[This is a guest post by Abhinav Sekhri, and is cross-posted with permission from The Proof of Guilt blog, where it first appeared.]
On August 11, the Supreme Court had requested the Allahabad High Court to expeditiously decide the habeas corpus petition filed by Nuzhat Perween for her son, Dr. Kafeel Khan. The petition challenged orders for his preventive detention under the National Security Act of 1980 (NSA) that were passed on February 13, 2020. Initially filed before the Supreme Court in February itself, the petition was sent to the Allahabad High Court in March, where it was heard multiple times before, finally, on 01.09.2020 a Two Judges’ Bench passed a judgment in Nuzhat Perween v. State of UP and Anr., [Habeas Corpus WP No. 264 of 2020 (decided on 01.09.2020)] declaring the detention order illegal and directing Dr. Khan’s immediate release.
Unlike that last time that a judicial authority directed his release on 10.02.2020, following which Dr. Khan was not released but instead led to the impugned detention order being passed, this time Dr. Khan has indeed stepped out of prison and as of now has not been arrested in any other proceedings.
Background to the Preventive Detention
Dr. Khan’s prevention detention under the NSA is only the most recent episode of the state machinery training its attention on him and depriving him of his personal liberty, only for a judicial authority to direct his release.
According to the state, what prompted the order on 13.02.2020 was a public speech given by Dr. Khan in Aligarh to a group of students on 12.12.2019, i.e. an event more than two months old. It was stated that the speech incited feelings of communal disharmony and it also lent itself to violent protests by groups of students on 13th and 15th December in Aligarh District. The proposal for preventive detention, made on the same date as the order, stated that “Since the fierce and communal speech given by him has had an adverse and unfavourable impact on the public order of the District, therefore it is very important to keep this person detained in jail to maintain the public order. (emphasis mine)” Take a close look at the last line above — preventive detention was necessary to keep Dr. Khan in jail. Why was he in jail, you ask? Because following the speech of 12.12.2019, a case was registered at P.S. Civil Lines, Aligarh, in the early hours of 13.12.2019 alleging inter alia that the speech incites communal disharmony. Dr. Khan was not immediately arrested in this case, but was ultimately taken into custody from Mumbai on 29.01.2020. He filed for bail, a request which was naturally opposed by the state. Despite the opposition, however, bail was granted on 10.02.2020. Two observations in the bail order are important: first, the Court rebuffed the state claim about the accused repeating the offence by stating that this would be grounds to challenge his bail, and; second, the court placed a bail condition upon Dr. Khan to “ not repeat the crime in the future”.
What happened next is in keeping with the worst traditions of how governments run in our republic, witnessed from the days of A.K. Gopalan itself (no, not his Supreme Court case). The bail order was passed but not given effect to by the executive. Two days later, on 13.02.2020, the trial court passed another order directing jail authorities to release Dr. Khan and directed its delivery by Special Messenger. However, the state claimed this was only received at 8:20 PM in the evening, by which time the preventive detention order had been proposed by the Officer in Charge of PS Civil Lines, sponsored by the Deputy Inspector General of Police, and authorised by the District Magistrate, Aligarh.
Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that Dr. Khan’s preventive detention was specifically required because of the incident of December, 2019. Rather, the need was only perceived by the U.P. Government once a competent court had applied its mind to the allegations against Dr. Khan in the regular course of law, and found that there was no reason to prolong his pre-trial custody any further.
The Allahabad High Court Verdict
Before proceeding to the order that came to be passed in the habeas corpus petition, it must be mentioned that it took close to six months for a decision to be made in the matter. Even if we exclude the time the petition was in the Supreme Court, it is still an inordinate delay for what is arguably the most crucial kind of case before courts — one directly concerning the liberty of a citizen.
Having said that, the short judgment of 42 pages does not waste too much time in getting down to the matter. The petition challenged the order of 13.02.2020 on three broad prongs: (i) there was no material for ordering preventive detention and it was intended to subvert the judicial process; (ii) the detenue was not supplied with all material thus denied a right to file an effective representation against his detention, and; (iii) the concerned government had unduly delayed the consideration of his representation against detention. I will only focus on (i) and (ii), as the judgment is restricted to a consideration of only these grounds. On both these legal issues, the Allahabad High Court has made some important observations.
Let’s look at (ii) first because this is a small point. The High Court noted that while Dr. Khan had been given a CD with the speech ascribed to him, he was not given any means to play this disc. Neither was he supplied with any transcript of this speech, which was the primary basis for his preventive detention. This was unconscionable, and the Court rightly held it so, finding that this conduct on part of the state government deprived the detenue of his constitutional right to make an effective representation against his detention.
Preventive Detention and Subjective Satisfaction
The Allahabad High Court was asked to consider the contents of the speech given by Dr. Khan in December 2019 to decide whether a reasonable person could apprehend any disturbance to public order based on his exhortations. The Court’s approach in this regard is important and requires a brief excursus to explain the legal position on how challenges to preventive detention orders are to be treated by the judiciary.
The law on preventive detention is an executive-driven process: it is an extraordinary power that executive officials have in India to make sure that imminent threats to public disorder etc. can be addressed swiftly without going through the rigour of the regular criminal process. The primacy given to the executive requires that in any subsequent challenge to a detention order, judges cannot substitute their mind for the subjective satisfaction of the executive official who made the decision in the heat of the moment. The judge cannot place herself in the shoes of the police officer.
