Contrapuntal Reading: Outlines of a Theory

In his classic book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said proposed a new way of reading literary texts: “contrapuntally“. Said argued that some of the most important works of the Western literary canon rested upon a submerged and unacknowledged foundation of colonialism. For example, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the protagonist’s benefactor owns a plantation in Antigua (and profits from the imperial slave trade), a fact that is mentioned in passing, but for most of the novel, is “off-stage”, as it were. The first part of Said’s contrapuntal reading (the term “contrapuntal” is derived from music, and refers to melodic lines that are in “counterpoint” with each other, but maintain their independence) required readers to “connect the structures of a narrative to the ideas, concepts, experiences from which it draws support.” In Mansfield Park, for instance, it would require an acknowledgment of the fact that Fanny Price’s wealth, and the possibilities of action open to her, depended upon the political, social, and economic relationship between the British Empire and its colonies.

The second – and critically important – part of the contrapuntal reading involved “not only the construction of the colonial situation as envisaged by the writers, but the resistance to it as well.” (Culture and Imperialism, p. 79) Said wrote:

“We must therefore read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.” (Culture and Imperalism, pp. 78 – 9)

A contrapuntal reading of Camus’ famous L’Etranger, for example, would identify and resurrect the whole previous history of France’s colonialism and its destruction of the Algerian state, and the later emergence of an independent Algeria (and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation is a recent, controversial attempt to do just that). A contrapuntal reading of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim would entail examining the fact that:

“Kipling’s India… has a quality of permanence and inevitability that belongs not just to that wonderful novel but to British India, its history, administrators, and apologists and, no less important, to the India fought for by Indian nationalists as their country to be won back. By giving an account of this series of pressures and counter-pressures in Kipling’s India, we understand the process of imperialism itself as the great work engages them, and of later anti-imperialist resistance. In reading a text, one must open it out both to what went into it and to what its author excluded.” (Culture and Imperialism, p. 79)

Said’s contrapuntal reading bore a strong affinity the work of the anthropologist James Scott. In a book called Domination and the Arts of Resistance, published three years before Culture and Imperialism, Scott argued that the historical relationship between dominant and marginalised groups is marked by a “public transcript” of official discourse, visible to history and to the public consciousness. However, parallel to the public transcript, there also exists a “hidden transcript”, which operates as a mode of resistance, and a form of subversion, through “speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript.”

Scott and Said’s important insight, therefore, was that any literary artefact – which takes the form of a narrative – is fundamentally constituted by both inclusion and exclusion. The former makes the visible artefact, and the latter is hidden, “off-stage”, or submerged, but equally important to the existence of the artefact. The task of contrapuntal reading is to both identify and resurrect what is invisible and excluded.

Law, Text, Narrative, and History

In his famous 1982 article, Nomos and Narrative, Robert Cover pointed out that “no set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning… a legal tradition is hence part and parcel of a complex normative world.” Narratives, however, are never singular. While one set of institutions – i.e., the Courts – have been granted the power to select one narrative as authoritative, this does not prevent individuals and communities from locating legal and constitutional texts in alternative narratives. Through the course of his article, Cover explored the proliferation of legal meanings and narratives through a range of of examples, taken from American history. For instance, in the mid-19th century, the “radical constitutionalists” challenged the American Supreme Court’s interpretation of the relationship between slavery and the Constitution. Instead, they:

“… worked out a constitutional attack upon slavery from the general structure of the Constitution; they evolved a literalist attack from the language of the due process clause and from the jury and grand jury provisions of the fifth and sixth amendments; they studied interpretive methodologies and selfconsciously employed the one most favorable to their ends; they developed arguments for extending the range of constitutional sources to include at least the Declaration of Independence.”

Cover’s argument about the inevitable pluralism of “meanings” that circulate around legal and constitutional texts, as well as the pluralism of the “narratives” within which those texts come to be located, along with his analysis of the legal and moral tensions that arise when the selection of meaning and narrative by the Courts is challenged by dissident individuals and communities (who build their alternative systems of meaning instead), is an important and path-breaking one (a good recent example of this in the Indian constitutional context is the disagreement between the majority and the minority in the Supreme Court’s judgment on appeals to religion during election campaigning). Here, however, I want to take Cover’s argument in a slightly different direction, focusing not upon the plurality of legal meanings and narratives, but upon non-legal ones, which play an equally important role in constituting any judicial decision. The distinction between legal and non-legal is a slippery one, but for now, let us bracket the problems that that entails.

Let us start with Cover’s invocation of the American author and historian, Mark DeWolfe Howe, which he flags, and returns to briefly towards the end of his essay, but does not develop in any great detail:

“Among the stupendous powers of the Supreme Court of the United States, there are two which in logic may be independent and yet in fact are related. The one is the power, through an articulate search for principle, to interpret history. The other is the power, through the disposition of cases, to make it…  I must remind you, however, that a great many Americans tend to think that because a majority of the justices have the power to bind us by their law they are also empowered to bind us by their history. Happily that is not the case. Each of us is entirely free to find his history in other places than the pages of the United States Reports.”

In other words, legal claims before a Court (and this is especially true of constitutional claims) often rely upon non-legal arguments for support, including arguments from history, from economics, from sociology and anthropology, from science. These claims are challenged, and the Court’s task then becomes to adjudicate between them, and to provide official, authoritative sanction (enforceable by violence and coercion, if disobeyed) to one set of claims at the expense of the other. This – presumably – is what Howe meant when he said that the Supreme Court has the power not only to interpret history, but to make it.

A fascinating example of how a Court “makes” history is found in an essay by the Italian oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, called ‘The Oral Shape of the Law’ (part of a book of essays called The Death of Luigi Trastulli). In this essay, Portelli described the “April 7 Case”, an Italian terror trial arising out of (but not limited to) the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, an act that was carried out by the Far-Left “Red Brigades”. However, the trial expanded to covering a gamut of charges of sabotage, conspiracy and insurrection against political and intellectual leaders of the Far-Left, which left – in the words of Guiliano Scarpari – “the judiciary [with the task of] the reconstruction of fragments of this history (of the New Left), especially of those which eventuated in terrorism.” (‘The Oral Shape of the Law’, p. 246) Consequently, Portelli observed that:

“The magistrates were… involved in reconstructing the past, redefining its meaning, and attempting an overall interpretation. These are historical tasks, and it is appropriate to examine the way they were performed from the point of view of the theory and method of history – oral history specifically – given the nature of most sources used.” [‘The Oral Shape of the Law, p. 246].

The framing, Portelli went on to point out, was done in terms of a “criminal conspiracy”, through an informal network of relationships within the broader terrorist “Organisation”. This meant – Portelli noted – that “terrorism… is then described… as a conspiracy, rather than a social movement… mass struggles or insurrections do not depend upon the masses or on broad social causes, but on the secret dealings of leaders whose influence on the working class was never more than marginal anyway.” [‘The Oral Shape of the Law’, p. 249] In other words, the Court took an event (“political terrorism”), and attributed its occurrence to one set of historical causes (individual conspiratorial acts) while rejecting another (social causes). The Court interpreted history. But it also made history because, as Portelli pointed out at the end of his essay:

“Historical truth is hardly ever more than a descriptive hypothesis; legal truth, on the other hand, has a performative nature, measured in years in jail. Also, legal truth has a tendency to become historical truth, in the sense that future historians will rely on the court sentence and trial records for their reconstruction of the political history of the 1970s.” [‘The Oral Shape of the Law’, p. 269]

To these two ways in which a Court “makes” history (by creating a historical record of its own, and by enforcing its interpretation in real life through the organised coercive apparatus of the State), we can add a third: the Court’s reading of history carries a particular moral, or normative force, by virtue of its position in society as a neutral, unbiased, and objective arbiter. A Court is a more powerful historian than professional historians, a more powerful economist than professional economists, and a more powerful anthropologist than professional anthropologists, because its “findings” on historical, economic and anthropological issues have moral, performative, and actual, tangible force.

Contrapuntal Readings

We are now in a position to combine Scott and Said’s insights about the existence of submerged narratives with Cover and Portelli’s analyses about the role of Courts in selecting and imposing narratives. This gives us the outline of a theory of contrapuntal reading of judicial texts:

A contrapuntal reading of a judicial decision excavates the competing, non-legal narratives that were offered to the Court for it to ground its legal decision (whether they are visible or invisible in the text of the actual judgment), identifies the Court’s chosen narrative, and finally, resurrects the rejected narratives on their own terms.”

Let us study two examples of the contrapuntal reading, in practice.

Example 1: The Interpretation of the 1856 Hindu Widow Remarriage Act

In 1856, in response to a movement for social reform initiated by the likes of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the colonial British government passed the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act. The Act was ostensibly for the benefit of Hindu widows who – it was argued – were prohibited from remarrying after the death of their husbands. Section 2 of the Act stated:

“All rights and interests which any widow may have in her deceased husband’s property by way of maintenance, or by inheritance to her husband or to his lineal successors, or by virtue of any will or testamentary disposition conferring upon her, without express permission to remarry, only a limited interest in such property, with no power of alienating the same, shall upon her re-marriage cease and determine as if she had then died; and the next heirs of her deceased husband or other persons entitled to the property on her death, shall thereupon succeed to the same.”

