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Reclaiming Human Rights From The Cinders Of A Chequered State

Human Rights Neeleshwar Pavani Chequered State
The Constitution is more than a legal parchment. It is a fabian socio-economic instrument with a revolutionary thrust. Indeed, the high purpose and the wealth of human rights which inhere in the citizens of India by virtue of the Constitution are condensed, with delicious brevity and precious dignity, in the preambular passages. We can never forget that the people of India as a whole, not the elite nor the upper strata nor, indeed the power brokers and creamy layers, but all the people are title-holders under the Constitution.” – Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer

The Hon’ble Supreme Court for quite some time now has been at the center of a vortex causing a stir with some of its orders- (i) exemplifying speedy justice in the case of a renowned T.V. artist who claims to be a journalist, (ii) of being a cavalier fence sitter while formidable human rights activists are roped under draconian vindictively instituted UAPA charges, (iii) of courting controversy with exercising its discretionary and plentiful powers of contempt in a couple of cases, (iv) of being accused of to reverberate the sense of functioning as an Executive Court. 

While the flip-side of an overarching majoritarian government lead by an overzealous leader is that some of its lop-sided policies are being scrutinized and dissected by some powerful dissenting voices, it is almost taking up the movement by storm with the joining in of citizenry regardless of their economic stratifications. With a bustling democracy being ruled by a government with a proverbial ‘iron fist’ there is cast an insurmountable pressure like never before on the Supreme Court, the Court’s role has never been besieged under an invisible Damocles sword on the plinth of strong and critical public opinion. When a rabble-rousing comedian derides the Court with tweets like “honor has long left the building”, it is for the Court to restore its gravitas and enforce a status quo.

This is precisely what the Hon’ble Supreme Court did recently when a three-judge bench led by Justice R.F. Nariman pronounced a judgment in Paramvir Singh Saini V. Baljit Singh & Ors. [1] which can be described as the proudest moment for all staunch believers in the Constitution of India. 

The Judgment cannot be descriptively defined even in the most laudatory of terms. It is a sure shot solution to quash false & trumped up charges, malicious prosecution and a veritable safeguard against an authoritarian government who doesn’t shudder to streamline the might of the state paraphernalia in order to implicate those who have differing intellectual leanings and advocate free thought and speech.

This momentous verdict which will definitely ensure a decline in the current trenchant criticism, sprung from its roots in the case of Shafi Mohammed V. State of Himachal Pradesh [2] where the issue of capturing important evidence during investigation cropped up, in terms of improving investigation of all crimes it was suggested by the Additional Solicitor General, based on benefits noted by the National Institute of Justice, U.S.A, that the crime scene be video-graphed by policemen who would wear body cameras. 

Further the Court appointed two senior advocates as amicus curiae and directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to set up a Central Oversight Body (‘COB’) which would be responsible for implementing videography of crime scene across India and to make solid suggestions a.k.a Plan of Action to enhance the use of videography of crime scenes in a phased manner and point out deficiencies in terms of infrastructure and cost compliances to the Ministry of Home from time to time which would ensure the brass of the executive remedies the infrastructural inadequacies. The Court herein reemphasized on the guidelines in D.K. Basu V. State of West Bengal [3] of upgrading police stations and prisons with CCTV cameras to check the replete abuses of human rights.

In this backdrop, the Court acted on a special leave petition on the question of audio-video recordings under Section 161 (3) proviso CrPC which provides for giving a witness statement to the police, it belled the cat and framed a larger question of whether any statements given by anybody in police custody are free from coercion and that whether CCTV cameras should be installed in all police stations. The Supreme Court while arraying all States apart from the Ministry of Home Affairs again requested service of an amicus curiae and issued notice to the Attorney General. The Court on receipt of each State’s affidavit and Action Taken Report was woeful about how strategically the states tried to subvert substantial information such as how many number of police stations were there in a given state or the minutes of the Oversight Committee of each state created vide order dated 03.04.2018 in Shafi Mohammed’s case (supra). 

In the midst of the clamoring representations by States about the paucity of monetary might to install CCTV cameras in all police stations of States, the Supreme Court put its foot down in accepting any flimsy excuses of financial inaptitude of States which was in actuality brushing under the carpet the heinous reality of the police machinery, other investigation agencies- its style of functioning, its interrogative methods and its deliberate willful suppression of liberty, accompanied by grave human rights violations.

