The Curious Continuing Afterlife of the Sabarimala “Review”

Tags

, ,

[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


Previously on this blog, I had noted how the “review” order in the Sabarimala judgment flouted all known principles governing the Supreme Court’s review jurisdiction. In the wake of that order, things have moved fast. Two women approached the Supreme Court, pointing out that as there was no stay on the original Sabarimala judgment, their right to access the temple continued to stand, and that the state of Kerala was bound to implement the original judgment. During that hearing, as I noted, the Court refused to pass any orders, only making a series of remarks that appeared to have little to do with the actual issues in the case. Subsequently, however, the Chief Justice established a nine-judge bench to hear the issue, which sat for the first time yesterday.

We will get to the proceedings of the nine-judge bench in a moment, but to begin with, I want to note that the leap from the five-judge bench that wrote the Sabarimala review order straight to a nine-judge bench, is an odd one. In the review order of the five-judge bench, it was observed that there might be a possible conflict between the seven-judge bench decision in Shirur Mutt and the five-judge bench decision in Durgah Committee, on the question of the role of the Court in determining the “essential practices” of a religion. Notice, however, that the Sabarimala bench did not deliver any finding on the issue (as indeed it couldn’t, as the question was not before it). Consequently, if a five-judge bench had noted a possible discrepancy between previous seven-judge and five-judge benches, then the correct course of action would have been for the Chief Justice to convene a seven-judge bench, that would have (a) heard arguments on the issue of whether there was indeed a conflict, (b) if it found there was, heard arguments on whether Shirur Mutt was correct (and that therefore, by extension, Durgah Committee had incorrectly gone against a binding judgment), or (c) if it doubted the correctness of Shirur Mutt, to then refer the question to a nine-judge bench to decide. Instead of this judicial consideration of the issues, what we got was an administrative decision of the Chief Justice to constitute a bench of nine judges off the bat, which could now directly overrule Shirur Mutt if it so decided.

This is not pedantic hair-splitting. On the contrary, it is deeply important, because respect for precedent is at the bedrock of our judicial system, and of the rule of law. Ordinarily, prior judgments of the Supreme Court are binding, and meant to be followed: this is what provides the system the stability and continuity that differentiates the rule of law from the rule of judges. Now if a later bench of the Court wants to go against binding precedent, a series of ground-rules exist to ensure that this can only happen after careful consideration and reflection, and in judicial proceedings where both sides can put their case. These ground rules stipulate, for example, that if a smaller bench feels that the binding decision of a previous, larger bench is incorrect, it “refers” the case to a larger bench to consider; and in general, this referral takes place incrementally (for example, from two judges to three, three to five etc. – although there have, of course, been exceptions). The reason for this – to reiterate – is that respect for precedent requires, logically, that settled law be disturbed only when there are weighty reasons for doing so.

However, let us now come to the proceedings of the nine-judge bench itself. When the case was first listed on the Supreme Court’s website, there was a note below it that specified that the nine-judge bench would only be considering the reference questions that the Sabarimala review order had listed, and would not be entertaining arguments on the merits of the Sabarimala petitions themselves. This, as things went, was entirely appropriate: as I pointed out in my original piece, the Review Order had not even doubted the correctness of the Sabarimala judgment, let alone refer it to a larger bench; it had, rather, referred certain “questions” that it felt might be relevant for certain other cases (involving female genital mutilation, entry of Parsi women to fire temples, and entry of women to mosques). Thus, whatever the irregularities of the Review order, a limited consideration of those referred questions was the only issue that was actually before the larger bench.

When the matter was heard yesterday, however, events took a decidedly different turn. During the course of arguments, the Chief Justice indicated that the bench intended to hear not just the referral questions, but all the cases that the referral order believed might be impacted by those questions: female genital mutilation, entry of Parsi women to fire temples, and entry of women to mosques. The hearing closed with the bench directing counsel for all parties to meet and – if necessary – reframe and fine-tune the questions for decision.

While this in itself is unexceptionable (the original questions, as anyone can see, were much too broad and academic), the devil – as always – is in the details. In this case, it lies in the last line of the nine-judge bench’s order, which states:

List these matters along with Writ Petition (C) No.472 of 2019, SLP(C) No.18889/2012 and Writ Petition (C) No.286 of 2017, on 03.02.2020.

 

What are these petitions? These are the three petitions involving – as indicated above – female genital mutilation, entry of Parsi women to fire temples, and entry of women to mosques. In other words, therefore, it appears that – despite originally stating (rightly) that it would only hear the reference questions, the Court now appears to have placed the pending petitions before itself. But this is absolutely unprecedented – these cases were pending before their respective (smaller) benches, and there is no order of reference asking them to be placed before this nine-judge bench.

However, there is something more concerning here. If the nine-judge bench is no longer restricting itself to the reference questions – but intends to hear these petitions as well – then it at least potentially follows that the Sabarimala petitions – out of which the review order arose – will also now be the subject matter of the hearing. This would be truly extraordinary: a final judgment of the Court (five judges) would be effectively re-heard by a nine-judge bench, against all existing norms and conventions. Recall that no judgment has yet doubted the correctness of the original Sabarimala decision, or made a reference to have it reconsidered. In other words, this “second round” with a larger bench is taking place purely by virtue of the Chief Justice exercising his administrative fiat.

It should be obvious by now that this is no longer about whether the original judgment in Sabarimala was right or wrong. People can – and do – have different views about that, and it would be entirely open to later benches to reconsider it, following proper procedures. But what is at stake here is something deeper: it is whether precedent continues to have any meaning at the Supreme Court, or whether what we are witnessing is a gradual metamorphosis of the Supreme Court of India into the Supreme Chief Justice of India (a point I have written about before). Because what has happened here is that a number crucial issues that required judicial consideration in a proper way (whether there is a conflict between Shirur Mutt and Durgah, requiring resolution; whether the referred questions actually affect the pending cases; and whether Sabarimala ought to be reconsidered) have been implicitly decided through the constitution of a nine-judge bench, by administrative fiat.

Admittedly, a lot of these problems arise out of the bizarre character of the original Sabarimala “review” order, which I have discussed before. However, in subsequent proceedings, these problems appear only to have been compounded. On the next date of hearing, therefore, it remains to be seen whether the Court will, in the end, confine itself to answering the reference questions posed in Sabarimala (which, it may be recalled, it need not even do so) – or to take upon itself a broader role that will severely compromise the already-damaged idea of precedent at the Supreme Court.

The Devil’s in the (future) Detail: The Supreme Court’s Internet shut-down Judgment

Tags

, ,

Previously on this blog, we have discussed in some detail the litigation challenging the five-month-long internet shut-down in the Kashmir Valley. Today, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the challenge. While there was no effective relief in the judgment – the Court did not order a restoration of internet services in the valley, as it did not return a finding on the issue (see below) – it nonetheless reiterated certain important constitutional principles. While it is unfortunate, therefore, that the longest internet shut-down in a democratic country continues (at least for the foreseeable future), in this post, I will set out what the judgment actually did do, and how it provides a platform for future challenges to internet shut-downs as well as to the imposition of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

What the State Lost 

To understand the judgment, it is important to understand two bizarre claims advanced by the State at various points of the hearing. The State (i) refused to produce the orders that it had passed under Section 144 CrPC and the 2017 Telecom Suspension Rules, and which were the legal bases of the fundamental rights restrictions in the Valley; (ii) cited terrorism in Kashmir to argue that it was exempted from following the proportionality standard while restricting fundamental rights, and that, in the interests of national security, the Court ought not to intervene.

In essence, therefore, what the State – and its lawyers – were asking for was a complete carte blanche with respect to the operations in Kashmir. If the orders restricting fundamental rights did not need to be produced, there was no effective way to challenge them; and if the Court could not intervene because “terrorism”, then there was no effective forum where to challenge them. In other words, the State – and its lawyers – asked the Court to effectively hold that Kashmir was in a state of permanent Emergency, where fundamental rights stood suspended and at the mercy of the State, even though there had been no declaration of an Emergency at any point. The dangers of such an argument are obvious; as I’ve argued before, what the State wanted was a permanent normalisation of the Emergency regime, where the invocation of “national security” would grant an automatic judicial immunity from justifying the constitutionality of fundamental rights restrictions.

On both counts, however, the State’s arguments were comprehensively rejected. On the first issue, the Court made it clear that the orders providing legal cover to the imposition of Section 144 CrPC and the internet shut-down had to be made public, so that citizens could know – and, if they chose – challenge the bases on which their fundamental rights were being restricted. If the State wanted to withhold any part of such orders because of national security concerns, it would have to justify that, on a case to case basis.

On the second count, the Supreme Court reiterated that, at all times, restrictions upon fundamental rights had to be consistent with the proportionality standard. In particular, as part of the proportionality standard, the State had to select the least intrusive measure to achieve its legitimate goals. As the Court noted in paragraph 70:

However, before settling on the aforesaid measure, the authorities must assess the existence of any alternative mechanism in furtherance of the aforesaid goal. The appropriateness of such a measure depends on its implication upon the fundamental rights and the necessity of such measure. It is undeniable from the aforesaid holding that only the least restrictive measure can be resorted to by the State, taking into consideration the facts and circumstances. Lastly, since the order has serious implications on the fundamental rights of the affected parties, the same should be supported by sufficient material and should be amenable to judicial review.

And as it went on to note in paragraph 71:

The degree of restriction and the scope of the same, both territorially and temporally, must stand in relation to what is actually necessary to combat an emergent situation.

 

Applying this standard to the specificity of internet shut-downs, the Court made four further observations. First, that the right to use the internet as a medium for free speech and expression and for trade and commerce, was protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution; secondly, that Article 19(2) allowed for the restriction of “abrasive statement(s) with imminent threat … if the same impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India…”; thirdly, that a perpetual internet shut-down would fail the test of proportionality; and fourthly, that the State’s argument that it couldn’t selectively block websites because of a lack of technology could not be accepted, as “[if] a contention is accepted, then the Government would have.”

Taking these four observations together, it is evident that the ongoing internet shut-down in Kashmir completely fails constitutional standards, as the government did not even attempt to justify it on grounds of proportionality, or that it was only targeting statements carrying an “imminent threat.” The Court went on to note that all of this required that when orders were being passed under the Telecom Suspension Rules to shut dow the internet, those orders would have to explicitly reflect how – in the specific case – the State action was proportionate.