Or, in other words, a widow, on remarriage, would forfeit the property that she had inherited from her dead husband.

As Lucy Carroll points out, the interpretation of this Act raised an immediate problem, because the bar on widow remarriage was, predominantly, an upper-caste prohibition. Among the lower castes, widow remarriage was permitted, without accompanying forfeiture of property. What, then, was the fate of lower-caste Hindu widows who remarried after the 1856 Act had been passed? Would they forfeit their property in accordance with the Act, or keep it in accordance with their custom?

The question came before the Bombay High Court in 1898 (Vithu vs Govinda), and the Court decided against the widow, holding that Section 2 “only declared what was a universal practice.” However, this finding was predicated on the assumption that it was, actually, the universal practice of Hindus to compel forfeiture of property in case of remarriage. Consequently, the Court either denied the existence of those caste customs that did allow the widow to keep her property on remarriage, or denied them any normative validity in its assessment of what constituted “Hindu law”.

A contrapuntal reading of Vithu vs Govinda – which Carroll undertakes in her essay – would begin by identifying the choice before the Court: the existence of a unified “Hindu” law, or the existence of diverse caste customs; it would then show how the Court reasoned its way to selecting the former (i.e., reliance upon geographically limited legal compendia, and the metaphysical belief that in Hindu law, the wife and husband were part of the same body); and lastly, it would resurrect the rejected narrative – the caste customs that allowed remarriage sans forfeiture of property – and place it, on its own terms, alongside the Court’s narrative of unification. Interestingly, a proto-reading of this sort was actually conducted by the Allahabad High Court in 1932, in Bhola Umar vs Kausillawhere the Court not only recognised the existence of competing customs and granted them normative validity, but also dismissed the same-body image as a “picturesque metaphor.”

Example 2: Education, Moral Capacity, and Rajbala vs State of Haryana

Contrapuntal readings are obvious, and relatively easy, when we’re dealing with colonial judgments, and especially those that deal with personal laws. It is even more important, however, to undertake contrapuntal readings of the post-Independence Supreme Court, because of the near-absolute presumption of legitimacy that its judgments enjoy, and because of its exalted status under the Constitution. In this context, consider the Court’s 2015 judgment in Rajbala vs State of Haryana, which upheld educational disqualifications for contesting local government elections. The Court’s response to the constitutional challenge to the Haryana Act, which was based on equal treatment and Article 14 of the Constitution, was to say that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between  right and wrong, good and bad.” 

A constitutional critique of the judgment would point out the evidence-free nature of this claim, its departure from accepted principles of rational-review scrutiny under Article 14, and its refusal to consider disparate impact. A contrapuntal reading would go one step further. It would locate within the Court’s statement not simply an endorsement of “education“, but an endorsement of the centralised system of formal education controlled or approved by the State. It would argue that in elevating this system of formal education to a level where it served as a pre-requisite for the very existence of moral capacity among citizens, the Court effectively delegitimised – without argument or reason – alternative, non-formal traditions of education, and the role played by them in constituting the interior moral landscape of individuals. It would then resurrect these alternative traditions through testimonies and evidence from those who had not been part of the State’s centralised structure of education, but had nonetheless been part of its local governance structure (and, at that time, numerous such testimonies were taken).

Qualifications

It is important not to overstate the case, and to introduce some qualifications. To start with, it is a banal fact that every judicial decision, that is the outcome of an adverserial process, involves the selection and rejection of competing sets of facts and narratives. A property dispute requires the Court to accept one version of events and reject another, as does a murder trial. A contrapuntal reading, therefore, is not simply a resurrection of the story told by the defeated party in a litigation. As the Rajbala example shows, it is meant to apply to cases where the selection between a plurality of competing narratives bears a direct relationship with the nature, scope, and limits of the basic rights of citizens.

Secondly, there are areas of (constitutional) law where contrapuntal readings – although not by that name – are prevalent: most famously, within the realm of the Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence. In cases such as Sastri Yagnapurushadji and Acharya Avadhuta, where the Court is literally substituting its view of religious content for those of the adherents of that religion, a contrapuntal reading is the first form of interpretation that comes to mind (most recently, the Rajasthan High Court’s santhara judgment gave rise to numerous contrapuntally-oriented critiques about the true nature of the santhara practice). However, as cases such as Rajbala demonstrate, contrapuntal readings are equally important in other domains, especially where the Court’s selection and rejection of narratives is much less obvious.

And lastly, the legal/non-legal distinction drawn above is, I admit, a slippery one, given how intertwined legal and non-legal facts are in any complex judicial decision. For instance, in his book, The Horizontal Effects Revolution, Johan van der Walt criticises the German Constitutional Court’s “radiating effects” doctrine, calling it – in effect – a totalitarian imposition of a single set of values upon society. To what extent would a contrapuntal reading apply to a case where the selection is of a set of values in this manner? I am not sure; however, I do think that despite these troublesome issues at the border, the contrapuntal reading can serve as a useful guide to interpreting and understanding judicial decisions in a rigorous and critical manner.

 

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Constitutional Problems with the Exclusion of Jurisdiction in the Coal Block Cases

(In this guest post, Abhinav Sekhri takes on from his previous analysis of the Girish Kumar Suneja Case, and demonstrates the various constitutional issues that arise out of the manner in which the Supreme Court has excluded the jurisdiction of the High Courts in certain criminal cases. This essay has been cross-posted from The Proof of Guilt blog).

The Supreme Court did three important things in Order dated 25.07.2014 in Manohar Lal Sharma v. Principal Secretary & Ors. [W.P. (Crl.) 120/2012]:
  • Directed the competent authorities to issue requisite notifications to appoint Mr. Bharat Parashar as a Special Judge to exclusively deal with “offences pertaining to coal block allocation matters”;
  • Transferred all cases pending before courts “pertaining to coal block allocation matters” to the Court of this Special Judge;
  • Clarified that “any prayer for stay or impeding the progress in the investigation/trial can be made only before this Court and no other Court shall entertain the same.”

The Delhi High Court in Girish Kumar Suneja v. CBI [Crl. M.C. No. 3847/2016, decided on 27.10.2016] dismissed a petition under Section 482 Cr.P.C. as being non-maintainable, being of the view that the Order dated 25.07.2014 passed in W.P. (Crl.) 120/2012 by the Supreme Court completely excluded the jurisdiction of the High Court (excluding appeals against judgments).

On January 24, 2017, the Coal Bench of the Supreme Court posted a batch of eight connected matters for hearing on the 6th of February (including the challenge against the Delhi High Court order in Suneja). These cases, both directly and indirectly, challenge an important issue of law: the exclusion of the High Court in either appeals, revisions, or writ jurisdiction in the coal block allocation cases. This has been discussed earlier, and I develop those thoughts in this post in support of the position that such an exclusion is unconstitutional.
Testing Article 14
In Anwar Ali Sarkar v. State of West Bengal [AIR 1952 SC 75], the West Bengal Special Courts Act 1950 was struck down as there was no guidance offered by Section 5 of that Act in prescribing which category of cases merited the special procedure, which greatly differed from the ordinary procedure prescribed in the Cr.P.C.
The Supreme Court thus upheld, in principle, creation of a specialised procedure through statute to address a particular category of offences. In Kedar Nath Bajoria v. State of West Bengal [AIR 1953 AIR 404], the majority concluded that the West Bengal Criminal Law Amendment (Special Courts) Act, 1949 suffered from no infirmities when it allowed the executive to selectively send certain cases to Special Courts, as long as they were from a selection of economic offences provided for in the Schedule. Similarly, in Asgarali Nazarali Singaporewalla v. State of Bombay [AIR 1957 SC 503], the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1952, which created a special procedure for the trial of offences under Sections 161, 165, 165A IPC and Sections 5(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947 (all provisions now repealed).
In Re Special Courts Bill [AIR 1979 SC 478], the Supreme Court answered a reference under Article 143(1) of the Constitution of India, when the President sought consideration on whether the Special Courts Bill, 1978, was constitutional. On the issue of Article 13, the Justice Chandrachud (as he then was) provided a thirteen-limb test to judge the Bill, and found that it passed muster.
Adopting the tests laid down by the Supreme Court, it is apparent that the Order dated 25.07.2014 is bad in law. It creates a distinct category of cases “pertaining to coal block allocation matters” without specifying the scope and extent of this classification. Nothing is provided to show how the present classification carries any objective, and how it is connected to such an objective in the first place.
Just, Fair, and Reasonable?
The particular classification enforced by the Order dated 25.07.2014 creates a procedure that violates Article 21 of the Constitution, for it is not just fair and reasonable following the test of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [AIR 1978 SC 597]. The Supreme Court has, since Vineet Narain [(1996) 2 SCC 199; (1998) 1 SCC 226], reluctantly agreed to monitor investigations in certain sensitive cases. These ‘Court-Monitored Investigations’, have the agency report directly to the Supreme Court during investigation to the complete exclusion of other forums. However, as clearly held in Vineet Narain, the exclusivity came to an end with the completion of an investigation, and regular criminal procedure resumed.
In the present case, the exclusivity continues for the entire duration of the trial, and thus offends Article 21 of the Constitution. The concept of a fair trial is embedded within the notion of Article 21, and the idea of a fair trial encapsulates within it the concept of effective forums of Appeal. The adjudication in appeal or extraordinary situations by a constitutional court, i.e. the High Court, is certainly part of the fair trial guarantee under Article 21. The decision by a Division Bench of the Supreme Court in Shahid Balwa v. Union of India [(2014) 2 SCC 687] where such an exclusion was upheld must be reconsidered. The nebulous concept of ‘large public interest’ cannot override the concrete constitutional guarantees made to every person under the Constitution of India.
As the denial of adjudication by the High Court for only a vague category of persons is clearly contrary to Article 21, it must then be determined whether there is any law to save such discrimination. The order dated 25.07.2014, would not be law for the purposes of Article 21, and therefore nothing saves the violation of Article 21 in the present case.
Violating the Basic Structure?
The very exercise of the judiciary creating a special procedure for the trial of certain offences is contrary to the Basic Structure. The creation of offences, and the creation of their procedure, is a function well-vested with the Legislature in the separation of powers fundamental to the Constitution’s basic structure. Such usurpation of power offends the system of checks and balances that is inherent in the Constitution. It is akin to the process of re-promulgating ordinances, which a Seven-Judge Bench of Supreme Court recently held to be a fraud on the Constitution [Krishna Kumar Singh & Anr. v. State of Bihar & Ors, Civil Appeal No. 5875/1994, decided on 02.01.2017].
Furthermore, the Supreme Court in L. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India & Ors. [(1995) 1 SCC 400] found the complete exclusion of judicial review by the Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985 to be contrary to the basic structure of the Constitution. The power of the High Courts under Article 226/227 was specifically found to be part of the Basic Structure by the Constitution Bench in L. Chandra Kumar. Therefore, the exclusion of jurisdiction perpetrated by the Order dated 25.07.2014 is illegal, and accordingly cannot be given effect to.
Although it is settled that judicial orders are outside the purview of Part III of the Constitution [Naresh Sridhar Mirajkar, AIR 1967 SC 1], this cannot be utilised to do indirectly what is impermissible directly. A Seven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court in A.R. Antulay v. R.S. Nayak & Ors. [(1988) 2 SCC 602] reviewed and set aside orders passed by another bench of the Court in proceedings whereby a special, but illegal, procedure was created to address the trial of certain offences against the erstwhile Chief Minister of Maharashtra. While doing so, it was observed that “the power to create or enlarge jurisdiction is legislative in character, so also the power to confer a right of appeal or to take away a right of appeal. Parliament alone can do it by law. No Court, whether superior or inferior or both combined can enlarge the jurisdiction of the Court or divest the person of his rights of revision and appeal.”

