamation protects the reputation of each individual in the perception of the public at large. It matters to an individual in the eyes of the society. Protection of individual right is imperative for social stability in a body polity and that is why the State makes laws relating to crimes. A crime affects the society. It causes harm and creates a dent in social harmony. When we talk of society, it is not an abstract idea or a thought in abstraction. There is a link and connect between individual rights and the society; and this connection gives rise to community interest at large.” (page 123)

This, however, is no reasoning at all, since it effectively dissolves the distinction between private and public wrongs altogether. If individuals make up society, and if therefore a wrong to an individual is ipso facto a wrong to society, then there’s no such thing as an individual wrong in the first place.

The Court attempts to buttress its argument by citing numerous English authorities that have questioned the distinction between public and private wrongs. At the end of its citations, however, it accepts the distinction as lying between the violation of individual civil rights, and breaches of “public” rights or duties. (page 127) The Court then spends a few pages extracting quotations from various judgments that talk about what constitutes a crime. At the end of it, it observes that “it cannot be stated that the legislature cannot have a law to constitute an act or omission done by a person against the other as a crime. It depends on the legislative wisdom.”

No further analysis is offered on this point. The main contention – that criminalising a private wrong is a disproportionate – and therefore, unreasonable – restriction upon free speech, is not considered by the Court.

From page 138, the Court embarks upon a topic titled “Sanctity and significance of freedom of speech and expression in a democracy.” The next 30 pages may be skipped, as the Court extracts quotations from various judgments dealing with value of freedom of speech in a democracy. From page 166, it begins a discussion on “reasonable restrictions”. Various judgments are extracted. The Court sums up its discussion by observing that “The principles as regards reasonable restriction as has been stated by this Court from time to time are that the restriction should not be excessive and in public interest.” (page 175) This, it bears repeating for the umpteenth time, is entirely incorrect. Article 19(2) does not have a public interest restriction. Numerous judgments, from Shreya Singhal to Sakal Papers, have pointed this out. Other sub-clauses under Article 19 do. The Court cannot justify restrictions upon the freedom of speech by invoking public interest. It is extremely unfortunate that this basic textual error continues to be made, sixty-five years after the Constitution.

From reasonable restrictions, the Court then leaps straight to Article 21. No analysis is given about the link between the two. Under a heading called “Balancing of Fundamental Rights”, commencing from page 182, the Court deals with “balancing” the right to reputation under Article 21, and the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). After spending a few pages dealing with various cases on balancing rights, the Court then cites the In Re Noise Pollution Case (whose incorrect reasoning I had commented on a few days ago) to hold:

“Reputation being an inherent component of Article 21, we do not think it should be allowed to be sullied solely because another individual can have its freedom. It is not a restriction that has an inevitable consequence which impairs circulation of thought and ideas. In fact, it is control regard being had to another person’s right to go to Court and state that he has been wronged and abused. He can take recourse to a procedure recognized and accepted in law to retrieve and redeem his reputation. Therefore, the balance between the two rights needs to be struck. “Reputation” of one cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other’s right of free speech.”

Except that, this is a complete non-sequitur. It is nobody’s case that reputation be “crucified” at the altar of free speech. The Court needs to explain why taking away a criminal remedy amounts to “crucifying” reputation. It does not even attempt to do so.

Matters grow worse in the next paragraph, however, because the Court then says:

“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression.” (page 199)

If the previous passage contained a non sequitur, then this one is simply incorrect. Whether or not criminal defamation has a chilling effect is entirely independent of whether reputation is a basic element of Article 21, and legislative “wisdom” in keeping it alive. The chilling effect refers to the manner in which over-broad and severe laws “chill” speech. It takes the existence of a law as a given, and it is that law which must be examined for its chilling effect. Instead, the Court seems to be saying that the existence of a law means that there can never be a chilling effect!