While the reiteration of the proportionality standard in the context of internet shut-downs was a reinforcement of existing law, the Court also applied the same standard to Section 144 orders – which marks an incremental advance in the law. Up until now, the judgments governing the imposition of S. 144 were the old decisions of Babulal Parate and Madhu Limaye, whose language remained vague enough to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous State actors. Today the Supreme Court made it clear, however, that Section 144 orders would also have to abide by the proportionality standard (paragraph 126, and that that would have to be reflected in the text of the orders themselves. The Court also observed that in the normal course of things, S. 144 orders would have to be limited to particular areas or issues – thus casting severe doubt on the constitutionality of wide-ranging long-running 144 orders such as the one recently imposed in all of Bangalore, or the continuing order in Ahmedabad.

What the Petitioners Didn’t Win

Despite these findings, however, the Supreme Court did not rule on the validity of the internet shut-down or the imposition of S. 144 throughout the Valley. Its reason for that was somewhat curious: it held that because all of the internet shut-down orders had not been placed before it, it could not (yet) engage in judicial review. This is curious, because the onus of producing these orders undoubtedly lay on the State – indeed, the Court expressly directed it to do so in the operative part of its judgment. Furthermore, once the Court had held that the right to access information through the internet was protected by Article 19(1)(a), and that restrictions had to be proportionate, surely then the default situation was that the right would have to prevail over the restriction; in other words, until the government actually published the relevant orders with all the reasons (as required by the judgment), the internet ought to have been restored.

Instead, the Court directed that the Review Committee under the Telecom Suspension Rules would have to review the shut-down orders on a weekly basis, and that all the orders so far would have to be reviewed. Presumably, then, once this is done – and once the orders are published – a fresh challenge could be mounted on the basis of the principles laid out in this judgment (which, as I have indicated above, strongly suggest that the Kashmir shut-down is – and had always been – illegal).

Consequently, to the extent that the basis of the Court’s decision to not review the internet shut-down orders was that the State had not produced the orders in question (for five months), the consequence should have been that until the State – and its lawyers – decided to follow the law and the Constitution once again, fundamental rights could not continue to be restricted. That, however, seems like it will be a battle for another day. In the meantime, it is important to recall that in the wake of the CAA/NPR/NRC protests, the indiscriminate use of Section 144 and of internet shut-downs has been back in vogue, and there are now pending challenges in several High Courts. Today’s judgment sets out the principles on the bases of which these can be adjudicated: and the principles are that these orders restricting fundamental rights are subject to strong judicial review, that the State – and its lawyers – cannot get away by singing paeans to national security, that each order must be published, made public, and explicitly set out why the measure is proportionate, and that lastly, the Court shall – and must – examine whether least restrictive measures have been used, keeping in mind the importance of the internet to fundamental rights. These are sound procedural – and substantive bases – to move forward.


[Disclaimer: the author was one of the lawyers representing the petitioners.]

 

Guest Post: The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019: A Constitutional Critique

Tags

, ,

[This is a guest post by Rahul Nair.]


Introduction

Since 1991, India has seen a rise in digital technology with a concomitant increase in the modalities of surveillance, which includes genetic, biometric, financial, and physical monitoring. Amidst this ever-growing surveillance society that is ably complemented by the exercise of deliberate data penetration of social media, the concept of privacy has gained traction once again, with the need for a robust mechanism to protect it.

A committee of experts headed by Retd. Justice Srikrishna was constituted by the government to develop a consolidated framework for Indian data privacy law. The Committee submitted its report of expert recommendations to the government in 2018, including a draft bill. The 2018 Bill was hardly perfect. Commentators have argued that it granted excessive surveillance and mandated disclosure powers to the State, contrary to international guidelines. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, however, dilutes even the most essential components of the Srikrishna Committee’s Recommendations and significantly regresses privacy rights in India.

Merely two years after the Supreme Court ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was tabled in the Lok Sabha. The tabled Bill purportedly seeks to provide for the protection of the privacy of individuals by, inter alia, establishing a Data Protection Authority of India. Though the Bill appears to formulate a legal framework in the spirit of privacy jurisprudence, a closer look reveals something entirely different.

Wreaking havocs through subtle changes

Section 35 of the Bill, for instance, empowers the Government to grant a carte blanche authorization to any of its agencies to gather personal data, thereby overriding privacy protections and categorically undermining the two main components required to limit an aspiring surveillance state: accountability and transparency. Privacy protections, the Bill states, can be overridden

(i)             in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order; or

(ii)           for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order

The Srikrishna Committee’s Draft Bill, on the other hand, permitted surveillance only if “authorised pursuant to a law” and “in accordance with the procedure established by such law” if “necessary for, and proportionate to, such interests being achieved.” This was in line with the judgment in K.S. Puttaswamy v Union of India, which emphasised that infringements upon privacy must meet the global constitutional standards of proportionality. The 2019 Bill eliminates these procedural restraints and does away with parliamentary or judicial oversight. Moreover, while the draft Bill provided such an exemption to the Government only in the interests of the security of the State, the current Bill further enhances the scope and boundaries of the broad scheme of power the Government enjoys.

The Government’s sweeping power invokes grave privacy concerns, disregards the procedural and content based mandate of Article 21 of the Constitution, and strikes at the very root of the interpretive advance made in the Privacy judgement.

Grabbing the ‘not so’ Anonymised Data

As if this were not unconstitutional enough, the Bill allows the Central Government to collect anonymized “personal” or “non-personal data” from data fiduciaries. Neither term is distinguished nor defined in the bill. This provision is especially alarming in the wake of recent studies, which suggest that no anonymized personal data is protected from re-identification, thus raising a grave concern about confidentiality, privacy, and the ethical use of data. It is hardly a stretch to assume that this Bill, for all practical purposes, might seriously jeopardise the privacy of those set of individuals who espouse political sentiments that the Government may find unfavourable and thereby giving rise to a retributive form of policy making.

Weakening the Watchman

With regard to the Data Protection Authority of India (DPAI), the contrast between the two Bills could not be more pronounced. While the 2018 Bill explicitly stated that the salaries and allowances of the chairperson and members of the DPAI would not be varied to their disadvantage, the current bill gives no such guarantees, hence leaving the matter of financial security, that facilitates independence of such institutions at the discretion of the Central Government. One might recall that a similar change was undertaken in the RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019 as well. Such an act is bound to make the members of the authority subservient to the demands of the government, however bad it may be, instead of protecting the democratic rights of the citizens for which they are employed in the first place.

Another change which is a cause of worry is the substitution of the judicial members in the selection committee, which is responsible for the appointment of the chairperson and the members of the DPAI, as was envisioned in the draft Bill, with the Cabinet Secretary, Law Secretary, and Electronics and Information and Technology Secretary, thereby making it impervious to judicial and expert influence. While the US Supreme Court maintains that judicial authorization is required before the operation of certain kinds of domestic surveillance, the current Bill mentions no such prerequisite. The Bill further fails to grapple effectively against executive overreach and does not stand the scrutiny of the proportionality jurisprudence, i.e., the principle which seeks to safeguard citizens from excessive Government measures.

Conclusion

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that this Bill in general and some of its provisions in specific take us down a dangerous road towards the legal legitimising of electronic surveillance. The Bill has a very detrimental effect on data privacy, and instead of mitigating privacy concerns rather exacerbates it, and has veered off from the course that was initially conceptualised. Thus, it is necessary to introduce legal safeguards against such unbridled powers of the executive which is impeding the effective operation of data privacy and corroding the democratic values and the rule of law in the process.

While the government has on various occasions indicated that data protection is a priority, the Bill is a manifest and overwhelming rejection of the idea that there are private digital spaces immune from state intrusion. Instead, the Bill is replete with arbitrary measures that empower the State in direct opposition to the citizen, and in violation of the Right to Privacy Judgment. The present Bill does not enshrine data privacy as a legal right. Instead, it relegates it to a footnote, amenable to every conceivable exception. A right no longer deserves the name if it is a matter of executive convenience.

Guest Post: The Wrath of CAAn – on Citizenship, Secularism, and Equality

Tags

, ,

[This is a guest post by Abhinav Chandrachud.]


In a paper posted on SSRN, I outline what I consider to be the key arguments for and against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (“CAA”).

Hidden Constitutional Premises:

To begin with, the paper interrogates the premise that the CAA violates the secular fabric of India’s Constitution and argues that there were certain hidden premises in the citizenship provisions of the Constitution that were not very secular at all. Two waves of immigration from West Pakistan to India occurred after 1 March 1947. In the first wave, Hindus and Sikhs came here in large numbers. In the second wave, Muslims who had left India for Pakistan tried to come back home. This created problems in India – the homes of Muslim “evacuees” were being used to rehabilitate Hindu and Sikh “displaced persons”. In July 1948, therefore, a permit system was introduced which made it very difficult for Muslim “evacuees” to return to India if they had property back home. Articles 6-7 of the Constitution indirectly entrenched this preference for Hindu/Sikh “displaced persons” and discriminated against Muslim “evacuees” who wanted to come back home. They did so by making it far easier for those who had come to India prior to 19 July 1948 (i.e., the date of the introduction of the permit system), presumed to be mostly Hindus and Sikhs, to become Indian citizens, while denying Muslim “evacuees” citizenship unless they had obtained an elusive permit for resettlement.

The CAA Is Discriminatory:

That does not mean, however, that the CAA is constitutionally valid. The conditions which existed between 1947-50 (viz., housing shortages, a mass exodus of people, a charged communal environment caused by an influx of refugees) no longer exist today. A persuasive argument can be made that the CAA is discriminatory for five reasons: (i) it leaves out other religious communities in the subject countries (e.g., Jews, atheists, agnostics, Shias, Ahmadiyas); (ii) it ignores other countries in India’s neighborhood (e.g., Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar); (iii) the cut-off date of 31 December 2014 is arbitrary (though bright line rules tend to be arbitrary, the CAA’s bright line rule undermines its own ostensibly humanitarian objective of protecting those who suffer religious persecution); (iv) it ignores non-religious persecution (e.g., persecution on grounds of race or sexual orientation); (v) the relaxation of the residence requirement from 11 years to 5 years is palpably arbitrary (why should a Parsi fleeing religious persecution from Iran have to reside in India for 11 years to seek citizenship by naturalization, while a Parsi fleeing religious persecution from Afghanistan has to wait only 5 years?)