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ — Roundup

Over the last ten days, the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog has hosted a book discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new work on PIL, titled Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India. The discussion has featured Aparna Chandra, Suhrith Parthasarathy, myself, and Anuj. Here is a round-up of the essays:

  1. A Radical Revision: An opening summary of the book, which aims to distil its core claim in the form of seven theses about PIL (the redundancy of the petitioner, the power of the amicus, no hearing of stakeholders, departure from the rules of evidence, unanticipated consequences of poly-centric disputes, incorrect conceptual framing of issues, and outcome-based reasoning).
  2. Swords, Shields, and Where Do We Go From Here?In my analysis of the book, I argue that PIL adjudication has bled into civil rights jurisprudence, to the detriment both of core civil liberties, as well as the development of a meaningful equality jurisprudence. I also argue that PIL has now become a sword that is being used to cut down civil rights, whether on the whetstone of the Directive Principles, or broader ideas of public good. Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether Bhuwania has successfully demonstrated that certain aspects of PIL – such as loosened locus requirements – cannot be separated and welded into a form of jurisprudence that is both progressive, and maintains constitutional fidelity.
  3. Substance and Process: In her critique, Aparna Chandra argues that the judicial populism which Bhuwania locates at the core of PIL, exists across the board in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Additionally, she points out that PIL was not simply a revolution in terms of judicial procedure, but equally a revolution in terms of substantive law – in particular, the vast expansion of Article 21 of the Constitution. Finally, she raises two methodological concerns: on the question of how and why PIL achieves the outcomes that they do, and on the applicability of John Hart Ely’s representation-reinforcement theory of judicial review, which Bhuwania endorses as a possible alternative to PIL jurisdiction.
  4. The Case for the Defence: In his essay, Suhrith Parthasarathy makes the important argument that, at least as far as the loosening of locus requirements goes, PIL has a strong textual foundation in the wording of Articles 32 and 226. Furthermore, in cases such as PUDR and Bandhua Mukti Morcha, where the State was engaged in blatant violations of rights, it is difficult to see what course of action was open to the Court apart from intervening; and indeed, a case like PUDR demonstrates that judicial intervention, through PILs, need not necessarily abandon fidelity to the Constitution. Parthasarathy nonetheless cautions us that these cases, while being founded on correct principles, nonetheless also exhibited disturbing signs with respect to the manner in which the judges framed the key questions at stake.
  5. The Author Responds: In the concluding essay, Bhuwania responds to our arguments. He points out that not only has the logic of PIL adjudication migrated to civil rights cases (e.g., the issuing of “guidelines”), but also, the Court rarely ends up adjudicating on the non-implementation of the guidelines that it itself has issued. Responding to Chandra’s critique, Bhuwania distinguishes between three modes of teleological (i.e., goal-based) arguments in the judicial discourse, and points out that what is unique about PIL teleology is not merely that the Court uses purposive arguments to creatively interpret the law, but invokes purpose to transform the judicial process itself. He argues, further, that the expansion of Article 21 cannot be separated from the rise of PIL, and that the two should be understood together. And lastly, responding to Parthasarathy’s textual argument about locus, Bhuwania concludes by distinguishing between “representative standing” and “citizen standing”, and argues that the loosening of locus should be limited only to the first class of cases.

It remains for me to thank all Aparna, Suhrith, and Anuj for taking out the time and making this book discussion a reality. This is an exciting time in Indian constitutional law, with new works of scholarship being published on a frequent basis. We hope to host more such discussions in the coming weeks and months.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – V: The Author Responds

(We close our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, with a response by the author).

I want to begin with a note of sincere thanks to Gautam Bhatia for initiating this intense discussion on my recently published book ‘Courting The People’ on this wonderful blog, which has become such a useful resource for many of us. As an author, I could not have asked for more. To have three readers reading closely and commenting carefully on a book in quick time is really overwhelming, especially when they are of the calibre of Aparna Chandra, Suhrith Parthasarathy and Gautam Bhatia. I feel immensely fortunate to have them as my interlocutors here.

Addressing Gautam Bhatia’s critique

Bhatia began the discussion with an excellent introduction to the themes of the book, providing a much better summary than I myself could have managed. In his critique then, he makes some important points that I will try to address here.

Paternalism vs Populism

I agree with Bhatia that paternalism in the Indian higher judiciary, where the judges claim prior superior knowledge of the Indian people and their strange proclivities and tendencies, dates from before the PIL era. But since the birth of PIL, the court also manages to speak for the people, not just of the people.  The former is classic populism, the latter paternalism— an important difference, though the latter is, of course, alive and well. The former tends to rely on a rhetoric of suffering, the latter on the narratives of the insufficient modernity of Indians. These two tendencies get interestingly deployed together in the Bhopal disaster judgments of 1989-91. The victims’ suffering becomes the pretext to justify the unseemly haste of settlement, while at the same time the suffering masses don’t really need to be heard in their own cause, as they are irresponsible and incompetent. (For instance, the court justified the expropriation of the victims’ right to legal redress thus: “It is necessary for the State to ensure the fundamental rights in conjunction with the Directive Principles of State Policy to effectively discharge its obligation and for this purpose, if necessary, to deprive some rights and privileges of the individual victims or their heirs to protect their rights better and secure these further.”)

Earlier, the judges relied on their own sociological insights (with colonial antecedents) about the Indian people and thereby came to paternalistic conclusions regarding the need for censorship, or trusted their own sastric knowledge even to attempt a task as difficult as defining Hinduism (Sastri Yagnapurushadji vs Muldas). But I would not compare Justice Hidayatullah or Justice Gajendragadkar to a Justice Bhagwati or a Justice Dipak Misra, in terms of looseness of legal language. The ability to ground clearly extra-legal arguments and facts in legal terms has certainly shown a decline.

The Migration of PIL Logic to Civil Liberties Cases

On the tendency of the post-PIL appellate courts to issue guidelines, Bhatia has discussed how they can become a convenient copout in civil liberties cases. To add to his points on this issue, as I have also argued in Chapter 1 of the book,  very rarely do these guidelines travel from the court’s legislative mode to its adjudicative mode: i.e., hardly ever do the actual violations of these guidelines reach the court again in its adjudicative avatar. Hardly ever does the court dealt with evidence of violations of its guidelines or pronounce on reliefs for them. They are another instance of (judicial) legislations without any infrastructure for their implementation, rights without remedies.


