(This is a guest post by Abhinav Sekhri, which first appeared on the Proof of Guilt blog)
Two days ago, a Two Judges’ Bench of the Indian Supreme Court decided a batch of writ petitions led by Writ Petition (Crl) No. 67 of 2017 titled Nikesh Tarachand Shah v. Union of India & Anr. [Nikesh Shah] in which it struck down the parts of Section 45 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002 [PMLA] which concerned the grant of bail. The Court held that these parts violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution – guaranteeing a right to equality, and protection against deprivation of the right to life and personal liberty by a procedure not established by law. The effect of this judgment is that bail petitions earlier subject to a stringent standard under Section 45 PMLA will now be tested on the less taxing standards of Sections 439 and 437 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 [Cr.P.C.]. This post has four parts – (i) explaining how money laundering and the PMLA work (which I’d urge you to skim through even if you’re a lawyer, because at times the judgment reflects some lack of knowledge on the Court’s part), (ii) charting out how the Court did what it did, (iii) showing where the Court goes wrong, and finally (iv) what this judgment might mean for the many other statutes with similar clauses that have not been examined by the Court yet.
What is the PMLA, What are the Schedules, and What does Section 45 do?
The PMLA is India’s answer to its global commitment to tackle money laundering, which (at the cost of oversimplification) means representing assets obtained through illegal acts as untainted. In line with global standards, the PMLA covers all kinds of conduct connected with this process of representing black as white (doing, aiding, abetting, attempting etc), as long as one knowingly did so [Sections 3 and 4]. The PMLA not only makes this is an offence but also triggers connected civil actions of attaching and confiscating the tainted assets themselves [Sections 5-8].
Notice how the entire idea of money laundering is linked to some underlying illegal act which results in generating some proceeds – cash or kind. While some countries don’t require that illegal act to be a crime, India does, and the PMLA calls it a ‘Scheduled Offence’ [Section 2(y)] i.e. offences that are part of the Schedules to the PMLA. There are three Schedules – A, B, and C – and Schedule A contains the bulk of offences and Schedule C is basically the same thing applied in a transnational context. Schedule B contains only one offence – Section 132 of the Customs Act 1962 which criminalises making false declarations before customs officers. Importantly, when the underlying offence is one from Schedule B, the PMLA will only apply if the allegations involve a value of at least one crore rupees. There is no such minimum monetary limit for cases with Schedule A offences. It wasn’t always like this, and the history behind these Schedules became quite important in Nikesh Shah which requires me to discuss it here.
When the PMLA came into force in 2005, Schedule A only had two paragraphs carrying offences punishable under the Indian Penal Code 1860 [IPC] for waging war against India and nine offences from the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 [NDPS Act]. Schedule B contained the bulk of offences, along with a lower minimum threshold of thirty lakhs for the value of allegations. Then around 2010 India wanted to join the Financial Action Task Force [FATF] as a member. The FATF is a global body created by the G-8 for money laundering and membership is a big deal [India is the only South Asian member state till today]. When the FATF conducted its evaluation of Indian money laundering laws, it heavily criticised the monetary limit for the cases in Schedule B [paragraph 167 of the linked report]. The logic was that the limit would allow money laundering to escape under the radar as people would just deal in smaller tranches over a slightly elongated period of time. So the FATF recommended the limit be abolished [paragraph 175]. The government sought to do this by simply moving all Schedule B offences to Schedule A, which was done through the 2013 Amendment, leaving Schedule B empty for the time being.
In all this moving around offences, nobody thought fit to look at what impact it would have on the rest of the PMLA – specifically, on Section 45 which spoke about bail. Since the money laundering offence was tied to the Scheduled Offence, Section 45(1) looked at that underlying offence and this decided how difficult it would be to get bail. If it was a Schedule A offence with a sentence of more than three years, the law placed two additional conditions for getting bail: (i) the public prosecutor had to be given a chance to oppose bail, and if the prosecutor chose to oppose bail, then (ii) the court had to satisfy itself that the defendant was “not guilty of such offence” and was not likely to commit any offence on bail, and the burden fell on the defendant to satisfy the court. For all other Schedule A offences, and all Schedule B offences, the regular bail clauses from the Cr.P.C. continued to apply. You can see how the 2013 amendments to the Schedules completely changed the look of Section 45 – the exceptional process became the norm. This new normal was under challenge before the Supreme Court in Nikesh Shah.
SC on Section 45 – Violates Articles 14 and 21
Petitioners argued that the constitutional protections of Articles 14 and 21 were violated by Section 45 PMLA, and the Court agreed to both contentions. Rather than address arguments first and then move to the Court’s appreciation, I discuss both together for brevity.
