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Soli Sorabjee’s writ petition in the Supreme Court asking it to order the government to take measures to effectively deal with terrorism has created quite an interest amongst legal circles. Law and Other Things has detailed posts on it and Abhinav Chandrachud gives and interesting analysis on the ‘Right against Terror’ here.

I also have written here that the petition rests on the rationale that there is a Constitutional duty of the State to protect its citizens under Article 21; where as the Court earlier hasn’t stated any such duty.

In this post, I would like to explore another dimension to this writ. If the contentions in the writ be accepted then it is my opinion that it would have serious consequences on the way the government is run under the Constitution. My argument is that while judicial interference in legislative and executive functions already takes place, doing so in matters of policy and security of the State is warranted neither by the Constitution nor Constitutional law and doing so would belittle the idea of constitutional supremacy.

A reading of Article 355 would allow us to infer that it is the foremost duty of the central government to defend the borders of the Country. This also includes a duty to prevent any internal disturbance and maintain law and order. However, in as early as 1959, the Supreme Court in Memon Haji Ismail’s case held that declarations of war & matters concerning the defence of India are instances on which a Court cannot form any judgment. ‘defence of India’ could include both external aggression and internal disturbance. It could also be that they are to be considered as matters of policy and the Court cannot in any way tell the centre as to how the Government should be run.

Having established that the defence of the Country is exclusively in the realm of the Central Government, in State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, the Court held that it cannot assume unto itself powers the Constitution lodges elsewhere or undertake tasks entrusted to the Constitution to other departments of the State which may be better equipped to perform them.

“Questions of political wisdom or executive policy only could not be subject to judicial control. So long as such policy operates in its own sphere, its operations are immune from judicial process.”

Thus, asking the Centre by a writ to better equip the police and forces with the latest weapons would be interfering into a realm exclusive to the executive.

But in my opinion, the starkest revelation to the dangers of what may happen have been put forth by Justice BN Shrikrishna’s article titled ‘Skinning the Cat’ (2005) 8 SCC (jour) 3 where in he says;

“I wish to point to a recent and disturbing trend of using the judiciary to second guess unambiguously legislative and executive powers. Indeed, our judges have succumbed to the temptation to interfere even with well- recognized executive powers such as treaty making and foreign relations. …

One Shudders to think whither this trend could lead- whether, for example, the constitutionality of a declaration of war or peace treaty (or matter concerning the defence of the Country) could also be questioned in a Court of law? If the courts were to strike down the peace treaty as being unconstitutional, would the armed forces be compelled to pursue the war under judicial mandamus?

Indeed my mind boggles at such eventualities, however improbable they may appear, given the new found enthusiasm for judicial activism in areas that are inarguable no pasaran (they shall not pass) for the judges”

Perhaps Justice Shrikrishna’s fears may just come true with this case.

 


Sarabnanda Sonowal v. Union of India, (2005) 5 SCC 665.

(1977) 3 SCC 592

 

 

This comes as news to all the politicos in Andhra Pradesh wanting to form Telangana.

The AP High Court has now reserved its order on a PIL on whether the government has the power to divide a state into smaller states.

The petition is based on the contention that a state cannot be bifurcated without the consent of its people and going by this; Amendments 5 and 7 to Article 3 of the Constitution should be declared unconstitutional.

“Article 3 of the Constitution gives the power to the Parliament to form a new state or alter areas or boundaries. Under the Constitution, the State legislature has no role to play in this act. Though the President is bound to refer the Bill to the state legislature; in Babulal v. State of Bombay, AIR 1960 SC 51, it was held that the Parliament is not bound to accept or act upon the views of the State Legislature.”

 

On a political front, this case may have a huge impact on the upcoming AP state elections where Telangana can now again become an issue.

On a legal front, the consequences are much greater. It was after IR Coelho v. State of Tamil Nadu that amendments to the Constitution were open to challenge to the basic structure and the rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19 and 21. However, it was held that only those amendments after 1973 would be open to challenge.

Challenging the 3rd and 5th Amendments now would be against the ruling in Coelho’s case and it would interesting to see how the Court goes about to answer this question. 

PS: The Article was in the TOI issue dated 24th Jan 2009 in the HYD “times city” section. I cannot get the link and shall upload it as soon as i get hold of it. 