On Aparna Chandra’s review

Aparna Chandra has written a masterly review of my book. In order to address some of her criticism, I have been forced to think more carefully about some of the points I have made

Understanding the teleological mode

I completely agree with Chandra’s broad point, i.e., that the teleological mode of reasoning has taken deep roots in Indian constitutional interpretation. I would suggest that this entrenchment of teleological judicial reasoning is the fruit of Article 31C’s poisonous tree. While the innovation of Article 31B (and the 9th Schedule) is justly infamous for trying to protect the Constitution from itself, at least it was a blanket provision that left the rest of the Constitution untouched. The legacy of Article 31C, which aimed to restrict judicial review of all laws that ‘claimed’ to implement directive principles, and the line of thought it represents, has been far more insidious, and has infected Indian constitutional culture itself.  We often forget that the argument of ‘committed judiciary’ was the requirement of a commitment to the Directive Principles. And the official aim of the 42nd amendment was to give Directive Principles precedence over Fundamental Rights.  Over time, this mode of argumentation has infected Indian legal academia as well. It has become our common sense approach to legal interpretation: whether it is to evaluate a case or a statute.

In Chapter 4 of the book, I examine in some detail Justice Bhagwati’s talisman (as I call it) in which he suggests that judges should be teleologically inclined in their activism. The normativisation of such judicial behavior is in one way the culmination of the committed judiciary argument. I draw parallels between Mohan Kumaramanglam’s 1970s call for a committed judiciary,  and Justice Bhagwati’s reasoning in his 1985 article, but with a key difference. While the 1970s discourse required judges to give the legislature carte blanche so as to bring about the social revolution legislatively through the Directive Principles, the 1980s version, with PIL, needed the judges to be the vanguard.

As a corollary to this difference between the two approaches, there are two different ways in which the Courts may be teleological: one is the specific mandate of Article 31C’s logic [the1970s version], which protects statutes professing certain aims from judicial review. This immunization approach continues today and has become entrenched in constitutional cases, where the court often decides that the goals of a statute can trump fundamental rights. The goals could be fighting terrorism in Kartar Singh vs State of Punjab, controlling population in Javed vs State of Haryana, , or the desirability of sanitation in Rajbala vs State of Haryana.

The second approach is when the logic of Article 31C, and the concomitant discourse of committed judiciary, requires the judges to act teleologically, not just in immunizing statutes in cases, but in furthering the cause of social revolution through the expansion of judicial power itself. As Justice Bhagwati would say, the aim should be juristic activism to bring about social change. Now this itself can typically be done in 2 ways: interpreting legal doctrine creatively but also in transforming judicial process itself. The former in this case would be to read all kind of directive principles or international law into Article 21, or e.g,, creating the notion of ‘absolute liability’ ex nihilo (the quality of hermeneutic labour done by judges being of no concern of course.) That is, while one aspect of judicial teleological behaviour in this expansive sense still relates to statutory interpretation (though without much regard for the text of the Constitution or basic legal argumentation), the second is with regard to how to go about judicial proceedings themselves, which the radical departures of PIL make possible. At this point, all three versions of the teleological approach can be observed within the Indian judicial behavior: the immunization approach espoused in 1970s sits comfortably with the expansion of judicial power through the excesses of Article 21, as well as the annihilation of procedure achieved through PIL.

Throughout the book, I focus on the latter: i.e., PIL cases, and how they have set the pace for the negation of procedure. This form of laxity in judicial process has bled from PIL to even non-PIL cases. PIL cases are no longer entirely exceptional in this regard. In my conclusion I give the example of a non-PIL civil dispute, albeit a particularly famous one: the judgment by the Lucknow bench on the Babri Masjid/ Ram Janmabhoomi dispute to show that this mode of judicial behaviour is now found across jurisdictions. However, at one point in chapter 1, I suggest that the delegitimisation of procedure in PIL cases and judicial process more generally (my primary focus in the book) achieved through teleological reasoning of the third kind has perhaps fed into the concomitant discourse of the Courts giving short shrift to procedural safeguards (or the absence thereof) in repressive criminal statutes, when it consistently upholds them (the teleological approach of the first kind, ie the  immunization approach), accepting curtailment of judicial oversight in criminal inverstigations. In her review, Chandra takes issue with this, pointing out that it need not flow directly from PIL. Admittedly, in this instance, perhaps I have jumped from correlation to causation, and if so, then mea culpa. However, the coincidence of the two developments occurring simultaneously made the resemblance uncanny.

Transformations in Substantive law

Chandra has argued that changes in substantive law since the 1970s are important to the history of  PIL. While I do not deny that the so-called ‘Article 21 jurisprudence’ (one can instead use a colloquialism and call it the ‘Raita of Article 21’) has played a crucial role in this history, its extreme expandability since the early 80s can also conversely be read as a byproduct of the PIL (non)procedure. The need for ratiocination in judicial prose and a basic fidelity to law are themselves procedural principles as well. The rise of PIL and its attack on every other aspect of judicial procedure has also meant that minimal hermeneutic labour in the form of judicial justification is no longer at a premium. I would not belabor this “substance vs procedure” point but I do believe that PIL is a particularly important part of this story, because it enables the court to change its process itself. The new goal-oriented approach finds procedure as merely  “a handmaiden to justice” which can be done away with in the name of substantive justice. The instances I look at in Chapter 2 and 3, where a cause of action in a writ proceeding can change 9 times, where the Court can repeatedly take decisions without hearing affected parties, where it creates its own enforcement machinery – all illustrate the powers that the PIL court can operationalize. This is not just about judicial logic, but about the entire judicial process, from the initiation of a case to the obtaining and weighing of evidence, even the implementation of its decision. All this can now be shortchanged, thanks to PIL. The rhetoric of immediacy (i.e., the mediation of procedure as no longer essential to justice) ties up with that of teleological reasoning in the rise of PIL.

Why process?

Chandra helps explain why I think process is so important. Just to add to that: if fundamental tenets of judicial process are not being followed, it is a moot question if the proceedings can be  called adjudication at all. I think J. Pathak in Bandhua Mukti Murcha vs Union of India makes this point very well:

“Whatever the  procedure adopted by the court it  must  be procedure known to judicial  tenets and characteristic of a judicial  proceeding.  There are  methods  and avenues of procuring material  available to  executive and legislative agencies and  often employed  by them  for the efficient and effective discharge  of the tasks before them. Not all those methods and avenues are  available to the Court. The Court must ever  remind itself that one of the indicia identifying it as  a Court is the nature and character of the procedure adopted by  it in  determining a  controversy. It is in that sense limited in the  evolution of procedures pursued by it in the process of  an adjudication,  and in  the grant   and execution of  the relief.  Legal jurisprudence     has in its historical development identified  certain fundamental principles which form the  essential constituents of judicial procedure. They are employed in every     judicial proceeding, and constitute the basic  infrastructure along     whose    chamacts  flows     the power of  the Court  in the process of adjudication.”

On selective enforcement

Chandra’s point about efficacy of enforcement of certain PIL cases over other PIL cases is a very important one. I try to give the example of ‘the Sealing case,’ one of the avatars of WP 4677/1985, as another instance where the court’s attempt at grand social engineering of Delhi ultimately fails.  But the Court did pursue this particular case with a lot more tenacity than the Vishaka and the Aadhaar cases. In the ‘Sealing Case’, the court repeatedly took up contempt cases against non-enforcement and stayed governmental attempts at diluting its orders. In the Aadhaar case, the court has been not so proactive. On the other hand, enforcing Vishaka is in the realm of pronouncing an ambitious new legislative norm, without having the enforcement mechanism.

Why rely on Ely

Lastly, on the arguments of John Hart Ely:I would argue that Ely’s representation-reinforcement theory of judicial review applies to India. It provides the most persuasive account of how judicial review (which is, by definition, counter-majoritarian), can potentially perform an important democratic function.The preference for judicial populism over judicial review by Indian courts has meant an abandonment of this democratic function, as was evident most clearly in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation. And also, to my mind, we need to be more skeptical of the interventionist conception of the State, expounded in the Directive Principles. The romance of the vanguardist Indian State, tasked with reforming the unruly Indian social milieu, which also forms the ideological basis of PIL, needs to be swiftly abandoned. There is an acute need to see how dangerously fascistic concepts we so easily use in India, such as ‘social engineering’, can be.


On Suhrith Parthasarathy’s intervention

Locus Standi

Parthasarathy makes a beautifully argued point that a too narrow reading of locus standi would go against the express provisions of Article 32 and Article 226. I am in full agreement with his argument, but I do think that the other extreme that we have been saddled with because of PIL, i.e. the complete dilution of locus standi, is not the answer either. Instead a way forward that I would suggest is that we try to analytically distinguish ‘representative standing’ from ‘citizen standing’.

An insistence on ‘representative standing’ (either as associational standing in cases of associations/ social movements or secondly, even individuals with some relation to the victims themselves, extrapolating the logic of habeas corpus where the detained person for some reason cannot come to court) should be preserved. The Mumbai Kamgar Sabha Case would be  a simple example of this form of standing. Besides PUDR and Bandhua Mukti Morcha, which Parthasarathy discusses, other examples of such representative petitioners from recent litigation would be Safai Karamchari Andolan and Narmada Bachao Andolan. In the second instance, representative standing could be thought of as similar to a class-action suit, except with a non-class member representing the larger group. Examples of this are Nandini Sundar case and Olga Tellis, where there were co-petitioners who were directly affected. These cases got named after the non-class petitioners, even though class members were petitioners too.

