(We continue our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, with an essay by Suhrith Parthasarathy, a Chennai-based lawyer and writer).
As both Gautam Bhatia and Aparna Chandra have recounted here, Anuj Bhuwania’s book, “Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post Emergency India,” is an important and unique piece of work, in that it questions not merely the judiciary’s abuse of the PIL power, but also the very conferment of the PIL jurisdiction on the high courts and the Supreme Court of India. Bhuwania’s argument is hugely compelling, and is difficult to counter, particularly on the back of constantly mounting evidence which shows us how the PIL is often a tool that is malleable to the individual predilections of judges, and the campaigns they seek to further.
However, I have two primary concerns with this thesis, which I shall explicate presently: the first is that, textually, both Articles 32 and 226, which respectively guarantee the rights to approach the Supreme Court and the high courts for enforcement of fundamental rights, do not support a blanket prohibition against actions in public interest. The second is the Supreme Court’s own historical record, which contains numerous instances when the court has had little choice but to interfere under Article 32, faced, as it has been, with what were often appalling infractions of basic civil and socio-economic rights. However, it must also be pointed out that even in these cases which demanded interference, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cause of PILs would have been better served had the court, in exercising the power, not only restrained the rhetorical flourish of its judgments, but also managed to maintain, in the process, a greater, basic fidelity to the procedures of an adversarial process.
PILs: The Textual Defence
Let’s consider, at first, the wordings of Articles 32 and 226. Article 32(1) states: “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.” Article 226(1) states, “Notwithstanding anything in Article 32 every High Court shall have powers, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercise jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibitions, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.”
What’s notable is that neither of these articles places any limitations on the category of persons entitled to approach the court. In the case of Article 32, it simply requires the petitioner to show that a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III has been violated—this violation can quite conceivably be of a right possessed by a person distinct from the petitioner. Similarly, Article 226 also does not specify that only persons whose rights have been affected can approach the high courts. What’s more, Article 32 goes a step further in granting leeway to petitioners to approach the Supreme Court by way of “appropriate proceedings.” Were we to read these provisions literally it becomes rather difficult to justify strict rules of locus standi. In fact, were the Supreme Court, for example, to reject a petition purely on the ground that the petitioner has no personal interest in the case, when a fundamental right has been shown to be violated, it might well be a dismissal contrary to the bare text and meaning of Article 32.
Therefore, in many ways, the loosening of principles of standing that occurred over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, is in consonance with a proper, textual reading of Articles 32 and 226. Further, a look into Constituent Assembly’s debates on these articles also does not show us that the drafters intended to place restrictions on locus standi in a manner that required petitioners to be personally affected. Now, this is not to suggest that the court is incapable of framing rules that regulate the principles of standing. The words “appropriate proceeding” in Article 32, for instance, gives the court the latitude to regulate principles of locus standi in a manner consistent with the broader requirements of justice. That the court has failed to do so in a systematic and coherent manner, however, has been a failing that has had serious repercussions.
As Bhuwania argues, this lack of rigour in the Supreme Court’s PIL jurisprudence, which is only made worse by the court’s almost declamatory language, is evident almost right from the inception of PILs. For example, take one of the earliest instances of the Supreme Court’s exercise of what it itself appeared to describe as a public interest action: the 1976 judgment in Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay vs M/S Abdulbhai Faizullabhai. Here, the court was concerned with an appeal against an award made by an Industrial Tribunal where a demand for bonus by employees working for various small hardware businesses in Navi Mumbai was rejected. One of the defences that the Respondent took in the Supreme Court was that the employees had been represented by a Trade Union, and, this body lacked the standing to bring the appeal on behalf of the workers. “No right of the Union qua Union was involved,” the Respondent contended, “and the real disputants were the workers.”
To this, Krishna Iyer, J., who was part of the two-judge bench hearing the appeals, responded thus: “But a bare reading of the petition, the description of parties, the grounds urged and grievances aired, leaves us in no doubt that the battle is between the workers and employers and the Union represents, as a collective noun, as it were, the numerous humans whose presence is indubitable in the contest, though formally invisible on the party array.” As a matter of technicality, he conceded that the Union could not be a party, but, this, he said, was merely an infelicity in the drafting, for it was clear that it was the workmen who were the real parties to the dispute. This ordinarily ought to have been enough for the court to overcome any objections on the maintainability of the appeal—the workers, as Krishna Iyer, J., had pointed out were, in fact, before the court, but were merely represented by a Union.