I learnt today that apparently the Chief Justice and his office do not constitute a ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information Act.

This, after the Supreme Court petitioned the Delhi High Court against an order passed by the Central Information Commission asking the CJI to disclose as to whether the judges of the Supreme Court were disclosing their assets to him.

 

In a brief background to the situation, a resolution was passed on May 7, 1997 requiring every judge to declare to the CJI assets including properties or any other investment in the name of their spouse and any person dependent on them.  Earlier petitions regarding the disclosure of assets of judges under the RTI were dismissed on the ground of such information not being in the ‘public domain’. However, in this order, the CIC did not ask for the disclosure of assets but as to whether the practice set out in the resolution of 1997 was still being followed.

 

In the petition before the Delhi High Court, the Supreme Court (as a petitioner) stated that this practice was only ‘informal’ in nature and that there was nothing in the Constitution or any other law ‘mandating’ the judges of the Supreme Court to disclose their assets to the CJI. I now know that the Delhi High Court has issued a stay on the CIC order and the next date of hearing is set on 12th February 2009.

Questions are raised when the most powerful organ of the Government sheds and denies any degree of accountability upon itself. In Association of Democratic Reforms v. Union of India, the Court had asked candidates standing for elections to disclose their assets stating that in a democracy, those in power must behave responsibly and know that they ultimately work at the behest of the people. Much earlier, it had asked IAS officers to disclose their assets and ordered authorities to keep a check on them.

At both the above instances, the Court judged on the basis that the Right to information was a constitutional and fundamental right of the citizens; thus holding that in the case of the legislature and the executive, this right must not be denied to the citizens. The Right to Information Act was passed to give effect to this constitutional right.

However, when the Apex Court denies this responsibility upon itself and ensures its performance among other organs of government, it is using double standards. There is a tint of supremacy of the Court over the Constitution here which I would say is no where mandated by the Constitution. In the Hamlyn Law Lectures, MC Mehta had stated,

“there is no theory of judicial supremacy in India, but that of Constitutional Supremacy”.

So if there does exist a theory of Constitutional supremacy in India, surely the Court should not place itself above the Constitution. If the argument is that the Right to Information Act does not look upon the Court as a public authority, surely under the rights guaranteed by part III, this disclosure of assets can be achieved; just as done in the case of the executive and the legislature (In both cases, the RTI Act did not exist).

V Venkatesan of Law and Other Things wrote a post here on the CIC decision that was passed on the 6th of January 2009. He says;

“Although the decision pertains to the RTI question on the declaration of assets by the Judges of High Court and the Supreme Court, it has set an important precedent to make the Higher Judiciary truly accountable. It will be unfortunate if the Supreme Court appeals against the decision in the High Court, in which case, the Judges hearing the appeal may not be able to decide the appeal objectively in view of the apparent conflict of interests.”

I will not be faltering when I say that I share the same concern. 

 

 

Mark Felt, former FBI officer who revealed himself to be the key informant in exposing the Watergate Scandal (‘Deep Throat’), has died.

Felt, 95, breathed his last yesterday in a clinic close to his home in Santa Rosa, California. During the years of the scandal he was one of the highest ranking officers in the FBI, instrumental in investigating the break-ins and burglary at the Democratic National Office in Watergate Complex. The investigation subsequently uncovered a nebulous network of campaign fraud, illegal tax audits, political espionage and wiretapping associated with Nixon’s Re-election Committee; mounting bipartisan political pressure coupled with a series of futile court battles forced the President to resign in 1974.
Many of you might have seen Hal Holbrook’s performance as ‘Deep Throat’ in the famous movie ‘All the President’s Men’. Deep Throat’s identity was kept anonymous for 30 years by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, until Mr. Felt himself revealed his informant status in 2005.

‘Deep Throat’ remains a legendary figure in investigative journalism circles and continues to be an inspiring icon for righteous officers of the State. Felt himself had come under heavy criticism for being a ‘traitor’ and letting down the Commander-in-Chief; many attributed his opposition to the President’s scheme to vindictiveness, for being superseded in the FBI Directorate by Nixon’s close political associate. However, there were many who disagreed.

As he himself wrote later,

The President wanted a politician in J. Edgar Hoover’s position who would convert the bureau into an adjunct of the White House machine.