It would be useful to distinguish these instances from ‘citizen standing,’ which allows any citizen to file a petition on an issue completely unconnected with her own life and work. A complete dilution of locus standi is precisely the reason why the Judge can reduce the Petitioner to an informant (as if she is just filing an FIR), and make her redundant without any major loss to the process of the litigation. In other words, the Judge sees no harm in expropriating the litigation from such a petitioner. Many of the processual problems I discuss emerge from this. Reconceptualising locus standi this way could be part of thinking of an alternative. And yes, Justice Pathak’s opinion in Bandhua Mukti Morcha reminds us of what could have been, and is still worth returning to.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – IV: Suhrith Parthasarathy on the Case for the Defence

(We continue our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency Indiawith an essay by Suhrith Parthasarathy, a Chennai-based lawyer and writer).

As both Gautam Bhatia and Aparna Chandra have recounted here, Anuj Bhuwania’s book, “Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post Emergency India,” is an important and unique piece of work, in that it questions not merely the judiciary’s abuse of the PIL power, but also the very conferment of the PIL jurisdiction on the high courts and the Supreme Court of India. Bhuwania’s argument is hugely compelling, and is difficult to counter, particularly on the back of constantly mounting evidence which shows us how the PIL is often a tool that is malleable to the individual predilections of judges, and the campaigns they seek to further.

However, I have two primary concerns with this thesis, which I shall explicate presently: the first is that, textually, both Articles 32 and 226, which respectively guarantee the rights to approach the Supreme Court and the high courts for enforcement of fundamental rights, do not support a blanket prohibition against actions in public interest. The second is the Supreme Court’s own historical record, which contains numerous instances when the court has had little choice but to interfere under Article 32, faced, as it has been, with what were often appalling infractions of basic civil and socio-economic rights. However, it must also be pointed out that even in these cases which demanded interference, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cause of PILs would have been better served had the court, in exercising the power, not only restrained the rhetorical flourish of its judgments, but also managed to maintain, in the process, a greater, basic fidelity to the procedures of an adversarial process.

PILs: The Textual Defence

Let’s consider, at first, the wordings of Articles 32 and 226. Article 32(1) states: “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.” Article 226(1) states, “Notwithstanding anything in Article 32 every High Court shall have powers, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercise jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibitions, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.”

What’s notable is that neither of these articles places any limitations on the category of persons entitled to approach the court. In the case of Article 32, it simply requires the petitioner to show that a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III has been violated—this violation can quite conceivably be of a right possessed by a person distinct from the petitioner. Similarly, Article 226 also does not specify that only persons whose rights have been affected can approach the high courts. What’s more, Article 32 goes a step further in granting leeway to petitioners to approach the Supreme Court by way of “appropriate proceedings.” Were we to read these provisions literally it becomes rather difficult to justify strict rules of locus standi. In fact, were the Supreme Court, for example, to reject a petition purely on the ground that the petitioner has no personal interest in the case, when a fundamental right has been shown to be violated, it might well be a dismissal contrary to the bare text and meaning of Article 32.

Therefore, in many ways, the loosening of principles of standing that occurred over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, is in consonance with a proper, textual reading of Articles 32 and 226. Further, a look into Constituent Assembly’s debates on these articles also does not show us that the drafters intended to place restrictions on locus standi in a manner that required petitioners to be personally affected. Now, this is not to suggest that the court is incapable of framing rules that regulate the principles of standing. The words “appropriate proceeding” in Article 32, for instance, gives the court the latitude to regulate principles of locus standi in a manner consistent with the broader requirements of justice. That the court has failed to do so in a systematic and coherent manner, however, has been a failing that has had serious repercussions.

As Bhuwania argues, this lack of rigour in the Supreme Court’s PIL jurisprudence, which is only made worse by the court’s almost declamatory language, is evident almost right from the inception of PILs. For example, take one of the earliest instances of the Supreme Court’s exercise of what it itself appeared to describe as a public interest action: the 1976 judgment in Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay vs M/S Abdulbhai Faizullabhai. Here, the court was concerned with an appeal against an award made by an Industrial Tribunal where a demand for bonus by employees working for various small hardware businesses in Navi Mumbai was rejected. One of the defences that the Respondent took in the Supreme Court was that the employees had been represented by a Trade Union, and, this body lacked the standing to bring the appeal on behalf of the workers. “No right of the Union qua Union was involved,” the Respondent contended, “and the real disputants were the workers.”

To this, Krishna Iyer, J., who was part of the two-judge bench hearing the appeals, responded thus: “But a bare reading of the petition, the description of parties, the grounds urged and grievances aired, leaves us in no doubt that the battle is between the workers and employers and the Union represents, as a collective noun, as it were, the numerous humans whose presence is indubitable in the contest, though formally invisible on the party array.” As a matter of technicality, he conceded that the Union could not be a party, but, this, he said, was merely an infelicity in the drafting, for it was clear that it was the workmen who were the real parties to the dispute. This ordinarily ought to have been enough for the court to overcome any objections on the maintainability of the appeal—the workers, as Krishna Iyer, J., had pointed out were, in fact, before the court, but were merely represented by a Union.

Unfortunately, however, the court did not stop here. And this is where the problems begin. “Test litigations, representative actions, pro bono public and like broadened forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural, shortcomings,” Krishna Iyer, J., wrote. “Even Article 226, viewed in wider perspective, may be amenable to ventilation of collective or common grievances, as distinguished from assertion of individual rights, although the traditional view, backed by precedents, has opted for the narrower alternative. Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latté dinarianism permits taking liberties with individualization of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker.”

Now, the court was unconcerned here with Article 226, and any observations made on the procedural requirements of standing to approach a high court were simply irrelevant to the facts of the case. What’s more, the court was actually concerned with whether the workers individually had a right to seek bonus; that they may have been collectively represented by a Union did not negate the fact that their individual rights had nonetheless to be determined. In framing the issue, though, as one which involved an airing of collective grievance, as opposed to one that involved an assertion of individual rights, Krishna Iyer, J. ended up upholding an argument quite different to the one made by the Trade Union.

PILs: On the Necessity of Judicial Intervention

There are similar misgivings with almost all of the early cases that are often described as heralding a movement towards public interest litigation. It’s quite conceivable that each of those cases may well have been amenable to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction without otherwise compromising on the basic principles of standing. For instance,Gautam Bhatia in his review of Bhuwania’s book points to the 1982 judgment of the Supreme Court in PUDR vs Union of India, as an exemplar of what PIL can mean, when applied correctly.

Here, the court was faced with a report that pointed out a flagrant violation of several labour laws in relation to workmen employed in the construction work of various projects connected with the Asian Games. Article 32, as P.N. Bhagwati, J. pointed out in his judgment, only required that the petitioner show a violation of a fundamental right. What’s more, as I have argued above, the provision doesn’t, in and of itself, prohibit a person from approaching the court in the interest of fundamental rights of any other individual or any other distressed groups of people. In this case, the petitioner’s report quite clearly, in the court’s opinion, presented evidence of what constituted a form of forced labour in violation of Article 23. Now, it was up to the Union of India to disprove that the labourers employed for the projects connected with the Asian Games weren’t being employed in a manner that violated Article 23. The Union, though, didn’t quite dispute the basic findings in the petitioner’s report. Instead, it argued by placing emphasis, as the judgment states, on the word ‘similar’, used in Article 23, contending that it is not every form of forced labour which is prohibited by the provision but only such form of forced labour as is similar to ‘begar’ and since ‘begar’ means labour or service which a person is forced to give with-out receiving any remuneration for it. Article 23, in its argument, was limited only to those forms of forced labour where labour or service is exacted from a person without paying any remuneration at all and if some remuneration is paid, though it be inadequate, it would not fall within the words ‘other similar forms of forced labour.’ Given the arguments adduced the court’s task was to simply answer a legal question: whether Article 23 prohibited all forms of forced labour or merely those forms that were similar to “begar.” This, the court did effectively.

But, once again, much of the court’s good work was undone by its oratorical excesses. Bhuwania takes us to one such statement, where the court was quick to stress on a need to loosen procedural standings on a whole, and, more significantly, on a need to invent new strategies to provide access to large groups of people:

“We wish to point out with all the emphasis at our command that public interest litigation which is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief,” wrote PN Bhagwati, J. “Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and un-redressed.”

Thus, once again, the court was framing the debate in terms of collective rights. This, in my submission, was where the court went wrong. This was a case much like Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, a case where individual rights of workers were being contravened. PUDR, as Bhatia has argued, largely represents a case where PIL was put to good use. But the court could have achieved its ends through a narrower holding. It simply had to read Article 32 in a manner close to its text, to find that PUDR did, in fact, possess the locus standi to approach the court for a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers. This required no specific loosening of the standard.

Appropriate Proceedings”

We may now look at one more example, a 1984 case, which Bhuwania refers to in detail: Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India. This was a case initiated by an organisation dedicated to ending bonded labour. As Bhuwania points out, the judgment rendered by PN Bhagwati, J., in the case is riddled with his “standard trope of Indian difference.” That “in a country like India where there is so much of poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, deprivation and exploitation, any insistence on a rigid formula of proceeding for enforcement of a fundamental right would become self-defeating because it would place enforcement of fundamental rights beyond the reach of the common man and the entire remedy for enforcement of fundamental rights…would become a mere rope of sand so far as the large masses of the people in this country are concerned.”

