Category Archives: Article 21 and the Right to Life

Guest Post: A Pulpit or a Courtroom – Exclusion of Jurisdiction and the decision in Girish Kumar Suneja

(Previously on this blog, we have covered the serious constitutional issues arising out of the exclusion of the jurisdiction of the High Court in the ongoing “Coal Block” cases – see here and here. Yesterday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld this exclusion. In a guest post, Abhinav Sekhri analyses the judgment. Cross-posted from the Proof Of Guilt blog with permission.)

On 13 July 2017, a three-judges bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions clubbed together with Girish Kumar Suneja v. CBI [SLP (Crl.) 9503 of 2016, hereafter Suneja]. The preliminary issue raised in these petitions was a challenge to the Supreme Court’s order dated 25.07.2014, whereby aggrieved persons were confined to only approaching the Supreme Court with a “prayer for stay or impeding the progress in the investigation / trial“, and jurisdiction of High Courts was thus excluded. This Blog, on an earlier occasion, had considered the Petitioners’ case and argued that the impugned order of 25.07.2014 was bad, and readers may refer to that post for a recap. Here, I argue that the decision in Suneja does not offer any convincing justification for why the Court disagreed.

Excluding Jurisdiction: Missing the Forest for the Trees

In Suneja, the Court takes up three key arguments assailing the exclusion of jurisdiction caused by the order of 25.07.2014 and its effects – (1) Curtailment of the High Court’s power to entertain petitions under Sections 397 and 482 Cr.P.C; (2) Exclusion of writ jurisdiction under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution; and (3) A violation of Article 14 caused by treating the ‘coal-block allocation scam’ cases under this special procedure. On all three counts, it disagreed with the Petitioners’ claims. On closer examination, one can see how the Court does so not by engaging with the argument, but by avoiding it altogether.

Sections 397 and 482 Cr.P.C.

On the first issue of curtailing statutory powers of entertaining revision petitions [Section 397 Cr.P.C.] and quashing petitions [Section 482 Cr.P.C.], the Court reminds us that these are not rights, such as appeals, but entitlements. A High Court may refuse to entertain these petitions. This characterisation was never in doubt – the issue, was whether it was unconstitutional to deprive the High Court of even this abilityto entertain such petitions. For this, the Court turns to the legislative history of Section 397(2) Cr.P.C. [which prevents revision petitions for challenging interlocutory orders] to elaborate that the scope of revision jurisdiction was restricted to prevent delay. But the Court does not conclude that the present petitions fall within this category, which renders these observations obiter. Perhaps proceeding with that assumption, the Court moves on to consider the scope of inherent jurisdiction under Section 482 Cr.P.C. Again, it talks of a ‘rarest of rare’ level for quashing petitions being entertained, implying that the issue must be very serious to warrant intervention. Still, no answers are offered to explain what warrants an exclusion of this jurisdiction altogether. One may then assume that the Court implies the exclusion was illegal, which is why it considers the tests for considering whether the present cases could have triggered an exercise of jurisdiction under these provisions.

In doing so, the Court makes notable errors in law. For instance, in considering the interplay between revision and quashing the Court notes that “it is quite clear that the prohibition in Section 397 Cr.P.C. [of not proceeding against interlocutory orders] will govern Section 482 Cr.P.C. We endorse this view.” This means that for Court, Section 397 applies to all final and intermediate orders, while Section 482 applies to interlocutory orders. Such a reading ignores the notwithstanding that comes at the start of Section 482, which has led the Supreme Court to conclude on several occasions that the scope of Section 482 remains untrammelled by the terms of Section 397 – most recently clarified by another bench of three judges in Prabhu Chawla [Crl. Appeal No. 844 of 2016, decided on 05.09.2016]. Remember, all this is irrelevant, because the present cases actually involved a question of why recourse to this jurisdiction could be barred. The Court only engages with that issue in its terse refusal to consider the decision in Antulay [(1988) 2 SCC 602]Antulay was a decision by seven judges, but it is distinguished because the facts were different and it involved a trial before the High Court itself, and the impugned provision therein – Section 9 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1952 – in turn used the 1898 Cr.P.C. The facts, though different, led the seven judges in Antulay to consider why any court’s jurisdiction could not be ousted, which would nonetheless be relevant here. That the bench in Suneja even raises the second point about the Cr.P.C. is simply shocking, since the allegations in Antulay concerned a period after 1973 and by which time the 1952 Act was being read with the new Cr.P.C. [as required by Section 8 of the General Clauses Act 1897]. 

We are then left without any answers for the actual issue. For some reason the Court continues to miss the forest for the trees, and refuses to tell us why recourse to revision and quashing was made impermissible in the present batch of cases. It painfully continues to develop on the obiter by considering whether the batch of petitions met the standard of seriousness for interference under Section 482 Cr.P.C., and concludes that “challenge to orders of this non-substantive nature that can be agitated in a regular appeal is nothing but an abuse of the process of the Court.” The observation is entirely misplaced. The Petitioners raised issues of law, arguing that certain findings suffer from impropriety – express grounds for interference under Section 397. But if recourse to that provision is barred, then what? Should recourse to Section 482 still remain impermissible? The Court ignores the peculiarity in the present set of facts, which have come about by its own hand.

Article 226 and 227 of the Constitution

The conclusions on Article 226 and 227 also proceed on an assumption that the issues raised in the batch of petitions are ‘trifling’ and therefore would not warrant interference under writ jurisdiction. With due apologies for sounding repetitive, the bench again fails to explain how this jurisdiction can be ousted entirely. In fact, here, the bench expressly says “there can be no doubt that the jurisdiction of a High Court under Articles 226 and 227 cannot be curtailed, yet extraordinary situations may arise where it may be advisable for a High Court to decline to interfere.” This volte-face is completed at the end of this part of the decision, where the bench says that “there is nothing extraordinary if the High Court ought not to interfere and leave it to this Court to take a decision in the matter in larger public interest“. But this is not what has happened in the present case! In unequivocal terms, the High Court was barred from entertaining petitions. The Supreme Court is now attempting to portray the scenario as a willing refusal by High Court’s to entertain cases, when it is actually an exclusion of jurisdiction by the Supreme Court itself. It is fair to say that nobody is fooled.

Article 14 and Judicial Legislation

The argument under Article 14 in Suneja was twofold – the ‘coal block’ cases do not constitute an identifiable class, and even if they do this differentiation must be created through statute. The Court, expectedly, whips up the rhetoric to justify why the cases are an identifiable class in themselves. But the decision does not engage at all with the more pressing issue of how such classes can be created. It says that “the order passed by this Court does not amount to legislation in the classical mould but according special treatment to a class of cases for good and clear reason and in larger public interest as well as in the interest of the accused.” There are obvious legal issues in judicially created classes for perpetrating discrimination. Judicial orders are imprecise, are creations of un-elected persons thus unrepresentative of the democratic process, and finally cannot be subjected to a challenge under Part III leaving no recourse for those aggrieved. The Supreme Court attempts to conveniently sidestep all of this by resorting to verbiage. Since nobody really knows what the ‘classical mould’ of legislation is, this is doublespeak for “the Supreme Court can do whatever it wants” – a highlight of the Court’s White-Knight tendency in this arena of economic offences [previously discussed here].

Public Interest and the Rights of Accused Persons

There are three other heads of argument that are considered in Suneja – (1) violation of Article 21 by the procedure created by the impugned order, which is not established by ‘law’; (2) illegal use of Article 142 of the Constitution to curtail both Statutory and Fundamental Rights of the Petitioners, and; (3) Illegally preventing a stay of proceedings. Rather than consider each of these in turn, it is easier to attack the common thread underlying these strands – the idea that public interest is a satisfactory justification to proscribe rights of accused persons. With great vigour the bench notes that “it is now time for all of us including courts to balance the right of an accused person vis-a-vis the rights and interests of individual victims of a crime and society. Very often, public interest is lost sight of while dealing with an accused person and the rights of accused persons are given far greater importance than societal interests and more often than not greater importance than the rights of individual victims. … It is not as if the appellants have been denuded of their rights. It is only that their rights have been placed in the proper perspective and they have been enabled to exercise their rights before another forum. 

