Category Archives: Criminal Law and the Constitution

The Gujarat High Court’s Voice Spectrograph Decision – II: Guest Post – Between a Rock and a Hard Place

(In this Guest Post, Abhinav Sekhri carries forward the discussion on the Gujarat High Court’s recent judgment on the constitutionality and legality of voice spectrography).

A Single Judge of the Gujarat High Court handed down the decision in Devani v. State of Gujarat [Spl. Criminal Application Direction 5226 of 2015, decided on 18.01.2017], which formed the basis of the last post on this Blog. To recount, the decision agreed with the Supreme Court’s conclusions in Ritesh Sinha [(2013) 2 SCC 357] that compelling a person accused of an offence to undergo ‘Voice Spectrography’ does not amount to making her a witness against herself. Having held so, Pardiwala, J. then considered whether there was any statutory basis to permit such testing by the police. This was the issue on which the two judges in Ritesh Sinha disagreed, and is now pending before a larger bench for resolution. Pardiwala, J. found no such basis, and thus held that the Petitioner could not be compelled to undergo Voice Spectrography. This brief post follows up on the analysis offered previously and develops those ideas further.

‘Evidence’ in Article 20(3) and the Physical-Mental Divide

To decide whether or not the right against self-incrimination, guaranteed under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, is violated, three questions need to be affirmatively answered. First, that the person concerned is accused of an offence. Second, this person is required to give evidence against herself. And, finally, that the person must be compelled to incriminate herself. In Devani, only the second of these questions arose: Pardiwala, J. had to decide whether the taking of voice samples/exemplars could amount to evidence?

Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act contains a very broad definition of the term ‘evidence’. Does the same definition apply here? It doesn’t. As Gautam pointed out, the interpretation of this part of Article 20(3) is governed by State of Bombay v Kathi Kalu Oghad [1962 (3) SCR 10] which was decided by eleven judges. Deciding whether or not handwriting samples and blood samples were within the pale of Article 20(3), the Supreme Court gave us the term ‘physical evidence’. By prefacing ‘evidence’ in this manner, the Supreme Court excluded blood samples and handwriting samples from the mix. The logic essentially being, that these materials were inherently immutable and were only being used for drawing comparisons with material already collected during the investigation. Enter, Selvi v State of Karnataka [(2010) 7 SCC 263]. Decided by three judges, it considered whether an accused could be compelled to undergo either brain mapping (BEAP), polygraph tests, or narco-analysis. The three judges held that compelling a person accused to undergo any of these would violate the constitutional right under Article 20(3). Now, you may correctly ask, that was it proper to place all three tests in the same bracket? After all, the drugged state of narco-analysis involves persons making statements, as opposed to polygraph tests relying upon physical responses to stimuli (usually questioning). On the issue of polygraph tests, the Court held that such a physical response was as good as a statement. The response involved a unique communicative value, which ordinary ‘physical evidence’ would lack.

I agree that Pardiwala, J. is not entirely correct in narrowly construing the contours of Selvi by suggesting that the decision was solely concerned with what he calls ‘psychiatric evidence’. The problem really is how broad the conclusions in Selvi were, as Gautam pointed out. While it attempts to distinguish Kathi Kalu Oghad, the logic employed for bringing polygraph tests within the confines of Article 20(3) does not hold firm. This is because even in a polygraph test the physical responses are used to compare. There is a set of normal readings taken when the person responds to supposedly harmless questions. After this, the uncomfortable questions are asked, and the readings obtained by both the sets of responses are then compared. There is a way to keep both Kathi Kalu Oghad and Selvi, perhaps. This would look at how the preliminary readings in polygraph tests are also obtained under coercion, as against a case like blood samples where material is obtained wholly independently.

Self-Incrimination and Voice Exemplars

The previous post made important observations about the logic behind Article 20(3) which receives scant attention. Gautam argues that the employment of the ‘physical evidence’ concept was an attempt to balance the dual claims of the crime control vs. due process approach. Developing his thoughts further, one may suggest that Selvi shows a shift from focusing on the crime control aspects to the issues of due process. In Kathi Kalu Oghad, we get a clear idea that the Court saw Article 20(3) as a means to ensure the quality of evidence at trial remained of a sterling quality. While persons may give false testimony under pressure, blood never lies, and so it made no sense to exclude it from the possible evidence that a judge may consider to decide issues at trial. Fifty years later, the three judges in Selvi are at pains to link Article 21 to Article 20(3). There is as much attention placed upon the manner in which the evidence is obtained, rather than solely judging its quality. Thus, the Court appears more willing to look at issues such as particular techniques violating the mental privacy of the accused which it earlier would not rarely consider.

The problem with making claims about ‘shifts’ is that there needs to be something more to suggest a trend. Unfortunately, I can offer nothing by way of evidence, and would rather classify Selvi as a one-off event in the largely depressing judicial history of Article 20(3). On each of the three questions that I identified, the Supreme Court has consistently narrowed the scope, only to render this constitutional protection non-existent for large swathes of the criminal law that are today administered by agencies other than the khaki-clad police.

Moving on to considering the particular issue at hand, then. I agree with Gautam that the ‘physical evidence’ conception is not the answer for a conceptually rigorous model for understanding the right against self-incrimination. But I do not think that the issue of voice sample poses any great difficulty to the existing setup and thus calls for reform will not find many takers, yet. If we were to look at this issue of voice samples from the lens of Kathi Kalu Oghad, it would be argued that the voice sample is obtained to compare it with the tape recording. Voice, like handwriting, is quite immutable, making it a fit for the ‘physical evidence’ category. The approach offered by the Selvi would offer the same result. The voice samples here have no communicative quality of their own: they are purely for purposes of comparison with evidence that exists independent of the person. The big flaw in this entire claim is the idea that the human voice is immutable since there is material to suggest otherwise (something that Devani does not fully address). Assuming there is some certainty on that front, it is difficult to argue that the technique of Voice Spectrography would violate Article 20(3).

Creating a Statutory Basis

The second part of the decision is a familiar tale of woe. Pardiwala, J. traverses through the entire gamut of statutes in the field in his search for some basis to ground this technique, only to end his search in vain. He concludes that Voice Spectrography could therefore not be compelled upon an accused, and offers pointers to the State Government on how to remedy the situation before finishing his decision. The tale is familiar because it can be recounted for most investigative developments in India. My blog had earlier considered one example in Section 311-A of the Cr.P.C.; how it took several decades for such a common investigative tool (taking handwriting samples) to receive statutory support, only for it to be riddled with problems.

The Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 is a curious mixture of highly particular rules combined with vague standards. The part on police investigations are a good example. Police discretion on when to investigate a case is couched in vague terms, coexisting with provisions stipulating meticulous rules for things such as inquests. Do we, then, really need a clear statutory basis for what techniques can the police administer? Pardiwala, J. himself suggests that there may not be such a need when he invites the State Government to consider bringing in Rules to permit Voice Spectrography. Regardless of where one stands on the security-liberty paradigm, few would dispute the need for law to keep pace with technology and for the police to have up-to-date investigative tools at its disposal. This raises  questions on whether it makes sense to continue requiring concrete statutory backing for the particular techniques that the police can adopt, in an environment that is notorious for belaboured law reform. The spectre of abuse and misuse looms large though, leaving us with that familiar feeling: of being between a rock and a rather hard place.