The Petitioners argued that linking the stringent bail clauses to offences in Schedule A that carried at least a three year maximum sentence was creating several irrational and arbitrary classifications which the Court encapsulated through examples [Paragraphs 24-27, and 35]. The Court found no basis to differentiate the harsh treatment meted out under Section 45 from the following hypothetical cases which according to the Court did not attract Section 45:
- When there is only the PMLA charge as the trial for the Scheduled offence was complete;
- When the PMLA allegation is based on a Schedule B offence;
- When the PMLA allegation is based on a Schedule A offence carrying a maximum sentence below three years;
- When a person is tried for a Part A offence with at least a three year term (versus a joint trial where the same person is tried together with the person with PMLA charges);
- When the person is released on Anticipatory Bail under Section 438 Cr.P.C. for allegations of the Scheduled Offence, before the PMLA charge was brought in.
The Court was of the view that the seriousness of money laundering cases depended on the amount of money involved [Paragraphs 29-30]. Since Schedule A had no monetary limits, the Court concluded that the likelihood of being granted bail was being significantly affected under Section 45 by factors that had nothing to do with allegations of money laundering [Paragraphs 26-27]. When the Attorney General attempted to defend the scheme by painting the classification as a punishment-based one, the Court easily rebuffed his argument. First, the Court suggested there was no such scheme, but noted that even then, the idea should have something to do with the object of the PMLA. The Court showed how Schedule A had many offences that didn’t seem related to money laundering [taking particular objection in Paragraph 34 to offences under the National Biodiversity Act being there], leaving out others that might have more rational connections to money laundering such as counterfeiting currency [Paragraphs 29-30]. The Court also adversely commented on how Schedule A had lumped different NDPS offences together, at the cost of ignoring how the parent Act treated those offences differently [Paragraph 32-33].
The Court noted also that Section 45 of the PMLA was different from other laws that carried similar requirements such as Section 20(8) of the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1987 [TADA]. The ‘such offence’ in TADA required a court to be satisfied that the defendant was not guilty of the TADA offence in question before granting bail. But in the PMLA, ‘such’ offence referred to the Scheduled Offence instead of the PMLA offence. So, the restrictions imposed by Section 45 PMLA were held to have no connection to the objects of the PMLA itself and thus the rational classification, if any, violated Article 14 [Paragraph 28].
The Petitioners argued that requiring defendants to satisfy the court that they were not guilty of ‘such’ offence violated Article 21 by reversing the presumption of innocence and required the defendant to disclose her defence at the outset of the case. In the judgment the Court doesn’t really address Article 21 independently – instead the Court suggest that because the provision violates Article 14 it cannot be ‘procedure established by law’ and therefore violated Article 21. Towards the end of the decision the Court begins discussing the argument though. It labels Section 45 a “drastic provision which turns on its head the presumption of innocence which is fundamental to a person accused of any offence.” [Paragraph 38]. In the same paragraph it goes on to observe that “before application of a section which makes drastic inroads into the fundamental right of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India, we must be doubly sure that such provision furthers a compelling state interest for tackling serious crime. Absent any such compelling state interest, the indiscriminate application of section 45 will certainly violate Article 21 of the Constitution. Provisions akin to section 45 have only been upheld on the ground that there is a compelling state interest in tackling crimes of an extremely heinous nature.”
Hits and Misses
There are two questions that were at stake here: (i) did any part of Section 45 offend the Constitution, and if so, (ii) did the Court have no other option but to repeal the provision. Reading the decision, it seems like the Court felt there was so much wrong in the PMLA scheme it decided to throw the kitchen sink at one point rather than explain the issues. The Court answered both affirmatively but never explained to us whether any argument dispositive, or does every case need this sort of broad argumentation to succeed.
Classification and Article 14 first. After reading the legislative history behind the 2013 amendments and the FATF argument, do you think that the Court is right in concluding that higher the monetary allegations, more serious the PMLA case? I’m not so sure. Nor do I think there is much to be gained by placing emphasis (like the Court does) on how Schedule B today has a higher limit than the initial thirty lakhs to suggest that this is in fact the case. It is far more plausible that the one crore limit was placed keeping in mind the underlying offence (false declarations to customs officials in an enquiry) and the concerns of the export industry, which is already subject to Schedule A through Section 135 of the Customs Act 1962 (evading customs duty). Rather than attempt at answering what might be the basis for such a classification for the PMLA (and indirectly giving hints to the government on what might pass muster), the Court would have done well by restricting itself to answering whether the present classification between (i) PMLA allegations based on a type of Schedule A offences versus (ii) all other PMLA cases was intelligible and connected to the objects of the PMLA. As there was enough to show that the original intent (if any) behind Section 45 had not kept apace with the subsequent amendments to the Schedules in 2013, the Court could strike down this classification. But did that require striking down the whole clause?