On page 205, the Court begins an examination headed by the ominous phrases “constitutional fraternity” and “fundamental duty“. After excerpting some passages on the meaning of fraternity, it then says that “The individual should have all the rights under the Constitution but simultaneously he has the responsibility to live upto the constitutional values like essential brotherhood – the fraternity – that strengthens the societal interest. Fraternity means brotherhood and common interest.” (page 208)

This is all very well as a moral point, but as a legal standard, it’s rather vague and entirely irrelevant. It was not enough that the right to freedom of expression could be restricted on the eight grounds stipulated in Article 19(2). It was not enough that the Court would then bring in a boundless Article 21, and use it as a sword to cut down free speech further. Over and above all of that, the Court introduces a further ground for restricting speech: the “duty” of “constitutional fraternity”. At this stage, it is difficult to see what remains of Article 19(1)(a). The Court follows this up with an even more disturbing discussion about “constitutional duties” under Part IVA of the Constitution (which are expressly unenforceable), holding that “respect for the dignity of another is a constitutional norm. It would not amount to an overstatement if it is said that constitutional fraternity and the intrinsic value inhered in fundamental duty proclaim the constitutional assurance of mutual respect and concern for each other’s dignity.” (page 214 – 215) “Fraternity” and “fundamental duties”, neither of which are found anywhere in Article 19(2) or Part III, have become tools to restrict the freedom of speech and expression.

The Court spends the next thirty pages of its judgment examining the scope of Section 499 itself. After citing many judgments, it comes to the conclusion that the provisions of Section 499 are not vague. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, however, it fails entirely to deal with the issue of no-fault liability as disproportionate under Article 19(2). In fact, it goes further, and justifies the additional public interest requirement under the First Exception, in the following way:

“… examples pertain to an imputation that a person is an alcoholic; an imputation that two family members are involved in consensual incest; an imputation that a person is impotent; a statement is made in public that a particular person suffers from AIDS; an imputation that a person is a victim of rape; and an imputation that the child of a married couple is not fathered by the husband but born out of an affair with another man. We have set out the examples cited by the learned senior counsel only to show that there can be occasions or situations where truth may not be sole defence. And that is why the provision has given emphasis on public good.”

This, however, seems to be an unnecessary requirement. If I correctly state that you suffer from AIDS, or have been born out of an adulterous affair, then I may be liable to you in an action for privacy. Why would this lead to an action for criminal defamation? And why, when there exists a remedy in a claim for privacy, is there a need to have an additional remedy for criminal defamation?

The Court concludes (more or less) with the following observation:

“One cannot be unmindful that right to freedom of speech and expression is a highly valued and cherished right but the Constitution conceives of reasonable restriction. In that context criminal defamation which is in existence in the form of Sections 499 and 500 IPC is not a restriction on free speech that can be characterized as disproportionate. Right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other. Protection of reputation is a fundamental right. It is also a human right. Cumulatively it serves the social interest.”

The last twenty pages of the judgment deal with the procedure for defamation under Section 199 CrPC, which I will not examine here.

At the end of all this, however, the following points should be clear. The Court spends 268 pages excerpting quotations, extracting cases, and making blanket assertions without justification. It fails to do the following:

(a) Explain how defamation is a public wrong (stating that society is an aggregation of individuals does not count)

(b) Explain why, if defamation is a private wrong with elements of a public wrong, criminalisation is a proportionate response

(c) Explain why no-fault liability and an added test of public good in the defence of truth is proportionate and reasonable, especially in the light of Rajagopal’s Case, and consistent jurisprudence from across the common law world

(d) Explain why the chilling effect is not a valid concern

(e) Explain why the “balancing” between the enumerated right to freedom of speech and the unenumerated right to “reputation” under Article 21 yields criminalising defamation as the solution

(f) Explain how fraternity and fundamental duties have become independent grounds to restrict free speech

In addition, the judgment continues the profoundly disturbing trend of using Article 21 as a sword to limit other fundamental rights, an issue I had written about a few days ago.

Lastly, the judgment is difficult to analyse not only because of conceptual slippages and screaming silences where there should be argument, but also because of its language. What, for instance does it mean to exposit “cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord“? What is an “asservation“? What is an “oppugnation“? What does it mean to say that “reputation is fundamentally a glorious amalgam and unification of virtues which makes a man feel proud of his ancestry and satisfies him to bequeath it as a part of inheritance on posterity“? Do Judges not have a duty to write clearly, stick to the point, and give reasons for their conclusions? Unfortunately, the indiscipline with which the Court examines the law and the Constitution here, is equally matched by its indiscipline with language.

