[This is a guest post by Nitika Khaitan.]
The denial of bail to Safoora Zargar last week drew fresh attention to harsh conditions in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967, which make it exceedingly difficult to secure bail. Under S. 43D(5) of the Act, no person accused of certain UAPA offences can be released on bail if the court finds reasonable grounds to believe that the accusations against her are prima facie true. Amidst overly broad definitions of these offences, and a low prima facie threshold, how then have courts granted bail? Sometimes, by narrowly interpreting offences or holding that the evidence against the accused is contradictory. At other times, as is the focus of this post, by simply leaving out any mention of the Act or its mandate altogether.
In 2016, for instance, the Supreme Court granted bail to the Dalit activist Angela Sontakke, accused of being a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is banned as a terrorist organisation. The Bombay High Court had earlier held that her bail was barred by S. 43D(5), since she appeared to be an active member unlike some of her co-accused (who had thus been granted bail by a different High Court bench). While allowing Sontakke bail, the Supreme Court order records that she is charged with offences under Chapters IV and VI of the UAPA, which attract S. 43D(5). But the order doesn’t mention the section. It doesn’t even briefly refer to the evidence against her, let alone record a different prima facie finding from the High Court’s. It speaks merely of balancing the serious charges against her with the facts that she is a woman, has spent years in custody and has yet to see her trial begin.
This is far from the only order that reads as if S. 43D(5) doesn’t exist. In 2017, while granting bail to three Kabir Kala Manch activists accused in the same case as Sontakke, the SC doesn’t even mention the UAPA. Other orders mention just the section number. In the 2017 bail plea of Malegaon blast accused Lt. Col. Prasad Shrikant Purohit, his counsel contended that S. 43D(5) wouldn’t apply since the blast occurred before the amendment that enacted the section. The SC order holds that this plea must be considered at the time of trial and not now. Without excluding the application of S. 43D(5) though, the SC proceeds to effectively ignore it. (The judgment also, oddly, refers to the state as having “rights” to investigate, instead of calling it what it is, a power.)
The SC’s reasoning for granting him bail reads like an order under ordinary law. The SC refers to prima facie satisfaction in support of the charge as one of the factors to consider (true for regular bail), not as the factor that S. 43D(5) elevates above all else. The only other time the Court uses the phrase is in holding that there is a “prima facie case for release on bail,” decidedly not the finding it is mandated to return. Attempts to hunt for the missing reasoning elsewhere in the order fail. The SC does say that there are “variations” and “material contradictions” in chargesheets filed by different investigating agencies (this was also discussed in the Bombay HC order granting bail to another Malegaon blast accused, Pragya Singh Thakur). But before one can infer that this is what led the SC to believe a prima facie case wasn’t made out, the order promptly states that these contradictions too need “to be tested at the time of trial and this Court cannot pick or choose one version over the other.” Almost as if to overcompensate for its missing finding on the evidence, the order repeats thrice on the same page that “at the stage of granting bail, a detailed examination of the evidence” need not be undertaken. (The general proposition is correct, but as held by the SC in the context of another law imposing similar restrictions on bail, “The duty of the court at this stage [of bail] is not to weigh the evidence meticulously… However, while dealing with a special statute… the court may have to probe into the matter deeper”). The order ends by going beyond the usual caveats and emphasises that the grant of bail here “shall be no consideration for grant of bail to other accused persons in the case.”
In none of the cases above did the Court say it was using its extraordinary powers to grant bail where other courts, in light of S. 43D(5), would have been unable to. How do we read the Court’s silences in these orders? Explicitly engaging with S. 43D(5) of course has its pitfalls. As the Andhra Pradesh HC recognised, at the stage of bail, taking the view that the accusations against an accused are not true could dent the prosecution; while taking the opposite view may be akin to “pre-judging the charges.” But even if we allow for the possibility that the Court wanted to refrain from making any observations that would influence lower courts, to not even mention S. 43D(5) in an appeal from a HC that has rejected bail on these grounds goes too far. That this violates the Supreme Court’s own pronouncements is trite. See, for instance, its 2019 decision making clear that courts must apply their mind to the prima facie truth of the accusations. More importantly, while the SC’s orders above indicate an obvious unease with the years in custody that harsh bail conditions inflict on people, they also reflect an unwillingness to fix this unease with anything besides ad-hoc measures, falling far short of the jurisprudence a constitutional court could choose to build.
In the cases above, long years of incarceration played a key role in the Court’s reasoning in favour of bail—over five years for Sontakke, close to four for the Kabir Kala Manch activists and eight years and eight months for Purohit. (This same concern, and elision of the S. 43D(5) mandate, is evident in some High Court orders as well. A 2019 Bombay HC decision, for instance, partly engages with the lack of grounds to prima facie believe the allegations made for certain offences. But for other alleged UAPA offences, the HC simply states that they are punishable with merely two, seven and ten-year imprisonment terms, and the accused had already served nearly four years in jail.) In implicitly acknowledging the injustice of such pre-trial incarceration, while refraining from any systemic change, these SC orders mirror its earlier decisions in the context of other laws with onerous bail conditions.