While the Court merely makes a cursory reference to Shahid Balwa [(2014) 2 SCC 687], the same issue reared its head on that occasion. Here, again, it uses the arguments of the Petitioners against them in observing that in pressing for a stay of proceedings it seems that the conclusion of the trial is not an objective for them. These are serious cases of corruption, the Court notes, and so a stay order cannot be given for the asking. Such logic is fit for the pulpit, not for the Supreme Court. At the most basic level, the bench ignores the practical realities that plague the judiciary. The present petitions were filed sometime around winter 2016, and have been decided in July 2017. For whatever it is worth, the Petitioners did allege severe illegalities in the trial, and by refusing to consider the issue of stay at the earliest the Court allowed a potentially illegal trial to continue for six months. Within that time most of the evidence has been completed in two sets of petitions [Y. Harish Chandra Prasad v. CBI (Crl. Appeal No. 1145 of 2017) and P. Trivikrama Prasad v. CBI (Crl. Appeal No. 1153-54 of 2017]. How is that fair, and how is that a correct utilisation of judicial time? At a deeper level, the Court is effectively denouncing a class of persons from seeking an enforcement of their fundamental rights for no better reason in law than because it thinks it is against public interest. It does not realise that such rhetoric ultimately trickles down to trial courts, where an accused is then painted as guilty simply for choosing to remain silent [a fundamental right] and is thus subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention.

Conclusion

On all counts, Suneja is a bad decision. We get no further answers to why is it fair to exclude the High Court as a forum for jurisdiction beyond the bench re-iterating that this is in public interest. For this, it could have merely expressed agreement with the previous decision of Shahid Balwa and saved time. When the bench does try to engage with the legal issues, it fails to grasp what was at stake and flounders. Ultimately, the decision may result only in compounding uncertainty by using previously unheard of tests and expressions to explain what is, essentially, another instance of abusing the vast discretion vested with the unelected judges of our Supreme Court.

 

(Disclaimer: The Author was engaged as a part of the team arguing for the Petitioners in Crl. Appeal No. 1145 of 2017)

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Filed under Access to Justice, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Article 226 Remedies, Basic structure, Jurisdiction, The Judiciary

Review: Proportionality, Punishment and Judicial Review: A Response to Jeydev C.S.

(This is a guest post by Puneet Dinesh.)

In this Guest Post, Jeydev C.S examines a topical issue given the recent political developments of awarding life sentences and death penalty for cow slaughter. The post revolves around an important legal question: Whether the courts can review the proportionality of punishments linked to a crime?

While Jevdev analyses some crucial questions surrounding the issue, it is an interesting exercise to examine the manner in which the variants of proportionality gets incorporated in different parts of the Constitution.

I. Importing principles from Art. 19 to Art. 21

The post while examining whether the standard of proportionality can be found within Article 19, refers to the Supreme Court’s decision in State of Madras v V.G Row to argue that ‘proportionality’ can be read under the ‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19(2). The argument then takes the help of Maneka Gandhi to import the standard of proportionality, found in the ‘restrictions’ under Article 19(2) to Article 21. While Maneka Gandhi allows for a harmonious and combined reading of Article 19 and 21, it is crucial to understand what exactly this means. The question really is, when can a principle under the ‘reasonableness’ test be invoked for a Article 21 challenge? Bhagwati J, in Maneka provides some guidance in this regard:

The law, must, therefore, now be taken to be well settled that Article 21 does not exclude Article 19 and that even if there is a law prescribing a procedure for depriving a person of ‘personal liberty’ and there is consequently no infringement of the fundamental right conferred by Article 21, such law, in so far as it abridges or takes away any fundamental right under Article 19 would have to meet the challenge of that article”.

For Bhagwati J, the challenges under Art. 19 can only be tested, if a freedom under Art. 19 is affected. However, this leaves us in a difficult position- any penal law prescribing punishment ipso facto violates various freedoms under Art. 19. Bachan Singh, when faced with the same question two years later after Maneka, observes that a penal law prescribing punishment cannot affect Art. 19 rights. Interestingly, Bhagwati J, writing his dissent in Bachan Singh two years later after the majority’s opinion, criticizing the majority for applying the wrong test to arrive at the conclusion that Art. 19 rights are not affected, also refuses to answer if a penal law stands to violate Art. 19 rights.

Is there another way to understand the harmonious reading of Art.14, 19, 21 per Maneka? The alternative reading that makes sense is to consider the principles of due process developed under Art. 14 and 19 in an Art. 21 inquiry. It is through this reading, that proportionality as a principle can be examined in an Art. 21 inquiry. It is a different matter altogether (as will be addressed later) the impact of the contents and the variants that proportionality takes within Art. 19 on Art. 21. The limited point being, proportionality as a principle can be considered through the harmonious reading of freedoms under Art. 19 and 21. In fact, a similar reading can be expected in the Canadian and South African Constitutions which subjects all rights to the proportionality standard.

II. Vikram Singh’s discussion on the Eighth Amendment in the United States and ‘substantive due process’

Jeydev’s post later relies on the observations by Vikram Singh on the appropriate standard to examine the proportionality of punishment. Vikram Singh relies on a series of United States and Canada precedents to further the position that proportionality is part of judicial review when the punishment is ‘outrageously disproportionate’. However, in the United States, the Eighth amendment specifically requires the court to examine if the punishment is proportionate to the crime and Section 12 under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also provides a right not to be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment. Therefore, the principles evolved for determining proportionality (as discussed in Ronald Allen Harmelin v. Michigan 501 US 957 (United States) and R v Smith (1987) 1 SCR 1045 (Canada)) were due to the legislative mandate provided under the Eighth amendment and Section 12 respectively. It is important to note that a parallel provision is absent in the Indian constitution and the absence has not gone unnoticed before the Supreme Court.

The court in Jagmohan Singh (1972) observed that “…so far as we are concerned in this country we do not have in our Constitution any provision like the Eighth Amendment nor are we at liberty to apply the test of reasonableness with the freedom with which the Judges of the Supreme Court of America are accustomed to apply “the due process” clause”. Vikram Singh loses sight of this important distinction and proceeds to import the standard found in United States and Canada. Although Jagmohan Singh was prior to the Maneka Gandhi dicta, statues that define punishments forms part of the substantive due process review. (See Sunil Batra).While Bachan Singh and Mithu might help in arguing for a substantive review of a penal legislation, the bench strength in both the cases was lower than Maneka Gandhi.

The proportionality standard that ends up getting imported in the Indian context through Vikram Singh is nothing different from the Wednesbury standard of reasonableness. On this note, it is important to distinguish two different reviews of proportionality in cases of punishment. First, when the judiciary is reviewing the proportionality of a prescribed punishment in a penal law (Vikram Singh or the recent Bihar High Court’s prohibition judgment) Second, when the judiciary is reviewing the proportionality of a sentence given by a lower court (Santosh Bariyar line of cases). The analysis here is restricted to the former type of review.

III. Whether ‘proportionality’ is a constitutional standard?

The elevation of an administrative law standard as grounds for constitutional review has faced severe criticism from academic circles and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu, while adjudicating on an administrative law matter, considered that mere ‘arbitrariness’ is sufficient to constitute an Article 14 violation. As Tarunabh Khaitan, points out, the case laws following this precedent has formulated the ‘unreasonableness’ test in the name of ‘arbitrariness standard’. It is in this context, an analysis on the proportionality test as a constitutional review standard becomes relevant.

Proportionality as an administrative law standard has been a recent addition to the list of standards open to judicial review for administrative actions. Om Kumar (2001) is perhaps the first case to add proportionality to the existing standards of administrative law review. As the court in McDowell noted, in 1996, ‘..The applicability of doctrine of proportionality even in administrative law sphere ..(was)..a debatable issue’ and further proceeded to note that, ‘It would be rather odd if an enactment were to be struck down by applying the said principle when its applicability even in administrative law sphere is not fully and finally settled’. However, the incarnation that ‘proportionality’ has taken at least in the cases challenging the extent of punishment and administrative actions is nothing different from what the ‘arbitrariness’ standard has given us i.e ‘unreasonableness’ test or rather what the Supreme Court calls it the ‘Wednesbury principle of proportionality’.

Wednesbury standard and the proportionality test may constitute different or same standards of review depending on the relevant jurisdiction. In English law, the latter forms a higher threshold than the former, wherein, the proportionality standard involves a four-stage test examining if (a) the objective is necessary to limit a fundamental right, (b) the impugned measure is rationally connected to it and (c) there is minimal impairment of the right to accomplish the objective (d) balancing the rights against the restriction. In India, depending on the context, the proportionality standard has taken both the four-stage test (‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19(2)-(6) and the Wednesbury reasonableness (judicial review of administrative actions) approach. This scheme i.e different nature of proportionality tests for a constitutional case and an administrative law case, is worth noting for future evaluation of Vikram Singh.

