(This is a guest post by Abhinav Sekhri. It originally appeared on the NLSIR Blog and The Proof of Guilt, and is cross-posted here with the permission of the author).
Of late, the transformative nature and potential of the Indian Constitution has been placed under the spotlight thanks to attention from both scholars and courts. The contours of this argument are contested, but according to most versions, the Constitution is an instrument designed to realise an India where the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity are fully expressed and protected against arbitrary deprivation. Amidst the focus on India’s transformative Constitution, this post takes a look at Article 22(3). The clause provides that if persons are arrested and detained under preventive detention laws, or are enemy aliens, then the basic protections against arrest and detention provided by Article 22(1) and (2) do not apply. Here, I attack the resulting deprivation of the right to counsel brought about by Article 22(3).
Content and Origins
Article 22 can be understood as consisting of two parts – clauses (1) and (2), and clauses (3) to (7). The first part tells us that all persons are guaranteed certain rights upon arrest: the right to be immediately informed of grounds for arrest, to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours if detained upon arrest, and to consult and be defended by a counsel of choice. The second part begins with clause (3) telling us that the first part isn’t actually applicable to all persons. Clauses (4) to (7) then detail minimum criteria that any preventive detention law must satisfy: it must inform persons of grounds for detention, enable them to make representations against detention, create Advisory Boards which must approve all detentions longer than 3 months, and fix a maximum period of possible detention.
I’ve discussed the origins of Article 22 at length elsewhere. It suffices here to state that the first part of Article 22 was intended to salvage what the Constitution lost by deletion of “due process” from Article 21. The second part was guided by the same intentions – since the Constituent Assembly had already decided to grant powers to enact preventive detention laws to both the Union and states, the excision of “due process” theoretically meant that there were no limits to what kind of laws are passed. Clauses (3) to (7) were meant to soften the blow and ensure that state interests are protected by laws that facilitate quick arrest and detention, without completely trouncing individual liberties.
In this attempt to strike a balance, the right to legal assistance was sacrificed entirely. I say entirely, for while the other rights provided in clauses (1) and (2) are still present in a watered-down form in clauses (4) to (7), the right to legal assistance fails to find any mention. Why? The consistent answer one gets upon consulting the Constituent Assembly Debates is an argument of efficiency. The Assembly feared that letting lawyers into the preventive detention system would invite delays of the kind that the ordinary criminal justice system suffered from, undermining the very swiftness that made preventive detention attractive in the first place.
Legislative Adaptation and Judicial Treatment
India’s Provisional Parliament passed the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 [PDA] less than a month after the Constitution came into force. Since this body comprised almost the entirety of the Constituent Assembly, one imagines that the statute closely followed the Assembly’s vision of preventive detention. What kind of proceedings did the PDA envisage? Section 7 obligated communication of grounds without fixing a time limit, and permitted non-disclosure wherever necessary in public interest. Section 10 laid out the procedure of hearings before Advisory Boards and specifically stated that detenus were not entitled to either personal appearance or appearance through counsel. Section 14 went so far as to render grounds of detention entirely confidential, denying even constitutional courts the right to know why a person had been detained.
This, then, is the ideal vision of preventive detention: proceedings that involved acting first and explaining later, with explanations hardly beyond the bare minimum, with paper pushing and no oral hearings. From A.K. Gopalan onwards, this ideal vision was gradually demolished by the Supreme Court. Judicial engagement with preventive detention followed an accepted script: while the ultimate legality of preventive detention measures was beyond question, the harshness of the regime was not. Towards this, several judicially crafted innovations were made to enhance the fairness component, all the while operating within the bounds of Article 22.
The Emergency of 1975 – 1977 saw targeted amendments to undermine these innovations and curtail judicial review. This curtailment, though initially resisted by High Courts, was ultimately accepted by the Supreme Court itself in A.D.M. Jabalpur. As the popular narrative suggests, that Court began to restore the content of fundamental rights and its own institutional legitimacy, once the Emergency ended. This led to the opinions in Maneka Gandhi which expanded the scope of Article 21. In a flurry of subsequent decisions, the Court recognised that this expanded Article 21 contained an unenumerated right to counsel, broader than the Article 22(1) guarantee. While Article 22(1) granted a right to counsel of choice, Article 21 carried a right to counsel, thus prohibiting deprivation of life and personal liberty made in absence of legal assistance.
This belated recognition of the importance of legal assistance and its fundamental link to the right to personal liberty was also soon felt in the sphere of preventive detention. Different benches of the Court in Gopalanachari, Kavita, and Nand Lal Bajaj – all consisting at least of either Justices Krishna Iyer, Sen, or Islam – held that the denial of legal assistance in preventive detention was not absolute. Relying on Article 21, these decisions emphasised the importance of counsel, especially where persons were detained without trial. They held that a detenu still had a right to request for legal assistance, which then had to be adequately considered by authorities. This consideration was ultimately subject to judicial review, providing some measure of oversight. One of these cases, Nand Lal Bajaj, found it “incomprehensible” that the regular criminal justice system granted legal assistance but preventive detention didn’t. But since it was not asked to decide this issue, these remarks remained obiter dicta .
A.K. Roy and the Current Legal Position
Maneka Gandhi, an expanded Article 21, and a fundamental right to counsel: this was the context in which the Supreme Court heard a batch of petitions challenging the National Security Act, 1980 [NSA]. The Constitution Bench assembled for this purpose delivered its decision late in December 1981, reported as A.K. Roy v. Union of India, and it almost entirely upheld the validity of the NSA. The controlling opinion was authored by Chandrachud CJ to which three judges signed on, while Gupta J and Tulzapurkar J dissented in part. Analysing the entire decision is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, the focus here is on how the Court unanimously saved Section 11(4) of the NSA, the provision which disentitled detenus from legal representation before Advisory Boards.