Underinclusion, or the Chief Justice Patanjali Sastri Defence

However, proponents of the CAA might argue that Article 14 of the Constitution has its limits. In an early case, Chief Justice Patanjali Sastri held that classification brought about by the legislature need not be “scientifically perfect or logically complete”. Building on this doctrine, the Supreme Court has, over the years, held that a pragmatic (not doctrinaire) approach will be adopted in classification cases. The court will frown upon an overinclusive statute but not an underinclusive one (unless there is no fair reason to exclude those left out). The CAA is underinclusive. The state may argue that the categories it excludes are based on degrees of harm and that classification need not be scientifically perfect.

However, this argument is not very persuasive. The classification under the CAA must be tested in the light of the ostensible purpose of the statute. The aim of the statute, according to the Statement of Objects and Reasons, is to protect communities which “faced persecution on grounds of religion” in the subject countries. If that is so, the exclusion of the four categories mentioned above (i.e., other religious minorities in the subject countries; religious minorities in other countries; those who suffer religious persecution after the cut-off date; those who suffer non-religious persecution) lacks an “adequate determining principle” altogether, and therefore is not a simple case of “under-inclusion”; rather, it might fall foul of the “manifest arbitrariness” test.

The CAA is only part of the problem:

However, the CAA is only a part of the problem with Indian citizenship law. Amending the CAA to undo its shortcomings will still not save genuine Indian citizens from being disenfranchised under a National Register of Citizens (NRC). Some 19 lakh people in Assam have been left out of the NRC. Non-Muslims who are excluded from the NRC will only be able to seek refuge under the CAA if they can prove that they came to India before 31 December 2014 from one of the subject countries fleeing (or fearing) religious persecution, which may not be as easy as one might think (despite the “sympathy” provision in Section 8 of the Foreigners Act, 1946).

The paper identifies four problems with Indian citizenship laws: (i) the reverse burden of proof; (ii) the abandonment of citizenship by birth; (iii) the failure to grant a safe harbor to “dreamers”; and (iv) the procedural defects in the Foreigners Tribunals.

The burden of proof in citizenship cases is on the alleged foreigner. Relying on similar laws in countries like the U.S., the Supreme Court of India has upheld this evidentiary rule in Sonowal I, without realizing that the socio-economic condition of the citizens of countries like the U.S. is very different from that in India. An Indian citizen may not, on account of illiteracy, poverty or inadequate infrastructure, be able to prove his citizenship like an American citizen would.

After the 2004 amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, the principle of citizenship by birth in India has been abandoned. Now, anyone born in India after 1987 has to prove either than one or both parents are Indian citizens (in some cases, that one parent is not an illegal immigrant). Proving the place of birth of one’s parents is hard for anybody. However, this is especially harsh on some like orphans and transgender persons. How will orphans, who never knew their parents, be able to prove that their parents were Indian citizens? How will transgender persons (some of whom are abandoned at birth) be able to do so?

Indian citizenship law operates harshly on “dreamers” (the term “dreamer” is used in the U.S. to describe the child of an illegal immigrant who arrived illegally in the U.S. at a very young age). A child born in India to illegal immigrants has only known India to be his/her homeland since childhood. That child may now be an adult. Even so, is it not unfair to now deport that person to a country he/she has never known? Similarly, a child who accompanied his/her illegal immigrant parents to India has also known only India to be his/her homeland since childhood and the illegal immigration to India was not his/her fault. Why should such persons, even if they are now adults, be deported overseas?

The judges of Foreigners Tribunals lack security of tenure, without which there cannot be an independent judiciary. They hold office not during “good behaviour” (e.g., for a fixed, non-renewable term in office, or until a retirement age), but for short, renewable terms. Further, though “members” of the tribunal are supposed to have judicial experience, even retired civil servants have recently been accepted as members of these tribunals, contrary to the principles laid down by the Supreme Court. The fact that there are no statutory appeals against these tribunals accentuates these problems. Though a writ remedy is available against their “opinions”, High Courts will not enter into complicated questions of fact while entertaining writs.

Guest Post: The Constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act – A Rejoinder

Tags

, ,

(This is a guest post by Varun Kannan.)


I have had the benefit of reading two illuminating pieces written on this blog by Nivedhitha K and Shivam Singhania, on the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (‘CAA’). While Nivedhitha and Shivam arrived at different conclusions with respect to the constitutionality of the CAA, they also expressed different opinions on whether Indu Malhotra J’s concurring opinion in Navtej Johar made an interpretative advance to the traditional classification-based test under Article 14, and whether a religion-based classification is permissible.

In this post, I aim to argue that Section 2 of the CAA fails to satisfy even the traditional classification test of Article 14, and that it can be struck down without any need to resort to the Navtej Johar decision, or the test of ‘manifest arbitrariness’. Another aspect of Section 2 of the CAA which has not received sufficient attention is the cut-off date of 31st December 2014. I shall also argue that prescription of this cut-off date in the statute is violative of Article 14.

The change in eligibility criteria that has been brought about by the CAA

Before proceeding with the analysis, let us reproduce the exact wording of Section 2 of the CAA, which seeks to amend Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 (‘the parent Act’) by inserting the following proviso:

“Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act;”

 

The proviso inserted makes three distinct classifications: (i) a religion-based classification i.e. the person must belong to either of the six communities referred to above, and must also be a victim of religious persecution; (ii) a country-based classification i.e the person should be from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and should have suffered from religious persecution in either of these three counties ; and (iii) a classification based on the cut-off date i.e. whether the illegal immigrant has entered India on or before 31st December 2014. It is important to note here that the requirement of ‘religious persecution’ has not been mentioned anywhere in the text of the CAA. This requirement has been mentioned only in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the CAA, and in certain notifications issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2015 and 2016 – that the CAA refers back to – which have exempted the same category of illegal immigrants from the penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946. (The relevant 2015 notifications can be found here and here).

It is also instructive to refer to Section 3 and Section 5 of the CAA. Section 3 inserts Section 6B to the parent Act, and inter alia states that upon fulfilment of additional conditions that may be prescribed, individuals referred to in the newly inserted proviso shall be eligible to receive a certificate of naturalisation or registration. Section 5 amends the Third Schedule of the Parent Act to reduce the naturalization requirement from 11 years to 5 years, for individuals who fulfill the criteria prescribed by Section 2. This highlights that the CAA does not automatically grant citizenship to certain communities, and that it only changes the eligibility criteria for obtaining Indian citizenship for individuals from certain religious communities who have come to India from three neighboring countries. This change in the eligibility criteria which makes three distinct classifications referred to above forms the basis on which we shall analyze whether Section 2 of the CAA satisfies the traditional classification-based test of Article 14.

Does Section 2 of the CAA satisfy the traditional classification-based test under Article 14?

Under the traditional classification-based test of Article 14, as laid down in decisions such as Anwar Ali Sarkar a classification created through legislation must satisfy a two-pronged test – (i) it should be founded on an intelligible differentia, which distinguishes those that are grouped together from those that have been excluded; and (ii) the differentia must have a rational nexus with the object that the statute seeks to achieve. In Anwar Ali Sarkar, it was also held that the application of Article 14 cannot be precluded on the basis of whether there was clear evidence of the Legislature’s intention to discriminate, and held that the application of Article 14 is premised on whether discrimination is a necessary consequence of the statute.

The validity of the religion and country-based classification

Keeping this in mind, let us jointly analyze the religion-based and country-based classification created by Section 2 of the CAA. Section 2 changes the eligibility criteria for obtaining citizenship only for six communities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian) who have come to India as illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and have been victims of religious persecution. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the CAA, as mentioned in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 (‘CAB’) inter alia states that – “The constitutions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh provide for a specific state religion. As a result, many persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities have faced persecution on grounds of religion in those countries. Some of them also have fears about such persecution in their day-to-day life where right to practice, profess and propagate their religion has been obstructed and restricted”.

However, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are not the only neighboring countries that have a specific state religion. There are two other neighboring countries i.e. Bhutan and Sri Lanka, which also have a specific state religion, which is Buddhism. There exists clear evidence that Tamils (who also subscribe to the Hindu faith) from Sri Lanka and Christians from Bhutan have been subjected to religious persecution. In fact, as Arun Janardhanan points out in the Indian Express, around 1 lakh Tamils from Sri Lanka who had fled from the State due to anti-Tamil riots continue to live in India as of today. Section 2 of the CAA fails to include such other persecuted communities.

In fact, while Hindus and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been included, the Hindu Tamils from Sri Lanka and Christians from Bhutan have been excluded from the ambit of Section 2. Additionally, Section 2 of the CAA also does not include the Ahmadi community of Pakistan, who constitute a sect of Muslims who have been severely persecuted in Pakistan. The exclusion of three communities mentioned above shows that discrimination in terms of eligibility criteria for citizenship is a necessary consequence of Section 2 of the CAA.

Taking into account these exclusions, the Union Government may refer to the Statement of Objects and Reasons to contend that the classification is applicable only to those countries that have Islam as the specific state religion, and that the communities covered are only those communities in these three countries who do not believe in Islam. This may also be used to justify the exclusion of Ahmadi Muslims, to state that they are persecuted on sectarian grounds, as they do not subscribe to a certain version of Islam in Pakistan. However, such a classification is not based on an ‘intelligible’ differentia for three reasons, which shall be outlined below.

First, the classification is based on the premise that religious persecution takes place only in those neighboring countries that have Islam as the specific state religion. But, as discussed above, religious persecution also takes place in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, which have Buddhism as the State religion, and not Islam. The case of Tamils in Sri Lanka and Christians in Bhutan highlights that persecution takes place even in two other neighboring countries that do not subscribe to Islam.

Second, the classification is based on the presumption that only communities who are non-believers in the state religion are persecuted, and that only minority communities are persecuted in an Islamic country.  The persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan for not subscribing to a certain version of Islam rebuts this presumption. As Ahmadis are persecuted for not subscribing to a certain version of Islam, their persecution does have a ‘religious’ angle to it. This renders the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘sectarian’ persecution a matter of mere semantics, which cannot be used to argue that the classification is based on an intelligible differentia. In any case, the distinction between religious and sectarian persecution is applicable only to Ahmadis, and is inapplicable to the exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils and Bhutanese Christians.

Third, the religion and country-based classification takes into account only religion-based persecution, and does not take into account certain other forms of persecutions, such as persecution that is political in nature. For instance, Tibetans are persecuted in China for political reasons, and even they stand excluded from the protective umbrella of the CAA. For these reasons, the religion and country-based classification is not just and sound, and cannot be said to be based on an ‘intelligible’ differentia.