 

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The Gujarat High Court’s Voice Spectrography Judgment, and the Limits of Selvi vs State

On the 18th of January, in Devani vs State of Gujarat, a single judge of the Gujarat High Court handed down an interesting ruling on the constitutionality and legality of voice spectrography as an investigative technique during criminal proceedings. The writ petitioner had been charged with offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The main piece of evidence was a telephone conversation between the petitioner and the person from whom he had allegedly demanded a bribe. The Investigating Agency wanted to subject the Petitioner to a voice spectrography test, so that it could compare the two voice samples. The Petitioner challenged this.

The Court’s decision was delivered in the context of a split opinion by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, delivered in 2012, in Ritesh Sinha vs State of U.PJustice Aftab Alam had held that in the absence of express statutory authorisation, investigative agencies could not compel an accused to undergo a voice spectrography test. Justice Ranjana Desai had disagreed. While the two judges were in apparent agreement over the proposition that voice spectrography did not violate the right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3) of the Constitution, in view of the disagreement between them, they referred the case for resolution by a three-judge bench. This bench has not yet been constituted.

In Devani, the Gujarat High Court agreed with Justice Alam and disagreed with Justice Desai, holding that the investigating authorities could not legally compel an accused to undergo a voice spectrography test. The Court based its judgment on statutory interpretation, finding no warrant for the taking of voice samples under the existing criminal procedural framework. However, it also found that the taking of voice samples did not violate Article 20(3) of the Constitution. It is to this finding that we turn first.

Article 20(3)

The Court’s examination of the self-incrimination issue took place – as it had to – in the context of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Selvi vs State (previously, on this blog, we have discussed Selvi and the right against self-incrimination under the Indian Constitution in some detail). Readers will recall that Selvi – a three-judge decision of the Supreme Court – had clarified some of the conceptual underpinnings of the right against self-incrimination that had been left open in the previous judgment of Kathi Kalu Oghad. The question in this case was how the Gujarat High Court would interpret Selvi, and how it would thread the needle between Kathi Kalu Oghad, which had held the taking of fingerprints and handwriting samples was consistent with Article 20(3), and Selvi, which had held that narco-analysis, brain mapping, and the polygraph test, were not. In other words, what was the deeper conceptual basis that underpinned the spectrum between fingerprints and narco-analysis, and where did voice spectrography fall on this spectrum?

The Gujarat High Court’s reading of Selvi was as follows: Selvi, it held, had prohibited the compulsory psychiatric examination of the accused. However, a voice spectrography test – which only involved the subject speaking something into a recorder, and subsequent analysis of his voice patterns – did not come within the ambit of “psychiatric examination“. Consequently, voice spectrography was not hit by the Selvi bar, and was therefore constitutional (paragraph 44).

It is submitted, with respect, that the High Court’s reading of Selvi is unnecessarily narrow, and is not borne out by the decision and reasoning in that case. Recall that, in the last analysis, in Selvi, the intellectual foundation of the Court’s judgment was the idea of mental privacy. In paragraph 160 of that judgment, the Court held:

Even though the actual process of undergoing a polygraph examination or a BEAP test is not the same as that of making an oral or written statement, the consequences are similar. By making inferences from the results of these tests, the examiner is able to derive knowledge from the subject’s mind which otherwise would not have become available to the investigators. These two tests are different from medical examination and the analysis of bodily substances such as blood, semen and hair samples, since the test subject’s physiological responses are directly correlated to mental faculties. Through lie-detection or gauging a subject’s familiarity with the stimuli, personal knowledge is conveyed in respect of a relevant fact.” (Para 160)

On, in other words, the right against self-incrimination (among other things) was aimed at protecting the mental inviolability of an accused during the course of a criminal proceeding.

The Court in Selvi went on to note:

“The compulsory administration of the impugned tests impedes the subject’s right to choose between remaining silent and offering substantive information. The requirement of a `positive volitional act’ becomes irrelevant since the subject is compelled to convey personal knowledge irrespective of his/her own volition.”

And:

While the ordinary exercise of police powers contemplates restraints of a physical nature such as the extraction of bodily substances and the use of reasonable force for subjecting a person to a medical examination, it is not viable to extend these police powers to the forcible extraction of testimonial responses. In conceptualising the `right to privacy’ we must highlight the distinction between privacy in a physical sense and the privacy of one’s mental processes… so far, the judicial understanding of privacy in our country has mostly stressed on the protection of the body and physical spaces from intrusive actions by the State. While the scheme of criminal procedure as well as evidence law mandates interference with physical privacy through statutory provisions that enable arrest, detention, search and seizure among others, the same cannot be the basis for compelling a person `to impart personal knowledge about a relevant fact’. The theory of interrelationship of rights mandates that the right against self-incrimination should also be read as a component of `personal liberty’ under Article 21. Hence, our understanding of the `right to privacy’ should account for its intersection with Article 20(3)… a conjunctive reading of Articles 20(3) and 21 of the Constitution along with the principles of evidence law leads us to a clear answer. We must recognise the importance of personal autonomy in aspects such as the choice between remaining silent and speaking. An individual’s decision to make a statement is the product of a private choice and there should be no scope for any other individual to interfere with such autonomy, especially in circumstances where the person faces exposure to criminal charges or penalties. Therefore, it is our considered opinion that subjecting a person to the impugned techniques in an involuntary manner violates the prescribed boundaries of privacy. Forcible interference with a person’s mental processes is not provided for under any statute and it most certainly comes into conflict with the right against self-incrimination.” (Paras 190 – 193)

Consequently, Selvi went much further than simply prohibiting compelled “psychiatric examinations”. It located its decision within the framework of personal autonomy, the right to remain silent, and mental privacy.

However, it is precisely within this context that the issue of voice spectrography attains an almost intractable difficulty. If you look at the issue from one perspective, it seems clear that voice spectrography falls squarely within the Selvi prohibition. The mind is centrally involved in the act of speaking, and if “mental privacy” is to be understood in this sense, compelling a person to speak, and then using his voice to determine other relevant facts in a criminal proceeding, is certainly an invasion of mental privacy. Compelling a person to speak certainly violates their choice between speaking and remaining silent. It is certainly an interference with her “mental processes“. And finally, it does seem that what happens in a voice spectrography test is very similar to polygraph tests and brain mapping – bodily stimuli are mapped and measured. The fact that in one case, it is stimuli from the brain, and in another, voice patterns, ought not to make a difference, because – as discussed above – speaking is a direct result of mental activity.

