Preventive Justice Part 2: Looking Inside Pandora’s Box

(In this second post of a series, Abhinav Sekhri continues with his genealogical analysis of the Constitution’s preventive detention clause. This essay has been cross-posted from The Proof of Guilt blog.)

In the previous post, I traced the history behind Article 22 of the Indian Constitution, showing how the clause was considered to be Dr. Ambedkar’s version of due process after that idea was excluded from Article 21 [India’s guarantee to protect the right to life and personal liberty]. Constitutional developments since have seen the Supreme Court re-introduce the due process idea into Article 21 most famously in Maneka Gandhi’s case. This, naturally, raises questions about the position of Article 22 in the panoply of rights to freedom guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. It leads me to consider the history behind the interplay between Articles 19 to 22 in this post. For this I have relied, again, on the books by Granville Austin and Mr. Seervai’s commentary, and I would strongly suggest those interested in the issue to consult these sources. I then argue, that Article 22(3)(b) – excluding the right to legal representation for those preventively detained – is contrary to Article 21.
The ‘Complete Code’ idea – AK Gopalan and RC Cooper
A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras [(1950) SCR 88] is one of my favourite decisions of the Supreme Court, and probably one of the most misunderstood ones too largely due to the common vilification it suffers after Maneka Gandhi. A.K. Gopalan [Communist Leader, and later Member of Parliament] was detained under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 [a legislation hastily passed by the Nehru Government a month after the coming into force of India’s Constitution to prevent release of the hundreds of persons detained under laws that would soon lapse]. Gopalan challenged the Act for violating Articles 14, 19, 21 as well being contrary to Article 22 itself. The Court upheld the validity of the Act but held Section 14 unconstitutional for violating Article 22(5) – the provision prevented even courts from accessing materials on which detention orders were based.
This post is limited to only one of the several fascinating points of discussion thrown up by Gopalan. That is the issue of Article 22 being a ‘Complete Code’, which means that the legality of preventive detention laws is limited to being tested only against Article 22 and not the other fundamental rights in Part III of the Constitution. The Attorney General argued this was the correct position of law. Only Mahajan, J. agreed: “I am satisfied on a review of the whole scheme of the Constitution that the intention was to make Article 22 a self-contained in respect of the laws on the subject of preventive detention.” Kania, C.J., Sastri and Das, JJ. considered Articles 21 and 22 had to be read together [Kania, C.J.: “According to him [the Attorney General], Article 22 is a complete code. I am unable to accept that contention.”]. Fazl Ali, J. went a step further and observed that “In my opinion, it cannot be said that Articles 19, 20, 21 and 22 do not to some extent overlap each other.”
This means that the ‘Complete Code’ argument was rejected in Gopalan itself, the only doubts left were regarding applicability of Article 19 to preventive detention laws. Strangely, then, the majority of ten judges in R.C. Cooper [1970 SCR (3) 530, speaking through Shah, J.] held that “The majority of the Court [in Gopalan] held that Article 22 being a complete code relating to preventive detention, the validity of an order of detention must be determined strictly according to the terms and ‘within the four corners of that Article.” As Mr. Seervai notes, the majority incorrectly considered the ‘Complete Code’ idea as being approved by Gopalan and that this was further compounded in Haradhan Saha [(1975) 3 SCC 198]. In hindsight some good came of this error. The R.C. Cooper majority upheld the view of Fazl Ali, J. and overruled Gopalan for accepting the ‘Complete Code’ argument [wrongly, of course]. This cleared the way for preventive detention laws to also be subjected to Article 19 challenges, together with existing tests of Articles 21 and 22. The Article 21 test was later notably strengthened in 1978 by Maneka Gandhi transplanting ‘procedure established by law’ with ‘due process of law’ without amending the text of Article 21 itself. Subsequent years saw the just, fair, and reasonable logic of Article 21 seep into preventive detention laws – Francis Coralie Mullin [AIR 1981 SC 746] an eloquent instance of the same.
Pandora’s Box: Unleashing Article 21 on Article 22(3)(b)
Opening Pandora’s Box is shorthand for taking decisions without appreciating the consequences. I think the analogy aptly reflects the Supreme Court’s move to import ‘due process’ into Article 21. The interplay between the various ‘rights to freedom’ under Part III was based upon the specific exclusion of due process from Article 21 [discussed in the last post]. It is fair to say that the decision in Maneka Gandhiirreversibly severed Articles 19-22 from that original interpretation. Proceeding from this position, I argue that Article 21 and Article 22(3)(b) cannot coexist in the current constitutional scheme. The limited version of ‘due process’ guaranteed through Article 22 must give way.
Recall that Article 22(3)(b) barred persons detained under preventive detention laws from consulting and being defended by a legal practitioner of their choice. Like the rest of the preventive detention clause, this was considered necessary due to the situation prevailing at the time by Dr. Ambedkar. The Supreme Court noted its harshness but begrudgingly accepted this position. All this was because Article 22 represented the extent of due process guaranteed in the Constitution. Then the Supreme Court decided to introduce an unfettered concept of ‘due process’ into Article 21. This led the Court to note in Madhav Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra [(1978) 3 SCC 544] that a ‘procedure established by law’ entailed a right to appeal, right to counsel and imposed a duty upon the State to provide free legal aid (Krishna Iyer, J. even passed directions to that effect). How, then, does one justify the exclusion of this right to counsel through Article 22(3) to persons who perhaps are in greatest need of legal counsel?
Five judges in A.K. Roy v. Union of India [(1982) 1 SCC 271] squarely faced this contention. Their answer was simple: detenus had not right to counsel because Article 22(3) specifically excluded it. Notice the helplessness in the opinion: “It is therefore necessary that the procedure prescribed by law for the proceedings before the Advisory Boards must be fair, just and reasonable. But then, the Constitution itself has provided a yardstick for the application of that standard, through the medium of the provisions contained in Article 22(3)(b). Howsoever much we would have liked to hold otherwise, we experience serious difficulty in taking the view that the procedure of the Advisory Boards in which the detenu is denied the right of legal representation is unfair, unjust or unreasonable. … It is unfortunate that courts have been deprived of that choice by the express language of Article 22(3)(b) read with Article 22(1). [Emphasis mine]” What is crucial here, is the Court relying upon Article 22 itself as the yardstick to determine what is just, fair, and reasonable. I argue that this is incorrect, because after Maneka Gandhi the test of procedural fairness flows from Article 21 and not Article 22. In any event, no part of the Constitution itself remains above scrutiny, and the helplessness of the Court is akin to crocodile tears.
Conclusion
The idea of a ‘Complete Code’ in Article 22 was unassumingly sustained by the Supreme Court and eventually buried by it as well. The consequences of this, however, are something that the Court continues to struggle with. While I have focused on clause (b), the retention of Article 22(3) itself despite the Supreme Court heralding a ‘due process’ standard is unacceptable. Looking at decisions post 1980 concerning preventive detention, it is clear that judges appreciated the problem. Successive decisions did mollify the deprivation of a right to counsel. In Nand Lal Bajajv. State of Punjab [(1981) 4 SCC 327], the Court held that a detenu had a right to counsel where the Government was permitted to engage a lawyer to argue before the Advisory Board established under a preventive detention law. This, it reasoned, would violate Article 14 and Article 21. In A.K. Roy, after expressing its dire helplessness the Court did go ahead and hold that a person detained had a right to be assisted by a friend [“who, in truth and substance, is not a legal practitioner“] in making a representation. The Court has re-written Article 22(3) to this limited extent, but it dare not take the plunge and declare it wholly redundant.
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Filed under Article 21 and the Right to Life, Preventive Detention

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