Furthermore, instead of viewing this classification as a case of ‘under-inclusion’ by the Legislature, it is better understood as one that leads to discrimination as a necessary consequence. This is a case of unequal treatment of individual human beings within the territory of India, who are placed in a similar situation, and is not akin to other classic cases of ‘under-inclusion’ such as Chiranjit Lal Choudhary, where in a government take-over case, it was argued that other similarly placed companies were ‘under-included’ by the Legislature. The CAA accordingly leads to discrimination as a ‘necessary consequence’, as certain communities already in India as “illegal immigrants” from three neighboring countries are granted a different eligibility criteria for citizenship, to the exclusion of others (such as Sri Lankan Tamils) who are similarly placed. This also goes against the basic tenet of Article 14, which is that ‘equals should be treated equally’.

As the classification is not based on an intelligible differentia, it fails to satisfy the classification test of Article 14. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Supreme Court finds an intelligible differentia, and analyze whether the second prong of the test is satisfied i.e. whether the differentia has a rational nexus with the purpose that the statute seeks to achieve. In decisions such as Subramanian Swamy v. CBI, the Supreme Court has added another prong to the rational nexus requirement, by holding that the purpose that the statute seeks to achieve should itself be legitimate. It was also held (in the context of Section 6-A of the Delhi Police Special Powers Act) that if the object of the statute is itself discriminatory, then that discrimination cannot be justified on the ground that there is a rational nexus with the object that the statute seeks to achieve.

As discussed above, the Union Government may present the object of Section 2 of the CAA narrowly, by contending that it seeks to provide benefit to persons belonging to non-Islamic communities, in the three neighboring countries that have Islam as the state religion. The Union Government may contend that the CAA changes the eligibility criteria for only those communities who have been victims of religious persecution, for belonging to a community that does not believe in the state religion i.e. Islam. While a rational nexus may be established with this object, I would submit that for the same reasons discussed above, the object of Section 2 of the CAA is in itself discriminatory. The reasons mentioned above can be summarized as follows:

i.         The religious persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils and Bhutanese Christians shows that religious persecution exists even in those countries that have a state religion apart from Islam, and that religious persecution is not limited solely to Islamic nations;

ii.         The persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan highlights that even communities that subscribe to the state religion can be persecuted. As Ahmadi Muslims are persecuted for not subscribing to a certain version of Islam, their persecution also has a ‘religious’ angle, and cannot be categorized as persecution that is merely ‘sectarian’ in nature;

iii.         Persecution of communities is not restricted solely to religious grounds, as evidenced through the persecution of Tibetans in China, which is done on political grounds. The object of the statute hence includes one form of persecution to the exclusion of other forms of persecution which are equally significant.

All communities mentioned above have been excluded from the ambit of the CAA. Hence, the object of the religion and country-based classification created by Section 2 of the CAA is in itself discriminatory. Applying the test laid down in Subramanian Swamy, such discrimination cannot be justified on the ground that it has a rational nexus with the object that the statute seeks to achieve.

We may also make reference here to the Supreme Court decision in Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University. Here, it was held (in context of admission to educational institutions) that while the Legislature is entitled to prescribe the source from which admission to an educational institution is to be made, such a source (which selects the beneficiaries of the legislation) is also a ‘classification’. As it is a ‘classification’, it must also satisfy the traditional Article 14 test. This decision can also be applied to the classifications created by the CAA. The Union Government cannot successfully argue that the requirements of Article 14 are satisfied by defining the purpose of the CAA in terms of the selection of the beneficiaries i.e. in terms of illegal immigrants of non-Islamic communities, who have come to India from three neighboring Islamic nations. To illustrate further, a law which confers red-haired businessmen with a tax exemption cannot be defended on the ground that the object of the law is in itself to provide a benefit to solely red-haired individuals, as such an object would by itself be discriminatory.

For the reasons mentioned above, the religion and country-based classifications fail to satisfy either of the requirements of the traditional classification test.

The validity of the cut-off date-based classification

Section 2 of the CAA also prescribes that in order to take benefit of the amendment, the illegal immigrant should have entered into on or before 31st December 2014, which is the cut-off date. This creates a third tier of classification, between illegal immigrants (who belong to either of the six communities and have come to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) who have entered India before 31st December 2014, and those who have entered India after the cut-off date. This cut-off date was not present in the 2016 version of the CAB, and was inserted only in the 2019 version of the Bill, which is now the CAA.

As Arunabh Saikia argues, this cut-off date may have been put in place to assuage concerns of groups from the North-east regions, who expressed an apprehension that the absence of a cut-off date could lead to an endless influx of immigrants. The Union Government may also justify the cut-off date by contending that the CAA is a logical continuation of the 2015 and 2016 notifications referred to above, which exempted the same category of illegal immigrants referred to in the CAA from the penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946. (For ready reference, the relevant 2015 notifications are available here and here). These notifications also prescribed the same cut-off date of 31st December 2014.

This however cannot be a ground to show either an intelligible differentia or a rational nexus, as the Notifications can easily be amended through an executive order and brought in conformity with the date of coming into force of the CAA. Furthermore, there can be no intelligible distinction based on whether the same category of illegal immigrants entered India before or after 31st December 2014. Such a distinction is not just and sound, as there exists no parameter to justify the exclusion of the same category of illegal immigrants, solely on the ground that they entered India after the end of a particular date.

If a person has entered India after being a victim of religious persecution, he should technically be eligible for protection irrespective of the date on which he entered India. If the CAA would have prescribed that illegal immigrants who entered India on or before the date of commencement of the CAA would fall within its protective umbrella, then such a cut-off date would have some nexus with the goal of preventing a large scale influx of illegal immigrants. But, creating a classification through a cut-off date that is almost five years prior to the commencement of the CAA is not founded on any intelligible differentia. Such a differentia also does not have any rational nexus with the purported objective of providing protection to communities who have suffered from persecution in Islamic nations.

Conclusion

For the reasons mentioned above, all three classifications created by Section 2 of the CAA fail to satisfy the traditional test of Article 14. Hence, even without resorting to the subjective and more controversial test of ‘manifest arbitrariness’ or the Navtej Johar decision, Section 2 of the CAA, can be declared as unconstitutional.

The Constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act: A Response

Tags

, , , ,

[This is a guest post by Shivam Singhania. The piece was written before the passage of the Bill into an Act, and the constitutional challenge to the Act. References to the “Bill”, therefore, may be understood as references to the Act.]


This piece is in response to the piece on this blog titled “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is Unconstitutional”. Respectfully disagreeing with the author, I shall endeavour to address the arguments against its constitutionality, and also chart out a path within the bounds of the settled judicial precedent on Article 14.

The bill changes amends the Citizenship Act on two counts – by inserting a proviso in Section 2(1)(b), and by amending clause (d) of the Third Schedule. The first count, i.e., the proviso, provides that ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’ will not be treated as an illegal immigrant under the Act, subject to three conditions: (a) he/she entered India on or before December 31, 2014, (b) is exempted by the Central Government under Section 3(2)(b) of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, (c) is exempted from the application of Foreigners Act, 1946.

(Note: The Passport Act empowers the Central Government to make rules requiring persons entering India to possess passports. It also gives the Central Government power to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, any person or class of persons from complying with such requirements. The Foreigners Act empowers the Central Government to make orders prohibiting, regulating, restricting entry of non-citizens, i.e., foreigners into India. The Central Government also has the power to exempt any individual or class or description of foreigner from the application of the act. The exemptions for Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals were issued in 2015, and included Afghanistan nationals in 2016. These exemptions have not been challenged. Further, the same classification exists for the purpose of issuing Long Term Visas (LTV) to nationals of these three countries. The same has also not been challenged.)

The second count, i.e., amendment to the Third Schedule, relaxes the time-criteria for naturalization from at least 11 out of 14 years to at least 5 out of 14 years of residing in India, or being in service of the Government, for ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’.

Admittedly, the constitutional questions rest on the issue of discrimination and non-adherence to ‘equal protection of law’.

CLASSIFICAITON UNDER ARTICLE 14

The Constitutional position, right from Anwar Ali Sarkar to a catena of subsequent cases, is clear that the equality principle envisages like to be treated alike, and consequently allows unlike to be treated differently. Such differentiation, however, has to stand the test of intelligible differentia, i.e. that the basis or principle guiding the creation of different groups meant to be treated differently by the law should be ascertainable and sound. Further, such differentia should have a rational nexus to the object of the law, meaning that t should directly further the purpose that the law seeks to fulfil. Subsequently, the test of arbitrariness was also added in E.P. Royappa.

The classification in this amendment, as rightly described by the author, is on two counts: first – religion of the target group, i.e., Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians; and second – country of origin of these groups, i.e., Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It will be shown in the course of this essay that the principles that ground the above classifications are intelligible and not under-inclusive and serve the object of the amendment and overall, are not arbitrary.

RELIGION, ARTICLE 14 AND ARTICLE 15

Over and above the generality of equality principle laid out in Article 14, Article 15 provides for prohibition of discrimination on specific grounds, such as race, sex, and also religion. This means that any such basis of classification, even if intelligible, cannot pass muster of Article 14 for reason of the specific prohibition in Article 15.

However, Article 15 applies only to citizens. On the other hand Article 14 applies to ‘any person’. Thus, as settled in Chandrima Das and Indo-China Steam Navigation cases, a non-citizen cannot take the benefit of Article 15. Thus, with respect to non-citizens, a classification which has religious inklings cannot be dismissed at the threshold; it will pass muster if it passes the tests of Article 14 discussed above.

We now address the author’s argument based on the concurring judgement of Justice Malhotra in Navtej Johar v Union of India. The author’s inference from certain portions of Justice Malhotra’s opinion Navtej Johar is misplaced. The quoted paragraph – “Race, caste, sex, and place of birth are aspects over which a person has no control, ergo they are immutable. On the other hand, religion is a fundamental choice of a person. Discrimination based on any of these grounds would undermine an individual’s personal autonomy” – lays out the underlying constitutional intent of Article 15. It does not, and is not meant to address the point of whether such grounds transcend Article 15, and apply as a bar upon classification ipso facto, including for non-citizens under Article 14

The following exposition from the judgment, admittedly, is unequivocal: “Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia”. However, what begs an answer, and none is provided in clear terms by any judicial precedent, is whether certain grounds, beyond those in Article 15 and thus applicable to non-citizens, are barred at the threshold as the bases of any classification; if yes, then what are these grounds and do ‘intrinsic and core trait(s) of an individual’ qualify as such grounds?