Individuals like Felt are a rarity in today’s bureaucratic set-up; the extant legal regime must ensure that whistle-blowers and vanguards against corrupt official practices are protected.

To quote the American prosecutor, John Nields, from The Washington Post in 2005,

As Deep Throat, Felt helped establish the principle that our highest government officials are subject to the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Apologies for this delayed post. However, quite fortunately, the last Part of this three-pronged series coincides with two seminal events/publications.

1. CJI K.G. Balakrishnan’s piece on “Terrorism, rule of law and human rights” in The Hindu (Opinion Page).

2. The Union Cabinet’s nod for NSA Amendments and a new Investigation Agency.

KGB’s write-up/analysis of our contemporary security predicaments has been posted in his official capacity as the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, and is remarkable for that very reason. The highest judicial officer in this country has clearly expostulated the need to maintain our constitutional ethos in place. He elucidates upon the role played by due process and rule of law in protecting human rights, even at a time when the nation is blinded by rage against a terror attack that left India reeling.

Adherence to the constitutional principle of ‘substantive due process’ must be an essential part of our collective response to terrorism. Any dilution of the right to a fair trial for all individuals, however heinous their crimes may be, will be a moral loss against those who preach hatred and violence.

On the other hand, the Union Cabinet has given the green signal to proposed amendments in the National Security Act, 1980 and a new Anti-Terror Investigative Agency (Part II of this series had enlisted the major provisions in the prospective legislation). In a chaotic post-Mumbai period when public sentiment and ire has been directed largely against the political class, it is important that the Government does not resort to populist methods to assuage this anger. A new and shiny array of ‘tough’ anti-terror laws might seem to be the perfect panacea to our security problems, but in reality they are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions.

Tougher anti-terror laws have had a chequered history in this nation’s democratic regime. Yet, they continue to be hot favourites among people and institutions who want a change in the Government’s attitude towards terror. Indeed, I remember a discussion in one of our Criminal Law classes at Nalsar where the topic in question was the efficacy of anti-terror laws like POTA, ULFA etc. The debate invariably spun around to the “Human Rights v. National Security” perspective, with a visibly emotional law professor eventually closing the arguments thus:

Those who might find favour with the concept of due process, and justiciable rights for the terror -accused will never step down from their ideal ivory towers till they lose a little finger in a blast or attack.

Surely, she spoke for a sizeable portion of the populace, who truly believe that India’s anti-terror must be incisive and deterrent to all who wreak havoc in its villages and cities. Take Qasab’s case for instance; the Mumbai Bar Association has forbidden its members to take up his defence. Does his obvious involvement in the terrorist attacks mitigate a constitutionally guaranteed right of legal aid? Doesn’t the lawyering community rush to defend the super-rich and mighty from all sorts of civil,criminal and commercial indictment, even when evidence is blatantly against them? Why treat Qasab exceptionally then? Is it because terrorism is an evil more equal than the other evils which plague civil society? Certainly, we have to draw the line, before the rule of law goes flying out of this polity’s windows.

The POTA has an abysmal conviction rate of 2%, and has hardly produced the desired results. The new face of terrorism does not operate like other societal crimes, and ‘deterrence’ is hardly any reason to come up with multi-fanged laws. That the terrorists in the Taj and Trident-Oberoi had no intentions of negotiating with the Government, and came readily prepared to die, must teach us an invaluable lesson. If the purpose of all anti-terror laws is to preserve public order, then we must embrace a systematic procedure to collect evidence, grant fair trials and opportunities. Without these safeguards, the law will never strike at the root of terrorism, for all the wrong people would be behind bars then.

Arundhati Roy wrote a blistering piece in Outlook India last week, and she says;

It was after the 2001 Parliament attack that the first serious questions began to be raised. A campaign by a group of lawyers and activists exposed how innocent people had been framed by the police and the press, how evidence was fabricated, how witnesses lied, how due process had been criminally violated at every stage of the investigation….The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of another of the accused, Mohammad Afzal. In its judgment, the court acknowledged that there was no proof that Mohammad Afzal belonged to any terrorist group, but went on to say, quite shockingly, “The collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender” Even today we don’t really know who the terrorists that attacked Indian Parliament were and who they worked for.

The rallying calls against anti-terror laws must not be mistaken to be a blind push for seemingly facile human rights, but a warning against the nightmarish future of citizens losing faith in its own legal regime.