What did the Court do? It relied upon Article 22(3)(b), and held that the right under Article 22(1) to consult and be defended by counsel of choice is inapplicable in the context of preventive detention. The Court acknowledged that preventive detention laws were not only subject to Article 22, but were also open to scrutiny under Articles 14, 19, and 21. Did depriving persons of their liberty without legal assistance satisfy this scrutiny?
The Court rejected the go-around offered by petitioners: since Article 22(3)(b) only excluded Articles 22(1) and (2), the right to counsel contained in Article 21 was still applicable. The controlling opinion labelled it “impossible” to find that what one part of the Constitution had denied, another provided. It then offered a positive answer as well, holding that the original text of the Constitution was per se “just, fair, and reasonable” and so could not fall foul of Articles 19 or 21. Simply put: since the original constitutional text said detenus don’t get lawyers, there was no question about laws implementing this mandate being unconstitutional for violating rights contained in other provisions of the Constitution.
Before parting, the Court tried to mollify the harshness of this conclusion which it had arrived at “regretfully”. It held that where the government engaged counsel, a detenu must also be afforded a similar chance, and further, that nothing denied detenus the ability to ask for assistance from a “friend” in proceedings before the Advisory Board.
A Veneer of Legality
Preventive detention laws have never been tested by a Constitution Bench since A.K. Roy, and that decision still remains the final word on the issues it considered. In this section, I demonstrate that the controlling opinion’s handling of the issue of denying legal assistance to detenus was flawed and promoted a constitutional vision irreconcilable with the idea of a transformative Constitution.
The primary basis for upholding Section 11(4) of the NSA in A.K. Roy was that Article 22(3)(b) permitted deprivations of the right to counsel and since it formed part of the original Constitution, it is bizarre to say that the framers themselves had inserted unconstitutionally unreasonable clauses. Though the opinion did not cite Golaknath, this distinction between the original text and amendments had been propounded since then: while the Court happily reviewed amendments, it kept the original text in a hermetically sealed box. This distinction was also accepted by the Court in Keshavananda Bharati as a limit to the basic structure doctrine as well.
But this privileging of the original test does not make sense. Gautam Bhatia exposed the logical fallacies in this view some time ago, arguments that I adopt and expand here. As he argued, if we think of the basic structure test as promoting faithfulness to values, then how do we justify this separate treatment for the original text? Moreover, the idea that the original text is uniquely faithful to “we, the people” is also flawed: the Constituent Assembly was barely representative of “the people”, nor was it subjected to a ratification process. Also, nothing in the constitutional text itself supports this separate treatment of the original text and subsequent amendments to it.
The flaw with this approach gets magnified in A.K. Roy because of the context: Articles 21 and 22. The Court in Maneka Gandhi had gone so far as to rewrite the original Constitution by re-inserting “due process” into Article 21. Whatever significance this had for the rest of Indian jurisprudence, the effect of this shift was tectonic in context of Article 22. After all, Article 22 was birthed because the Constituent Assembly had removed the “due process” phrase. Once due process came back into Article 21, it unmoored Article 22 from its very foundations, and directly questioned the adequacy and reasonableness of the limited guarantees that Article 22 provided.
Accepting that an expanded Article 21 contests the earlier minimums set by Article 22 is the only sensible way that the two can be read together, rather than privileging the original text. This was the direction the Court seemed to be heading in as well. It quickly resolved one issue: the minimum set by Article 22(1) in terms of the right to counsel was insufficient, and was thus expanded by Article 21. This was easy, since Article 22(1) could be argued to be silent about legal aid and not explicitly against it. Article 22(3) was much harder because it expressly excluded certain rights. Fidelity to a basic structure doctrine that focuses on values would then evaluate whether this exclusion was contrary to these values, and give us an answer.
Rather than resolve this crucial issue of harmonising an expanded Article 21 and Article 22(3), A.K. Roy simply told us that the latter was correct because it was there for longer. And it did so by trying to minimise the significance of this conflict. While the Court privileged the original text, the controlling opinion carries no mention of the peculiar history behind Articles 21 and 22. Further, it either distinguished the recent decisions on the expansion of Article 21 and a right to counsel, or amazingly did not mention them at all where they pertained to the preventive detention regime.
A.K. Roy subscribes to a view that the Constitution offers forever static minimum protections to safeguard life and liberty. Currently, the Supreme Court finally acknowledges that constitutional protections are meaningless in abstract, and must be tailored to the unique harms that different generations face. The harm from preventive detention is very different today from what it was in 1950. It is far from an exotic tool to deal with threats to public order, and instead is used to arrest persons on suspicions of copyright violations, video piracy, and cow slaughter. Even more importantly, the very basis for the original minimum constitutional rights secured by Article 22 has ceased to exist ever since the Court re-inserted due process into the Constitution, where it has flourished since. Thus, if the entire milieu has changed so dramatically, is it sufficient to tell us that persons, who can be arrested and jailed without knowing why and kept in jail for months on end, have no right to counsel simply because the Constitution said so from the start? I strongly disagree.
*This post is focused on preventive detention, largely because there has been no instance of applying Article 22(3)(a) that I could trace. Nevertheless, the arguments here, made in the preventive detention context, would also apply to Article 22(3)(a).