Wednesbury standard, while consisting of several hierarchical standards internally, requires judicial interference only for decisions that are seriously unreasonable. Inspired by this standard, the Eighth amendment cases picks up on the ‘grossly disproportionate’ test, while the Indian counterpart, sticks to the ‘shockingly disproportionate’ test. Abhinav Chandrachud, analyses a plethora of administrative law decisions where the court uses the phrase ‘proportionality’ standard but ends up employing the Wednesbury standard of review blurring the distinction that Om Kumar had created (See Hazarila).

The four-prong test in the Indian jurisprudence has had a muddled journey so far. Mainly invoked in the context of ‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19 (2)- (6), the test has been severely misemployed. As Ashwita Ambast notes here, from ignoring to take certain prongs of the test into account (Brij Bhushan), disturbing the hierarchy of analyses and now, ignoring to apply the test after deliberating on it (Modern Dental College), the four-prong test is yet to be flawlessly applied. The constitutional status of this test was approved as early as in the year 1952 in VG Row. The judgment stresses on the requirement of ‘narrowest limits’ (minimal impairment) and ‘exceptional circumstances’ (necessity) – crucial aspects of the proportionality analyses. The reiteration of this test was elaborately made recently in the NEET judgment by AK Sikhri J. After making a detailed survey of the test referring to comparative sources, the court proceeds to observe the ruling in TMA Pai and PA Inamdar and satisfies itself of the ‘reasonableness’ test without making any analyses on the proportionality test. Therefore, there is very little value in the court’s effort to explore the contours of the four-prong test. The most important and the controversial part of this test is when the court examines if the impugned act is a ‘minimal impairment’ to accomplish the objective. This often requires the court to evaluate comparative sources and put forth its own ideas on what constitutes a ‘minimal impairment’. As seen earlier, Indian courts have shied away from applying this part of the test.

All these discussions, brings me to my core argument: the link between Article 19 ‘restrictions’ and Article 21 to employ the tool of ‘proportionality’

As mentioned previously, the restrictions under Article 19 have always demanded for a stricter proportionality analyses. While the traditional four-prong test might have not been employed, it is rarely the case that they have been substituted to the Wednesbury standard of reasonableness. (See Chintaman Rao). In a constitutional adjudication case, challenging the extent of punishment mandated by the legislation, the court in Vikram Singh and the recent judgment on prohibition of alcohol have employed the Wednesbury standard of proportionality. Therefore, even if one were to source ‘proportionality’ of punishments under Article 19, one cannot lose track of these difficult questions. However, since Vikram Singh’s analyses of proportionality did not originate from Article 19, it might be unfair to attack the judgment on that ground.

Where can we then place ‘proportionality’ as invoked by Vikram Singh in the Indian constitution? Article 14 is perhaps the only, but difficult, place for proportionality to clench. The scope of this essay does not extend to include Article 14 analyses but the ‘arbitrariness’ test developed post-Royappa has been unclear. Whatever one thinks of the dubious link between arbitrariness and inequality under Article 14, there are multiple instances wherein, the arbitrariness has taken the form of the ‘reasonableness’ test. In which case, it becomes easier to add one more administrative law standard i.e proportionality within the folds of Article 14 as the test essentially is one inquiring the ‘reasonableness’ of the impugned clause in the legislation. This link may be crucial to re-engage with the content of the ‘arbitrariness’ standard, a conversation which is much awaited. However, one can’t lose track of the impediments that 2G Reference; Subramanian Swamy and more recently, Rajbhala poses in this endeavor.

While the proportionality analyses for punishment clause stands on a weak footing in Indian constitutional law, it will certainly be interesting to see, the manner in which proportionality (especially, the variant of proportionality) will get invoked and incorporated in the Indian Constitution.

 

 

 

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The Aadhaar/PAN Judgment: Decoding the “Partial Stay”

In an article published today on Scroll.in, Apar Gupta makes an important point about the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar/PAN judgment: even as it upheld the constitutional validity of S. 139AA of the Income Tax Act against challenges based on Articles 14 (equal protection) and 19(1)(g) (freedom of trade), the Court nevertheless noted that 139AA would yet have to pass a “more stringent test” under Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution. He makes the further point that the judgment “also reinforces the spirit of [the Court’s] earlier orders limiting the Aadhaar scheme by giving a limited stay on Section 139AA(2).

What is crucial to note is that the Court’s “limited stay” is itself based on the view that S. 139AA – and more broadly, Aadhaar – potentially violates Article 21 of the Constitution. The Court notes, in paragraph 125:

“At the same time, as far as existing PAN holders are concerned, since the impugned provisions are yet to be considered on the touchstone of Article 21 of the Constitution, including on the debate around Right to Privacy and human dignity, etc. as limbs of Article 21, we are of the opinion that till the aforesaid aspect of Article 21 is decided by the Constitution Bench a partial stay of the aforesaid proviso is necessary. Those who have already enrolled themselves under Aadhaar scheme would comply with the requirement of sub-section (2) of Section 139AA of the Act. Those who still want to enrol are free to do so. However, those assessees who are not Aadhaar card holders and do not comply with the provision of Section 139(2), their PAN cards be not treated as invalid for the time being. It is only to facilitate other transactions which are mentioned in Rule 114B of the Rules. We are adopting this course of action for more than one reason. We are saying so because of very severe consequences that entail in not adhering to the requirement of sub-section (2) of Section 139AA of the Act. A person who is holder of PAN and if his PAN is invalidated, he is bound to suffer immensely in his day to day dealings, which situation should be avoided till the Constitution Bench authoritatively determines the argument of Article 21 of the Constitution.”

There has been a fair amount of debate about what this paragraph actually means for taxpayers who do not yet have an Aadhaar number; for the moment, the debate appears to have been settled by a CBDT circular stating that all persons paying their taxes after July 1 must link Aadhaar and PAN. In my view, however, the importance of paragraph 125 lies not so much in the limited relief that it grants taxpayers in this specific litigation, but what it means for the larger Aadhaar challenges presently pending before various benches of the Supreme Court. What has not yet been noticed – or discussed – is that paragraph 125 will have a significant ripple affect on numerous other cases, starting with the hearing scheduled for June 27, where the question of making Aadhaar mandatory for seventeen social welfare schemes is due to be heard. In this essay, I will attempt to explain how.

When does the Court grant a “Stay”? 

A “stay”, as the word suggests, refers to a situation where a Court temporarily restrains one (or both) parties to a legal proceeding from taking certain actions until the case is heard and decided in full (a “stay” also refers to a situation where a higher Court halts the operation of the order of a lower Court, but we are not concerned with that here). Before granting or refusing a stay (or an “injunction”, as the case may be), a Court is supposed to carefully consider the pros and cons of the case before it. The traditional test for a stay is three-pronged: the Court must be convinced that the party asking for a stay has a “prima facie” good case; that the refusal to grant a stay will cause “irreparable harm“; and that the “balance of convenience” between the parties weighs in favour of a stay.

However, when the Court is faced with a request to stay a statutory provision (as opposed to private conduct or executive action), the test is much more rigorous. This is because laws, which emanate from the parliamentary-democratic-deliberative process, have a deep, presumptive legitimacy; and furthermore, their wide reach means that a stay will have broad and far-reaching consequences. For instance, in Bhavesh Parish vs Union of India, the Supreme Court held:

“When considering an application for staying the operation of a piece of legislation, and that too pertaining to economic reform or change then the courts must bear in mind that unless the provision is manifestly unjust or glaringly unconstitutional, the courts must show judicial restrain in staying the applicability of the same. Merely because a statute comes up for examination and some arguable point is raised, which persuades the courts to consider the controversy, the legislative will should not normally be put under suspension pending such consideration. It is now well- settled that there is always a presumption in favour of the constitutional validity of any legislation, unless the same is set – aside after final hearing and, therefore, the tendency to grant stay of legislation relating to economic reform, at the interim stage, cannot be understood. The system of checks and balances has to be utilised in a balanced manner with the primary objective of accelerating economic growth rather than suspending its growth by doubting its constitutional efficacy at the threshold itself.”

Consequently, when considering a constitutional challenge to a law (which is what the Court was doing in Aadhaar/PAN), a “stay” can be granted only if the provision is “manifestly unjust or glaringly unconstitutional“. The Court cannot grant a stay simply because, on balance, it would be the right or just thing to do.

The “Stay” in the Aadhaar/PAN Case

It is important to note that in the Aadhaar/PAN case, the Court could have granted the partial stay that it did, only if it was convinced that the proviso to S. 139AA(2) (cancellation of PAN if not linked with Aadhaar for paying taxes) was “manifestly unjust” or “glaringly unconstitutional”. Indeed, Mr Arvind Datar, senior counsel for the Petitioners, made the specific argument that the proviso was unconstitutional because it amounted to a disproportionate interference with the Petitioners’ fundamental right to trade and commerce under Article 19(1)(g): to deprive a person of a PAN card was effectively to shut them out of the formal economy, leading to effective “civil death”.