Unfortunately, however, the court did not stop here. And this is where the problems begin. “Test litigations, representative actions, pro bono public and like broadened forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural, shortcomings,” Krishna Iyer, J., wrote. “Even Article 226, viewed in wider perspective, may be amenable to ventilation of collective or common grievances, as distinguished from assertion of individual rights, although the traditional view, backed by precedents, has opted for the narrower alternative. Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latté dinarianism permits taking liberties with individualization of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker.”
Now, the court was unconcerned here with Article 226, and any observations made on the procedural requirements of standing to approach a high court were simply irrelevant to the facts of the case. What’s more, the court was actually concerned with whether the workers individually had a right to seek bonus; that they may have been collectively represented by a Union did not negate the fact that their individual rights had nonetheless to be determined. In framing the issue, though, as one which involved an airing of collective grievance, as opposed to one that involved an assertion of individual rights, Krishna Iyer, J. ended up upholding an argument quite different to the one made by the Trade Union.
PILs: On the Necessity of Judicial Intervention
There are similar misgivings with almost all of the early cases that are often described as heralding a movement towards public interest litigation. It’s quite conceivable that each of those cases may well have been amenable to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction without otherwise compromising on the basic principles of standing. For instance,Gautam Bhatia in his review of Bhuwania’s book points to the 1982 judgment of the Supreme Court in PUDR vs Union of India, as an exemplar of what PIL can mean, when applied correctly.
Here, the court was faced with a report that pointed out a flagrant violation of several labour laws in relation to workmen employed in the construction work of various projects connected with the Asian Games. Article 32, as P.N. Bhagwati, J. pointed out in his judgment, only required that the petitioner show a violation of a fundamental right. What’s more, as I have argued above, the provision doesn’t, in and of itself, prohibit a person from approaching the court in the interest of fundamental rights of any other individual or any other distressed groups of people. In this case, the petitioner’s report quite clearly, in the court’s opinion, presented evidence of what constituted a form of forced labour in violation of Article 23. Now, it was up to the Union of India to disprove that the labourers employed for the projects connected with the Asian Games weren’t being employed in a manner that violated Article 23. The Union, though, didn’t quite dispute the basic findings in the petitioner’s report. Instead, it argued by placing emphasis, as the judgment states, on the word ‘similar’, used in Article 23, contending that it is not every form of forced labour which is prohibited by the provision but only such form of forced labour as is similar to ‘begar’ and since ‘begar’ means labour or service which a person is forced to give with-out receiving any remuneration for it. Article 23, in its argument, was limited only to those forms of forced labour where labour or service is exacted from a person without paying any remuneration at all and if some remuneration is paid, though it be inadequate, it would not fall within the words ‘other similar forms of forced labour.’ Given the arguments adduced the court’s task was to simply answer a legal question: whether Article 23 prohibited all forms of forced labour or merely those forms that were similar to “begar.” This, the court did effectively.
But, once again, much of the court’s good work was undone by its oratorical excesses. Bhuwania takes us to one such statement, where the court was quick to stress on a need to loosen procedural standings on a whole, and, more significantly, on a need to invent new strategies to provide access to large groups of people:
“We wish to point out with all the emphasis at our command that public interest litigation which is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief,” wrote PN Bhagwati, J. “Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and un-redressed.”
Thus, once again, the court was framing the debate in terms of collective rights. This, in my submission, was where the court went wrong. This was a case much like Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, a case where individual rights of workers were being contravened. PUDR, as Bhatia has argued, largely represents a case where PIL was put to good use. But the court could have achieved its ends through a narrower holding. It simply had to read Article 32 in a manner close to its text, to find that PUDR did, in fact, possess the locus standi to approach the court for a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers. This required no specific loosening of the standard.
We may now look at one more example, a 1984 case, which Bhuwania refers to in detail: Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India. This was a case initiated by an organisation dedicated to ending bonded labour. As Bhuwania points out, the judgment rendered by PN Bhagwati, J., in the case is riddled with his “standard trope of Indian difference.” That “in a country like India where there is so much of poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, deprivation and exploitation, any insistence on a rigid formula of proceeding for enforcement of a fundamental right would become self-defeating because it would place enforcement of fundamental rights beyond the reach of the common man and the entire remedy for enforcement of fundamental rights…would become a mere rope of sand so far as the large masses of the people in this country are concerned.”
But while Bhagwati, J., may have been wrong on this count, as is pointed out in a concurring judgment in the same case by Pathak, J., he did also seek to defend the court’s intervention based on a textual reading of Article 32. The provision, he pointed out, confers the right to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of any fundamental right, but it neither restricts movement of the court to any category of persons, nor does it place a restriction on the manner of the proceedings: “It is clear on the plain language of Clause (1) of Article 32 that whenever there is a violation of a fundamental right, anyone can move the Supreme Court for enforcement of such fundamental right,” wrote Bhagwati, J. “…again Clause (1) of Article 32 says that the Supreme Court can be moved for enforcement of a fundamental right by any ‘appropriate’ proceeding.’ There is no limitation in regard to the kind of proceeding envisaged in Clause (1) of Article 32 except that the proceeding must be ‘appropriate’ and this requirement of appropriateness must be judged in the light of the purpose for which the proceeding is to be taken, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right.”