The result is not pleasant.

 

 

 

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Today: The Supreme Court’s nod to structural discrimination

In a judgment handed down today, the Supreme Court held that the de-boarding of a disabled passenger from a Spice Jet airplane was illegal and violated her rights. It also issued some guidelines with respect to the treatment of disabled persons at airports under existing laws and regulations. In addition, constitutional observers might find certain observations in paragraph 39 to be of interest. Justice Sikri notes:

“…equality is founded upon two complementary principles: non-discrimination and reasonable differentiation. The principle of non-discrimination seeks to ensure that all persons can equally enjoy and exercise all their rights and freedoms. Discrimination occurs due to arbitrary denial of opportunities for equal participation. For example, when public facilities and services are set on standards out of the reach of persons with disabilities, it leads to exclusion and denial of rights. Equality not only implies preventing discrimination (example, the protection of individuals against unfavourable treatment by introducing anti-discrimination laws), but goes beyond in remedying discrimination against groups suffering systematic discrimination in society. In concrete terms, it means embracing the notion of positive rights, affirmative action and reasonable accommodation.”

What is striking about this passage is the complete absence of the language of intention/motive in defining discrimination. As we have discussed extensively on this blog before, the dominant approach (with the odd exception) of the Indian Supreme Court towards equality has been to understand the word “grounds” under Article 15(1) [“The State shall not discriminate on grounds only of…”] as qualifying “the State”, and thereby, holding that discrimination exists only if it can be shown that it was the intention, or purpose, of the law to discriminate. This approach is based upon a belief that discrimination is comprised of a set of conscious, intentional, definable, and individual acts.

This, however, is no longer the model followed in many other jurisdictions. Courts now focus upon the effects of government policy or laws, with the understanding that even seemingly neutral norms have the effect of excluding and subordinating people and groups by virtue of the fact that these norms are part of a non-neutral system of structures and institutions.

The underlined portions of the above excerpt strongly endorse the structural, effects-based model. They shift the emphasis from the reasons or motivations governing the discriminatory action, to the right of the discriminated group to enjoy equal access to public goods. And they also place the focus upon remedying systemic discrimination.

While these remain incidental observations of a two-judge bench, it is important to acknowledge that they provide an alternative approach towards equality under the Constitution, with admirable lucidity and clarity. In that sense, today’s judgment is of significance.

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The Bombay High Court’s beef ban decision – II: On the Unconstitutionality of the Reverse Onus Clause (Guest Post)

(In this guest post, criminal law specialist Abhinav Sekhri examines the concurring opinion of Gupte J., which struck down Section 9B of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act (the reverse burden clause)

In a post yesterday, the Resident Author of this Blog engaged in a thorough analysis of various aspects of the decision delivered by the Bombay High Court in Sheikh Zahid Mukhtar v. State of Maharashtra. Consideration of the issues discussed by the separate opinion of Justice Gupte was left, which is what I seek to address. Justice Gupte tackles Section 9-B of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2015 [hereafter, the Act], which reads:

In any trial for an offence punishable under sections 9 or 9A for contravention of the provisions of this Act, the burden of proving that the slaughter, transport, export outside the State, sale, purchase or possession of flesh of cow, bull or bullock was not in contravention of the provisions of this Act, shall be on the accused.

The separate opinion struck down Section 9-B of the Act as unconstitutional. In this comment, I first give a basic introduction to reverse burden (or reverse onus) clauses, moving on to discuss the specific reasoning adopted in the Separate Opinion for holding the provision unconstitutional.

An Introduction on Reverse Burdens

 

Ordinarily, in criminal cases the burden to establish the guilt of an Accused rests on the state. This dovetails with the essential principle of every Accused having a presumption of innocence in her favour. Over time, though, many statutory inroads have been made into this principle. Beginning with requiring an Accused to establish certain facts (evidential burdens), today there are several instances of Accused persons requiring to establish innocence itself (legal burdens). The Supreme Court held these clauses to be constitutional even where they impose legal burdens, in Noor Aga v. State of Punjab [(2008) 16 SCC 417].