As I have argued in my previous post, ultimately, the Court failed to return a specific finding on the Article 19(1)(g) issue. However, as paragraph 125 demonstrates, the Court did agree with Mr Datar that the consequences of the proviso were “very severe“, and specifically cited the various transactions for which a PAN Card is compulsory as the reason why it was granting a stay, while the overall Article 21 challenge to Aadhaar remained pending before the larger bench.

Since there are no observations on “glaring unconstitutionality” – in fact, the Court categorically refused to express an opinion on the pending Article 21 challenge – it would be fair to assume, therefore, that the Court considered the draconian step of cancelling PAN Cards to be “manifestly unjust”.

The Consequences

We may now note that in the other pending Aadhaar-related challenges, the “consequences” of not having an Aadhaar Number are at least as severe as the consequences of PAN cancellation, if not more so. One of the Executive notifications under S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act, for instance, makes midday meals at schools conditional upon the production of an Aadhaar Number. No PAN Card means civil death; but midday meals can be about life and death – or at the very least, about basic health, itself a right under Article 21. The same goes for a number of other Executive notifications, where Aadhaar is linked to social welfare schemes, all of which provide crucial life support to the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals in our society.

In the Aadhaar/PAN case, the Supreme Court had occasion to carefully consider a legislation that made Aadhaar compulsory for filing IT returns, at the cost of cancelation of PAN cards. Applying its judicial mind, the Court found that the pending Article 21 challenge was credible enough, and the consequences of PAN cancellation severe enough, for the rigorous standards for granting a stay on legislation (“manifest injustice”) to be met.

Admittedly, a stay has no precedential value, and does not bind any future bench. However, once a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court has applied its mind to the merits of the case, should a different, coordinate bench of the same Court re-open the issue, consider it afresh, and refuse to grant a stay, even when the consequences in that case are even more severe than canceled PANs?

I submit that judicial discipline precludes future coordinate benches from doing so. The Aadhaar/PAN case has established two very important provisions: first, that notwithstanding the pending Constitution Bench challenge, specific piecemeal challenges to Aadhaar can be heard and decided by two-judge benches on issues outside the remit of the Constitution Bench, and that those benches can grant appropriate relief; and secondly, visiting severe consequences upon people for not possessing an Aadhaar is “manifestly unjust” – unjust enough for the Court to grant a stay.

Consequently, when a different bench of the Court hears the petitions on June 27, regarding compulsory Aadhaar for social welfare schemes, it should grant a stay without any further need for argument (note that the challenge in that case is to Government notifications, which occupy a level of sanctity lower than legislation). And this should be the course of action adopted by the Court in all future proceedings where the Petitioners can show that the consequences of not having an Aadhaar, for X or Y government notification or law, are at least as severe as the consequences of getting your PAN canceled.

Conclusion

I understand that, technically, this is not a legal argument for stay. However, it needs to be noted that in its Aadhaar/PAN judgment, the Court repeatedly invokes judicial discipline in deciding not to consider a whole range of issues that might overlap with the issues before the pending Constitution Bench. It is respectfully submitted that judicial discipline demands that judicial discipline be applied consistently. It is as much an issue of discipline not to reopen a question on which a coordinate bench has applied its mind and come to a conclusion, as it is not to interfere with the (possible) workings of a (potential) Constitution Bench. For that reason, in all future challenges before the Court, until the Constitution Bench decides the overall challenge, two-judge benches should grant stays and ensure – in the words of the original Supreme Court order that began all of this – that nobody is made to “suffer” for not possessing an Aadhaar.

 

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The Aadhaar/PAN Judgment

In a judgment delivered today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of S. 139AA of the Income Tax Act, which makes quoting one’s Aadhaar number mandatory while filing income tax returns. The Court also stayed S. 139AA(2), which provided for the cancellation of PAN cards for failure to comply. In view of the multiple Aadhaar cases pending before the Supreme Court, it is important to clarify what precisely the Court decided, what it didn’t decide, and what it left open (a summary of the arguments can be read here (Part I), here (Part II), and here (Part III)).

What the Court didn’t decide

Recall that on August 11, 2015, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court had referred the constitutional challenge to Aadhaar (then an executive scheme) to a larger bench, on the basis that the constitutional status of the right to privacy was uncertain, and needed to be authoritatively decided. That larger bench has not yet been constituted. Consequently, at the beginning of the Aadhaar/PAN arguments, the Court wanted to “tag” this case to the pending challenge before the (still-to-be-constituted) larger bench. The Petitioners then informed the Court that they would make their arguments without relying on the right to privacy. The Court agreed to this.

During the course of arguments, Mr Shyam Divan advanced arguments based on the right to bodily integrity, dignity, and informational self-determination, under Article 21 of the Constitution. In its judgment, however, the Court held that all these arguments were facets of the right to privacy, and could not be decided here. Consequently – and the Court was very clear about this – no argument under Article 21 would be decided by it, whether it was framed as an argument from dignity, or from informational self-determination. This means that the constitutional validity of Aadhaar on the ground of Article 21 has not been decided one way or another by the Court (the Court has not even expressed an opinion), and all arguments on that count remain open.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that the Court’s lumping of all Article 21 arguments into an omnibus “right to privacy” is far from satisfactory. For example, in paragraph 71 of its judgment, the Court cites an American Supreme Court judgment (invoked by the Respondents) to hold that the right to informational self-determination is an aspect of the right to privacy, and so need not be considered by it. The Court does not cite – or engage with – the material placed on record by the Petitioners which specifically demonstrated that the right to informational self-determination was different from the right to privacy, in terms of its origins (in German constitutionalism) and development. As I shall show subsequently, this is a problem that afflicts much of the Court’s opinion.

What the Court did Decide: Process

Two arguments were made before the Court on the nature of the law itself. The first was that the law could not have been passed in the teeth of Supreme Court orders specifying that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory, without taking away the basis of those orders (which S. 139AA didn’t do – see Part I for details). To this, the Court said that those earlier orders had been passed when Aadhaar was still only an executive scheme, and it was open to the legislature to pass a law making Aadhaar compulsory. The Court’s decision here would imply that in future challenges to other laws making Aadhaar mandatory, its prior orders would not be an impediment; however, insofar as Aadhaar is sought to be made mandatory for something through an executive order without a law, those earlier orders would continue to hold the field (paragraph 94).

It was also argued that the process of enrolling and obtaining an Aadhaar number, as set out under the Aadhaar Act, was a voluntary process. S. 139AA of the Income Tax Act, however, made quoting an Aadhaar number for filing IT returns mandatory, and thus indirectly forced taxpayers to enrol for an Aadhaar number, even though the Aadhaar Act explicitly stated that Aadhaar was an entitlement, and not an obligation. To this, the Court stated that the Income Tax Act and the Aadhaar Act operated in different fields, and that the Aadhaar Act was not the “mother Act.” (paragraph 92) I do not propose to deal with this reasoning in detail, since the argument has been set out at some length in Part I (link above), and readers can make up their own minds whether the Court’s answer was satisfactory.

What the Court did Decide: Article 14

It was argued by the Petitioners that S. 139AA contravened Article 14 in two ways: first, by drawing a distinction between individuals and non-individuals, and requiring the former to acquire an Aadhaar number. If – as the State claimed – its goal was to eliminate duplicate PANs and black money, then why were individuals only being singled out through the means of compulsory Aadhaar? The Court responded by stating that it was the State’s prerogative to deal with problems such as duplicate PANs and black money in an incremental or piecemeal fashion, and to make a start with targeting individuals.

It was also argued, however, that the introduction of Aadhaar would not actually solve the problem of duplicate PANs, because there was evidence to show the existence of multiple Aadhaar numbers themselves, as well as the well-documented ability to fake both biometric details and iris scans. Consequently, there was no “rational nexus” under Article 14.