But while Bhagwati, J., may have been wrong on this count, as is pointed out in a concurring judgment in the same case by Pathak, J., he did also seek to defend the court’s intervention based on a textual reading of Article 32. The provision, he pointed out, confers the right to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of any fundamental right, but it neither restricts movement of the court to any category of persons, nor does it place a restriction on the manner of the proceedings: “It is clear on the plain language of Clause (1) of Article 32 that whenever there is a violation of a fundamental right, anyone can move the Supreme Court for enforcement of such fundamental right,” wrote Bhagwati, J. “…again Clause (1) of Article 32 says that the Supreme Court can be moved for enforcement of a fundamental right by any ‘appropriate’ proceeding.’ There is no limitation in regard to the kind of proceeding envisaged in Clause (1) of Article 32 except that the proceeding must be ‘appropriate’ and this requirement of appropriateness must be judged in the light of the purpose for which the proceeding is to be taken, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right.”

As a matter of pure textual interpretation of Article 32, as I sought to show earlier, it is difficult to argue against Bhagwati, J.’s view. Had he dismissed the petitioner’s approach purely on the ground that he or she doesn’t have the standing to maintain an action for the violation of a fundamental right, the dismissal would have run directly counter to Article 32’s wording. This is not to say that the court cannot place its own international restrictions on when to interfere. But any strict rule of standing would simply be impermissible as a matter of constitutional law.

Here, what Pathak, J. said in his concurring opinion in Bandhua Mukti Morcha is particularly instructive. He expressly recognised that Article 32 does not specifically indicate who can move the court when a fundamental right is violation and, therefore, in the absence of a confining provision, it was “plain that a petitioner may be anyone in whom the law recognises a standing to maintain an action of such nature.” But as to what constitutes an “appropriate proceeding,” Pathak, J. was more circumspect. While he recognised that it was indeed time for the law to enlarge the doctrine of standing to permit actions by persons in public interest on behalf of groups otherwise incapable of representing themselves, public interest litigation, he held, did not necessarily call for a system that altogether loosens the fundamental requirements of a properly adversarial process. It similarly also did not a call for a system where the relief provided by the court is beyond what it might provide in a regular writ proceeding.

A public interest litigation, Pathak, J. held, did permit a greater degree of flexibility in comparison to a traditional private law litigation, but any such procedure adopted by the court must nonetheless confirm to basic judicial tenets characteristic of a proper proceeding. What he meant by this was that although a defined pattern of procedure might be hard to lay down, the court must still follow the procedure laid down by any statute that prescribes the procedure for the proceeding concerned. Where the court devises any supplementary procedure, “there can be no deviation from the principles of natural justice and other well accepted procedural norms characteristic of a judicial proceeding,” he wrote. “They constitute an entire code of general principles of procedure, tried and proven and followed by the sanctity of common and consistent acceptance during long years of the historical development of the law. The general principles of law, to which reference is made here, command the confidence, not merely of the Judge and the lawyer and the parties to the litigation, but supply that basic credibility to the judicial proceeding which strengthens public faith in the Rule of Law. They are rules rooted in reason and fairplay, and their governance guarantees a just disposition of the case. The court should be wary of suggestions favouring novel procedures in cases, where accepted procedural rules will suffice.”

Bhuwania is entirely correct in pointing out that it was ultimately Bhagwati, J’s judgment that carried the day, and Pathak, J.’s opinion remains just that, an opinion. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Pathak, J. may have been correct as a matter of law on how a PIL has to be treated: that a petition cannot be dismissed purely on the ground that a petitioner lacks standing, and that where a violation of a fundamental right is shown, the court has little choice but to intervene. But this intervention must partake a proper procedure, and, any relief that is ultimately awarded must also be tailored into a proper judicial relief.

Conclusion: A Partial Defence

There are many genuine, legitimate areas in which a PIL serves as the only recourse available to check unconstitutional executive or legislative actions. But it is tragically disappointing that the court ultimately chose to follow the pattern shaped by Bhagwati, J. Bhuwania shows in substantial detail (as Bhatia illustrated in his first post) that PILs have led to a series of pitfalls, and have proved hugely damaging to the quality of justice delivery in the country. But this, in my submission, isn’t as much a problem with PILs per se as it is with the larger lack of accountability that the judiciary enjoys. Here, I agree with Chandra, who argues that the “judicial populism that Bhuwania describes in his book translates into distinct conception of the judicial role, and a mode of judicial reasoning that is apparent not just in PIL cases but across the board.” The misuse of the PIL has only been accentuated by the unaccountability of the judiciary; the general lack of integrity in decision making, of maintain a fidelity to constitutional values and principles, is a problem as much in the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction as it is in its exercise of PIL power.

Any solution, therefore, has to go deeper. Regrettably, attempts made to alter the system of appointing judges have thus far failed. In the place of proper democratic constraints on the judiciary, what we have instead are anti-constitutional checks on judicial power: post-retirement postings, for example. Unless these larger issues are met effectively, it’s difficult to imagine a proper reform of the PIL process. To understand why we need this reform, though, there is no better place to begin than by reading Bhuwania’s book.

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – III: Aparna Chandra on Substance and Process

(We continue our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, that began with an introductory post last week, and then a critique. In this essay, Professor Aparna Chandra explores some of the themes of the book)

Anuj Bhuwania’s “Courting the People” is a book that needed to be written and one that should be widely read and debated. Bhuwania pulls no punches and offers a stringent critique of the dominant hagiographic narratives around PILs and its dramatis personae. He takes issue with the canonical view that PIL was a force for the good in its inaugural moment but has since been hijacked by those who are not in tune with its original philosophy; thus leading to problematic outcomes. Instead, Bhuwania argues that the PIL jurisdiction is problematic per se, both in its ideological orientation as well as its processual elements.

On Bhuwania’s account, in its early years, the Court had positioned itself as a checks and balances institution, oriented towards holding the state accountable for overstepping constitutional bounds. However, beginning in the late 1970s, the Court responded to sustained attacks on its legitimacy from populist political discourses by acquiescing in the demand for a “committed judiciary” that works alongside an interventionist government to advance the goals of the Constitution. The Court re-conceptualized its role as one that was not only a partner, but a leader of the social revolution envisaged in the Constitution. PILs emerged as part of this ideological move by the judiciary. To the extent that the state’s actions were advancing constitutional goals (predominantly those in Part IV of the Constitution), the Court would support the state. Where the state fell short, either through inaction, indifference, or otherwise, the Court would step in to push the state in the right direction.

The ideological shift in the Court’s role conception was accompanied by procedural moves that facilitated this new role. This procedural shift views procedures as unnecessary hurdles and mere technicalities that should be set aside in favour of substantively just outcomes in tune with the goals of the Constitution. Often captured by the phrase “procedure is the handmaiden of justice” the idea here is that procedures are useful only to the extent that they help the Court in achieving just outcomes – otherwise procedures can and should be done away with.

Bhuwania takes issue with both these shifts. He argues that the ideological grounding and procedural laxity of PILs have allowed judges to run amok and encode their biases and preferences, not only into norms, but into the lived and material realities of vast sections of the population. The problem of PILs is not the case of a few bad apples, but a more systemic issue with the kinds of politics and material outcomes it makes possible. He takes us through examples drawn from PILs relating to urban governance in Delhi to demonstrate how the PIL process vests such large and unchecked powers in courts.

Bhuwania provides a compelling critique of the PIL jurisdiction, and one that I agree with. In fact, as I argue below, I believe that Bhuwania does not go far enough in his critique. I also raise certain concerns with Bhuwania’s methodology, as a prompt to think about how best to understand the PIL jurisdiction and the appropriate conception of the judicial role.

Populism Across the Board

Bhuwania makes the point early on his book that “the delegitimization of legal procedure that companied the rise of PIL in India…has actually made it easier for courts to justify and overlook departures from the basic principles of criminal procedure that mark [draconian statutes that impact civil liberties].” Gautam Bhatia’s review of the book makes a similar point. While I agree with the substance of their concerns that the Court has weakened civil liberties protections in the name of larger goals such as national security (and have written on this before here, here, and here), I would argue that this has less to do with PILs per se, and more to do with the judicial role and method instituted in the late 1970s. The judicial populism that Bhuwania describes in his book translates into distinct conception of the judicial role, and a mode of judicial reasoning that is apparent not just in PIL cases but across the board. We can take away the PIL jurisdiction without disturbing this new logic. In that sense, I take issue with the causality that Bhuwania appears to be claiming between PILs and its impact on other areas of law. Judicial populism and distrust of formalism can be seen in teleological interpretative techniques; in the subordination of fundamental rights to directive principles (and increasingly to fundamental duties); in the invocation of public interest and national interest as grounds to justify state action or deny rights (including in fields as far removed from PIL as bail law); in the rise and expansion of the SLP jurisdiction (which in the words of the Court provides “untrammelled reservoir of power incapable of being confined to definitional bounds; the discretion conferred on the Supreme Court being subjected to only one limitation, that is, the wisdom and good sense or sense of justice of the Judges.”); and in the expansion of the Article 142 power to do ‘complete justice” from a power aimed at “ironing out the creases” at the margins to address minor procedural issues, to a “plenipotentiary power” that can be used to set aside and supplant existing laws, or even create completely new jurisdictions.