Consider an example from the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 [hereafter, NDPS Act]. This employs two reverse-burden clauses. Section 54 of that Act creates a presumption that the Accused is guilty of an offence, if she fails to ‘satisfactorily account’ for possession of contraband. Section 35 states that in a prosecution under the NDPS Act, it would be presumed that the Accused has the ‘culpable mental state’ necessary for the offence.

How these operate was clarified by the Supreme Court in Inder Sain v. State of Punjab [(1973) 2 SCC 372, a case under the old Opium Act, 1878]; Noor Aga v. State of Punjab [(2008) 16 SCC 417]; Dharampal Singh v. State of Punjab [(2010) 9 SCC 608]; Bhola Singh v. State of Punjab [(2011) 11 SCC 653]. According to these decisions, the prosecution must prove initial facts – there was contraband, and it was in the conscious possession of the Accused – which creates a presumption of guilt, shifting the burden on the Accused to rebut that presumption. Note, though, that the prosecution is not required to prove that the Accused was knowingly in possession of the contraband itself. For instance, in Dharampal, 65 kg of Opium was recovered from the boot of the car owned and driven by the Accused. The prosecution was not required to prove that the Accused knew that the boot had the contraband. The presumption was cast as soon as the prosecution proved the material was contraband, and that it was in the boot of the car owned and driven by the Accused. It was now on the Accused to rebut this presumption.

The Separate Opinion’s Analysis of Reverse Burdens

At the outset, I must applaud the opinion for having extensively discussed the issue of reverse burdens. The vociferous opposition initially faced by these clauses across the common-law world has certainly shifted to a resigned acceptance in light of the perceived needs of law enforcement. However, we are now in a time when legislatures resort to such egregious provisions at the drop of a hat, exhibiting a numbness to the severe curtailment of liberties they entail. Parts of the opinion specifically address this problem, as Justice Gupte attacks the very need of having such a clause while dealing with a substance such as beef, which, as admitted by the state, carries no intrinsic harm or threat to society as opposed to say drugs [Paragraph 215, Pages 235-236].

Moving on to considering the opinion more substantively. Justice Gupte bases his attack upon Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. After citing various decisions, both Indian and foreign [Paragraphs 202-212, Pages 210-231], Justice Gupte arrives at the following four-fold test for considering the validity of any reverse burden clause [Paragraph 213, Pages 231-232]:

  1. Is the State required to prove enough basic or essential facts constituting a crime so as to raise a presumption of balance facts (considering the probative connection between these basic facts and the presumed facts) to bring home the guilt of the accused, and to disprove which the burden is cast on the accused?
  2. Does the proof of these balance facts involve a burden to prove a negative fact?
  3. Are these balance facts within the special knowledge of the accused?
  4. Does this burden, considering the aspect of relative ease for the accused to discharge it or the State to prove otherwise, subject the accused to any hardship or oppression?

The First Condition restates that the provision must require basic facts to be established by the prosecution before talk of any presumptions and reversing burdens. This must bear enough of a ‘probative connection’ with the presumption sought to be drawn. Going back to the example of Dharampal above, we can usefully juxtapose it with the decision in Bhola Singh. In the latter, the Supreme Court set aside the conviction for a co-owner of a truck which was caught transporting contraband based on the presumption. The Supreme Court held the presumption was not attracted, as the prosecution didn’t prove any basic facts connecting the Accused with the contraband. The prosecution didn’t show the Accused knew how his truck was being used by the contractor, let alone him knowing that the truck was being used to smuggle contraband.