It is at this stage that the judgment becomes highly problematic, because the Court appears to simply repeat the assertions of the State, without adverting to or engaging with the objections raised by the Petitioners. For example:

Respondents have argued that Aadhaar will ensure that there is no duplication of identity as bio-metric will not allow that and, therefore, it may check the growth of shell companies as well.” (paragraph 99)

“By making use of the technology, a method is sought to be devised, in the form of Aadhaar, whereby identity of a person is ascertained in a flawless manner without giving any leeway to any individual to resort to dubious practices of showing multiple identities or fictitious identities. That is why it is given the nomenclature ‘unique identity’. (paragraph 118)

“However, for various reasons including corruption, actual benefit does not reach those who are supposed to receive such benefits. One of the main reasons is failure to identify these persons for lack of means by which identity could be established of such genuine needy class. Resultantly, lots of ghosts and duplicate beneficiaries are able to take undue and impermissible benefits. A former Prime Minister of this country has gone to record to say that out of one rupee spent by the Government for welfare of the downtrodden, only 15 paisa thereof actually reaches those persons for whom it is meant. It cannot be doubted that with UID/Aadhaar much of the malaise in this field can be taken care of.” (para 118)

“To the same effect is the recommendation of the Committee headed by Chairman, CBDT on measures to tackle black money in India and abroad which also discusses the problem of money-laundering being done to evade taxes under the garb of shell companies by the persons who hold multiple bogus PAN numbers under different names or variations of their names. That can be possible if one uniform proof of identity, namely, UID is adopted. It may go a long way to check and minimise the said malaise.” (paragraph 118(ii))

“Thirdly, Aadhaar or UID, which has come to be known as most advanced and sophisticated infrastructure, may facilitate law enforcement agencies to take care of problem of terrorism to some extent and may also be helpful in checking the crime and also help investigating agencies in cracking the crimes. No doubt, going by aforesaid, and may be some other similarly valid considerations, it is the intention of the Government to give phillip (sic) to Aadhaar movement and encourage the people of this country to enroll themselves under the Aadhaar scheme.” (paragraph 119)

“As of today, that is the only method available i.e. by seeding of existing PAN with Aadhaar. It is perceived as the best method, and the only robust method of de-duplication of PAN database. It is claimed by the respondents that the instance of duplicate Aadhaar is almost non-existent. It is also claimed that seeding of PAN with Aadhaar may contribute to widening of the tax case as well, by checking the tax evasions and bringing in to tax hold those persons who are liable to pay tax but deliberately avoid doing so.” (para 119)

In each of these paragraphs, the Court effectively echoes the State’s claim, assumes it to be true, and does not engage with the detailed objections raised by the Petitioners (see Parts I and III). All the talking points are here: how biometric identification is the “best method”, how unique identity is actually “unique”, how terrorism will be tackled through Aadhaar, how “ghosts” will be removed, and so on (note that every one of these points were opposed in court). It is telling that, at various points, the Court even uses language such as “it is claimed” and “Respondents have claimed that”, but doesn’t even trouble to subject those claims to any kind of independent scrutiny.

India has an adverserial legal system. An adverserial system presumes the existence of opposing parties, who marshall their respective facts and evidence into legal arguments, and place it before the Court, which acts as a neutral umpire, adjudicating the rival claims. When there are competing claims, especially competing factual claims, the Court decides by applying legal techniques such as burdens and standards of proof, or taking the assistance of amici curiae who are domain experts. What the Court is not supposed to do is to act like a rubber stamp, simply accepting the State’s assertions as true without engaging with the counter-arguments, or subjecting them to independent scrutiny. However, “rubber stamp” is the only way to describe the Court’s recitation of one side’s arguments, and sidelining (to the point of ignoring) the other.

What the Court did not decide: the strange case of the vanishing Article 19(1)(g)

The Court records Mr Datar’s argument that the invalidation of PAN cards affects an individual’s right to do business, and violates Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. The Court also records – and agrees – with his argument that for an infringement of Article 19(1)(g) to be justified under Article 19(6), the test of proportionality is to be applied. However, after recording this, and after waxing eloquent about the wonders of biometric identification, the Court returns no finding on the issue of proportionality. The discussion on Article 19(1)(g) begins at paragraph 106, and ends at paragraph 124, where the Court notes:

“Therefore, it cannot be denied that there has to be some provision stating the consequences for not complying with the requirements of Section 139AA of the Act, more particularly when these requirements are found as not violative of Articles 14 and 19 (of course, eschewing the discussion on Article 21 herein for the reasons already given). If Aadhar number is not given, the aforesaid exercise may not be possible.”

However, there is absolutely no analysis on whether making Aadhaar compulsory, on pain of cancellation of PAN cards, is proportionate in relation to the stated goal of deduplicaton. This is a crucial omission, because the proportionality test is a detailed and complex four-part test, which requires the State to show that its proposed act infringes upon a right only to the minimal extent necessary to achieve the goal, as well as an overall balancing exercise. It is here that a number of arguments would have become extremely salient, including statistics on the percentage of duplicate PANs (0.4%) which the Court dismisses at an earlier part of the judgment, the existence of multiple Aadhaars (which the Court never engages with), and so on – all of this would have been extremely important in determining whether S. 139AA was a proportionate interference with the right under Article 19(1)(g). (Notably, the only response of the Attorney-General of India to the 19(1)(g) argument was “who cares about Article 19(1)(g) these days?)

The omission is all the more glaring because the proportionality test was introduced by the author of this judgment – Justice Sikri himself – in his judgment in the NEET case. It is truly extraordinary that a judge who introduces a doctrine in one judgment, writing for a Constitution Bench, simply refuses to apply it a few months later when sitting as part of a two-judge bench!

What is even more problematic is the absence of a finding on proportionality. This is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Koushal vs Naz, where the Court’s chosen method of dealing with inconvenient arguments is to set out the submissions, set out the position of law, and then just move on to something else: if you close your eyes and chant “na na na”, long enough, maybe it will go away. A correct application of the four-part proportionality test would have required rigorous scrutiny of the State’s claims on behalf of Aadhaar – but if there is one thing that defines this judgment, it is a complete and utter unwillingness to hold the State to account.

Relief

There is a significant amount of confusion with respect to the relief that the Court does grant – a “partial stay” of S. 139AA(2) (cancellation of PAN) until the main Aadhaar case is decided. The Court states:

“Those who still want to enrol are free to do so. However, those assessees who are not Aadhaar card holders and do not comply with the provision of Section 139(2), their PAN cards be not treated as invalid for the time being. It is only to facilitate other transactions which are mentioned in Rule 114B of the Rules.”

One reading of this passage is that it remains mandatory to provide an Aadhaar number while filing IT returns (after July 1), but if one doesn’t already have an Aadhaar Card, then one’s PAN will not be canceled for failure to comply; however, one’s tax returns shall be invalid, and therefore subject to other penal provisions for not paying tax. On another interpretation, however, S. 139AA(2) provides the punishment for failure to comply with S. 139AA (refusal to provide Aadhaar number for IT returns). The staying of S. 139AA(2) (for those who have no Aadhaar number yet) necessarily implies that there is no penal consequence to follow from violating S. 139AA itself. Over the course of the day, I have heard both views being defended by competent lawyers, implying that at the very least, there is some amount of confusion here.

Conclusion

In its judgment today, the Supreme Court leaves the most crucial issues (Article 21) undecided, and footballs them to the unicorn Constitution Bench that is still to sit after a year and nine months after referral. The Court’s analysis of Article 14 is sketchy, defined by its uncritical reliance upon the State’s claims about Aadhaar (claims that were disputed in Court, and are disputed on a daily basis in the public sphere), and its analysis of Article 19(1)(g) is non-existent.

In a matter where the stakes are this high, this is just not good enough.

(Disclosure: The author assisted the Petitioners in the present case)

 

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Filed under Article 14, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Equality, Freedom of Trade

Guest Post: Judicial Review and Proportionality of Punishment

(In the context of life sentences and even the death penalty being mooted for cow slaughter in some states, Jeydev C.S. examines whether the Indian Constitution requires proportionality in punishment)

How far can the State go? It is a general proposition that duly enacted penal statutes can prescribe punishments for undesirable conduct. Recent political developments suggest that this legislative freedom may be taken further than ever before. From a constitutional standpoint though, it is far from clear if the state actually has untrammelled discretion in sentencing. For instance, can it execute someone for relatively minor offences like petty theft, or sentence a man to rigorous imprisonment for life if caught driving drunk? Screaming headlines and political ramifications aside, the underlying issue here is whether our Constitution can be concerned with proportionality of punishment while dealing with the legality of penal statutes. In this post, I posit that this specific legal question has been answered in the affirmative, considering the findings of leading case law of the Supreme Court of India while interpreting the text of the Constitution.