Essentially, the submission of the author, relying on Justice Malhotra’s opinion, is that any classification with semblance to religion is impermissible, since like Article 15, which applies only for citizens, Article 14 contains an inherent bar upon classification on certain grounds, one of which is the notion of core trait/choice/personal autonomy (and religion is a part of that). This, however, has little basis in existing equality jurisprudence. The tests are clear and any classification can exist so long as the tests of Article 14 are met. Beyond that, no inherent barriers have been created for classification under Article 14.

In any case, the proposition that classification rests solely on religion should be taken with scepticism. In the CAA, religion is qualified by persecution. Therefore the two should be considered together. Religion persecution has also been recognized in the Refugee Convention as a form of persecution. Therefore, it cannot be considered as a capricious standard of marking the lines, given that the exact target groups are sought to be protected as recognized by International Convention. Further, the classification is not to create new benefits, but is only to accelerate an existing process as a measure of protection for recognizable and internationally accepted target group that, due to their precarious situation, need such protection. It is akin to any law which may be framed for instance to protect LGBT individuals from countries which provide for capital punishment for them. In that case, it will be a constitutional disservice to accept an argument that they cannot be allowed a dignified life in India because the law classifies on the basis of sex/sexual orientation.

THE PRINCIPLES CONUNDRUM AND UNDER-INCLUSIVENESS

A classic fallacy with the arguments on under-inclusiveness, also reflected in the author’s piece, is that its proponents enlarge either the principle determining classification, or the object of the law beyond their actual bounds, to argue that the classification is narrower than it ought to be.

It will be shown that the author’s purported principles determining the classification is deliberately broad, and the actual principle is more qualified. Therefore, when the purpose is defined properly, the classification is not under-inclusive.

The author, in her piece, considers four principles and finds them inadequate. For convenience, they are reproduced below –

  1. “Principle 1: Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of British India. Illegal immigrants from there could still generically be considered of Indian origin. However, with the inclusion of Afghanistan, it is evident that the classification is not based on the principle of divided India and undivided India.
  2. Principle 2: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a State religion. However, the classification cannot be on the basis of a State religion, as Sri Lanka prescribes Buddhism as the State religion.
  3. Principle 3: Degrees of harm. In Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury it was held that the legislature is free to recognize the degrees of harm and confine the classification to where harm is the clearest. However, if the CAB is based on the degrees of harm then the Rohingyas of Myanmar ought to be included as the 2013 UN report states that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted in the world.
  4. Principle 4: The classification might be limited to singling out persecuted religious minoritiesHowever, on this logic, Sri Lankan Eelam Tamils must also be included, as the Tamil Eelams are persecuted based on religion (Hinduism) and ethnicity.”

The classic problem of “inadequate principle” is at issue here. The above four principles, if applied, result in the law leaving out some group who ought to qualify. However, it is quite possible that the alleged principles are not actually the principles on which the classification is based.

In this context, let us begin by noting that laying down adequate determining principle for classification in a law lies at the doorstep of the Parliament.

It is submitted that here, the determining principle is not solely based on Partition, or harm. It is also not only about state religion or secular states, or about religious minorities. Determining principles cannot be laid in water-tight compartments, and it is not necessary that the entirety of one ground has to make a determining principle (for instance “all minorities”, or “all persecuted”). More than one ground can qualify the other grounds if the determining principle is specific (for instance, not all minorities but religious minorities, or not all persecuted but persecuted for being a religious minority).

While one set of determining principles takes in the Partition (Pakistan and Bangladesh), and the unique situation of Afghanistan vis-a-vis India, another possible set of principles is not Partition-related. India sees its responsibility as a regional leader in its neighbourhood with a thriving democracy and secular credentials to protect certain classes of foreigners under threat in their own countries. Among many forms of persecution, for now, India considers itself sufficiently prepared to be able to imbibe as citizens through a relaxed process of naturalization, those persecuted on the basis of religion. The next question is, who all and from where all?

The principle is members of communities (religion) not being the state religion of the respective nation. Essentially, it is a loose combination of Principle 2 and 4 described by the author. In other words, the broad sphere of ‘religious minority’ is qualified by its application only with respect to nations with state religions and on minorities being non-believers of the state religion. This is clearer with the altered text of bill, as being circulated in the media, by which the phrase “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindu, Sikh…” has been replaced with “persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh…”. [Editor’s Note: this is now the text of the Act.]

Therefore, it can no more be argued that the genus was ‘minority community’, and that only six of them cannot be protected (i.e., under-inclusion). The principle is shortened from ‘minority community’ to a principle which is qualified by two other components – applicable to states with a state religion, and applicable for religions not being the state religion. In other words, the principle is narrower than presented. Hence non-inclusion of some is not because of under-inclusion, but because they are not in conformity with the principle for classification. (such as Ismailis or Shias, being another sect of Islam and not a separate religion than Islam), or Myanmar, not included for not having a state religion.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have a state religion, i.e., Islam. The Sri Lankan Constitution gives Buddhism the foremost place and the Myanmarese Constitution only recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith practiced by majority. In any case, if it is still considered that Sri Lanka has a state religion, courts may also take cognizance of data, if provided by the Union of India, of the alleged dwindling rate of the minority population in Pakistan, Afghanistan (less than 1% presently) and Bangladesh (from 23% at independence to 9% presently) of the communities sought to be protected vis-à-vis Sri Lanka (28 % in 1953 to 20% presently) to gather the mischief that the amendment seeks to arrest.

SUMMARY

The classification under Article 14 does not have inherent barriers of impermissibility at the threshold level, and nor does it have to conform to Article 15 when invoked with respect to non-citizens. In this case, the only test needs to be satisfied is the intelligible differentia-rational nexus-non-arbitrariness test of Article 14. The principle underlying the classification is not merely minority or religious minority, but of belonging to group other than the state religion of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan (i.e. states with a constitutionally prescribed state religion). The classification with respect to states with state religions, for the benefit of persons not following the state religion, bears a rational nexus with the object of the amendment in protecting such persons facing threat of persecution for reason of non-conformity with their state religion and being eligible for relaxed criteria of immigration and naturalisation in India, and in furtherance of India’s responsibility as the leader in its nation with strong democratic values and emphasis on dignity of life to support victims of religious persecution in theocratic states. The classification, having semblance to a category of vulnerability recognized in international convention and supported empirically (possibly) is therefore not arbitrary.

Guest Post: The Kashmir Internet Ban – What’s at Stake

Tags

, , , ,

[This is a guest post by Suhrith Parthasarathy.]


A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and reserved its judgment in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India, in which the petitioners have impugned, among other things, the ongoing shutdown of the Internet in the Kashmir Valley. The arguments raised in these petitions touch upon questions critical to the functioning of India’s democracy. This post is an effort at expounding some of the issues at stake in the case.

Facts

Sometime on August 4, on the eve of the Union government’s decision to issue presidential orders divesting the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, a complete blockade on information and communication services was placed in the region. Since then, a few of these restrictions have been lifted, but access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley remains elusive. As the Petitioners have pointed out, while landlines and post-paid mobile phone voice calls are now functioning, only a miniscule proportion of the population in the region have access to these services. Post-paid mobile phone SMSes remain blocked and so too pre-paid mobile phone voice calls and prepaid mobile phone SMSes. Messaging services, as we’re only too aware now, are critical to carrying out various forms of economic transactions. They are, in many ways, an essential service. Even according to the government’s own response, out of a total of nearly 60 lakh mobile phones, only 20 lakh phones are working and even on those phones SMSes remain wholly blocked. What is more, access to the Internet in the Kashmir Valley continues to be prohibited, despite the critical role that the web plays today in various kinds of economic, social and educational activities.

These orders blocking communication services, Ms. Bhasin and Mr. Azad have argued, have had a damaging effect on a number of fundamental rights. In Ms. Bhasin’s case, the newspaper she edits, The Kashmir Times, could not be distributed on 5 August and went entirely unpublished between 6 August and 11 October. Today, owing to the absence of the Internet, and the barriers placed on journalists seeking to do their job, only a pruned version of the newspaper is published. Therefore, in Ms. Bhasin’s argument, the ban on communication services, in particular the restrictions placed on the Internet, have affected both her right to free speech and her newspaper’s right to freedom of the press.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Azad, on the other hand, who was himself prohibited from visiting the Valley, until the Supreme Court intervened, has underlined various other impacts that the bans have had on people living in Jammu and Kashmir. For example, basic livelihood, he points out, has been deeply affected. Industries such as tourism, handicrafts, manufacture, construction, cultivation, agriculture and information technology have been brought to a state of cessation, with the economy in the region suffering losses running into the thousands of crores. Access to basic healthcare too, he argues, has been impeded, with people in the Valley unable to avail of the government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme. Over and above all this, the ban has meant that people in the Valley have been entirely cut out from the rest of India. Residents outside the state have been unable to speak to their families in Kashmir, leading, Mr. Azad says, to a great deal of mental stress and anxiety.

Issues and legal arguments

It’s simple enough to deduce the issues that arise in the case: (1) Does a denial of access to the Internet violate any fundamental right? And (2) can access to the Internet ever be blocked, and, if so, under what circumstances can such an action be validly enforced?

Access to the Internet

Perhaps the finest exposition of why access to the Internet is a fundamental right is contained in a recent judgment of the Kerala High Court in Faheema Sharin v. State of Kerala. There, the court recognised that access to the Internet is today essential, because it grants people an avenue not only to information but also to a host of other services. Although the web brings with it its own set of challenges there can be little doubt, as the court held, that it enhances individual freedom, in granting to people a liberty of choice, in determining what they want to read, see and hear, in determining what kind of information they wish to access, and, more than anything else, in limiting the government’s ability to control a person’s private self.

As the High Court held, the Internet has become so central today to our lives that it plays an instrumental role in the realisation of a number of constitutional guarantees. The court, in arriving at its conclusions, relied on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution which noted how access to information on the Internet “facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education.” Given the importance of education to the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and given how important the Internet was in fulfilling these promises, access to the web, the court held, ought to be considered in and of itself as a fundamental, inalienable right.

Apart from this the court also recognised, that the Internet constitutes not only a medium for speech but also promotes a gateway to information. A right to access the Internet, therefore, in the court’s opinion, has to be seen as an integral component of a citizen’s right to freedom of speech protected under Article 19(1)(a) and can only be restricted on the grounds enumerated in Article 19(2).

