[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against the Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]
[This is a blog post by Abhinav Sekhri, first published on The Proof of Guilt, and cross-posted with permission.]
“Preventive Detention” is a phrase that is inextricably bound with the history of the Indian Constitution. The Constituent Assembly affirmed the power for future governments to pass such laws, and only later got around to debating the restraints surrounding them. As a result, despite Article 22 having been inserted to serve as the minimal constitutional threshold to check abuse of preventive detention, it has often been treated as a constitutional recognition for the notion that the fundamental right to personal liberty requires restraints “for the good of the people.”
The decision of the Supreme Court in Union of India v. Dimple Happy Dhakad [Crl. Appeal No. 1064 of 2019 & connected petitions, “Dhakad“] shows a clear preference for the latter, mistaken view, over the former. By affirming the use of preventive detention in a situation where no “prevention” was really at stake, while at the same time diluting the high burden usually imposed on the state for requesting preventive detention in such cases, the Supreme Court took a dangerous step towards normalising what was meant to be a measure of the absolute last resort. In doing so, it compounded the slide towards normalising preventive detention already being witnessed across states, which have used this tool to deal with bullying and cattle theft, among other issues.
Understanding Preventive Detention
Despite the perceived familiarity with preventive detention, it still serves us well to remind ourselves just what exactly is meant by the phrase, and how different this regime is from the normal “punitive” system of criminal justice.
In the regular course, the police or other agencies can only take steps to restrain personal liberty after some illegal conduct has taken place. There must be something, beyond mere thoughts, to justify why a person should be arrested and thus denied the most basic of freedoms. This regular course is turned on its head under the preventive detention regime. Here, waiting for some conduct to manifest itself is considered a fatal delay, and therefore, the police is allowed to arrest persons merely suspected of engaging in illegal activities, or about to engage in them.
The dissimilarities with the regular process only increase from this point. In the preventive detention regime, a has no right to be informed immediately about the grounds of arrest and detention, and in some cases might never learn of the grounds if it is against public interest. The detenu can challenge the detention order, but has no right to legal assistance. Further, all hearings take place behind closed doors, robbing a person of the sense of fairness that a public hearing entails. Although one can challenge Detention orders in writ proceedings, the Writ Court can only interfere on limited grounds.
At its very best, preventive detention is a useful tool to ensure the safety of society. At any other level, it is a convenient means to suppress dissent, disregard individual liberty, and nullify the presumption of innocence. It can very quickly transform into a tool to justify the continued incarceration of “unwanted” persons through a process with minimal procedural safeguards, without ever making efforts to prove their alleged infractions.
Preventive Detention in the Ordinary Process
The legal position on passing preventive detention orders against persons already in custody, in connection with cases filed in the regular criminal justice system, is perhaps one of the most peculiar aspects of the Indian criminal process. One would think that since a person is already in custody, the urgency surrounding preventive detention is all but lost. This is not so.
Time and again, detention orders are passed against persons who are anticipated to be released on bail at any moment. The perceived threat from their release is considered so grave as to justify a detention order anticipating this eventuality.
The litany of judicial decisions covering this peculiar aspect of our criminal process always struggle to maintain a balance between the interests of security and the interests of liberty. It would be fair to say that a common theme through all these decisions is a requirement that the government must clearly establish that there is an imminent possibility of release, and that there is a grave likelihood of the person returning to the prejudicial activities that had necessitated his arrest/detention in the first place. [See, Rekha v. State of Tamil Nadu, (2011) 5 SCC 244]
Dimple Happy Dhakad
Having thus fleshed out the basic legal position on these issues, we can now proceed to the recent decision in Dhakad. This was yet another case where persons who had already been arrested under the regular criminal process were made the subject of a Preventive Detention order [Under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act, 1974 (COFEPOSA)]. Here, the arrests occurred in March 2019 in connection with alleged gold smuggling. Bail applications filed by the accused in April had been rejected once. When the accused filed fresh bail applications in May, then the government authorised the Detention Order. The Bombay High Court set aside the orders (W.P. 2844 of 2019, decided on 25.06.2019), and this decision is what was overturned by the Supreme Court.
The arguments in Dhakad were on the lines as above. Appealing against the Bombay High Court order, the Union of India laid stress on the gravity of the allegations and the security interests at stake. The respondents/accused strived to show that the detention orders had not been passed with the required degree of care and attention, and had instead been passed in a most routine and mechanical manner. They were assisted by the fact that the Detention order did not even mention anything about an imminent possibility of release, or about the likelihood of the accused persons returning to their prejudicial activities.