Examined another way, however, the issue is much more complex. While speaking is a result of brain activity, the crucial thing to note in a voice spectrography test is that it is not about what the speaker is saying – that is, not about the content of her voice – but about her voice as a bodily, physical phenomenon. In this sense, voice spectrography seems much closer to fingerprints, blood samples, and DNA, than it does to narco-analysis. In a similar sense, it seems a stretch to say that the examiner is deriving knowledge from the subject’s mind. Although speaking is a result of a mental process, given that the brain is, ultimately, responsible for keeping the human body alive, every other bodily function can, ultimately, be traced back to the brain. Here, again, given that the content of what the speaker says is not at issue, it does seem that voice samples are physical phenomena, in the same sense that blood or DNA is.

What this reveals, I suggest, is that ultimately, Selvi’s neat distinction between the physical and mental, between the taking of physical samples (blood, DNA, hair swabs, fingerprints) on the one hand, and interference with mental processes and invasion of mental privacy on the other, breaks down on closer examination. It breaks down in cases such as voice spectrography, where the physical/mental binary simply loses its valence as an explanatory device.

As I had argued in my essay on Selvi, the distinction between the physical and mental in that case was drawn in an attempt to strike a balance between two models of the criminal process: the crime-control model, which seeks to remove obstacles from investigating agencies in their attempt to discover the “truth”, and the due process model, which places great stress on the fundamental rights of the accused. By limiting the right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3) to invasions of mental privacy, the Court attempted to balance the two models. A case like Devani suggests that more work needs to be done to achieve a clear and coherent balance.

Statutory Analysis

Although not strictly within the scope of this blog, a word ought to be said about the second part of the judgment. The Court undertakes a thorough analysis of laws such as the Identification of Prisoners Act, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Evidence Act, all of which allow for various situations – and methods – by which investigating agencies and judges can act upon the body of the accused (compelling her to yield blood samples, DNA, sputum, hair swabs, fingerprints etc.) The Court finds that nowhere is there an express authorisation to take a voice sample, and nor can such an authorisation be read into the statutes. Consequently – and despite its misgivings on this issue as a matter of policy – the Court holds that, under the existing legal regime, compelled voice spectrography is not permissible. The Court’s analysis – from paragraphs 47 to 100 – repays close study, not simply because it is an excellent piece of statutory interpretation, but also because the Court subordinates its own sense of what might be desirable as a matter of legal policy to an autonomous reading of the existing law as it stands, and refuses to step an inch beyond the law. This is a phenomenon that has been falling distressingly out of fashion in recent years.

 

 

 

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The Bihar High Court’s Prohibition Judgment: Key Constitutional Issues – IV: (More on) Punishment

(In this guest post, Manish carries forward the conversation on the punishment clauses that was initiated by Abhinav yesterday.)

In a strongly worded and well-reasoned judgment, the Patna High Court on Friday struck down the Bihar government’s attempt to impose total prohibition in the state through amendments to the Bihar Excise Act, 1915 (“the Act”). Other aspects of the judgment have been dealt with elsewhere on this blog, and in this post I will discuss the Court’s reasoning with regard to the penal provisions of the Act, particularly in relation to due process. I argue that in deciding this issue, the Court used its strongest words, but not its strongest reasoning.

Prologue

As part of the amendments, punishments under the Act were drastically enhanced, ranging from a minimum of 10 years in jail and extending up to life imprisonment, and fines ranging from 1-10 lakh rupees. In the writ petitions before the Court, the enhanced punishment was challenged on three main grounds: first, that the imposition of high minimum punishments under sections 47, 53 and 54 was disproportionate to the offence and took away judicial discretion even where mitigating circumstances might warrant a lesser sentence; secondly, that the confiscatory power provided to the State to seal premises and destroy or forfeit property under sections 68A and 68G was excessive; and thirdly, that the mechanism of collective fine introduced in section 68-I was vague and lacked procedural safeguards. The only response of the State on record was that the legislature possessed “plenary power to legislate and provide for punishment” and that the Court could not interfere with legislative wisdom.

At the outset, it is submitted that the existence of “plenary power to legislate” is hardly an adequate response in a case where it is the exercise of the said power that is being challenged, particularly given that under Article 13 of the Constitution, this power is expressly subject to the provisions of Part III. Nevertheless, the Court proceeded to consider the amendments in some detail, and found all the challenged provisions to be in violation of Articles 14 and 21.

Reverse Onus and procedural due process

Importantly, the court prefaces its analysis with an examination of section 48 of the Act (itself not under challenge), which reverses the burden of proof for all offences under the Act. It explains how the lack of due process in cases where stringent punishment is envisaged can make the burden on the accused more onerous:

“…punishments by itself cannot be seen but have to be seen along with the procedure, for, the procedure may create certain liability, which, coupled with the punishment, would made things worse.” (Para 89.03)

The Court observed that while a reverse onus clause, such as section 48, would not by itself be unconstitutional, the presumption it created against the accused would render the substantive penal provisions subject to a higher standard of scrutiny. In doing so, it made a critical link between substantive and procedural due process i.e. using the absence of procedural safeguards to decide the validity of substantive provisions of the law: a variation on the integrated Article 14-19-21 approach that courts have followed since Maneka Gandhi.

Collective fines and subjective satisfaction

The Court then considered the provision relating to collective fines, under section 68-I, which reads as follows:

If the Collector is of the opinion that a particular village or town or any locality within a village or town or any particular group/community living in that village or town have been repeatedly violating any of the provisions of this Act or are habitually prone to commit an offence under this Act or are obstructing the administration of this Act, then the Collector may impose a suitable collective fine on such group of people living in such area of the town or village and may recover such fine as if they were Public Demands under the Bihar & Orissa Public Demands Recovery Act, 1914.

The Court observed that the entire process under section 68-I was dependent on the subjective satisfaction of the Collector. There were no guidelines for the identification of a locality or group within a village or town, no provision for any of the affected persons to be heard prior to imposition of the fine, and no means of appeal against the decision. In these circumstances, it struck down the provision as being in violation of Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution, terming it “draconian, completely vague, uncertain and unlimited”.

It should be noted that the provision of collective fines under the Bihar Excise Act is not a unique phenomenon. Most notably, section 16 of the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, read with section 10A of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, empowers the State Government to impose collective fines in cases of atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, these provisions contain substantially more procedural safeguards: the satisfaction of the State Government is to be determined on the basis of an inquiry; the apportionment of fine among the inhabitants of the area is based on the means of individuals to pay; and an appellate process is provided for by means of filing a petition before the State Government, which is to be disposed of only after providing the appellant with a hearing. It is submitted that the Bihar government would do well to emulate these safeguards, should it deem it necessary to continue with the mechanism of collective fines.

Life, liberty and property

The Court finally dealt with the reasonableness of the provisions relating to imprisonment, fine, confiscation and destruction of property. The ground for review was drawn from the requirement under Maneka Gandhi that procedure established by law for deprivation of a person’s life or liberty under Article 21 was required to be just, fair and reasonable. Using this due process requirement, the Court constructs the beginning of a case against excessively stringent or draconian penal provisions without procedural safeguards.