In 1994, in the context of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, the SC noted that “to refuse bail on the one hand and to delay trial of cases on the other is clearly unfair and unreasonable” and “if the period of deprivation pending trial becomes unduly long, the fairness assured by Article 21 would receive a jolt.” But noting also that the constitutionality of similarly restrictive bail provisions in the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Acts, 1985 and 1987 (TADA) had been upheld earlier that year, the Court asked itself, “What then is the remedy?” The Court passed a “one-time” order. It directed all undertrials charged with certain offences to be released on bail, if they’ve spent a certain number of years in custody. The Court said that given the percentage of acquittals under the Act, “we cannot be oblivious to the fact that many innocent persons may also be languishing in jails.” But nothing in the order of course was “intended to interfere” with the future grant of bail by lower courts, which would continue as restrictively as before and presumably also lead to many innocent persons languishing in jails till another one-time SC order.
In a similar order two years later in the context of TADA (Shaheen Welfare Association v. Union), the Court even more explicitly recognised that “when the release of undertrials is severely restricted as in the case of TADA” and a speedy trial is “not practical, release on bail… may, in some cases, be necessary to meet the requirements of Article 21.” Acknowledging that “many of the under-trials may be found to have completed the maximum punishment provided by law by being in jail without a trial,” the Court again offered a “pragmatic approach” / “one-time measure.” The Court divided TADA undertrials into different categories based on whether they were roped in for possession offences or overt acts directly attracting TADA sections, or by virtue of vicarious liability and conspiracy provisions; and directed release on bail on different conditions for each category. The Court recognised that it was overriding the ordinary operation of TADA by creating these classes but held that “while adopting a pragmatic and just approach, no one can dispute the fact that all of them cannot be dealt with by the same yardstick.”
What of pragmatism and justice after the one-time measure then? In Shaheen Welfare Assn., the Court recognised that stringent bail conditions “can be justified… on the presumption that the trial of the accused will take place without undue delay.” The Court had then focused on the inadequacy of Designated Courts set up to try TADA cases as the cause for this undue delay. But gross delay is of course pervasive, not exceptional. While upholding TADA’s constitutionality, the Court had also recognised that TADA was often unscrupulously invoked merely to deny bail. It stopped, however, at terming this sheer “misuse and abuse” and merely exhorting prosecutors and courts to do their job better. But what of the extensive material to show that misuse and abuse are woven into the provisions of extraordinary laws? Particularly in the context of the current repository of most of TADA’s provisions, the UAPA, under which the ‘independent’ authority set up to sanction prosecution is appointed by the executive itself.
Despite repeatedly being confronted with the reality that onerous bail conditions equal years of incarceration without guilt, courts have more often than not resorted to elision and ad-hocism. In a series of decisions from November 2019, the Punjab and Haryana High Court called this out. These decisions were delivered in the context of harsh bail provisions for some offences in the Companies Act, 2013, which prohibit release on bail unless the court is satisfied of reasonable grounds to believe that the accused is “not guilty” of the alleged offence amidst other conditions. The High Court orders state that there is an “inconvenient question, which has not been shown… to have been answered by any court so far, including the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The question is – for how long an accused can be kept in custody on the basis of non-fulfillment” of restrictive bail conditions? The HC order decries “unfortunate situations where a court may not even find the moral courage or the legal sanctity to tell to the accused that he shall have to wait in custody till conclusion of the trial, despite and in face of the legislative policy contained in provisions of Section 436A of the Cr.P.C.” S. 436A of the CrPC mandates the release of under-trial prisoners if they have been incarcerated for half the maximum term of imprisonment for their alleged offence. S. 436A itself carves out an exception for offences punishable with death, but non-obstante clauses in special laws like the UAPA exclude the benefit of S. 436A even for offences punishable with imprisonment for three years. Despite such non-obstante clauses, the HC emphasises that years of custody without trial “cannot be used to curtail the liberty of an accused in violation of Article 21” and poses more inconvenient questions—“In such a situation the court would do substantial justice; or would stick to the [bail] conditions…Even if the courts are to stick to such condition; then how much injustice to the accused would be sufficient to off-set or to balance” the conditions? The HC goes on to hold that unless these questions are “categorically answered to say that till the conclusion of the trial such a person cannot be released on bail,” the onerous conditions cannot be held to be mandatory. (Also see the same bench’s 2018 decision with respect to NDPS cases).
In the context of the UAPA as well, certain High Courts reflect a more sustained engagement with these questions. In a 2014 decision, the Andhra Pradesh HC lays out, colourfully, the cautious and delicate approach needed with provisions like S. 43D(5), comparing it to “the care which a cat is expected [to take] while carrying the kitten in its mouth from one place to another.” The order dilates for several paragraphs on motivated prosecutions; emphasises that “an accused cannot be equated to a convict, even before the trial is conducted;” and goes on to lay out guidelines for courts to appropriately form the prima facie opinion required by S. 43D(5), while taking concerns of liberty seriously.
Such guidelines ultimately may not make too much of a difference—the inherently low threshold of S. 43D(5) no doubt ties the hands of lower courts. Till more authoritative pronouncements on these bail conditions, thus, the road ahead looks bleak. But as I’ve argued in the context of a different set of provisions under the UAPA, judicial logics often defer to state ones with anti-terror laws, accepting the need for extraordinary measures to combat ‘extraordinary’ threats, and making any such authoritative pronouncements unlikely. The history of personal liberty, as a judge from another time had said, is largely the history of insistence upon procedure. Not so with S. 43D(5), where liberty has oft been secured by ignoring it.
[The author thanks Jawahar Raja and Chinmay Kanojia for their help as always with locating UAPA orders; and Sanya Kumar and Megha Bahl for their incisive comments.]