The problem is not PIL per se, but a particular conception of judicial role and particular modes of judicial reasoning that the Court resorted to in its response to the political discourses of the 1970s. PIL is as much a symptom as of this new judicial discourse as the shifts in other areas of decision making. As Bhuwania himself finds, this new role and reasoning is tethered to outcomes – outcomes that advance the goals of the state and the larger interest of the national project, and views the role of the judiciary as part and parcel of advancing these goals. Consequentialist modes of reasoning and teleological justifications have become the hallmark of judicial method across the board. As such, the shift in discourse that created PILs has also introduced expanded judicial power, a disdain for procedure, and a subordination of individual rights to broader social goals universally. The challenge then is not PIL (or only PIL), but the role conception of the judiciary and the means and methods it employs. Bhuwania’s critique needs to be applied far beyond the realm of PILs.

The Substantive Transformations of PIL

Bhuwania claims that “PIL is primarily a revolution in judicial procedure” (p.12). I disagree. The ubiquitous presence of PILs was made possible by an expanded reading of rights. The Court had to ground its jurisdiction in Article 32, which allows it to entertain original petitions from citizens only for violations of fundamental rights. Therefore, an expanded reading of the scope of rights was integral to expanding the scope of PILs. This was achieved primarily through the expansion of the scope of Article 21, through reading in directive principles and international law norms into the provision. The interpretative techniques used to expand rights (but at the same time dilute limitations thereon) were grounded in the same teleological reasoning that is at the heart of PILs. So, while on the one hand Directive Principles gave content to the “right to life” under Article 21, they were also used to expand the understanding of “reasonable” law that could limit such a right under the “procedure established by law” clause of Article 21. Similarly, while Article 19 could be given an expanded definition, laws framed to advance DPSPs were viewed as “reasonable restrictions” on such rights. Both types of interpretations – of the scope of the right, and the extent of its limitation – were achieved through the same interpretative technique. This interpretative technique has expanded the power of the judiciary (by extending the kinds of claims that they can entertain), but at the same time expanded the power of the state to side-step fundamental rights. Ironically then, the expansion of rights has made rights less meaningful for the citizenry. This too, is part of the PIL story, and is likely to get lost in focusing only on the procedural aspects of PILs.

Process, Public Power, and Accountability

Bhuwania argues against Bhagwati’s consequentialist view of PILs. He opposes the idea that PILs can be evaluated only on the basis of whether one agrees with their outcomes. This, he finds, is a recipe for disaster – such a reading is what makes “bad” PILs possible in the first place. To make his argument, Bhuwania makes a strong case for the importance of process.

It is easy to misread Bhuwania as setting up a binary between process and substance, principally because he does not explain the value of process except as demonstrated through his case studies where the failures of process led to bad outcomes. I don’t read him as setting up such a binary but I do think it is important to explicate the substantive values underlying procedural norms. As Bhuwania shows through case studies, these values – of fairness, representation, participation, non-arbitrariness, etc – ought to be discarded at our own peril. Where Bhuwania does not venture, however, is the institutional value of process and the importance of norms and procedures as accountability mechanisms. Courts are public institutions, enjoying and dispensing public power, and therefore should be accountable to the public for the decisions they make. The major constraint on judges and a source of their accountability is the requirement for public reasoning in conformity with publicly available norms and procedures. Thus, process has value beyond its impact on outcomes. Without such institutional controls, we rely on blind faith in judges rather than holding them accountable to publicly accessible standards.

Two Methodological Concerns

Bhuwania’s case studies deal with PILs relating to urban governance in Delhi. He does not explain why these cases exemplify problems with PILs across the board. Further, and more importantly, Bhuwania’s case studies –the Delhi Vehicular Pollution case, the Delhi Industrial Pollution case (in its many iterations), and Delhi Slum Demolition cases – are all instances of bad process and bad outcomes. They instantiate Bhuwania’s points about the ways in which procedural safeguards are given a go-by in PILs and the impact that this has on the lives of those affected. Missing in this narrative are the counter-factuals that would explain why these cases were able to achieve what they did. Take for example Vishaka – by most accounts a good PIL in terms of its outcome. Why is it that the Vehicular Pollution case was able to wreck havoc on public transport in the city but Vishaka, despite its widespread celebration, had little impact on the daily lives of women? Why is it that the courts were able to get the state to take swift action in Bhuwania’s case studies (expect in parts of the Industrial Pollution case), but failed drastically in the implementation of the Vishaka guidelines so much so that the Supreme Court was itself in violation of the guidelines for 16 years?

Another example is the ongoing AADHAR litigation where the government is flouting the Court’s orders with impunity. What accounts for the devastating and immediate impact of some orders, and not of others? Is there a story to be told here about actors outside the judicial realm that make PIL possible? I believe there is a need to develop non-institutional accounts of PILs – of the ways and means through which the pronouncements of courts are enacted upon the lives of people, and the modalities through which they are resisted. In such a telling, PILs are not only about judges or amici, and change happens not only because judges decree it, or wield extensive contempt powers. The impact of PILs often stems from reasons beyond the judicial realm such as political will, consonance with dominant ideologies, etc. In Bhuwania’s own examples, he narrates the importance of particular political dispensations and executives who were in tune with the court’s own approach to urban governance – and the impact this had on the implementation of court orders. In this sense, it is not only the process of PILs that makes specific kinds of politics possible. PILs are as much about the out of court personnel and indeed the ideological realm in which the order is received. Counter-factuals like Vishaka, etc would have enabled such deeper interrogation of the operation of PILs.

Finally, if we agree with the problems posed by PILs, what is the alternative? Bhuwania argues for a judicial role conception grounded in John Hart Ely’s influential theory of representation-reinforcement – the idea that the proper scope of judicial review is to facilitate the working of the democratic process. Judicial intervention in decisions of the elected branches of government should be limited to those instances where the democratic channels are ineffective, and the mode of intervention should be such as to ensure that these channels are open to democratic practices. Those who are likely to be perpetual losers in majoritarian processes – like discrete and insular minorities – should receive greater attention and “heightened judicial solicitude” to ensure that their rights are protected within the democratic sphere.

Bhuwania unfortunately does not explain why Ely’s formulation of the judicial role is suitable for the Indian judiciary. It is important to recall that Ely’s work is part of a series of interventions that were responding to Alexander Bickel’s concerns about the “counter-majoritarian” difficulty in judicial review in the American context. Ely theory was formulated as a response to this legitimacy concern regarding judicial review. The entire model – the legitimacy concern as well as responses to it – are grounded in a very Anglo Saxon conception of the relationship between state and citizen and judiciary and other branches of government. As Bhuwania himself outlines in his initial chapters, India (and indeed many post-colonial constitutional orders) have adopted a different, more interventionist conception of the state. Why is this restrained model of judicial intervention appropriate for judiciaries in such states?

Bhuwania makes the point that just as we should not buy into the Anglo-Saxon model of judicial review simply because it provides a readymade template, we should not also celebrate departures from the model only because it is a departure. While this is true, and it is not my argument that the Indian experience is “incomparable” or that we cannot learn from Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions, there are other models that are more suited as comparators for India. The growing literature on global south constitutionalism which seeks to locate the role of courts in the particular political and material realities of third world countries might be more a relevant interlocutor on the issue of the appropriate role of the judiciary. After all, context does matter, even if it isn’t everything.

(Aparna Chandra is an Assistant Professor of Law and Research Director, Centre for Constitutional Law, Policy and Governance, National Law University Delhi. She teaches constitutional law, constitutional theory and human rights)

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ICLP Book Discussion: Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People’ – II: Shields, Swords, and Where Do We Go From Here?

(We continue our discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s new book, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India, that began with an introductory post last week).

I do not have much by way of substantive disagreement with the seven theses advanced by Anuj Bhuwania in his foundational critique of the Supreme Court’s public interest litigation jurisprudence. In this essay, I will, instead, seek to extend his arguments further, and raise a few questions about what follows from his final conclusion.

A Minor Quibble

First, a minor note of dissent. Bhuwania points out that the rise of public interest litigation was accompanied by a patronising judicial attitude towards the “people” in whose name PIL was justified, and also “a looseness of legal language“, which entered the judicial domain with Justice Bhagwati (p. 117). I think this is too strong a claim. Paternalism and loose legal language did not begin with PIL. Both are in strong evidence, for example, in Ranjit Udeshi vs State of Maharashtrawhere a five-judge Bench ruled on the constitutionality of obscenity, and whether or not Lady Chatterley’s Lover was obscene. Chief Justice Hidayatullah, speaking for the Court, not only adopted the ultra-paternalistic, Victorian Hicklin Test for obscenity, but also attempted a literary analysis of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – with predictably disastrous results. In K.A. Abbas vs Union of India, the same judge upheld pre-censorship of films on the basis of how the coordination of “visual and aural” senses necessitated more stringent restrictions for cinema than for the written word. In a different domain, in Sastri Yagnapurushadji vs Muldasthe Supreme Court substituted its own understanding of Hinduism for the understanding of the religious sect that had brought the case to Court. Paternalism, I would submit, did not originate with PIL, even though PIL might have given the Court much more leeway to be paternalistic. Rather, it has been a continuing issue with the way the Court has approached questions of rights, and in many ways – as has been argued – it has tended to mirror and continue colonial logic.