Unfortunately, it does not do so convincingly: while the reasoning is logical, the use of precedent is the shakiest in this part of the judgment. Two of the four cases it cites (Mithu and Dalbir Singh) were situations where the Supreme Court struck down a mandatory death sentence as being in violation of Articles 14 and 21, partly because judicial discretion in determining punishment and taking into account mitigating circumstances was taken away. In fact, one of the other cases cited (Vikram Singh) categorically upheld the validity of section 364A of the Indian Penal Code, holding that where even one alternative was provided, the punishment could not be challenged as being unreasonable or taking away judicial discretion. Relying only on these grounds, the punishments imposed under the impugned sections could be argued to allow for sufficient judicial discretion, and the decision to that extent stands on shaky ground. It is submitted that the court’s initial observations with respect to the reverse onus clause, and the lack of procedural safeguards, form a stronger ground for making a case for violation of due process requirements under Article 21.

Proportionality and substantive due process

This brings us to the final link in the argument – that of proportionality – which the Court does make to some extent. This thread of reasoning is as follows: in light of a reverse onus clause, a higher burden is already placed on the accused by the procedural provisions of the Act. Therefore, the substantive provisions must not be so onerous so as to take away all elements of due process from the accused. For a comparative standard of fairness, the Court looks at the NDPS Act, which also deals with punishments for possession and consumption of prohibited substances. In that Act, the Court observes, the punishment is graded, varying with the quantity of the prohibited substance in question. (Incidentally, the NDPS Act also contains reverse onus clauses, and the Supreme Court while upholding the validity of these clauses had invoked a standard of ‘heightened scrutiny’ while dealing with prosecutions thereunder.)

The Court also makes reference to the 47th Report of the Law Commission of India (1972), dealing with the trial and punishment of socio-economic offences. The suggestions of the report in relation to sentencing, particularly the disapproval of “mathematically identical sentences”, remain relevant even today and the Court takes note of them in relation to the offences under the impugned sections 47, 53 and 54, all of which provide for almost identical sentences of long imprisonment and heavy fines for manufacture, transport, possession and consumption of alcohol. The Court observes that in all three sections, the punishment imposed is disproportionate to the offence, and there is no scope for the Court to award a lesser punishment even when there are mitigating circumstances present.

Finally, in regard to sections 68A and 68G, which makes premises and properties used for committing offences liable to confiscation and sealing, the Court holds that the effect of these provisions is to virtually convert the state into a police state. It observes that the reverse onus clause read with these sections would lead to situations of an innocent owner of the premises being punished for acts committed by tenants, even when she had no knowledge of the same. It holds that the provisions are “clearly draconian and in excess of the balance need to be maintained [for achieving the social objectives of the legislation].” In conclusion, it strikes down all the impugned sections as being unreasonable, draconian and ultra vires Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

The Court’s emphasis on individual due process is rather heartening, especially given the tendency of courts to side with the State in cases where reverse onus clauses and stringent punishments are provided for by law. Elsewhere, Mrinal Satish and Aparna Chandra have argued that in cases of anti-terror legislation, the Supreme Court has adopted a minimalist approach while adjudicating their constitutional validity:

The Court articulates its role in terms of balancing competing interests of national security and civil liberties; it provides broad deference to the legislature, not only to its policy, and its understanding of what is required and permissible to implement the policy, but also by engaging in a fair amount of legal gymnastics to uphold constitutionality of provisions. It evaluates legislative provisions not for their impact on Fundamental Rights of citizens, but to examine whether the provisions further the purpose of the Act on the one hand, and whether there are enough procedural safeguards to prevent misuse on the other. Where in spite of this curtailed review, a provision does not pass muster, the Court takes over the role of the legislative drafter and provides a procedural framework to prevent misuse, or recommends measures for the Parliament’s consideration. Very rarely, if at all, does it invalidate a provision.

In this context, the High Court’s decision to strike down the provisions in their entirety for being in violation of substantive due process norms under Article 21 is a promising step forward. One only wishes that its jurisprudential reasoning had been stronger.

Epilogue

The last word is yet to be said on prohibition in Bihar. In August 2016, the legislature passed a revised Prohibition and Excise Act, and reports have suggested that the State Government is considering notifying the new Act. An analysis of its provisions suggests that several of its penalties are similar to the ones that have been struck down, and it remains to be seen whether the Government makes appropriate changes to ensure adequate procedural safeguards.

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The Bihar High Court’s Prohibition Judgment: Key Constitutional Issues – III: Proportionality in Punishment

(This is a guest post by Abhinav Sekhri, cross-posted with permission from his Proof of Guilt blog.)

==

Overview

The separate opinion of Justice Singh covers seven issues and he saves the best for last with his analysis of punishment clauses coming right at the end at Paragraph 89. Effectively, the law criminalised anything one did with alcohol (i.e. acts/omissions associated with its production, possession and consumption) contrary to the Act and rules. Punishments for these offences are neatly summarised into three categories in the judgment: (i) incarceration and fine (Sections 47, 53), (ii) confiscation of property (Sections 68-A, 68-G), and (iii) collective fines (Section 68-I) [There are other provisions on punishments in the Act as well that developed on these basic offences]. These were supplemented by the now-standard provision on reversing the burden of proof and presuming the accused is guilty (Section 48). The High Court unanimously held that these penal clauses were unconstitutional.

The Opinion

Out of these three categories, take categories (i) and (ii) separately from category (iii) which is collective fines. The collective fine provision is set aside for obvious violations of Article 21 of the Constitution as it imposed punishments contrary to a procedure established by law as no right of hearing or right of appeal was provided by the clause. Similar provisions for collective fines are present elsewhere that have these procedural safeguards [See, Section 16 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989].

Which brings me to the more interesting part of the decision concerning categories (i) and (ii). The primary plank on which these penal clauses are set aside is an argument on proportionality, i.e. the sentence imposed for an offence must be proportionate to the harm purportedly caused by the offence. This is a rather crude summation of what is a highly technical concept in sentencing theory [See, Andrew Ashworth Sentencing and Criminal Justice (5th edn., 2010); Andrew Von Hirsch Censure and Sanctions(1993)]. The High Court located the concept of proportionality in criminal statutes in Article 21 of the Constitution by relying upon the Supreme Court decisions in Mithu Singh v. State of Punjab [(1983) 2 SCC 277] and Vikram Singh v. Union of India[(2015) 9 SCC (502)]. The three judges in Vikram Singh framed the proportionality test as follows: “Courts, however, have the jurisdiction to interfere when the punishment prescribed is so outrageously disproportionate to the offence or so inhuman or brutal that the same cannot be accepted by any standard of decency.