Article 21 provides that “No person shall be deprived of his life or person liberty except according to procedure established by law”. A perfunctory reading of this clause suggests that, as far as the state has, one, established a certain procedure through law; and two, such procedure is followed by the state while depriving a person of her life or personal liberty, then such an action of deprival by the state would be permissible. However, this has not meant that unchecked excesses by state agencies under the garb of procedural propriety have been condoned by the courts. In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the “procedure established by law” must be just, fair, and reasonable so as to not be in violation of article 21. To put it another way, the Court read three non-textual pre-conditions into the nature of the administrative process, in the absence of which depriving actions of the state will be rendered unconstitutional. While arriving at this outcome, Chief Justice Beg particularly rejects the notion that articles 21 and 19 are independent compartments of rights; rather, they are available together (along with article 14, particularly with regard to reasonableness) when reviewing executive action. While Maneka Gandhi does much more in the realm of article 21 jurisprudence, this facilitative reading permits us to import certain relevant standards that have been laid out with respective to articles 19 and 14.

Article 19 of the Constitution primarily addresses the protection of certain rights (such as speech, assembly, association, movement, profession et cetera). These freedoms, as articulated in clause (1) are circumscribed by the limitations of clauses (2) through (6) – the common criterion of restriction under these clauses is that such restriction must be ‘reasonable’. While there have been many instances of the courts opining on the nature of what this actually entails, for our purposes, we may turn to the case of State of Madras v. V. G. Row. This case dealt with an action of the State of Madras (as it then was) whereby it declared a political organisation to be an unlawful association. In its opinion, the Court reaffirmed the reasoning of previous cases such as Dr. N. B. Khare v. State of Delhi, that article 19 restrictions must be substantially and procedurally reasonable, and that such reasonableness may be indicated by factors such as “the extent of the evil sought to be remedied”, “prevailing conditions”, and “disproportion of imposition”. Granted, Row only envisages this to be applicable to impediments imposed upon article 19 rights. However, Maneka Gandhi clearly expects a harmonious and combined reading of these standards which can help inform the contours of what may be reasonable for the purposes of article 21. Therefore, I contend that proportionality is a relevant consideration when reviewing law that deprives life or personal liberty.

In a similar tenor, I must now address article 14, which prohibits the state from denying to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of laws within India. Most famously, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court held in E. P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu that article 14 entails a prohibition on arbitrariness in state action. Drawing upon this precedent and Maneka Gandhi, the case of Mithu v. State of Punjab sought to apply the principle to a penal provision in a criminal statute. Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which provided for a mandatory minimum sentence of death for those who commit murder while serving a term of life imprisonment, was assailed against the combined significance of articles 14, 19, and 21. The Court struck section 303 down as unconstitutional, for such a sentence, which on no valid basis of classification discriminates between convicts and non-convicts, would be arbitrary – further, the automatic imposition of a sentence of death, which is expected to used sparingly per the judgment in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, would be disproportionately oppressive; for these reasons, the impugned section was held to be in violation of article 21. Chandrachud J illustrates the importance of a proportionality test for the purposes of sentencing – he notes that a savage sentence, such as amputation for theft, would run afoul of article 21; he actively adverts to the reliance upon article 19 standards of reasonableness to assess challenges under article 21. This further reinforces the importance of proportionality, which as we have noted, has been incorporated through Row.

It is true that a substantial bulk of Mithu dealt with the disproportionality parameter, in as much as a criminal statute took away sentencing discretion from courts during trial. However, perhaps the most forceful articulation of the need for proportionate punishment is seen in Vikram Singh v. Union of India. In this case, the appellants sought to challenge the constitutional validity of section 364A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 on the grounds that it prescribed a sentence of death, thereby in violation of article 21, as clarified in Mithu. At the earliest, the Court sought to dissuade the notion of the appellants that section 364A amounted to a mandatory death sentence. As the provision itself reads, death is only one option before the trail court – it may also choose to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life. Therefore, this case is clearly distinguishable from Mithu as the mere option of death as a possible punishment for a crime does not violate article 21. Despite dismissing the instant appeal on this ground, Chief Justice Thakur addresses the general issue of proportionality. He opines that merely because courts are deferential to legislatures on matters of punishment, generally, does not mean that penalties that are “shockingly disproportionate” to the gravity of the underlying offence are immune from constitutional intervention.

The Court then proceeds to categorically import the principle of proportionality in punishment from foreign (particularly, North American) jurisprudence. In Weems v. United States, the Supreme Court of that country affirmed the proposition in favour of ‘graduated’ and ‘proportionate’ punishment, by finding grounding in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Similarly, cases like Enmund v. Florida, Coker v. Georgia, and Solem v. Helm have all held penal statutes to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment on account of being disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying offence. Chief Justice Thakur specifically cites the cases of Harmelin v. Michigan and Ewing v. California to be indicative of a prospective American standard, as culled from past jurisprudence – as far as there is a “reasonable basis for believing” the prescribed punishment “advances the goals” of criminal justice and was arrived at through a “rational legislative judgment”, such statutes may be deemed to be proportionate.

While affirmative reiterations of these principles exist throughout Vikram Singh, the most utility for our purposes in evaluating the Indian constitutional scheme may be derived from the enumeration of guiding considerations at paragraph 49 – first, the general principle is that punishment must be proportionate; second, that there exists a presumption that the legislature (unlike the courts) is best positioned to propose punishment; and third, that the courts must defer to its wisdom in this regard unless the prescription is outrageously disproportionate to the offence or so inhuman or brutal that it would be unacceptable by any standard of decency. This standard if further raised in cases where the prescription is one of death – the Court defers to the high standard of judicial care that is applied to the death penalty, in line with evolving jurisprudence on the issue, while also asserting that the likelihood of this punishment being deemed disproportionate is particularly high. I must reiterate however, that my quest here is to not comment on whether the death penalty is disproportionate in certain cases. Rather, it is whether any punishing statute (including, but not limited to the death penalty) is open for constitutional review on the grounds of proportionality.

It is altogether another matter that the Court in Vikram Singh chose to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that the impugned provision did not offend the aforementioned standard. Nonetheless, these principles undoubtedly constitute the ratio decidendi of this case. Being the leading Supreme Court judgment on this point, it shall be binding on courts throughout India. Hence, any criminal statute that prescribes punishment can be held against this test of proportionality; and if it is found to run afoul of this, that punishment may be declared by our constitutional courts to be ineffective on account of it being in violation of article 21. Whether the recent spate of amendments and legislative proposals merit such consideration is a question for another day.

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Filed under Article 21 and the Right to Life, Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The (Continuing) Doctrine of Judicial Evasion in the Aadhaar Case

On this blog, I have argued before that the ongoing Aadhaar litigation provides an example of the Supreme Court’s evolving doctrine of “judicial evasion”: faced with a dispute between individual and State that involves wide-ranging ramifications on civil and constitutional rights, the Court’s response is not to decide it one way or another, but to simply refuse to hear it at all. While legally this keeps the position of the parties at status quo, at the same time, it permits the State to take all steps on the ground to achieve a fait accompli that effectively makes the case academic and infructuous. In other words, by not deciding, the Court is, in effect, deciding in favour of the State, but without the public accountability that comes with the existence of a written, reasoned judgment.

The doctrine of judicial evasion ensured – as I pointed out in my posts about the Aadhaar/PAN litigation – that in the one constitutional challenge to Aadhaar that the Court did hear, the Petitioners had to argue as if they were playing a tennis match with one arm and one leg tied behind their backs. And today’s order – in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India – is another excellent example of how, by applying this doctrine, the Court has fundamentally abdicated its constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of Indian citizens.

Recall – yet again – the background. On 11th August 2015, after the Union of India argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court referred the challenge to the Aadhaar scheme (at that point, a voluntary, executive scheme) to a larger bench for decision. The Court clarified that, pending the final decision, Aadhaar could not be made mandatory for availing of subsidies or benefits, and it recommended that the case be heard on an urgent basis. A Constitution Bench met in October 2015 to extent the list of subsidies for which Aadhaar could be used; after that, the case has not been heard, despite numerous attempts to “mention” it before the Chief Justice, and have it listed. It has been one year and nine months since the referral order.

In the meantime, the Union of India has gone full steam ahead with Aadhaar. In 2016, it passed an Aadhaar Act, providing statutory sanction to the scheme. Section 7 of the Act authorised the government to make Aadhaar mandatory for subsidies or benefits, which were paid out of the Consolidated Fund. Under the ostensible cover of Section 7, a number of notifications have been passed, making Aadhaar mandatory for a whole range of crucial, life-sustaining benefits: from schoolchildren’s midday meals to compensation for victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Before the Supreme Court today, then, the case for the petitioners in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India was simple: seventeen notifications under the authority of S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act, which made Aadhaar mandatory for crucial subsidies and benefits, were illegal, and Section 7 itself was unconstitutional. Moreover, the case was one of utmost urgency: in most of these notifications, the last date for applying was June 30. Given that the Supreme Court was closing for the vacations today, unless some orders were passed, the case would become entirely infructuous. People entirely dependent on these subsidies for their basic survival would have no choice but to enrol for an Aadhaar number, whether they wanted to or not.