Moreover, in their haste to pass the Detention orders, the authorities had committed basic errors; such as (i) adding documents created after the decision to pass the detention order had been made, as part of the material relied upon for passing the Detention orders and (ii) not supplying the said relied upon material together with the grounds of the detention order, despite the order stating that this material was in fact being supplied. While it was never expressly mentioned in the Supreme Court’s opinion, the fact that the investigation had been ongoing for almost 2 months before the Detention orders were passed was a circumstance that had found favour with the Bombay High Court, to conclude that there was no reason for any delay in them being supplied with the materials upon which the authorities had relied for passing the detention orders.
Issue 1: Non-Supply of Documents
There is limited value in dissecting all that is wrong with the Supreme Court‘s decision in Dhakad, so let us focus on the core aspects. The Court spends great time in telling us that Section 3(3) of the COFEPOSA, and Article 22(5) of the Constitution, have not been breached because all documents were supplied within the statutorily prescribed timeframe of five days. Similarly, it tells us that non-compliance with Executive Guidelines is no grounds for setting aside the Order. Sadly, that is besides the point, because the argument was not about a statutory lapse on part of the authorities or about non-compliance with Guidelines per se. Instead, it was argued that by failing to provide documents, even after specifically noting in the Detention Order that the same are being provided, showed a clear lack of care on the part of the authorities and laid bare the mechanical manner in which the orders were passed. Further, the Supreme Court seems to have ignored the point, that a document prepared after the decision to pass the detention orders was made had found a place in the list of materials relied upon to pass this order, again suggesting that the Detention order had been passed without proper application of mind.
Issue 2: Failure to Consider Pre-Existing Detention
Which then brings me to the main issue, on the usage of Preventive Detention in cases already being prosecuted under the regular criminal process. The Supreme Court seems to have entirely missed the point about holding the government to a high standard of care in situations where both, the regular criminal process and the extraordinary means of preventive detention, are employed. The recitations of decisions emphasising the urgency of preventive detention, in a case where the accused persons had already been arrested and had been languishing in jail for almost 2 months, is almost laughable if it were not tragic.
The Court reasoned that the existence of an imminent possibility of release, as well as likelihood of further prejudicial conduct by the accused persons upon release, were issues that depended upon the “subjective satisfaction” of the authority and thus was beyond the scope of judicial review. Now, there is no debate that the scope of judicial review of Detention orders is limited. But, at the same time, it is also true that the Supreme Court has made consistent efforts to expand the possibilities for review to ensure fairness. Two examples are striking. First, the Court judicial created a requirement that the allegation must have a “live link” with the present to justify a need for preventive detention, in a bid to prevent persons being detained on the basis of stale allegations that had not been tested for years [See, Bhawarlal Ganeshmalji v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1979) 1 SCC 465]. Second, the Court also assented to testing the grounds to examine whether they were so arbitrary and vague so as to render it impossible to challenge the Detention order [See, Prabhu Dayal Deorah v. D.M., Kamrup, (1974) 1 SCC 103].
This trend of heightened review is what led to the common theme identified in the previous section, of the Supreme Court consistently placing a higher threshold on detention authorities to justify use of Preventive Detention in cases already being processed in the regular criminal process. Requiring that the Detention order explicitly refers to the possibility of release and likelihood of re-offending does not impinge upon the subjective satisfaction of the authority. It only provides a clear basis for assuming that the authority did indeed consider these issues, and prevent the kind of inferential exercises that the Court resorted to in Dhakad.
The most telling circumstance in Dhakad only emerged after the Detention orders were passed and thus is not expressly mentioned in the Supreme Court decision: The customs authorities failed to complete their investigation within the statutorily prescribed time limit, entitling Dhakad and others to statutory bail under Section 167(2), Cr.P.C.. The only reason why they were not released was the Detention orders. Thus, the customs authorities had used Preventive Detention to cover their inability to finish an investigation in time, and also deny the accused yet another vested right in the criminal process. It is practice that has been chided by the Delhi High Court on different occasions (See, here, and here), but has not been the subject of consideration in any reported Supreme Court opinions that I could find.
Thankfully, the opinion in Dhakad does not expressly record that the possibility of being released on statutory bail is a compelling enough reason to invoke Preventive Detention. But this is perhaps the only positive note that the decision strikes. Yet again, the Supreme Court ended up being drawn in by the lure of preventing a politically undesirable outcome — the possibility of releasing alleged gold smugglers on bail — and in the process ended up glossing over the procedural safeguards that are the bedrock of the liberty it is constitutionally committed to protect.