In this case, the harm as per the State of Bihar was the various evils associated with excessive alcohol consumption that are afflicting its people. The response was to introduce penal provisions that had these notable features:

  • A presumption of guilt which the accused must rebut without specifying whether the State had any burden to prove objective facts displaying commission of the offence;
  • Broad constructive liability attracting persons whose property was allegedly involved in the commission of offences. These persons would be subjected to the similar presumption of guilt which they must rebut;
  • Mandatory minimum punishments – warranting that a sentence of at least ten years’ imprisonment be awarded for possessing alcohol and at least five years for consuming it in a public place;
  • Sealing of properties allegedly involved in commission of offences and their confiscation upon conviction;

The Court posed to itself a question – was this response proportionate to the harm – and answered it in the negative as it found the penal clauses were notoriously overbroad and unspecific. There was no gradation of punishment to differentiate minor and major violations. Nor did the punishment clauses show any sensitivity to how different acts posed different harms. The NDPS Act was cited as an example of how such clauses can be provided within constitutional limits (to think that the NDPS Act would appear as a measure for principled criminal legislation!). Notably, Justice Singh did not restrict his opinion to the badly drafted punishment provisions for his proportionality analysis. It also looked at the various procedural conveniences incorporated by the 2016 Amendments, i.e. the reversed burdens of proof and coercive procedures of confiscation and sealing of property. Although persons could plead ignorance as a defence, broad constructive liability meant far too many people would be unfairly accused and subjected to these coercive procedures while having to prove their innocence. These dangers were not set aside by the stringent punishments imposed on vexatious actions by overzealous state agents.

Some Comments

The absence of any sentencing policy or guidelines has been a common lament for several criminal law scholars in India over the years. This decision puts the problems starkly into perspective. Imposing a minimum ten-year imprisonment for possessing alcohol and confiscating premises where nobody knew alcohol was present there seems to satisfy the outrageously disproportionate standard of the decision in Vikram Singh. However, the Supreme Court in both Mithu Singh as well Vikram Singh was at pains to stress the different position that the death penalty occupied from a sentence of imprisonment. In Mithu Singh, one may recall, Section 303 IPC was set aside because it only allowed for the death sentence without any alternative. The Supreme Court in Vikram Singh put it bluntly: “there are very few and rare cases of sentences of imprisonment being held disproportionate.” The Patna High Court decision is therefore remarkable, for it places the penal clauses in the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2016 in this category of very few and rare cases. To my knowledge, this is the first decision to use the proportionality doctrine to set aside penal clauses despite no death sentence being involved.

There are deeper problems though. The decision in Vikram Singh provided a neat ‘sum up’ of principles on proportionality at Paragraph 52. It was a summing up of principles drawn from Canadian and American jurisprudence – both have specific constitutional prohibitions on certain kinds of punishment. India does not. In fact, the Supreme Court on an earlier occasion in Jagmohan Singh v. State of U.P. [AIR 1973 SC 947] specifically noted that American jurisprudence on prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment [flowing from the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution] could not be imported in India because the Indian Constitution did not have similar clauses. Of course, Maneka Gandhi came after Jagmohan Singh and expanded the boundaries of Article 21 allowing us to possibly incorporate the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The problems of having such an indeterminate constitutional jurisprudence have been seen with the tussles over the right to privacy and its scope. Therefore, it should be clear that proportionality analysis of punishment clauses does not have a sure footing in Indian constitutional law and the expansion by the Patna High Court may well be considered beyond its current scope.

Conclusion

 

For now, though, one can only be happy with how proportionality is invoked to set aside statutes inflicting persons with disproportionate terms of imprisonment. This experience is similar to what happened in Maharashtra with the beef ban, where again a proportionality argument was raised to set aside the reverse burden clauses. It shows us that High Courts are stressing on a more principled brand of criminalisation, something that has not been the hallmark of how criminal law developed in India over time. A refusal to budge especially when prohibition was such an integral scheme of the ruling government reflects a commitment to principles that must be lauded. The decision is kind, for it tells the legislature what can be done to fix the law. If the State of Bihar chooses to challenge the decision rather than amend the statute, the Supreme Court will be able to consider these important questions. One hopes it upholds how the Patna High Court applied proportionality to restrain the legislature from abusing its near-plenary powers in sending people away for a decade for having a pint.

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Guest Post: The Right Against Self-Incrimination and its Discontents – II

(In this second and concluding post, Abhinav Sekhri, a Delhi-based criminal lawyer, discusses the application of Article 20(3) to persons “accused of an offence”)

Recap

Previously, we talked about how the words ‘person accused of an offence’ present in Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India have been interpreted by the Supreme Court. We saw that the Court had understood this phrase as describing a person subject of a formal accusation, akin to a FIR. This naturally created a lacuna for the time it takes for an informal accusation against one to become a formal accusation. While ordinary investigations for IPC offences may confer little investigative mettle to the Police before a formal accusation, the same is not the case in statutes creating socio-economic offences, such as smuggling. Statutes such as the Customs Act 1962, and the NDPS Act 1988 vest officers with extensive investigative powers before a formal accusation is levelled.

The Supreme Court during the 1960s consistently held that no self-incrimination could arise if persons were compelled to give evidence against themselves at these stages. I have expressed deep reservations about this approach, and in this part of my argument, I flesh out a possible alternative approach to answering the problem. While nothing would be better than an amendment to either the Constitution or the Cr.P.C. for providing clarity, we know how remote the possibility of such a non-political amendment getting tabled in Parliament is today, and must make do with innovating from the existing morass of laws. I thus propose that the phrase ‘person accused of an offence’ must be understood to include detention in custody by any authority during an investigation. I will elaborate on the benefits of this later, and require the reader to be content with just understanding my proposal for now. Simply put, if an authority seeks your detention for more than the 24-hour minimum period (before it needs to produce you for the first time before a magistrate), you necessarily must be able to exercise your right against self-incrimination.

Deepak Mahajan and a Lost Opportunity

The judicial history of interpreting Article 20(3) reflects a certain reluctance to re-evaluate basic premises and stick to formulas. The near-vehement consistency in the Supreme Court’s decisions M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra [AIR 1954 SC 300] onwards on the point is remarkable. There is not one stray decision in all those years. The scope for innovation when arguing this issue before a Division Bench in the 1990s was thus quite slim. Still, Directorate of Enforcement v. Deepak Mahajan [AIR 1994 SC 1775], is a landmark decision in its own right.

The offence in question was under the erstwhile Foreign Exchange Regulation Act 1973 [FERA], which followed in the footsteps of all socio-economic offences in vesting great investigative powers before filing of a formal accusation., including that of detention in custody [Section 35 FERA]. The Respondent here had been arrested and detained under Section 35 FERA – the issue was whether a Magistrate could remand him to judicial custody. Section 167 Cr.P.C. provided for remand by magistrates, but applied during investigation. But the Supreme Court itself had created a fiction that what officers did under the FERA and other such offences is not an “investigation”. To now apply Section 167 Cr.P.C. would mean that it was investigation, and that the person detained was a ‘person accused of any offence’ since investigation presumed formal accusation. Interestingly, the Delhi High Court held that Section 167 Cr.P.C. did not apply for these reasons.