To this, the Court’s only response was to decline to hear the case, because the constitutional challenge to the Aadhaar Act was already pending before the Constitution Bench – the same Constitution Bench that had not been set up for a year and nine months, despite every attempt by numerous petitioners to persuade the Chief Justice to do so. Instead, it tagged this challenge to the already pending challenge before that Constitution Bench. Petitioners’ arguments that they would not rely upon the right to privacy – which was the reason why the referral had happened in the first place – had no impact.

Petitioners then requested the Court to at least hear the case on the issue of interim reliefs because – as pointed out above – the entire case would become infructuous by June 30. To this, the Court responded that the Petitioners could only raise the plea of interim reliefs before the Constitution Bench – that same unicorn Constitution Bench that nobody had seen a hoofprint of since August 2015. The Court then said that the Petitioners ought to approach the Chief Justice and mention this – the same Chief Justice who had publicly refused to list the case on a prior mentioning.

Needless to say, there’s going to be no Constitution Bench before June 30. In short, the Supreme Court has effectively decided the validity of seventeen notifications that make Aadhaar mandatory for accessing crucial services in favour of the government without hearing a single argument, not even arguments on an interim stay.

Presumably, judges of the Supreme Court do not live in individual silos. The two-judge bench of Justices Sikri and Bhushan who heard today’s case was surely aware of the non-progress of the Aadhaar case through the Supreme Court over nearly two years. Surely it was aware that there was going to be no listing of anything any time soon. And so, surely these judges knew that by “tagging” this case to the existing challenges before the mythical Constitution Bench, the effect was nothing other than to decide the case in favour of the government.

I have said before that the only proper description of the Supreme Court’s conduct in the Aadhaar case is institutional disingenuousness. In refusing to set up the Constitution Bench to hear Aadhaar, while simultaneously setting up three Constitution Benches in the vacations to hear three other cases (none of which carry the same urgency as this one) and in “tagging” new challenges to the main challenge that is never heard, thereby burying them as well, the Court has effectively ruled in favour of the government on Aadhaar without allowing the petitioners to argue their challenge, and without writing a reasoned judgment that would be subject to public scrutiny.

This, to me, seems nothing less than an abdication of constitutional responsibility through the doctrine of judicial evasion.

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Filed under aadhaar, Access to Justice, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Judicial Evasion, Privacy

The Constitutional Challenge to Aadhaar/PAN – III: The Petitioners’ Rejoinder and the Issues before the Court

In the last two posts, we examined the case of the Petitioners and that of the Union of India before the Supreme Court in the constitutional challenge to S. 139AA of the IT Act. In this post, we shall conclude by discussing the Petitioners’ rejoinder, and outlining the issues that the Court must adjudicate.

Mr Shyam Divan’s Rejoinder

On Article 14 and the Collision Between the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA

Mr Divan argued that the entire case rested upon the Attorney-General’s argument that S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act was virtually mandatory – an argument, he stated, he had heard for the first time during these proceedings. Mr Divan contended that the only way in which the Attorney-General had managed to reconcile the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA was by arguing that S. 7 was mandatory. If that argument failed, then the entire edifice would crumble, and S. 139AA would have to be struck down.

Mr Divan argued that the entire scheme of the Aadhaar Act made it clear that it was voluntary. This was evident from the Statement of Objects and Reasons, from Section 3, which stipulated that “every resident shall be entitled” to an Aadhaar number. It was also evident from S. 3(2), which required the enrolling agency to inform the individual about the manner in which the information would be used and S. 8(2)(a), which required requesting entities to “obtain consent” . And S.7 only permitted the Government to make Aadhaar mandatory as a condition for receiving subsidies which were financed out of the Consolidated Fund of India. Mr Divan argued that the Attorney-General’s reliance on S. 57 was incorrect, because S. 57 clearly stated that it was subject to the rest of the Aadhaar Act. No coercive measures were contemplated by the Act. Furthermore, the voluntariness of Aadhaar was also evident from the enrolling form, which specified consent; from the UIDAI’s own website, which used the phrases “entitled to voluntarily obtain an Aadhaar number“, and “any person may choose to use Aadhaar“; and from the UIDAI’s advertisements.

Aadhaar, therefore, was a voluntary scheme. What flowed from this, according to Mr Divan, was that a legislative scheme which divided people into two categories – those who choose to have an Aadhaar, and those who don’t – and then burdened the latter category, was discriminatory on the face of it. And this was precisely what S. 139AA did. By dividing taxpayers into those who had freely chosen to get an Aadhaar number, and those who hadn’t, and by forcibly requiring the latter to get an Aadhaar, S. 139AA violated Article 14 because its very objective was discriminatory. Mr Divan argued that the petition should succeed on this count alone.

Compelled Speech 

Mr Divan clarified that his point about compelled speech was simply that, by parting with her biometric details and iris scan – the most personal of all information about oneself – the individual was being compelled to “speak” – and that too, not to the State, but to private enrolling agencies. Mr Divan conceded that there might be different considerations if the State was doing the collecting itself; but how, he asked, could the State compel the individual to “speak” to another individual with whom they did not wish to have any interaction? Reading out the list of private enrollers, Mr Divan argued that the entire architecture of Aadhaar – which required me to go and provide my most sensitive information not to the State, but to “Pankaj Shah of Bits and Bytes Co.” violated Article 19(1)(a).

Bodily Integrity, Compelling State Interest, Narrow Tailoring 

The Union of India’s entire argument – Mr Divan stated – essentially boiled down to “what’s the big deal about this? Other laws require you to part with personal information too.” To this, he responded that there could be laws which infringed bodily integrity in order to protect and preserve life: this is why there were laws mandating helmets and seatbelts. Likewise, there could be laws stipulating narrowly-tailored exceptions to the right, in service of a compelling State interest, such as passports (where an urgent need might arise to identify a person in case of an accident abroad). That, however, was a far cry from a centralised database, which – according to the Union’s own affidavit – involved seeding of information. This was also what distinguished Aadhaar from a provision such as S. 32A of the Registration Act. The Registration Act required you to give your fingerprints, but that was for your benefit and was only on the document; it did not go into a centralised database, with all the accompanying possibilities of misuse and data theft. Similarly, the Census Act accorded a very high degree of protection to census information: inspection of census registered, for instance, was prohibited. What this showed was that when the coercive power of the State is used to invade bodily integrity, there must be a consequently high degree of protection – something which Aadhaar, with the possibility of seeding, did not have.

Furthermore, Mr Divan argued, the State had failed to make out a compelling interest. The argument about “giving people an identity” was flawed, because 99.97% of Aadhaar applicants already had pre-existing identity documents. The logic of duplication was also flawed, because official information showed the presence of 1,69,000 duplicate Aadhaar numbers. Consequently, the large-sale infringement of bodily integrity in this case could not be sustained by the goal the State was trying to achieve.

Competence and Deference 

Mr Divan reiterated his argument that under the constitutional scheme, there was an implied limitation upon the State’s power to legislate when it came to the human body: only narrowly-tailored infringements, in service of a compelling interest, were permitted. Wholesale taking of biometric details and iris scans, and storing them in a centralised database for the purposes of seeding was neither narrowly-tailored, nor in service of a compelling interest. Mr Divan also pointed  out that this case had raised serious questions pertaining to the violation of Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. Consequently, the Court ought not to follow its usual policy in dealing with “fiscal statutes”, and defer to legislative wisdom; although 139AA was a tax amendment, its nature was anything but purely fiscal.

Mr Divan concluded by arguing that the Union’s three-pronged case – that there was no right to privacy, that fingerprinting and iris scans were no more intrusive than a photograph, and that Aadhaar was mandatory – if accepted, would overturn the entire relationship between the individual and the State, concentrating great power in the hands of the latter at the expense of the former. That would result in a tremendous compromise of civil liberties. He would urge the Court to strike down S. 139AA.