From this, the Second and Third Conditions address the kind of facts that are to be presumed. The idea behind this is an understanding that reverse burden clauses only make sense where the issue is lying within the ‘special knowledge’ of the Accused or to prove ‘negative facts’. ‘Negative facts’ are the existence of permissions such as licenses or tickets, which play a role where offences rely on the inexistence of these permissions. ‘Special knowledge’ is a reference to mental states of an Accused. This is trickier. Any culpable mental state will always be a matter for the ‘special knowledge’ of an Accused, inviting the argument that in every trial the burden must be on the Accused to disprove intention after the prosecution establishes the physical act. Enter, the fourth condition, which places the handbrake on extending such logic too far. It reminds us of the fundamental David v. Goliath nature of the contest though, and how difficult it is for an Accused to find and present evidence to establish his innocence beyond his own word for his deeds.

Overall, then, there is little to disagree with the framework Justice Gupte establishes for evaluating reverse burden clauses in his separate opinion. The first and fourth conditions are the actual ‘tests’ upon which the reverse burden clause will be tested. If you clear the first test, the framework requires determining what kind of presumption is placed on the Accused, before considering whether placing such a presumption is unduly burdensome and oppressive. Considering there is no such clear test available in judicial decisions at present, it is a welcome contribution which should prove helpful in providing a systematic consideration of the various reverse burden clauses we have at present, and are bound to have in the future.

Applying the Tests to Section 9-B of the Act

Section 9-B is meant to apply to every offence under the Act, i.e. offences under Sections 5, 5-A, 5-B, 5-C, 5-C and 6:

  1. Section 5 makes it an offence to slaughter cows, bulls, or bullocks in any part of Maharashtra;
  2. Section 5-A makes it an offence to transport and/or export cows, bulls or bullocks (or cause to, or offer to do so) within or outside Maharashtra in contravention of the Act or with knowledge that the animal will, or is likely to be, slaughtered;
  3. Section 5-B makes it an offence to purchase/sell/otherwise dispose of cows, bulls or bullocks (or offer to do so), knowing or having reason to believe the animal will, or is likely to be, slaughtered;
  4. Section 5-C criminalized possession of the flesh of a cow, bull or bullock slaughtered in contravention of the Act;
  5. Section 5-D criminalized possession of the flesh of a cow, bull or bullock slaughtered outside Maharashtra;
  6. Section 6 regulated the slaughtering of cows, bulls or bullocks and made it an offence to slaughter such animals without obtaining a certificate.

The obvious problem with Section 9-B is its broad and indiscriminate phrasing, placing the burden upon the Accused for proving every ingredient of the offence. In order to make the section apply to all offences in the Act, it burdened the Accused with proving “that the slaughter, transport, export outside the State, sale, purchase or possession of flesh of cow, bull or bullock was not in contravention of the provisions of this Act.” The basic fact concept would require the State to at least prove that the cow or flesh in question was slaughtered, transported, exported, sold or purchased. It would also require that a connection be drawn between that cow or flesh in question and the Accused. Section 9-B allowed the prosecution to get away without doing anything, violating the very basic First Condition.

Justice Gupte, however, begins by specifically looking at the possession offences under Section 5-C and 5-D of the Act through the lens of the Second Condition [Paragraph 214, Pages 233-235. After immediately concluding that the Accused could never establish the ‘negative fact’ of the flesh not being that of a cow or bull, Justice Gupte immediately also concludes that the Accused could never establish that the flesh was obtained in contravention of the Act to begin with, and immediately thereafter concludes this violates his Fourth Condition of oppression. At the end of these assertions, he states that it would be easier for the State to prove these foundational facts, and absence of any such requirement was itself a problem. While having created a clear four-fold test, Justice Gupte doesn’t maintain these neat distinctions in his scrutiny of the provision on its anvil. The confusion is apparent in the Paragraph, and blunts what would have otherwise been a forceful criticism of the provision.

These objections were in some measure expected by the State. As recorded in the Separate Opinion, the Advocate General for Maharashtra conceded Section 9-B would apply only after the prosecution established certain initial facts. At one point, it is recorded how the Advocate General interpreted Section 9-B to apply only to create a presumption after every physical act had been established. This interpretation would have meant Section 9-B operated to presume that the concerned physical act – transport/export/possession etc. – was done knowing that it was contrary to the Act.