The Kerala High Court’s view that access to the Internet is a fundamental right is not only in keeping with global trend but is also consistent with India’s entrenched free speech jurisprudence. After all, as early as in 1961, the Supreme Court had in Sakal Papers v. Union of India, recognised the instrumental value of speech: that access to the news and the media’s role in facilitating the distribution of information and knowledge played a direct role in the promotion of democracy. That the Internet plays a significant part in ensuring the protection of the right to health, personal liberty and livelihood therefore ought to mean that accessing the web deserves to be considered as fundamental, as flowing out of the guarantees contained in Articles 14, 19 and 21, which, today, after the 9-judge bench’s judgment in Justice (Retd). KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (Puttaswamy I) (2017) 10 SCC 1, together form a trident against arbitrariness.

Therefore, any blocking of the Internet would ex facie violate fundamental rights. As a result, to enforce a restriction on the Internet an action of the state must be predicated on compelling reasons and must necessarily be made in a constitutionally sustainable manner.

When can restrictions be made

It is today settled law, as is clear from a reading of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy I and Puttaswamy II (the Aadhaar judgment), that fundamental rights can only be limited by state actions that conform to the doctrine of proportionality. The test to determine what state actions are proportionate was laid down by a 5-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Modern Dental College v. State of MP. The court there relied on judgments of the Supreme Court of Israel and the Canadian Supreme Court to hold that the doctrine was inherent in Article 19 itself.

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 fulfilment 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.

In Puttaswamy II, the Supreme Court reiterated this test when it held as follows:

The proportionality test which is stated in the aforesaid judgment, accepting Justice Barak’s conceptualisation, essentially takes the version which is used by the German Federal Constitutional Court and is also accepted by most theorists of proportionality. According to this test, a measure restricting a right must, first, serve a legitimate goal (legitimate goal stage); it must, secondly, be a suitable means of furthering this goal (suitability or rational connection stage); thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative (necessity stage); and fourthly, the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder (balancing stage).

 

The question therefore that the Supreme Court must now answer in Anuradha Bhasin and Ghulam Nabi Azad is whether the state actions imposing the communications ban in the Kashmir Valley meets this four-prong test or not. And given that there has been an ex facie violation of a fundamental right, the burden to establish that these conditions are, in fact, met in this case lies on the state. Here, the restrictions placed quite clearly impinge on the doctrine of proportionality for the following reasons:

  • The orders imposing the Internet shutdown have no force of law. Presently, orders shutting down the Internet are made under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (“Telecom Rules”). These Telecom Rules were framed through the power prescribed on the Union executive by Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. The Telecom Rules require the Executive, among other things, to provide a reasoned order when it directs the withdrawal of the Internet. Here, however, the orders imposing the shutdown were not made public. They were only released to the court during the course of the hearings, and, that too, with tremendous reluctance. A perusal of those orders that were released, however, the petitioners have argued showcase a complete non-application of mind. To take just one example, an order containing the subject: “Shut down of broadband services” was issued to extend an order whose subject read “Shut down of Land Line services.” What is more, while it is the Home Secretary (Govt. of India) or the Home Secretary of the state government concerned who is the competent authority to issue orders of suspension of the Internet under the Telecom Rules, in this case, the petitioner contend, the orders were issued by the Inspector General of Police. But, more than anything else, the orders themselves were bald and devoid of any reasons despite the Telecom Rules’ express mandate that orders suspending the Internet be issued for explicitly spelled out reasons.
  • The orders issued suspending the Internet are not in furtherance of any legitimate state aim. The government’s case is that it apprehends that the Internet will be misused by “anti-national” elements and will lead to a deterioration of “law and order.” However, neither phrase invoked confirms to the requirements of Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held (see: Superintendent Central Prison, Fatehgarh v. Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and In Re Ram Lila Maidan Incident) that the term “law and order” is not subsumed within “public order” which is the ground that Article 19(2) stipulates. In the latter case, the court held that: “the distinction between `public order’ and `law and order’ is a fine one, but nevertheless clear. A restriction imposed with `law and order’ in mind would be least intruding into the guaranteed freedom while `public order’ may qualify for a greater degree of restriction since public order is a matter of even greater social concern. Out of all expressions used in this regard, as discussed in the earlier part of this judgment, `security of the state’ is the paramount and the State can impose restrictions upon the freedom, which may comparatively be more stringent than those imposed in relation to maintenance of `public order’ and `law and order’. However stringent may these restrictions be, they must stand the test of `reasonability’. The State would have to satisfy the Court that the imposition of such restrictions is not only in the interest of the security of the State but is also within the framework of Articles 19(2) and 19(3) of the Constitution.” In this case, the orders imposing the restrictions on the Internet the orders reference “law and order” without showing us how preservation of “public order” legitimately required the restrictions as imposed. What is more, as the petitioners have contended, the term “anti-national” is simply undefinable and does not fall within any of the carefully delineated grounds stipulated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
  • The orders imposing the shutdown are not rationally connected to the fulfilment of the supposed purpose, that is the prevention of violence. While the state has repeatedly claimed that the Internet will be misused by miscreants and anti-national elements it has provided no actual evidence of such misuse being a real and genuine threat. Indeed, as the petitioners have shown, studies indicate the opposite, that a shutdown of the Internet leads to anxiety and unease and augment the risk of protests and demonstrations turning violent. Therefore, the state has simply failed to demonstrate the existence of a cogent and sensible nexus between the restrictions imposed and the purported aim behind the orders.
  • Finally, the orders also do not conform to the test of necessity, that there was a compelling need for these actions and that the purported objective could not have been achieved through less restrictive and less invasive means. When even according to the state’s own arguments it is only a minuscule minority that are likely to commit violence, and when a whopping majority of the populace represent no threat to public order it is difficult to conceive how a complete shutdown of the Internet can constitute a necessary and proper action. Indeed, as the petitioners have shown, the state has often, in the past, isolated persons prone to terrorising from others, based on their registered mobile phone numbers. What is more, the state could quite easily have also resorted to blocking certain websites alone if the intention was to prevent incitement of violence. That a wholesale blockade of the Internet has been in force for more than four months evinces the fact that the State hasn’t so much as made an effort at ensuring that it adopts the least restrictive means possible to ensure that violence isn’t perpetrated in the region.

Ultimately, therefore, the actions of the state in enforcing a host of communication barriers in the Kashmir Valley, in particular its decision to entirely restrict access to the Internet, constitute a collective punishment on the people of the region and violate, among other things, the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.

On the role of courts: and why the supreme court is playing the waiting game

Tags

, , ,

On the Supreme Court’s last working day of 2019, it agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (“CAA”). With this, the court takes into its winter vacation the challenges to the CAA, the amendment of Article 370 and the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Outside the cloistered halls of the court, the public debate over the legality and desirability of these measures has reached fever pitch. With both the legal and political processes of contestation in full swing, it is an appropriate time to examine how divorced the two truly are.

Our trust in courts as institutions of justice flows from a few key ideas: that courts are isolated from short term political pressures, they decide on the basis of settled legal principles irrespective of how politically sensitive a case is, and they are independent from the elected government of the day and thus serve as a check on government power. This piece critically examines these assumptions about courts. I argue that while courts do decide cases in accordance with legal principles, the actual outcomes of crucial constitutional cases balance the requirements of the law, deference to the government, and deference to public sentiment. Recognising that alongside normative legal principles, public sentiment and the government have a crucial role to play in constitutional adjudication re-emphasises the need for active political contestation and debate over these issues.

Isolation, independence and matters of principle

Courts are understood as being isolated from short term political pressures. Unlike elected legislators, who are accountable to their constituents and respond to their immediate needs, unelected judges with fixed tenures and salaries can deliberate in a ‘neutral’ manner and render decisions that may be politically unpopular but necessary for the long term preservation of human rights and democracy. Judges are not bound by party ideology or the need to garner the popular vote, so they can arrive at substantively ‘better’ decisions. For example, after a terrorist attack, public sentiment may overwhelmingly favour the torture and public execution of a captured terrorist. The government, acting on the demands of the electorate, may decide to torture and execute the terrorist (after all, good government responds to what the people want). The courts however, isolated from public sentiment and understanding the long-term benefits of upholding the rule of law and human rights, can ensure the captured terrorist receives a fair trial.

A second assumption underpinning the public trust in courts is that courts rely on precedent (stare decisis) and settled legal principles to decide cases. Therefore, once courts construe the phrase ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’ as having an expansive meaning, the same expansive interpretation will subsequently be applied irrespective of how politically significant or insignificant the facts of a case. This is often why progressive judgements are celebrated, because we presume that the reasoning of these judgements will bind future benches of the court and lower courts. The last, and perhaps most significant, assumption about courts is that they stand independent from the elected government. Coupled with their isolation from short-term political pressures and their commitment to decide cases on legal principles, this leads to the overarching argument that courts stand as a check against the abuse of government power.

A chequered track record

A close examination of the track record of courts during periods of regularised and flagrant human rights violations casts doubt on the argument that courts are effective checks on majoritarian government power. In India, the most famous example of the court’s failure to resist the use of government power is ADM Jabalpur v S S Shukla. The case, heard at the height of the emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her election was challenged in 1975, centred around whether individuals detained by the government (often political opponents of the Prime Minister) had a right to approach the courts for relief during the emergency. Despite several High Courts holding that detained persons had a right to approach the court even during an emergency, in ADM Jabalpur the Supreme Court held that no such right existed and left the detentions to the sole supervision of the government. The Indian Supreme Court is not alone in turning a blind eye to the exercise of government power against its citizens during times of national or political crisis. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Korematsu v United States – citing the overriding needs of national security and avoidance of espionage. In Liversidge v Anderson the House of Lords held that the Home Secretary did not have to objectively justify his detention order with reasons and the such matters were not justiciable in courts. These cases have since been overruled or denounced as ‘black marks’ on an otherwise unblemished record of judicial history, but they serve as powerful reminders that when governments exercised their power against citizens in the most extreme ways, courts have been found to be inadequate protectors.

