(This is Part III of Abhinav Sekhri’s series on preventive detention under the Constitution, cross-posted from Proof of Guilt).
The two previous posts in the Preventive Justice series focused on Article 22 of the Indian Constitution which prescribes basic minimums regarding preventive detention in India. The history behind this constitutional provision – labelled an anachronism – offers further support to that old adage of not judging books by their covers. The development of due process law in India was used to question the sustainability of the basic minimums constitutionally prescribed by Article 22. To recap, it was argued that the Supreme Court has, unambiguously, held that Article 22 is not a complete code and preventive detention laws are open to challenge under Articles 19 and 21. In this concluding post in the series, I look at the many statutes – both federal and state – in India that authorise preventive detention for a wide variety of acts. The question I beg, not always directly, is whether these would pass muster when tested against Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the Constitution.
Scope of Legislative Power on Preventive Detention
The Seventh Schedule to the Indian Constitution details the various items on which the federal and state legislatures can pass laws. Preventive Detention figures as Entry 9 on the Federal List (List I) as well as Entry 3 of the Concurrent List (List III). These read as follows:
Entry 9, List I: Preventive detention for reasons connected with Defence, Foreign Affairs, or the security of India; persons subjected to such detention.
Entry 3, List III: Preventive detention for reasons connected with security of a State, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community; persons subjected to such detention.
In A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras [AIR 1950 SC 27] the majority held there was no requirement to specify what issue of defence or foreign affairs a preventive detention statute sought to deal with. It would be legal for it to simply refer to the subjects mentioned in these entries as justifications. As we shall see, this proved to be important for courts in upholding the validity of these statutes.
Federal Laws Authorising Preventive Detention
Is it purely coincidental that the federal laws authorising preventive detention in India today have some connection with the 1975 Emergency, when preventive detentions were most routinely ordered? Perhaps. Although the controversial Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971 was repealed in 1978, its cousin the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act, 1974 (COFEPOSA) was not. This was, in fact, supplemented by the National Security Act (NSA) and the Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act (Black Marketing Act) in 1980. What are the purposes of these laws and what do they proscribe?
- COFEPOSA: Allows for preventive detention for “conservation and augmentation of foreign exchange and prevention of smuggling activities.“
- NSA: Persons acting “prejudicial to the defence of India, the relations of India with foreign powers, or the security of India” as well as those acting “prejudicial to the security of a State, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community can be preventively detained.
- Black Marketing Act: Allows for detention in cases for prevention of “blackmarketing and maintenance of supplies of commodities essential to the community.”
The COFEPOSA posed a more interesting challenge. Passed before the Emergency, it was also placed in the Ninth Schedule. This was the basis for the Supreme Court upholding its validity in Attorney General for India v Amratlal Prajivandas [AIR 1994 SC 2179]. At that time laws placed in the Ninth Schedule were completely immune from judicial scrutiny. This understanding changed with I.R. Coehlo v State of Tamil Nadu [AIR 2007 SC 861] which held placing a law in the Ninth Schedule could not bar challenges for fundamental rights violations.
Did that affect the fate of COFEPOSA? The Supreme Court in Dropti Devi v Union of India [(2012) 7 SCC 499] held that this didn’t matter. It noted that as the validity of the COFEPOSA had been upheld once, the change brought by I.R. Coelho would not allow another challenge. Still, the Court went ahead to address the merits in the decision, only to bunk the arguments that the COFEPOSA violated Articles 19, 21 and 22. The economic harm that the COFEPOSA purportedly addresses was seen as a measure to safeguard the security of India by the Court.
State Laws Authorising Preventive Detention
The vast majority of State laws greatly resemble each other – in both substance and in name – and address purported anti-social elements such as Goondas and Bootleggers. Amnesty India has put up a useful resource listing these laws and their objectives which means I can jump right away to the more recent developments on this front. I refer to the amendments to preventive detention laws brought to address video piracy and digital offenders. This was done by Karnataka most recently, giving us the atrociously titled Karnataka Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Acid Attackers, Bootleggers, Depredator of Environment, Digital Offenders, Drug Offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Land Grabbers, Money Launderers, Sexual Predators and Video or Audio Pirates Act 1985. The problems posed by such amendments by states have been discussed a fair bit already (see here, here and here) and has been considered once by the Madras High Court in 2005. Supplementing those critiques, I argue that these extensions are illegal for the laws do not pass the test posed by Articles 19, 21 and 22. The development of due process would suggest Article 21 poses an important test to the validity of these laws.
The lack of attention to preventive detention legislation in India remains surprising. Especially at at time when there is renewed attention to the expanding scope of detention without trial across the globe. The judicial approval of these statutes has stemmed debate to a certain extent, and has consequently resulted in emboldening states to continually expand preventive detention laws. While preventive action in itself is not a problem, Indian laws (both federal and state laws) display a glaring lack of proportionality in their approach. Prescribing possibly year-long detentions for potential copyright violations, when the offence itself is bailable, is patently unjustified and illegal. Looking ahead, lets see what the future holds.