This brings us to the other part of what did that classification achieve. If it sought to serve as a filter for PMLA cases when it came to administering a strict bail clause, we are left with no filter. Does that mean no PMLA case is serious enough to warrant an application of the clause, or will the clause apply to every PMLA case? Deciding this would need the Court to decide whether clauses such as Section 45 that required a court to find defendants ‘not guilty’ at the bail stage were constitutional. Rather than directly address this, the Court turned to how the text of Section 45 was flawed, as it referred back to the Scheduled Offence on deciding bail petitions. Since the scheduled classification had been struck down, there was nothing to refer to, and so the clause had to go. While there is little to fault this approach, I remain unconvinced that the Court had no option but to strike down the clause because of the text. The Court has performed far greater feats of legislative reconstruction than being asked to read ‘such offence’ in Section 45 PMLA as referring to the PMLA allegations rather than only the Scheduled Offence. After all, it stands to reason that a bail provision in the PMLA would want a PMLA special court to consider the PMLA allegations. In fact, many High Court decisions show this is how they were doing it. Heck, this is how the Court itself was doing it in Rohit Tandon at the start of November [Paragraphs 21-23 of the link]. I think this course was adopted as it helped secure two objectives. Not only did this take care of the PMLA clause which this bench of the Court clearly did not like much, it also helped to protect other statutes with similar clauses which the Court held met a ‘compelling state interest’ test.
This brings me to one last bit about Article 21 and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court cites a previous decision in Rajesh Kumar v. State (NCT) of Delhi [(2011) 13 SCC 706] for the proposition that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has incorporated the Eighth Amendment and its protection against excessive bail [Paragraphs 13, 19 of Nikesh Shah]. The Court also cites two American decisions [Paragraph 37] on bail for good measure. This is, unfortunately, wrong. Rajesh Kumar cited previous precedent in Sunil Batra to suggest that even though India did not have the Eighth Amendment or the ‘Due Process’ clause, the consequences were the same to prevent cruel and unusual punishment. Not only did both those decisions not mention the excessive bail clause, the references to the cruel and unusual punishment clause itself are highly contentious as an earlier bench of the Supreme Court had held it couldn’t be pressed in India, and that decision continues to be cited.
The slapdash manner in which the PMLA Schedules were amended in 2013 to appease the FATF had already caused some High Courts to address this issue of Section 45. The closest it came to striking down the clause was the Punjab & Haryana High Court’s decision in Gorav Kathuria v. Union of India & Anr. where it held the bail provisions would not apply retrospectively to offences previously in Schedule B [Paragraphs 43-45 of Nikesh Shah]. When the Court declined to hear an appeal against the High Court order in Kathuria I thought that it had indirectly affirmed the validity of Section 45. The judgment in Nikesh Shah comes as a surprise, and marks the first occasion when the Court has looked at any part of the PMLA through a constitutional lens. There are other parts that are equally problematic – the asset forfeiture scheme and the compulsion on witnesses to make truthful declarations, for instance – that litigants may take to the Court being encouraged by this judgment.
As for the future impact of Nikesh Shah on other statutes that carry the same ‘drastic provision’, the stage is set for some litigation on that front as well. The Supreme Court has only approved of the TADA and the MCOCA provisions in the past, leaving the many others open to scrutiny on this new test of whether the provision furthers a ‘compelling state interest’. The Court never answered that for the PMLA context while deciding the petitions in Nikesh Shah. Do you think it might conclude that the PMLA does not meet the test? What about the other statutes? I’ve re-pasted my list of statutes containing the clauses below after accounting for the ones that are not relevant anymore. Comments, as always, are welcome.
- Section 437(1), Cr.P.C. (in cases of death and life imprisonment).
- Section 12AA (inserted in 1981), of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
- States of Punjab and Tripura inserted this provision as Section 439-A to the Cr.P.C. so applicable within their territory, in 1983 and 1993 respectively. This restricted bail to persons accused of certain offences, inter alia Section 121, 124-A IPC.
- Section 37 (amended in 1989) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 [NDPS].
- Section 7A (inserted in 1994) of the Anti-Hijacking Act, 1982.
- Section 6A (inserted in 1994) of the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Civil Aviation Act 1982.
- Section 8 of the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act 2002.
- Section 51A (inserted in 2002) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
- Section 43D (inserted in 2008) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 [UAPA] (nearly identical).
- Section 36AC (inserted in 2008) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940.