Sabarimala – the Supreme Court’s problem child

A prime example of how far the Indian Supreme Court’s behaviour can stray from the core assumptions we associate with courts acting as politically insulated institutions dispensing justice according to legal principles is the court’s treatment of the Sabarimala dispute. To recap: in 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple as violating the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination. The judgement led to a public backlash in Kerala (the state where the Sabarimala temple is situated). Those opposing the judgement took the law into their own hands and refused to permit the entry of women into the temple, often attacking women who tried to enter. A review petition was filed against the 2018 judgement, the significant irregularities of which have already been addressed on this blog (here) and do not need to be rehashed. It is sufficient to note that one judge (Khanwilkar J) refused to stand by the judgement he had signed less than a year ago in 2018 and in November 2019 the court decided that the 2018 judgement needed to be ‘reconsidered’ by a larger bench. To understand what happened next, it is important to note that by referring the dispute to a larger bench, the court did not stay the 2018 judgement but merely kept the review petition pending. The pendency of a review petition does not deprive a judgement from having the force of law. This means that at the time of writing this post, the 2018 judgement remains good law and a woman should be able to enter Sabarimala. When the Supreme Court was asked to direct the Kerala Government to uphold and enforce the judgement, the Chief Justice of India acknowledged that there was no stay on the 2018 judgement, but refused to direct the State Government to enforce the judgement – noting the matter was “very emotive” and the court wanted to avoid violence.

The treatment of Sabarimala is a testament to how the Indian Supreme Court consider both legal principles and public sentiment in deciding constitutional cases. The 2018 judgement was based precisely on the legal principles we associate with constitutional courts. However, unlike the court’s decisions decriminalising consensual gay sex or adultery, where the court’s decision faced widespread and organised public resistance, the court did a double take, refusing to enforce its judgement and stating that the judgement itself needed to be ‘reconsidered’. The ‘settled’ legal principles of equality laid down in 2018 (which we expect to bind future courts) succumbed to the changed political landscape of 2019. Changing public sentiment leading to the court ‘flip-flopping’ on outcomes is not new, and not always detrimental to the rights of citizens. For example, in 2013 the Indian Supreme Court refused to decriminalise consensual gay sex but five years later the court did decriminalise it. It is perfectly possible for future benches to disagree with past ones; however, the incremental nature of such change is essential to maintain the public trust that courts are insulated from the politics of the day. The casting in doubt of Sabarimala within a year, in the face of abject and consistent non-compliance with the judgement by the government and citizens, points to just how thin the court’s veneer of being insulated from public sentiment and deciding cases purely on legal principles is.

Plenty has been written on why the CAA is unconstitutional and should be struck down for violating Article 14 and its resultant jurisprudence (including here on this blog). However, the very idea that the court will apply the legal principles it has previously laid down is caveated by the court’s regular deviation from settled principles in the face of troubling ground realities or persistent public sentiment to the contrary.

Judicial independence 

The last assumption is that courts stand independent of the government and form the ultimate protectors of individual rights against state action. Historically, we have seen that this has not always been the case. As a matter of constitutional design, courts control neither the ‘sword nor the purse’. In other words, courts rely on the government to implement and abide by their decisions. The extent to which the government does so is a function of how much public legitimacy and authority the court wields at any given time. In a handful of jurisdictions, court have over centuries entrenched themselves to a point where non-compliance with their judgements is unthinkable and a government refusing to comply with a court judgement would risk being voted out of power by an electorate that deeply values the rule of law. For example, when the British Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend parliament was found to be unconstitutional by the U.K. Supreme Court, the question was not whether the Prime Minister would comply with the decision, but rather whether he would apologise to the Queen and British public.

In most jurisdictions however, where courts have not had the time or opportunity (or have squandered both) to create a deep sense of institutional credibility and win the public trust, courts are far more vulnerable to government interference.  If a court were to repeatedly strike down government action, the government can register its discontent with the court in several ways. The most common (and visible) tactic is to delay/interfere with the process of judicial appointments. Right from Indira Gandhi’s appointment of A N Ray as Chief Justice (superseding the three senior most judges of the Supreme Court who had ruled against her government) to the current government’s delays in confirming judges, Indian courts have regularly been susceptible to government pressure over judicial appointments. The government may also refuse to provide funding and infrastructure for courts. At the extreme, the government can simply refuse to comply with or implement the judgements of the court. The Indian Home Minister’s recent suggestion that the non-implementation of Supreme Court judgements was an acceptable state of affairs runs dangerously close to an outright refusal to acknowledge the authority of the court. In such situations, courts must not only apply the law, but also balance the needs of the law with deference to the government to ensure the court’s continued survival as an institution.

Indian jurisprudence is replete with such deference. In 1975 when the Allahabad High Court found the then Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) guilty of corrupt practices and invalidated her electoral victory, the government passed a constitutional amendment designed specifically to nullify the invalidation. In the Supreme Court, the constitutional amendments were struck down, but the Prime Minister’s election victory was upheld, allowing Indira Gandhi to remain in power. In Maneka Gandhi v the Union the petitioner’s passport was impounded, and no reasons provided. She approached the court contending that her right to a fair trial and to put forth her defence had been taken away. In a sweeping judgement, the court significantly expanded the scope and rigour of scrutiny, holding that procedure by which liberties are infringed must be ‘fair, reasonable and just’. However, rather than invalidate the order impounding of the passport or the provisions of the Passport Act, the court took on record the Attorney General’s assurance that the government would ‘consider’ the court’s observations and left the matter to the government. Ironically, the last paragraph of Maneka Gandhi (widely touted as a high watermark of Indian human rights jurisprudence) reads:

“The Attorney General assured us that all the grounds urged before us by the petitioner and the grounds that may be urged before the authority will be properly considered by the authority and appropriate orders passed. In the result, I hold that the petitioner is not entitled to any of the fundamental rights enumerated-in Article 19 of the Constitution and that the Passport Act complies with the requirements of Art. 21 of the Constitution and is in accordance with the procedure established by law.”

The Chief Justice’s recent refusal to pass directions for the entry of women at Sabarimala stems in part from the fact that both the Kerala Government and Central Government have indicated their unwillingness to carry out such directions. An order directing the authorities to enforce the judgement would likely be ignored by both governments, triggering a constitutional crisis.

The present day

Having understood that while not entirely independent, the court is undoubtedly uniquely situated, let us examine the court’s recent decisions where the stakes for the government were particularly high. In its Aadhar judgement, the court upheld the government’s collection and use of bio-metric data as part of the Aadhar scheme. The court in 2018 also held the Aadhar Act was correctly certified by the Speaker as a money bill (meaning it was not subject to scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha). But a year later in Rodger Matthew v South Indian Bank the court held that the Aadhar judgement’s reasoning on the issue of money bill was “arguably liberal [in favour of the government]” and “not convincingly reasoned”. The question of how future courts should construe money bills has been referred to a larger bench but peel away the Supreme Court’s strategic antics and the decision in Rodger Matthews is a damming admission that the Aadhar Act was unconstitutional but still upheld by the court.

The Supreme Court’s treatment of the petitions challenging the internet shutdown and detentions in Kashmir and the amendment of Article 370 has been the clearest example of the court’s deference to the government of the day. On 16 September 2019 the court passed an order (analysed here) which didn’t require the government to disclose the legal source of the internet shutdown and left it to the unrestricted discretion of the government to make “endeavours” to restore “normal life”. On 16 December 2019 the internet shutdown in Kashmir entered its 134th day, the longest ever recorded in a democracy. At the time of writing this post, the court is yet to adjudicate on the constitutionality of the internet shut down and the hearings challenging the actual amendment of Article 370 have just taken off.

Recall that vulnerable courts are often called upon to balance the meaning of the law with ensuring a working relationship with the government. After 70 years of democratic constitutionalism, our courts are certainly robust enough to avoid obliteration at the hands of the government. They regularly strike down state and central government actions found to be violative of the Constitution. However, with cases such as Aadhar, Sabarimala, the CAA and Kashmir, where the political stakes for the government are exceptionally high, cracks begin to emerge in the court’s multi-faceted balancing act between the law, public sentiment and deference to the government. In ADM Jabalpur the court compromised its fidelity to the integrity of the law and allowed the government a free reign in return for its continued survival (the supersession of Justice Khanna and the regular transfer of ‘non-complaint’ High Court judges by the government is telling in this regard). Today’s court is neither willing to expressly compromise its intellectual fidelity to the law nor its necessary relationship with the government – and so it sits on the fence, hoping that nobody will notice. The court does not trust its institutional legitimacy is strong enough to rule against the government on politically sensitive matters and continue to maintain a working relationship with the government (the government is equally to blame for this lack of trust). While it also refuses to expressly abandon its fidelity to the integrity of the law (as it did in ADM Jabalpur) and provide express judicial acquiescence of the government’s actions, its refusal to act is fast achieving a similar result indirectly.

Conclusion

Recognising that the central assumptions held about courts as counter-majoritarian institutions are flawed is the first step towards understanding the actions of the Supreme Court recently. The court undoubtedly analyses and applies legal principles on a day to day basis. However, in deciding constitutional cases with high political stakes, courts also consider the impact the decision will have on the government (Aadhaar and Kashmir), the prevailing public sentiment of the day, and the impact on the ground (Sabarimala). Absent any enforcement powers, the court’s is as bold as it thinks the government and people will allow it to be.

In deciding the host of thorny issues on its plate in 2020, the Supreme Court is likely to consider the prevailing public sentiment, strive to maintain a working relationship with the government, and lay down some important law. While the court’s legal questions will be answered by a handful of lawyers in Courtroom 1, the question of how strictly the court will apply the law to fulfil its constitutional role as a meaningful check on government power will be answered by every other Indian. This calls for renewed scrutiny of the court’s actions that denude the legitimacy of its decision making process (some examples include the use of sealed covers, the (mis)use of the master of the roster role, a flawed appointment process and the regular overriding of High Courts). Such actions not only violate core legal norms, but also reduce the public trust in the institution, reducing its institutional authority to act as a check on government power. Understanding the limitations of courts also highlights the need to strengthen the accountability and contestation within other wings of government beginning with our electoral and parliamentary processes.

Guest Post: The Supreme Court’s Fact-Finding Priorities

Tags

[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


This post, by Abhinav Sekhri and Mansi Binjrajka, first appeared on the Proof of Guilt Blog, and has been cross-posted with permission.