The Shields that Failed

Civil Rights and Guidelines

In his opening chapter, Bhuwania makes the following provocative claim:

“… the delegitimisation of legal procedure that accompanied the rise of PIL in India… has actually made it easier for courts to justify and overlook departures from the basic principles of criminal procedure that mark such [i.e., special criminal] statutes.” 

Let us take this argument further. One speciality of PIL, which the book does not excavate in too much detail, is the Court’s penchant to take over executive (and sometimes legislative) functions, by laying down “guidelines” in cases where it feels that the statute is inadequate (e.g., D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengalguidelines for arrest), or non-existent (Vishaka vs State of Rajasthansexual harassment at the workplace). There is, of course, a separate separation of powers critique of this practice, which has been a hallmark of PIL since it began. However, there is a deeper issue as well: we see that the habit of laying down guidelines subsequently migrates from PILs to core civil liberties cases. For instance, in Kartar Singh vs State of Punjab, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the anti-terror statute, TADAincluding the fact that TADA made confessions to a police officer admissible, but also laid down “guidelines” to ensure that the confessions are not “tainted by any vice“. In Naga Peoples’ Movement on Human Rights vs Union of India, the same thing happened with the constitutionality of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (these cases occur around the same time as D.K. Basu and Vishaka). The framing of “guidelines” effectively gave the Court what can only be called an easy cop-out: it was able to uphold the validity of these laws, while satisfying its conscience by laying down guidelines to prevent “abuse”.

The problems with this approach are manifold. First, the very fact that the Court felt the need to lay down “guidelines” suggests that in the absence of such guidelines, there were grave doubts about the constitutionality of those statutes. But is it a constitutional court’s job to bend over backwards to rescue an otherwise unconstitutional statute by inserting “guidelines” into it, where none existed? Should not the Court instead strike down the statute, and let the legislature do its job of bringing it in line with the Constitution? And furthermore, what the Court did in these cases goes against the grain of international constitutional practice. It is well-accepted that a facially unconstitutional statute cannot be saved by executive guidelines that narrow or clarify its scope: the law must stand or fall in its own right. However, in cases such as Kartar Singh and Naga Peoples’ Movement, the Court decided that it could do what it would not permit the Executive.

Secondly, it need hardly be stated that the Supreme Court’s guidelines have very little traction on the ground (a good example is how arrests under the sedition law continue to be made despite repeated issuance and endorsement of “guidelines”). This, of course, is one of the standard internal critiques of PIL: the Court simply isn’t in a position to actually enforce or implement its guidelines. Unlike in PIL, however, there is a much greater problem in civil rights cases: the statute continues to operate, and the Court’s “guidelines” are never followed.

In sum, incorporating PIL-style reasoning into civil liberties cases effectively ensures that constitutional civil rights become parchment barriers, because a Court can always convince itself that it has adequately addressed the problem by laying down guidelines. The guidelines option spares the Court from having to make a stark moral choice: either subordinate civil rights to presumed national security concerns entirely, or affirm the centrality of those rights by striking down the law. Bhuwania’s invitation in Chapter One, therefore, must be taken up seriously. Close attention ought to be paid to how PIL-style reasoning has migrated to other domains, and what effects this has had.

Equality and Article 21

Since the 1980s, constitutional jurisdictions across the world have made significant conceptual advances in their understanding of the right to equality. The courts of Canada, South Africa, Colombia, and the European Court of Human Rights, to name just a few, have developed nuanced and detailed interpretations of equality, that have moved away from a formal classification test, and have embraced ideas of structural and institutional disadvantage. It is striking how this development has entirely bypassed the Indian Supreme Court. In the decades since E.P. Royappa vs State of Tamil Naduwhen the Court added “arbitrariness” to the classification test under Article 14, equality has virtually stood still.

I suggest that this is in significant part because the rise of PIL, along with the expansion of Article 21 (an aspect that Bhuwania flags, but does not explore in great detail), has spared the Court the onerous task of developing a sophisticated vision of constitutional equality. Cases that might otherwise have come to the Court as equality cases (such as, for instance, Olga Tellis and Vishaka), and which would have required the Court to grapple with issues of structural and institutional disadvantage, instead came as PILs, which the Court dealt with by creating a behemoth out of Article 21, stipulating a limitless remedial power, and developing enforcement-oriented doctrines such as the continuing mandamus. After all, why take the trouble of developing a disciplined equality jurisprudence, when Article 21 is given an infinite substantive scope, and PIL allows for an equally infinite remedial scope?

It is not my suggestion that the Court would necessarily have risen to the challenge (Air India vs Nargesh Mirza should stand as a sobering reminder about what the Court actually did when faced with a core gender equality claim) – as it was not my suggestion that without the escape-hatch of guidelines, the Court would have developed a strong civil rights jurisprudence. However, it is my suggestion that PIL and Article 21 allowed the Court to avoid precisely those difficult questions about disadvantage and subordination that it would have been forced to otherwise confront.

Consequently, while Bhuwania’s arguments about PIL are well-taken, I would suggest that we need to go a little further: we need to critically examine the debilitating impact that PIL has had on the rest of our Part III jurisprudence.

The Sword that Smote

Not only has PIL had an stultifying impact on the development of our civil rights jurisprudence, but it is increasingly being used as a sword to cut down civil rights. This is an issue that I have written about repeatedly before, so I will only summarise it here. First, the massive expansion of Article 21 first resulted in a situation where that right became more or less a dead letter; now, however, it has been revived in another guise: to cut down the scope of other fundamental rights. The most glaring example of this is the recent Supreme Court judgment upholding criminal defamation, where the Court first read in a right to reputation under Article 21, and then used that to hold that a “balance” must be achieved with Article 19(1)(a). Typically, this “balance” entailed completely subordinating the guaranteed fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) to the mythical, unenumerated right to “reputation” under Article 21.

However, there is another, even more insidious process under way, where PILs are being used to directly infringe fundamental rights. This has been most clearly visible in a number of freedom of expression cases in recent times, culminating in the ongoing national anthem proceedings before the Supreme Court. I think that Bhuwania’s core argument – that the vast, almost unchecked substantive and procedural power that PIL grants judges, makes it uniquely susceptible to the vagaries of judicial ideology, is particularly apposite in cases such as these. As Bhuwania argues, you cannot divide PILs into “good” and “bad” depending on the outcome: the very features that allow a “good” PIL to occur also ensure that you will have bad PILs. Similarly, the very features that allowed the Court to fashion wide-ranging remedies to ostensibly protect rights, now allow a differently-composed Court to use that judicial approach to cut down rights which would otherwise have been protected under the doctrine of separation of powers, or jurisdictional limits.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is almost trite to say that PILs are here to stay. However much we may want to go back to the 1970s, it’s clear that it is far too late in the day for that. But here’s another question: do we actually want to go back to the 1970s? Do we actually want to put strict rules of locus standi back in place, and retreat into a legal formalism that comes with its own problems of exclusion and marginalisation?

To be fair to Bhuwania, this is not his proposed solution either. However, he does seem to argue that PIL comes to us as a package deal: take it all, warts and all, or abandon it for something better.

I’m not so sure. To substantiate my argument, let me point to a case that I think highlights the uniquely transformative potential of PIL. This is PUDR vs Union of India, a 1982 judgment handed down by one of Bhuwania’s chief villains (and with good reason), Justice Bhagwati. PUDR involved the non-implementation of labour laws on construction projects for the Asian Games and, in particular, the non-payment of minimum wages. PUDR’s petition was held to be maintainable because it satisfied the requirements of a PIL; after that, however, Justice Bhagwati engaged in a rigorous examination of the (nearly vestigial) Article 23 of the Constitution, and held that the phrase “forced labour” included not only physical coercion, but economic compulsion as well. The case was ultimately decided on this reading of the Article.

In my view, PUDR is a case that combined the locus relaxation of PILs, with rigorous constitutional reasoning, and a deep constitutional vision. At a conceptual level, if there is any case that justifies the existence of PILs, I think it is this one. Perhaps it is in PUDR that we have an answer to Bhuwania’s challenge: there are elements of PIL (such as allowing parties to approach the Court on behalf of those who genuinely cannot access it) that can be married to interpretive constitutional fidelity, which together craft a powerful constitutional jurisprudence. But perhaps the very fact that there has been only one PUDR reminds us of the force of Bhuwania’s challenge.

In closing, I only want to reiterate that Courting the People deserves to be – and probably will be – an instant classic. In decades of PIL literature, we finally have a book where “realities have taken the place of words… by striking aside the protective, concealing crown” – words such as “demosprudence”, “social action litigation”, and the crowned belief that PIL somehow continues to be – or was ever – the “last refuge of the oppressed and the bewildered.” This is a book that everyone should read.

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