This would have made Section 9-B akin to those clauses which presume the existence of the mental state, considering it to be within the ‘special knowledge’ of an Accused. However, as Justice Gupte rightly noted, “Constitutionality cannot be a matter of concession by the State at the hearing” [Paragraph 215, Page 235-236]. Justice Gupte doesn’t stop there, though, and then proceeds to attack the ‘special knowledge’ justification offered by the Advocate General [Paragraphs 216- 217, Pages 237-240]. As I mentioned above, it is here that Justice Gupte criticizes the usage of reverse burden clauses in this context of possessing cow meat, citing the inherently harmful nature of substances such as narcotics which can warrant possession-based presumptions. This is critical, and exposes future legislation employing reverse burdens with possession based offences to closer scrutiny under Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Opinion then moves to Section 5-A and 5-B. Section 9-B would have placed the entire burden on the Accused, which was naturally unsustainable. A version that kicked in only to create a presumption that the Accused had knowledge that the offending acts of transport/export/sale/purchase would lead to slaughter or were otherwise in contravention of the Act was also found unsustainable. The basis for this conclusion was an insufficient connection existed between the prosecution proving the physical acts and the ultimate presumption of knowledge (violating the First Condition). The offence was purely based on knowledge, and presuming that very ingredient would subject the Accused to oppression (violating the Fourth Condition). Section 9-B was unconstitutional when applied together with Sections 5-A and 5-B as well.

Lastly, Justice Gupte arrives at Sections 5 and 6, which were present before the Amendment. The analysis is crisp as it is brief – Sections 5 and 6 read with Section 9-B would involve a presumption of foundational facts, which would render its use unconstitutional for a violation of his First Condition.

What to Expect Now?

Newspapers have already reported that the State of Maharashtra plans to challenge this decision in the Supreme Court. A part of me hopes this happens, as it would enable the Supreme Court to, hopefully, endorse the exposition of the Separate Opinion on reverse burden clauses. The test created is clear, and potentially allows for greater clarity in examining these provisions which currently abound our statute book. In its current form, Section 9-B is far too broad to be considered sustainable. One would assume that the chances of the Supreme Court overturning the verdict are unlikely.

The higher probability is of a modified Section 9-B emerging from the Maharashtra legislature, incorporating the position espoused by the Advocate General during the hearing before the Bombay High Court. A version of Section 9-B which explicitly places an initial burden on the prosecution would then place the focus squarely on the other condition created by Justice Gupte, of such a provision placing an Accused under oppression and undue hardship. That consideration, whenever it does happen, will prove to have a lasting impression on how reverse burden clauses are viewed in our criminal justice system.

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Modern Dental College vs State of MP: The Supreme Court’s foray into proportionality and public goods

Earlier this week, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous judgment (with a majority and concurring opinion) in the case of Modern Dental College vs State of Madhya Pradesh. The Petitioner’s had challenged the constitutional validity of the ‘Niji Vyavasayik Shikshan Sanstha (Pravesh Ka Viniyaman Avam Shulk Ka Nirdharan) Adhiniyam, 2007′ [“the Act”], as well as the Admissions Rules, 2008 and the Madhya Pradesh Private Medical and Dental Post Graduate Courses Entrance Examination Rules, 2009, which were framed by the State Government in exercise of the power conferred upon it under the Act. Broadly speaking, the Act and Rules were framed to regulate private professional educational institutions. Among other things, they prescribed a compulsory common entrance examination administered by the government (Section 6), provisions for fee fixation by a government committee based on certain detailed criteria (Section 9), and for the reservation of seats. Before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, the petitioners’ primary contention was that the Act and Rules amounted to excessive interference in the autonomy of private educational institutions, and consequently, violated Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. The MP High Court rejected the petitioners’ arguments entirely, and upheld the validity of the Act and Rules. The High Court’s judgment was based upon the precedent in T.M.A. Pai, P.A. Inamdar, and subsequent cases, which had decided the extent to which the State could intervene into the functioning of private, unaided colleges.