Mr Datar’s Rejoinder

Legislative Overruling of Judicial Orders

Mr Datar argued that before the Supreme Court, the Union of India had always reiterated that Aadhaar was voluntary. On 11th August 2015, and then again on 15th October 2015, the Supreme Court itself had stated that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory. Now, it was open to Parliament to legislate in a way that took away the basis of these orders. Parliament, for instance, could simply stipulate, in a law, that henceforth, every individual was obligated to obtain an Aadhaar Number. However, Parliament had not done that. Parliament had simply enacted S. 139AA, which made it mandatory to quote an Aadhaar number while filing Income Tax returns. That did not amount to taking away the basis of the Supreme Court orders. Mr Datar took the example of a case in Bangalore, where notwithstanding building regulations prohibiting a height of more than 80m, a person had built up to 100m. The case was taken to Court, and he lost. However, before his building could be demolished, the Regulation was changed to make the legal height 110m, and applicable retrospectively, from the time that construction had commenced. That, argued Mr Datar, was an instance of how the basis of a judgment could be altered, and that was the only way known to law in which the Parliament or Executive could overcome a contrary court order. Similarly, in the Supreme Court’s recent judgment banning liquor within a specified distance from highways, some states had responded by denotifying their highways, and turning them into ordinary roads. That was permissible, because it removed the basis of the Court’s judgment; however, those states could not simply have said, “notwithstanding the Supreme Court judgment, alcohol will continue to be sold in these shops.” S. 139AA effectively amounted to state action of the latter kind.

Justice Sikri pointed out that what was unique about this case was that the Court’s earlier orders had been passed when Aadhaar was merely an executive scheme, and no law existed. So could it be said that the orders even applied to a law in the first place? Mr Datar responded by saying that in view of Ram Jawaya Kapoor’s Case, the executive and legislative powers of the State were co-extensive. Consequently, whether the original orders applied to an executive scheme, or to a law, the point remained that they could only be overcome through the specific mechanism outlined above. Justice Sikri and Mr Datar agreed that the Court was dealing with this kind of a situation for the first time in its history, and would have to lay down the law on the basis of first principles. Justice Sikri then asked what the “basis” of the earlier Court orders was, that the Parliament could have legislated to take away. Mr Datar responded that the basis was that since the validity of Aadhaar was yet to be tested on the constitutional anvil, in the meantime it could not be made mandatory for anything but a specified number of services. Consequently, the only way of removing this basis was to pass an Act that stated “Parliament may make Aadhaar mandatory…” Mr Arghya Sengupta interjected to state that S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act did this already. Mr. Datar replied that S. 7 did nothing of the sort.

Legislative Dichotomy

Mr Datar then pointed out that S. 139AA of the Aadhaar Act did not contain a non-obstante clause (“notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force…). In the absence of a non-obstante clause, there was a clear collision – or a dichotomy – between the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA, a dichotomy that could be resolved only by striking down S. 139AA. Once Parliament had passed a law which made Aadhaar a right – it could not then pass a contrary law that made Aadhaar its jural opposite –  a duty without a non-obstante clause. Mr Datar read out numerous parliamentary statements – including one by Mr Jaitley – to demonstrate that at its core, Aadhaar was meant to be voluntary, and also pointed to the utter lack of debate in Parliament before passing S. 139AA.

Article 14

Mr Datar argued once again that the State had entirely failed to make out a rational nexus between making Aadhaar compulsory for individual taxpayers, and its stated goal(s) of preventing duplication, preventing black money, and preventing terrorism. He pointed out that only 0.4% of PAN Cards had been found to be duplicate, and that these figures from 2006. In response to Mr Sengupta’s interjection that this was only 0.4% of a very small sample, Mr Datar responded that that was exactly the point of statistical sampling. He observed there was no data after 2006, and asked on what basis the State had decided to take such a huge step – of mandatory Aadhaar – without analysing data, or sending the matter for consideration by a Parliamentary committee. The reason for the discrepancy between the number of PAN Cards and the number of taxpayers was simply that, after 1998, PAN began to be used for a wide number of transactions that had nothing to do with tax. Consequently, the Union had failed to discharge its burden under Article 14 that there existed a rational nexus between making individuals quote their Aadhaar numbers while filing tax returns, and checking duplication, tax evasion, or black money.

Mr Datar also addressed the Attorney-General’s arguments under FATCA, arguing that FATCA had nothing to do with Aadhaar numbers at all. Mr Arghya Sengupta interjected, saying that FATCA required handing over PAN numbers to US authorities, and that it would be embarrassing if duplicate PANs were handed over. Mr Datar pointed out that this had nothing to do with rational nexus under Article 14.

Article 19(1)(g) 

Mr Datar argued that the consequences of not having a PAN Card effectively locked an individual out of a number of economic transactions that were a lifeline (especially) for small traders and entrepreneurs. Apart from crores of individual taxpayers, it would be this class that would be affected the most: their entire economic life would grind to a halt. Consequently, for those who did not wish to get an Aadhaar number, S. 139AA was a serious infringement of their right to carry on trade and business under Article 19(1)9(g).

Now, if a law violated Article 19(1)(g), it could only be justified under Article 19(6): i.e., if it was a reasonable restriction in the interests of the general public. The correct test for assessing reasonableness had been laid down by Justice Sikri himself, in Modern Dental College vs State of MP (discussed on this blog here), and it was the test of “proportionality”:

“… a limitation of a constitutional right will be constitutionally permissible if: (i) it is designated for a proper purpose; (ii) the measures undertaken to effectuate such a limitation are rationally connected to the fulfillment of that purpose; (iii) the measures undertaken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures that may similarly achieve that same purpose with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there needs to be a proper relation (‘proportionality stricto sensu’ or ‘balancing’) between the importance of achieving the proper purpose and the social importance of preventing the limitation on the constitutional right.” (paragraph 53)

Mr Datar pointed out that for 0.4% of duplicate PANs, 99.96% of taxpayers were being forced into Aadhaar. How, he asked, was this proportionate? In the balancing of interests between duplicate PANs and the freedom to do business, proportionality – in this case – clearly weighed in on the side of the former.

Mr Datar concluded by stating that this was a very serious case, with far-reaching consequences for civil liberties. Responding to the Attorney-General’s contention that all that had happened was that an extra “A” had been added to S. 139A, making it “Section 139AA”, he urged the Court to stop the encroachment on individual rights at its first step. He ended by quoting Justice Douglas of the US Supreme Court:

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Issues before the Court

The Supreme Court has to resolve the following issues:

(a) Did S. 139AA “take away the basis” of the Supreme Court’s earlier orders on Aadhaar being voluntary, or is it an impermissible legislative overruling of a binding Court order?

(b) Does S. 139AA violate bodily integrity under Article 21? If it does, then does it serve a compelling State interest? And is it narrowly-tailored? Is it analogous to other laws such as the Registration Act, the Census Act, or the Passports Act, or is it much broader and far-reaching then those statutes? When deciding this issue, the Court will also have to decide how much to defer to the Union’s claims on duplication and black money, in view of the fact that the Petitioners strongly contested the validity of these claims. One interesting aspect here is how the Court will choose to allocate burdens of proof: will it, if it finds an infringement of bodily integrity, hold that the State must then justify it on the touchstone of compelling interest and narrow tailoring?

(c) Does S. 139AA violate Article 19(1)(g)? If so, is it proportionate, in view of statistics on the number of duplicate PANs and the existence of duplicate Aadhaars?

(d) In view of the fact that the Aadhaar Act makes Aadhaar voluntary, does S. 139AA fail the discriminatory purpose prong of Article 14 by classifying taxpayers into those who have voluntarily taken an Aadhaar number, and those who haven’t?

(e) Has the State shown a “rational nexus” under Article 14, with its goals of preventing black money and duplication? Here again, the issue of deference will become decisive: will the Court hold 139AA to be an economic statute, and take the Union’s claims at face value? Or will it, in view of the contentions involving fundamental rights, subject the Union to a stricter scrutiny in justifying its contention about Aadhaar being the panacea for preventing tax evasion?

(f) Does 139AA amount to compelled speech under Article 19(1)(a)?

(g) Does 139AA violate the principle of informational self-determination under Article 21?

(e) Is there an implied limitation upon legislative competence as far as laws concerning the human body are concerned? If yes, then does 139AA violate this implied limitation?

Options before the Court

The Court may do one of the following six things:

(a) Strike down S. 139AA as unconstitutional.

(b) Accept Mr Divan’s argument, and hold that S. 139AA is voluntary by reading “shall” as “may”.

(c) Accept Mr Datar’s argument and “harmoniously construe” S. 139AA and the Aadhaar Act by holding that those who have already procured and Aadhaar number might be required to quote it, but those who haven’t cannot be compelled to enroll.

(d) Find that issues or privacy are essential to decide the case, refer the matter to the pending Constitution Bench, and stay its operation in the meantime.

(e) Refer without staying

(f) Uphold S. 139AA entirely, but leave it open to the Petitioners to challenge it on the grounds of privacy, once the Constitution Bench finally decides the main Aadhaar challenge.

 

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Filed under aadhaar, Article 14, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Equality, Privacy