As a matter of pure textual interpretation of Article 32, as I sought to show earlier, it is difficult to argue against Bhagwati, J.’s view. Had he dismissed the petitioner’s approach purely on the ground that he or she doesn’t have the standing to maintain an action for the violation of a fundamental right, the dismissal would have run directly counter to Article 32’s wording. This is not to say that the court cannot place its own international restrictions on when to interfere. But any strict rule of standing would simply be impermissible as a matter of constitutional law.
Here, what Pathak, J. said in his concurring opinion in Bandhua Mukti Morcha is particularly instructive. He expressly recognised that Article 32 does not specifically indicate who can move the court when a fundamental right is violation and, therefore, in the absence of a confining provision, it was “plain that a petitioner may be anyone in whom the law recognises a standing to maintain an action of such nature.” But as to what constitutes an “appropriate proceeding,” Pathak, J. was more circumspect. While he recognised that it was indeed time for the law to enlarge the doctrine of standing to permit actions by persons in public interest on behalf of groups otherwise incapable of representing themselves, public interest litigation, he held, did not necessarily call for a system that altogether loosens the fundamental requirements of a properly adversarial process. It similarly also did not a call for a system where the relief provided by the court is beyond what it might provide in a regular writ proceeding.
A public interest litigation, Pathak, J. held, did permit a greater degree of flexibility in comparison to a traditional private law litigation, but any such procedure adopted by the court must nonetheless confirm to basic judicial tenets characteristic of a proper proceeding. What he meant by this was that although a defined pattern of procedure might be hard to lay down, the court must still follow the procedure laid down by any statute that prescribes the procedure for the proceeding concerned. Where the court devises any supplementary procedure, “there can be no deviation from the principles of natural justice and other well accepted procedural norms characteristic of a judicial proceeding,” he wrote. “They constitute an entire code of general principles of procedure, tried and proven and followed by the sanctity of common and consistent acceptance during long years of the historical development of the law. The general principles of law, to which reference is made here, command the confidence, not merely of the Judge and the lawyer and the parties to the litigation, but supply that basic credibility to the judicial proceeding which strengthens public faith in the Rule of Law. They are rules rooted in reason and fairplay, and their governance guarantees a just disposition of the case. The court should be wary of suggestions favouring novel procedures in cases, where accepted procedural rules will suffice.”
Bhuwania is entirely correct in pointing out that it was ultimately Bhagwati, J’s judgment that carried the day, and Pathak, J.’s opinion remains just that, an opinion. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Pathak, J. may have been correct as a matter of law on how a PIL has to be treated: that a petition cannot be dismissed purely on the ground that a petitioner lacks standing, and that where a violation of a fundamental right is shown, the court has little choice but to intervene. But this intervention must partake a proper procedure, and, any relief that is ultimately awarded must also be tailored into a proper judicial relief.
Conclusion: A Partial Defence
There are many genuine, legitimate areas in which a PIL serves as the only recourse available to check unconstitutional executive or legislative actions. But it is tragically disappointing that the court ultimately chose to follow the pattern shaped by Bhagwati, J. Bhuwania shows in substantial detail (as Bhatia illustrated in his first post) that PILs have led to a series of pitfalls, and have proved hugely damaging to the quality of justice delivery in the country. But this, in my submission, isn’t as much a problem with PILs per se as it is with the larger lack of accountability that the judiciary enjoys. Here, I agree with Chandra, who argues that the “judicial populism that Bhuwania describes in his book translates into distinct conception of the judicial role, and a mode of judicial reasoning that is apparent not just in PIL cases but across the board.” The misuse of the PIL has only been accentuated by the unaccountability of the judiciary; the general lack of integrity in decision making, of maintain a fidelity to constitutional values and principles, is a problem as much in the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction as it is in its exercise of PIL power.
Any solution, therefore, has to go deeper. Regrettably, attempts made to alter the system of appointing judges have thus far failed. In the place of proper democratic constraints on the judiciary, what we have instead are anti-constitutional checks on judicial power: post-retirement postings, for example. Unless these larger issues are met effectively, it’s difficult to imagine a proper reform of the PIL process. To understand why we need this reform, though, there is no better place to begin than by reading Bhuwania’s book.