Chief Justice of India, Hon’ble Mr. Justice Sharad Aravind Bobde, just yesterday, took suo moto cognizance of the working of the criminal justice system in relation to sexual offences. Highlighting how the amendments brought to criminal law after the Nirbhaya incident have not achieved the objective of speedy investigation and trial, the order passed by the Bench observes that:

The delay in such matters has, in recent times, created agitation, anxiety and unrest in the minds of the people.” (emphasis supplied)

And therefore,

We are, therefore, of the view that it is necessary to take stock of the implementation of provisions of criminal law, including the said amendments, relating to rape cases and other sexual offences. It is necessary to call for information with regard to status of affairs at ground level from various dutyholders like investigation agencies, prosecution, medico-forensic agencies, rehabilitation, legal aid agencies and also Courts to get a holistic view to make criminal justice system responsive in the cases of this nature.” (emphasis supplied)

Thereafter, the Court “considered it appropriate” to seek not one, but TWELVE separate status reports on a variety of issues pertaining to all police stations in the country. I request the readers to peruse the order (hyperlinked above) and form their own opinion on the Apex Court’s priorities. Please note the breadth of information sought for by the Supreme Court when only a few days ago, the same Bench had declared that they do not have time to waste on fact finding in relation to police brutality against student protestors in Delhi and elsewhere. Please also note that a Senior Advocate was promptly appointed as Amicus Curiae and, in addition, the Secretary General of the Supreme Court, as well as the Solicitor General, were requested to extend their co-operation.

To have a further idea on the kind of cases where the Supreme Court thinks it does have time for fact-finding, please see the table below. It contains details of cases that were registered as suo moto writs (‘SMW’) in the last 5 years at the direction of the Court itself.

S/N CASE NO. PARTICULARS
1. SMW (C) 1 / 2019 In Re Matter of Great Public Importance Touching Upon the Independence of the Judiciary – mentioned by Sh. Tushar Mehta
2. SMW (C) 2 / 2019 In Re Felling of Trees in Aarey Forest (Maharashtra)
3. SMW (C) 3 / 2019 In Re Alarming Rise in Air Pollution in Delhi and Adjoining Areas
4. SMW (C) 4 / 2019 In Re Severe Problem Being Faced by the Citizens in Delhi and Adjoining Areas Due to Acute Air Pollution
5. SMW (Crl.) 1 / 2019 In Re Alarming Rise in the Number of Reported Child Rape Incidents

Amicus curiae – Mr. V Giri, Sr. Adv.

6. SMW (Crl.) 2 / 2019 In Re Missing of an LLM Student at Swami Shukdevanand Law College (SS Law College) from Shahjahanpur UP
7. SMW (Crl.) 3 / 2019 Ghanendra Pal Singh

Letter addressed to Secretary General of Supreme Court.

8. SMW (C) 1 / 2018 RK Sareen v. RK Kulshreshtha

SMW against order of Disciplinary Authority in relation to a bribe – due to prolonged period of litigation

9. SMW (C) 2 / 2018 In Re Filling Up of Vacancies
10. SMW (Crl.) 1 / 2018 In Re Kathua Jammu and Kashmir
11. SMC (Crl.) 2/2018 In Re The Indian Express and The Tribune Dated 2nd May 2018 Regarding Kasauli Incident

(regarding unauthorised hotels and guest houses in Kasauli)

Orders seek status reports from Govt. on names of officers posted at the time of illegal constructions, guidelines to prevent such constructions, specific steps on how the problem is to be tackled, steps taken for demolition.

Amicus curiae was also appointed.

12. SMW (C) 1 / 2017 In Re Central Selection Mechanism for Subordinate Judiciary
13. SMW (Crl.) 1 / 2017 In Re To Issue Certain Guidelines Regarding Inadequacies and Deficiencies in Criminal Trials

Amicus curiae – Sidharth Luthra, Sr. Adv., Basant R., K Parmeshwar

Reports sought from all States and UTs on their suggestions

14. SMW (C) 1 / 2015 In Re Outrage as Parents End Life After Child’s Dengue Death

Amicus curiae – Colin Gonsalves, Sr. Adv.

15. SMW (C) 2 / 2015 In Re Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality
16. SMW (Crl.) 3 / 2015 In Re Prajwala Letter Dated 18.02.2015 Videos of Sexual Violence and Recommendations

(regarding blocking child pornography, gang rape imagery, videos and sites on content hosting sites)

17. SMW (Crl.) 1 / 2014 In Re Harassment and Physical Abuse of Ms. ‘M’ v. State of Chattisgarh
18. WP (C) 406 / 2013 Re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons

Order dt. 08.05.2018 – directs all HCs to take up matters relating to prison conditions as suo moto writs.

19. WP (C) 95 / 2012 Devika Biswas v. Union of India

(regarding sterilisation procedures for women)

Detailed directions passed in an Art. 32 writ.

Order dt. 14.09.2016 requests certain HCs to take up the matter as suo moto writs – states which had given inadequate responses to SC.

Apart from seeking information directly from Union / State Government(s) by way of status reports, it is very common for the Supreme Court to appoint Special Investigation Teams (‘SITs’) for fact finding purposes. In Ram Jethmalani v. Union of India, the Petitioner’s prayer for appointment of an SIT to investigate unaccounted monies allegedly stashed abroad was allowed and the Court observed:

“45. The resources of this court are scarce, and it is over-burdened with the task of rendering justice in well over a lakh of cases every year. Nevertheless, this Court is bound to uphold the Constitution, and its own burdens, excessive as they already are, cannot become an excuse for it to not perform that task. In a country where most of its people are uneducated and illiterate, suffering from hunger and squalor, the retraction of the monitoring of these matters by this Court would be unconscionable.”

47. The merits of vigour of investigations, and attempts at law enforcement, cannot be measured merely on the scale of what we accomplish with respect to what has happened in the past. It would necessarily also have to be appreciated from the benefits that are likely to accrue to the country in preventing such activities in the future. Our people may be poor, and may be suffering from all manner of deprivation. However, the same poor and suffering masses are rich, morally and from a humanistic point of view. Their forbearance of the many foibles and failures of those who wield power, no less in their name and behalf than of the rich and the empowered, is itselfindicative of their great qualities, of humanity, trust and tolerance. That greatness can only be matched by exercise of every sinew, and every resource, in the broad goal of our constitutional project of bringing to their lives dignity. The efforts that this Court makes in this regard, and will make in this respect and these matters, can only be conceived as a small and minor, though nevertheless necessary, part. Ultimately the protection of the Constitution and striving to promote its vision and values is an elemental mode of service to our people

48. We note that in many instances, in the past, when issues referred to the Court have been very complex in nature, and yet required the intervention of the Court, Special Investigation Teams have been ordered and constituted in order to enable the Court, and the Union of India and/or other organs of the State, to fulfill their constitutional obligations. The following instances may be noted: Vineet Narain v Union of India, NHRC v State of Gujarat, Sanjiv Kumar v State of Haryana, and Centre for PIL v Union of India.”

It is possible to create a similar table as the one above for situations where the Supreme Court has actively sought information to be placed before it. It is also possible to list out innumerable instances where the Supreme Court has exercised its jurisdiction even where the petitioner did not first move the High Court. But the point of this post is not to create an exhaustive glossary of such instances, but to highlight that the Court’s observations on their inability to undertake fact-finding exercises borders on disingenuous.

Whether or not one agrees with these policy choices of the judiciary is besides the point, for today we are at a place where fact-finding by Courts is practically a norm, and as the Supreme Court’s orders confirm, it is still true today. Unfortunately, despite the normalising of this practice, there has been no formalising of the process that governs how the Supreme Court chooses to exercise its discretion, rendering it subject to the vagaries of an individual judge’s idea of justice.

There was a time when the Supreme Court was lauded for its activism when the other branches of government failed. The historic move by sitting Justices to physically proceed to inspect prison conditions in Delhi, or to go and inspect the working conditions of bonded labourers, were the foundations upon which a people based their faith in the Court and relied on it to do justice rather than merely apply the law. At a time where people’s faith in the judiciary is at a trough, and there has been vocal support for executive killings of suspects owing to frustration with judicial delays, the judges would do well to bear in mind that all their choices convey a message. Judicial intervention cannot come to resemble the executive arbitrariness it was designed to protect against.

Guest Post: The Supreme Court’s IBC Judgment: A Rejoinder

[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


[This post, by Dhruva Gandhi and Sahil Raveen, responds to Arti Gupta’s Reply, on the issue of the Supreme Court’s IBC judgment.]


In her response to our blog post, Arti makes a valid point that when considered together, the timelines under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (“the Code”) and the Competition Act, 2002 (“CA”) could lead to a situation where the time stipulated in Section 12 of the Code is construed as being ‘irrational’. In fact, the conundrum that she mentions was spoken of even at the time the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Act, 2018 was passed. (See here). [This conundrum though was not before the court in Essar. It does not feature in the discussion either].

However, the discourse around the time of the Amendment also suggested that this was an intentional and calculated move made by the Union Parliament. (See also: The Notes on Clauses to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018) It seems that Parliament consciously wanted the Resolution Professional acting under the Code and the Competition Commission of India to complete all the necessary formalities within a time frame of 330 days. Parliament’s decision can be said to have been motivated one of two considerations. One, could have been that most of the combinations under Sections 5 and 6 of the CA had till then not needed to enter Phase II at all. They had been either resolved or approved within thirty days of notification. Two, in light of the urgent need to revive stressed assets, Parliament wanted the Competition Commission to clear combinations emerging out of CIRPs on a ‘fast-track’ basis. (See here) If the 210 days provided to the Competition Commission under the CA were also excluded under the IBC, CIRP would become a two-year long cumbersome process. One can only wonder if the Code would have been less of a success then as compared to what it is now.

Further, Arti’s argument too does not make out a case for the need to invoke a constitutional doctrine. As mentioned by us previously as well, a potential economic hardship arising out of a one-off scenario ought not by itself to make the law manifestly arbitrary. If necessary, a combined reading of Section 31 of the CA and Section 12 of the Code could have been undertaken to read the timeline as being ‘non-mandatory’. Tools of statutory interpretation would have sufficed for the exercise. There was no need to resort to a constitutional doctrine. The use of the doctrine of ‘manifest arbitrariness’ was even less called for because this was not a situation where no rationale could be gleaned from the statute.

On the other hand, this intersection of the CA and the Code may only add to the critique that Nariman J. brushed aside in Sharaya Bano. The Legislature has made a conscious policy decision. To hold it unconstitutional because the interaction of two statutes leads to a possible hardship (and in this case, one that may well have been foreseen by Parliament) does entail substituting the legislative wisdom with a judicial one. Our point remains that there is a need to maintain a circumspect attitude when it comes to invoking ‘manifest arbitrariness’.