At the same time, however, this doctrine of respecting the subjective satisfaction of executive officials is not a license for abdicating the judicial function entirely when considering a challenge to preventive detention. Courts must still apprise themselves of the materials presented before the detaining authority to decide if the decision to authorise preventive detention was arbitrary and unreasonable. There is no running away from the fact that the lines being drawn here are fuzzy, and while it moves some courts to be excessively deferential to the executive, it equally allows other courts to keenly consider the facts without overstepping the limits of the judicial function or abdicating it entirely.
In Nuzhat Perween, the Allahabad High Court clearly took the latter approach:
“We are in absolute agreement with learned Additional Advocate General that it is not open for the courts to substitute their opinion by interfering with “subjective satisfaction of the detaining authority”. However, it does not mean that the court cannot look into the material on which detention is based. The expression “subjective satisfaction” means the satisfaction of a reasonable man that can be arrived at on the basis of some material which satisfies a rational man. It does not refer to whim or caprice of the authority concerned. While assessing “subjective satisfaction of the detaining authority” the Court examining a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus has to look into the record to examine whether the subjective satisfaction is acceptable to a reasonable wisdom and that satisfies rationality of normal thinking and analyzing process. … In view of above, we have looked into the speech delivered by the detenue. The closure of examining record as suggested would be nothing but a licence to allow the executives to act at their whims or caprice. This would be against the fundamentals of our constitutional values and provisions. (Emphasis Mine)”
In line with this approach, the High Court looked at materials forming the basis for the detention order in detail. The judgment quotes the entirety of Dr. Khan’s 23 minute-long speech made on December 12, to demonstrate how the police requests for preventive detention in this case had, in fact, not presented the authority with the complete picture. Instead, the police had patched up different parts of Dr. Khan’s speech to present a different picture altogether from what appeared to be the speaker’s intention. It held, therefore, that based on this material it was impossible to conclude that Dr. Khan’s activities were such as to prejudice the maintenance of public order.
Punitive Preventive Detention
The peculiar facts leading up to the detention order of 13.02.2020 have been extracted above, and it was argued that this demonstrates that the two months’ delay in passing the order, and its expeditious authorisation after Dr. Khan’s bail, all went to show that the preventive detention order was actuated by malice and not based on any genuine grounds.
This is a more tedious issue than what might appear at first blush. It is because the Supreme Court has, on countless occasions, held that it is not illegal to pass a preventive detention order in cases where the person is already in custody and about to be released on bail. Most recently, this was confirmed by the Court in Dimple Happy Dhakad [AIR 2019 SC 3428] (Discussed on this Blog as well). Technically then, preventing Dr. Khan’s release on bail was a legally valid ground for the U.P. Government to take.
This is really the twilight zone when it comes to preventive detention, where the preventive setup inextricably merges with the regular criminal process. The only justifiable premise for passing a preventive detention order in respect of a person who is about to be released on bail is if the authority can demonstrate that there is a continuing threat which did not dissipate once the regular criminal process has taken charge of the matter. This is not unimaginable — organised crime has many stories of rackets being run from prison. But it must be a very hard sell for the executive and it cannot be a means to pile-on incarceration upon persons deemed undesirable by the state. Not only would such delayed preventive detention orders turn the concept on its head — where is the prevention if the person was already in jail for months after the incident! — but it would also directly subvert the determination made by a competent court that there was no need for a person’s continued incarceration. At a macro-level, repeat occurrences of this phenomenon place an undeniable strain upon the relationship between the executive and judiciary, and give rise to an unconstitutional chimera of punitive preventive detention that hollows out the right to personal liberty from within.
This is why courts must arguably be more vigilant while entertaining challenges to preventive detention orders in such cases where bail order is passed and, in some way, circumvented — as the Supreme Court has also emphasised on some occasions in the past. This is exactly the kind of approach on display in Nuzhat Perween, where the Allahabad High Court noted that:
“The exact nature of the contents of the lecture delivered by the detenue on 12.12.2019 at the Bab-e-Syed Gate of the AMU (as claimed by the state authorities), even if accepted to be correct, it cannot be overlooked that, that material could not be relevant for the purpose of satisfaction being drawn two months thereafter, inasmuch during that period of two months, undisputedly, the detenue neither visited the city of Aligarh nor he made any further or other speech or lecture connected thereto nor there is any material shown to us that the detenue was about to commit any act in furtherance thereto or was going to deliver any other speech or lecture connected thereto as may have prejudiced the public order.”
There was no fresh alleged illegal activity between December and February which prompted the order of 13.02.2020, even though Dr. Khan had been at liberty throughout that time. There was not even a proposal to pass an order for his preventive detention in that period. The first time when the idea came to the government was after the bail order was passed. For the Court, all this pointed to a conclusion that the gap of two months’ snapped whatever link existed between the allegedly offending conduct of Dr. Khan with a need to require his preventive detention.
Our Slow-Moving Wheels of Justice
The story of Dr. Khan and the manner in which the preventive detention machinery was clearly misused by the state government to keep a dissident behind bars is a tale as old as time itself. Small wonder why the writ of habeas corpus has such a celebrated position in societies. Indian courts have not had the most shining of records in terms of processing habeas petitions over the past few years and the delay that it took for Dr. Khan’s petition to be heard speaks to this serious systemic problem. But, ultimately, a court did apply its mind, and restore a person’s liberty.
The episode reminds me of a scene from the movie Shahid, where the young, imprisoned, Shahid Azmi is told by War Saab (played by KK Menon) that the wheels of justice turn slowly in India, but they do eventually turn.
Well, eventually, I guess they do.