Reading the decision, it is clear that the Supreme Court knew exactly how tricky the issue was. It reversed the conclusions of the High Court and held that Section 167 Cr.P.C. would apply to allow those arrested under Section 35 of FERA and other socio-economic offences to be remanded to judicial custody. While doing so, the Court did not extend the protection of Article 20(3) to such persons who are remanded to custody. With due respect, the basis for this decision is utter rubbish, and the Court horribly let itself down. The refusal to extend Article 20(3) was despite the admission that the “words ‘accused’ or ‘accused person’ is used only in a generic sense in Section 167(1) and (2) denoting the ‘person’ whose liberty is actually restrained on his arrest by a competent authority on a well-founded information or formal accusation or indictment.”

This was the first time in nearly 50 years that the Supreme Court had to consider the text of Section 167 Cr.P.C. together with the right under Article 20(3). The decision shows how the Court goes to absurd lengths to try and avoid this connection, where at one point it distinguishes the binding Constitution Bench decisions on Article 20(3) by saying that none of them applied to the ever-so slight issue of actual detention but only with admissibility of evidence. This is the reason why I term the decision a lost opportunity, for I argue that a far more consistent and coherent approach to Article 20(3) lies in considering it together with Section 167 Cr.P.C. and the idea of remand.

Re-Drawing Lines in Article 20(3)

The illogical approach of the Supreme Court was pushed to theoretically unbelievable limits in Deepak Mahajan where it held that persons arrested under laws such as the erstwhile FERA could even be remanded to judicial custody under Section 167 Cr.P.C. yet remain beyond the pale of Article 20(3). If nothing else, this by itself should make the reader a bit concerned about how the basic premise of Article 20(3) is being understood today. I propose a simpler alternative not located in the judicial precedent – connect the idea of remand to custody with terming someone as ‘accused of any offence’.

Why do we have a right against self-incrimination in the way we do under Article 20(3)? There is no one-size-fits-all rationale here, but several that apply. An interpretation of the right that tries to be in sync with these different claims is bound to bring a more wholesome solution to the problem. By providing this right, the legal system attempts to expel potentially unreliable evidence obtained through coercion. But protection from being compelled to incriminate oneself is also a basis to ensure protection from coercion itself, and all the necessary evils a system using coercion brings. At the same time, having an unbridled right to stay silent can naturally dent any investigation and we often see potentially sensitive legislation contain relaxations from certain legislative expressions of self-incrimination [the erstwhile Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 allowed judges to draw an adverse inference against persons refusing to tender voice samples]. Not providing the right to every person but only those accused of any offence is the Constitutional balancing act.

The fact that Section 167 Cr.P.C. is the first place in the criminal process that the word ‘accused’ finds a mention to describe the affected person is not pithy phrasing. The reason being that a request by an officer seeking further remand to custody of any person shows that at that time that there is something in the allegations against that person. Otherwise what is the need to seek further custody in the first place? It is irrelevant whether the person so detained is not ultimately proceeded against. To hold that self-incrimination should only protect such eventual accused is solely looking to the evidentiary purposes of the right and completely ignores the idea of personal protection it entails. 24 hours also protect the needs of investigation, and is a Constitutionally prescribed limit [Article 22].

Furthermore, such a statutory approach allows for a more wholesome take on the investigative and evidentiary process at large. Having begun by looking at the Cr.P.C., we must now turn to the Evidence Act 1872; Sections 25 and 27 more specifically. These provisions address two concerns that arise from my proposal from the standpoint of both prosecution and defence. If you are forced by the police to confess before expiry of 24 hours, does that render you defenceless? Section 25 negates such a conclusion, for it says that “no confession made to a police officer shall be proved as against a person accused of any offence”. This ‘person accused’ is at the trial, remember, and would cover our initial un-protected suspect. On the other hand, what investigation can the police conduct with Article 20(3)? Section 27 of the Evidence Act becomes relevant here, and allows the limited use of information if any fact is discovered consequent to such information being provided by the accused.

Conclusion

The current approach to the words ‘person accused of any offence’ in Article 20(3) established from the decision in M.P. Sharma was useful but short-sighted. It was useful because it provided a simple solution to a difficult problem. It was short-sighted for it failed to consider the problem from all angles. This became evident with the growth of a peculiar form of socio-economic offences. The interaction of the right against self-incrimination with the procedure created under these offences that have come to represent a vast section of the criminal law in India, is illogical at best and horrendous at worst leaving the right utterly redundant. I am the first to admit that my alternative setup to Article 20(3) suffers from critical flaws of design. I do consider, however, the need for other ideas imperative, and the essence of my own argument as being sound.

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Guest Post: The Right against Self-Incrimination and its Discontents

(In a two-part series, Abhinav Sekhri, a criminal lawyer, explores some of the problematic issues with the operation of the constitutional right against self-incrimination)

Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India is extremely fascinating. Tersely worded, it can be quoted in full: No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself. Three components can be identified: (i) the protection applies to a person accused of any offence, (ii) it prohibits said person being compelled to be a witness, and (iii) this prohibition applies only to the person concerned. The issues also become clear, therefore. How do we understand ‘accused of any offence’? What amounts to one being compelled? And, of course, when is someone a ‘witness against himself’? In this series of posts, I wish to address only the first of these three issues. In this post, I look at three decisions of the Supreme Court on the point to show how the approach adopted by the Court towards interpreting ‘accused of any offence’ suffers from serious flaws, and leads to seriously problematic consequences. In the next post, I’ll continue on this thread and suggest a different approach to answering the interpretive conundrum posed here.

Phase I

Phase I concerns the first proper decision on Article 20(3), M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra [AIR 1954 SC 300]. The facts were simple. Investigations ordered by the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies revealed certain companies were engaging in fraudulent transactions. The Delhi Special Police Establishment (now CBI) required to seize the books of the concerns, and separate First Information Reports (FIR) were registered against different companies. Search warrants under Section 96 of the Cr.P.C. 1898 were issued and documents seized. The proprietors filed petitions under Article 226 challenging the searches as violating their fundamental rights under Articles 20(3) and 19(1)(f) of the Constitution. Only the Article 20(3) question was considered important. Eight judges delivered a unanimous decision, rejecting the claim. The Court noted the historical development of self-incrimination in India and mentioned how the idea always contained problems of balancing the needs of investigation with the protection. With this in mind, the Court explained all three of the facets identified above. I’ll restrict myself to the aspect of Article 20(3) being limited to a person accused of any offence. The Court held that the right extends to beyond the courtroom (yes, I’m cheating. This came in context of the ‘being a witness’ part), and then had to draw a line on how far did the right extend. In rather vague fashion, the Court said limited it to “a person against whom a formal accusation relating to the commission of an offence has been levelled which in the normal course may result in prosecution”. Importantly, the Court observed “whether it is available to other persons in other situations does not call for a decision in this case”.