Before the Supreme Court, the primary contention of the Petitioners was that “by the impugned legislation the State seeks to wipe out the choice available with the appellants institutions to devise their own admission procedure and the provisions of Section 6 read with Section 3(d) necessitate that the admission be carried out only on the basis of a CET to be conducted by the State Government or any agency appointed by it…  in addition, Section 9 of the Act provides for the Committee defined under Section 3(c) of the Act to ‘determine’ and ‘fix’ the fees to be charged by the appellants and thereby completely trample the rights of the appellants to determine and charge the fee…”, and that the provision of reservation violated the judgment of the Supreme Court in Ashoka Kumar Thakur’s Case. (paragraph 19) In other words, through the impugned Act and Rules, the State was effectively attempting to “take over the control of the affairs of the institutions” (paragraph 22), and that this could not be justified as a reasonable restriction under Article 19(6).

The petitioners’ arguments were rejected by the Supreme Court, which upheld the judgment of the High Court and the constitutional validity of the Act and Rules. The Court started by observing that “though education is now treated as an ‘occupation’ and, thus, has become a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, at the same time shackles are put insofar as this particular occupation is concerned which is termed as ‘noble’. Therefore, profiteering and commercialisation are not permitted and no capitation fee can be charged.” (paragraph 30) Leaving aside for the moment the general merits of this view, effectively, the argument here seems to be that insofar as an educational institution is engaged in profiteering, it cannot invoke the protection of Article 19(1)(g) to start with. If this is the case, then there is no need to carry out an Article 19(6) analysis. This is precisely what the Court proceeds to do, however. Perhaps, then, a better way of understanding the issue (although the Court doesn’t put it this way) is that the prevention of profiteering is a weighty reason in support of the reasonableness of the restrictions placed upon the Article 19(1)(g) right.

Much of the analysis that follows is essentially a dense, textual reading of the T.M.A. Pai and Inamdar judgments, both of which bind the Court. There is, therefore, little profit in analysing the reasoning of this part of the judgment. Put briefly, the Court follows T.M.A. Pai in holding that the freedom of occupation of educational institutions under Article 19(1)(g) includes the freedom to admit, to set up a reasonable fee structure, to appoint staff, and to take action in cases of dereliction of duty (paragraph 33). T.M.A. Pai had then held that in the case of professional institutions, the admissions criteria must be “fair, transparent and non-exploitative” (paragraph 36), with the overriding consideration being merit. For this purpose, T.M.A. Pai had permitted the government to frame regulations (paragraph 37). Furthermore, P.A. Inamdar had held that the constitution of Committees for monitoring admissions and fee structure, in order to prevent exploitation, was constitutional (paragraph 42). Post-audit measures were insufficient for this task (paragraph 43).

Relying upon this precedent, the Court then considered the question of whether the impugned Act and Rules constituted reasonable restrictions under Article 19(6). In a rare instance of clarity and decisiveness when it came to Article 19, the Supreme Court expressly held that determining “reasonableness” required a proportionality enquiry. There is nothing especially novel or original here. As far as State of Madras vs V.G. Row, the Supreme Court had effectively read proportionality into the reasonableness requirement under Article 19(6):

“The nature of the right alleged to have been infringed, the underlying purpose of the restrictions imposed, the extent and urgency of the evil sought to be remedied thereby, the disproportion of the imposition, the prevailing conditions at the time, should all enter into the judicial verdict.”

In the intervening years, however, the Court has rarely fleshed out the contours of this test. The nadir of its Article 19(2) – (6) jurisprudence was undoubtedly Society for Un-Aided Private Schools vs Union of India where the Supreme Court upheld the RtE’s compulsory requirement that private schools admit students from under-privileged backgrounds to the extent of 25% of their strength, without even an attempt to analyse the restriction in the context of reasonableness under Article 19(6). At the very least, therefore, in its present judgment, the Supreme Court did well by bringing proportionality back upon the centre-stage of an Article 19(1)(g)-19(6) analysis:

“… a limitation of a constitutional right will be constitutionally permissible if: (i) it is designated for a proper purpose; (ii) the measures undertaken to effectuate such a limitation are rationally connected to the fulfillment of that purpose; (iii) the measures undertaken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures that may similarly achieve that same purpose with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there needs to be a proper relation (‘proportionality stricto sensu’ or ‘balancing’) between the importance of achieving the proper purpose and the social importance of preventing the limitation on the constitutional right.” (paragraph 53)

The Court then went into a detailed survey of proportionality jurisprudence in other countries (paragraph 53 – 59), before endorsing the test in the context of Indian Article 19 jurisprudence.