The importance of this decision cannot be reduced despite the years that have passed. In choosing to expand the scope of Article 20(3) beyond the courtroom despite it having a qualifier (accused of any offence), the Court took an important decision. However, I argue that nevertheless the Court got this one slightly wrong. The problem is lies in the vantage point the Court adopts while viewing Article 20(3). The Court decides against a narrow approach, yes, but it still bases its decision by looking at the protection from that standpoint of the eventual proceedings in court. Compelled evidence is inherently unreliable for trial (for people lie when tortured), and such tainted evidence can arise from compulsion exercised beyond the courtroom. This reasoning is commonly touted as the basis for the protection only for such claims to be convincingly rebuffed time and again [For instance, Friendly, The Fifth Amendment Tomorrow: The Case for Constitutional Change, 37(4) U. Cin. L.Rev. 671 (1968); Amar & Lettow, Fifth Amendment First Principles: The Self-Incrimination Clause, 93 Mich. L. Rev. 857 (1995)]. The reason why focusing too much on eventual proceedings is a problem is not hard to fathom. Imagine a situation where you are not named in the FIR as an accused but are picked up by the police, forced into writing a confession, but the matter ultimately never goes to trial and are thus released from custody. The detention is not unlawful – the police can arrest suspects – so no Article 21 violation occurs. You were forced to incriminate yourself. But, according to M.P. Sharma, it is difficult to claim this as a violation of the right under Article 20(3). Difficult and not impossible, only because of the caveat, which was to get forgotten soon after.

 Phase II

The formal accusation referred to by the Supreme Court in M.P. Sharma must also be one that normally may result in prosecution (Thomas Dana v. State of Punjab, AIR 1959 SC 375). Prosecution refers to initiation of legal proceedings, i.e. a trial in this case. A formal accusation appears to have been used with the intention to create different classes of accusations. Formal here would mean ‘official’ (the other definition of the word being based on etiquette must be excluded), and the Court perhaps wanted to separate official accusations from those by private individuals. The police registering an FIR, is different from me filing a complaint against you at the local police station. So we find a gap emerge in the process; in the time when an accusation becomes a formal accusation. Here, remember, the Court issued a caveat – its judgment did not preclude an extension of the right under Article 20(3), but only provided some sort of minimum. This gap might yet be covered under Article 20(3), as the Court didn’t discuss such cases. The Court would have been wise to clothe the caveat with more flesh, as hindsight would suggest.

Phase II will look at two cases. The first is the unanimous decision of 5 judges in Raja Narayanlal Bansilal v. Maneck Phiroz Mistry [AIR 1961 SC 29]. The case was similar on facts to M.P. Sharma; the only difference being that here there was no FIR against the companies or proprietors. An Inspector appointed under the Companies Act, 1956, called upon the appellants to furnish certain information. The Appellant challenged this investigation as being inter alia, contrary to Article 20(3). While observing the earlier judgment of M.P. Sharma, the 5 judges concluded that “the effect of this decision thus appears to be that one of the essential conditions for invoking the constitutional guarantee enshrined in Art. 20(3) is that a formal accusation relating to the commission of an offence, which would normally lead to his prosecution.” Did the inquiry here amount to such an accusation? No, it was more like a fact-finding commission and “the fact that a prosecution may ultimately be launched against the alleged offender will not retrospectively change the complexion or character of the proceedings”. The unanimous answer thus being, no violation of Article 20(3). The Court seems to have been referring to the caveat to the end of its decision. It observed “even if the clause ‘accused of any offence’ is interpreted in a very broad and liberal way it is clear that at the relevant stage the appellant has not been, and cannot be, accused of any offence.” Only to then say that such a broad interpretation does not appear to be “consistent with the tenor and effect of the previous decisions of this Court”.

This leads us to the second case, another 5 judge unanimous decision in Romesh Chandra Mehta v. State of West Bengal [AIR 1970 SC 940]. This case arose out of the old Sea Customs Act, 1878 (replaced by the Customs Act, 1962). The Appellant had been searched at Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta, and this search lead to recoveries of jewels and currency worth several lakhs of rupees. He was questioned under Section 171-A of that Act (after possibly being arrested, which is not entirely clear from the judgment), where disclosures lead to further recoveries. These discoveries made pursuant to this inquiry were assailed as being the result of the Appellant being compelled to incriminate himself. The Court’s reasoning while denying that Article 20(3) extended to the case is important: “a person arrested by a customs officer because he is found in possession of smuggled goods or on suspicion that he is concerned in smuggling is not, when called upon by the Customs Officer to make a statement or to produce a document or thing, a person accused of an offence within the meaning of Article 20(3) of the Constitution. The Customs Officer does not at that stage accuse the person suspected of infringing the provisions of the Sea Customs Act … he is not accusing the person of any offence punishable at a trial before a Magistrate”. With this it would appear that the Court has taken a clear and consistent view on how to consider that gap we identified in the process. Anything prior to the formal accusation means no protection.

The Problem

Have a look at the procedure under the Customs Act 1962 and other socio-economic offences such as the Foreign Exchange Management Act 1999, and the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985. The formal accusation in these cases is a Complaint filed by the authorised officer, which is the result of an investigation. Here, there is no pre-investigative accusation drawn up by the authority like an FIR required under the Cr.P.C. The reason for this is a ridiculous deeming fiction which requires that we don’t call these officers police officers and by extension call these investigations enquiries, despite the officers having the same powers of investigation as conferred under Chapter XII of the Cr.P.C. [on this, see Sekhri, Confessions, Police Officers and Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, 7 NUJS L. Rev. 1 (2014)].

These socio-economic offences thus have extensive pre-trial powers during the ill-phrased enquiry stage. The Customs Act 1962 (successor to the Sea Customs Act, 1871), allows customs officers powers of ‘searches, seizure and arrest’. A customs officer can summon any person [Section 108] and examine her during the course of an enquiry into the smuggling of goods [Section 107]. Persons summoned are “bound to state the truth upon any subject respecting which they are examined or make statements”, and these enquiry proceedings are deemed to be judicial proceedings for Section 193 and 228 of the Indian Penal Code. So if you lie, perjury charges can follow. On top of this, the customs officer can arrest [Section 104] upon having reasons to believe that the person committed an offence punishable under Section 132, or 133, or 135, or 135-A or 136 of that Act. Detention can and will follow, and could possibly extend to 60 days as specified under Section 167, Cr.P.C. What the Supreme Court has done, is to exclude the right of self-incrimination from this entire process because of its focus on the actual realisation of proceedings as first seen in M.P. Sharma.

 The steady growth of powers during this enquiry stage under socio-economic offences supports the theory that the Legislature is not blind to the line-drawing adopted by the Supreme Court. So what do we draw from this? Today you can be questioned under the threat of prosecution to supply potentially incriminating information. You can be arrested and detained during this process, but still the right under Article 20(3) remains beyond reach. Why? Because the accuser might not have found all that was needed from you to incriminate yourself.

 

 

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Guest Post: Secret Laws and Retrospective Punishment – on the Unconstitutionality of the Official Secrets Act

(Previously on this blog, we have looked at the intersection between the Constitution, and criminal procedure. In this guest post, Abhinav Sekhri examines how the Official Secrets Act is constitutionally suspect by enabling the possibility of retrospective creation of offences. The post first appeared here, on the Proof of Guilt blog, and has been cross-posted with permission.)

Very little intelligent discussion happens concerning the Official Secrets Act [OSA] in India. You could say this lack of discussion is by design, and means the law is doing its job. Perhaps it is. What it also does is perpetuate a culture of secrecy surrounding decision-making by officials. With an increasing intensity surrounding the freedom of information movement, there was a spurt in questions being raised in the Rajya Sabha (see hereherehere and here. I am certain it was discussed in the Lok Sabha as well) about the Official Secrets Act. The tenor of government’s responses seemed consistently non-committal but implying that change is mooted. But this seems to have changed as momentum stilled (see here, and here). In the meanwhile, we had the Right to Information Act bringing its overriding clauses, and the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission recommending a repeal of the statute altogether. Obviously, that didn’t happen. This post takes up the argument that the criminalisation under the OSA is unconstitutional.
 
Context
The OSA is acknowledged to be a British legacy, dating back to 1923 (earlier variants existed as well). The statute’s context belie the imposing title. The phrase “official secrets” does not find any definition or mention; the law primarily attends to cases of espionage by using broad definitions of the potentially sensitive information involved. Offences are not designed simply, stating that one who steals “official secrets” shall be punished. Offences (such as Section 3), require individuals to act “prejudicial to the interests” of India, and these acts must be the unauthorised acquisition or dissemination of “secret official code, or password, or any sketch, plan, model or other information” that is useful to the enemy and/or prejudicial to India’s interests. Cases can only begin on a complaint by the authorised officer, and a sanction to prosecute the official must be granted before cognizance can be taken.
The Issue of Knowledge
Two questions become important here, (i) how do persons know that a a code or sketch, plan model etc is potentially useful to the enemy or affects the security and interests of India and  (ii) does it matter whether they know or not? Dealing with the second issue first, all hints point to a position of law that disregards the need for an accused to have knowledge. I argue this on the basis of the two primary offences, Sections 3 and 5. Section 3 was mentioned above, and sub-section (2) therein supports my claims. It allows a conviction simply on the basis of the ‘conduct or known character’ of the accused and allows the court to dispense with a need to specifically prove that the person had some prejudicial purpose. Not only does this go against the basic tenets of treating character evidence (which has been blogged about earlier), but in a unique manner disregards both actus reus and mens rea requirements. Nifty.
Section 3 is prefaced by a mental element (the acts must be “with a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State“), regardless of how it is rendered nugatory. Section 5 contains no such preface and so makes the knowledge issue more potent. It has three sub-sections, out of which only Section 5(2) uses the words “knowing or have reasonable ground to believe“. Does that mean the other offences do not require any knowledge element? A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court approves of this logic (seeRanjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1964 SC 881). It is nobody’s case that the accused is unconsciously in possession of the documents – possession is conscious. But does the accused need to know that the documents were, to wit, “likely to assist, directly or indirectly, an enemy“?
The statute clearly suggests that knowledge is not essential, nor is lack of knowledge a defence. Interestingly, the U.K. repealed its old statute (contemporary to ours) to insert lack of knowledge as a defence (UK Official Secrets Act, 1989). Thus it is a defence if the person did not know, or did not have reasonable cause to believe, that the material concerned was such that its disclosure was prohibited. This is not unconstitutional strictly speaking, but goes against a the basics of criminal theory that one could argue are part of substantive due process.
(Ed. Interestingly, in a judgment handed down yesterday, the Court of Appeals in the UK held that without an intent requirement as part of the definition of terrorism, the UK Terrorism Act was incompatible with human rights)
Classification and Clearer Unconstitutionality
I’m not a fan of the Article 21 is omnipotent school, and so try and make my case on clearer grounds by answering the first question I posed. The question was how do persons know whether documents are state secrets when the document hasn’t got TOP SECRET on its face. The answer exists, and is in the form of a Ministry of Home Affairs Manual on Departmental Security Instructions. After the RTI a request was made for disclosure of this Manual. This was denied by the Ministry, and contested right up to the Central Information Commission. The Commission upheld that decision to deny disclosure, reasoning that making the classification public would prejudice the safety of the state.
Since nobody but the State knows whether something was secret, and holding secrets is an offence, what stops the State from deciding something is secret after it goes public? Take an example. A journalist, X, gets his hands on a non-public pending legislative bill potentially legalising marijuana and makes it public. The Police arrest X, suspecting him of having secret information, and ask the Government whether such non-public legislative bills form information of the kinds barred by the OSA. Here is the problem. (A) Since I cannot know if the information I have is potentially secret, any determination made now is ex-post-facto and illegal. (B) Since nobody knows what information is secret, nothing stops the State from deciding how to treat papers ex-post-facto, rendering any offences which follow unconstitutional under Article 20(1).
(Ed. There are two issues here. One is the question of whether a secret law, by virtue of being secret, violates Article 20(1), since it enables the State to make (secret) changes to it after the commission of any act, by which that act can be criminalised. Now, it is well-established that the possibility of abuse under an Act is no ground for the Court to hold that the Act is unconstitutional. However, those cases are premised upon the assumption that you can go to Court against the abuse itself, and obtain a remedy. In case of a secret law, there’s no way of even knowing when abuse has taken place, in the form of a post facto modification of the secret law. In such a scenario, it would appear that the logic in Romesh Thappar’s Case – i.e., that a law that enables unconstitutional action is itself unconstitutional – is more apposite.
It seems to me, though, that a better argument would be to invoke vagueness. In Kartar Singh, and then in Shreya Singhal, the Court held that vagueness is a ground for striking down legislation, primarily because it does not allow people to plan their affairs in a manner so that the can comply with the law, and in the case of free speech, casts a chilling effect. A secret law is the vanishing point of vagueness – it’s the point at which you literally don’t know what’s legal or illegal. In such a situation, vagueness should be invoked to strike down the law.)
What’s the Point?
India, along with South Africa, remains the only prominent erstwhile colony to have not reworked its secrecy law in the wake of the freedom of information movement. The point, therefore, is that such a blanket secrecy law curbs journalistic expression and is fundamentally anti-democratic. The arbitrary noose of the OSA may be brought upon any unwitting reporter, making her think thrice about writing that story on Naxal rebels in the heartlands. This is an old, overused point, but it seems silly that we’ve retained a British law that Britain comprehensively repealed. They even make the classification public. If nothing else, Section 5 must go.
(Abhinav Sekhri is a Delhi-based advocate)

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