Unfortunately, however, after laying out the test with admirable clarity, the Court failed to apply it to the present case. In paragraph 61, it noted:

“We are of the view that the larger public interest warrants such a measure. Having regard to the malpractices which are noticed in the CET conducted by such private institutions themselves, for which plethora of material is produced, it is, undoubtedly, in the larger interest and welfare of the students community to promote merit, add excellence and curb malpractices. The extent of restriction has to be viewed keeping in view all these factors and, therefore, we feel that the impugned provisions which may amount to ‘restrictions’ on the right of the appellants to carry on their ‘occupation’, are clearly ‘reasonable’ and satisfied the test of proportionality.”

This, however, is merely an assertion. Proportionality would require the Court to actively consider alternative options, and ask whether they were adequate to meet the goal of ensuring “fair, transparent, and non exploitative” procedures. For instance, the Court ought to have given cogent reasons as to why a post-admission audit (which infringes Article 19(1)(g) to a significantly lesser extent) was not adequate. The mere fact of prevailing exploitation and other malpractices was not enough to justify the particular State action in the present case, which – admittedly – constituted far-reaching interference with the autonomy of private educational institutions. The same problem plagues the Court’s analysis of fee-fixation: the Court rejected post-audit measures without explaining why – something that was not open to it if it was faithfully applying a proportionality test. (paragraph 73) Admittedly, the Court did make an attempt to do so in Paragraph 88, where it referred to numerous irregularities in privately-conducted entrance tests, and pointed to the greater accountability of State-administered ones (an assertion which, itself, would be open to doubt). This, however, is certainly not enough to reach such a strong conclusion about the reasonableness of the restriction.

This should not be taken to mean that the Supreme Court was necessarily incorrect. However, its application of the proportionality standard was certainly insufficient, since the whole purpose of that standard is a careful sifting of evidence, so as to ensure that restrictions are proportionate, and that if the same goal could be achieved by a different route, that did not infringe upon rights to the same extent, then it is the responsibility of the State to choose that route.

In addition to the discussion of proportionality, there is another significant aspect of this judgment that is worth noting. In paragraph 83, the Court observed:

Thus, when there can be Regulators which can fix the charges for telecom companies in respect of various services that such companies provide to the consumers; when Regulators can fix the premium and other charges which the insurance companies are supposed to receive from the persons who are insured, when Regulators can fix the rates at which the producer of electricity is to supply the electricity to the distributors, we fail to understand as to why there cannot be a regulatory mechanism when it comes to education which is not treated as purely economic activity but welfare activity aimed at achieving more egalitarian and prosperous society by empowering the people of this country by educating them. In the field of the education, therefore, this constitutional goal remains pivotal which makes it distinct and special in contradistinction with other economic activities as the purpose of education is to bring about social transformation and thereby a better society as it aims at creating better human resource which would contribute to the socie-economic and political upliftment of the nation.”

This is crucial, because the justification for regulation under Article 19(6) has gone from the “charitable nature” of education, to education as a public utility. The latter is a far more defensible basis for regulation. The charitable activity argument, which has plagued the Court for quite a few decades, is little more than an imposition of the Court’s personal morality upon unwilling education providers, and entirely at war with reality. Education’s public function, however, is independent of the subjective intention with which providers engage in the business, and is also a constitutional basis for regulation. We can surely hope that the Courts will, after this, gradually abandon the no-profiteering-because-charitable-activity view of education, and move to a conceptual framework that places issues of public good and access at the heart of the enquiry.

Consequently, while parts of the reasoning of the Court’s judgment are open to serious question, there are two important things that the judgment does. First, it places proportionality at the centre of the “reasonableness” enquiry, and lays the groundwork for the future development of jurisprudence along these lines. And secondly, it initiates a shift in the discourse from the charitable character of education, to its role as a public utility. It remains to be seen whether either of these developments will have an impact in the coming years.

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