 

The Supreme Court in adopting a non-negotiable stance of freely enforcing fundamental human rights held that:

  1. It directed that along with installation of CCTV cameras in every police station, the setting up and constitution of State Level Oversight Committees (SLOC’s) and District Level Oversight Committees (DLOC’s). The composition of the SLOC would include- The Secy./Addl. Secy. of Home Department, Secy./Addl. Secy. of Financial Department, The DGP/IGP and The Chairperson/member of State Women’s Commission. Similarly, the composition of DLOC would include- The Divisional Commissioner/ Revenue Commissioner/Regional Commissioner, The District Magistrate of the District, The Supdt. Of Police of the District and The Mayor of municipality/head of Zila Panchayat. These SLOC’s were entrusted by the Court to carry out all its directions within a reasonable time frame. It would include obtaining & procuring a budget from the State Government, purchase and distribution of CCTV cameras, continuing maintenance, monitoring and upkeep of these CCTV’s and to keep an eye on the performance of the DLOC, by reviewing monthly reports. The DLOC’s in turn were entrusted to maintain a regular interaction with all the SHO’s of all police stations in the respective district- such interaction would include the SHO’s making complaints of malfunctioning CCTV devices and it would include surprise visits by any member of the DLOC to see the working of cameras and its recordings in Police Stations and see whether any human rights violations have taken place. The DLOC would be expected to make mandatory monthly reports about the functioning/non-functioning, drawbacks and advantages of the cameras to the SLOC.
  2. It directed all States and Union Territories to immediately install CCTV Cameras at different locations in every Police Station in their respective jurisdictions. They would have to be installed at all entry/exit points of the Station, all corridors, the reception area, lobby area, lock-up, interrogation cells, front and back compound of the Station and outside & Not inside washrooms. It even descriptively defined the kind of CCTV’s which should be installed i.e. it would need to have both audio and visual facility and be adept in providing night vision. Most-importantly it directed that the footage collected via CCTV’s should be preserved for a minimum period 18 months and existing CCTV’s should also be upgraded or attuned with preservation of footage for minimum 18 months.
  3. It directed that every Station House Officer of each Police Station would be responsible for the functioning of CCTV cameras and its recordings. The SHO would additionally be responsible for maintenance of untampered CCTV data. Any malfunctioning CCTV would need to be immediately reported by the SHO to the DLOC.
  4. It further directed that the Union Government should also similarly install CCTV cameras at multiple strategic points including interrogation rooms, in all Investigation Agencies under its control namely- CBI, ED, NIA, NCB, DRI, SFIO and any other agency that possesses the power to arrest and interrogation.
  5. Lastly and most imperatively, it held that a person in custody who has been subjected to custodial excesses/torture can approach the State Human Rights Commission for appropriate redress and the SHRC can in tandem with their conferred powers u/s 17 and 18 of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 act accordingly. And if someone accuses a police official or such official of any of the above investigation agencies, the complainant is entitled to a copy of video footage of the CCTV camera where such alleged violation took place. SHRC’s can in accordance with law deal with such complaints. An accompanying direction of establishing more human rights courts in districts was also handed down.
 

In a political atmosphere that is dominated by a majoritarian clout and the creation and pedaling by the Media, of an unsaid code of honor which has less to do with morality and more to do with preserving the ‘honor’ (drawbacks, shortcomings and failings) of not policies but personalities that govern us, an aura of invincibility has successfully been created around the leaders of the masses who have attained in status- A demigod equivalence.

Such a godly aura has been the driving force for bypassing parliamentary procedure and introducing & amending imperative laws such as the Farm Laws, CAA, GST, RTI, UAPA, CVC respectively to the detriment of the majority of dissenters. Deliberation and dissent have been stereotypically type casted in the mold of anti-nationalism and unpatriotic attitude. Such ‘dissenters’ have been charged & slapped with the strictest laws of Sedition, Waging war against India, National Security Act, UAPA and Official Secrets Act and the other disagreeing voices who run non-profit organizations for the benefit of the marginalized in society are equally fettered with the capping of receiving international donations for the well-deserved yeoman service they have been delivering to the disproportionate masses. The State, who doesn’t relish even moderate criticism by activists, journalists, lawyers, gentry and civil society, launches a witch hunt by its agencies who are then to do the government’s dirty laundry. 

This Judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in itself acknowledges this fact implicitly and rectifies the ills of the most dire laws which are genuinely in the interest of national security by placing importance on ineluctable human freedoms and eradication of custodial torture which in itself is a violation of the Right to Life. 

The Supreme Court has acted most swiftly to nip the problem of state excesses against citizens in the bud by enunciating these adulatory guidelines and giving teeth to Human Rights Commissions with explicit direction to act on any complaint against police officials and give the aggrieved a proper remedy.

It encapsulates the principles of natural justice when it confers the right on the complainant to be entitled for a copy of the video footage where apparent force on her or him has been applied. Although the Court, has time and again, starting from the 1970’s in Raghubir Singh V. State of Haryana [4] decried the “diabolical recurrence of police torture”. Not so recently but in laconic terms the Supreme Court criticized the atrocities on human rights committed by the Police force in the case of Prithipal Singh V. State of Punjab [5]. The Court, in recent times, exhaustively dealt with how arrests are to be made with handing down scholarly guidelines framed in Arnesh Kumar V. State of Bihar [6]. Most recently, the Court in Ankush Maruti Shinde V. State of Maharashtra [7] elucidated the role the prosecution in as much as how it should conduct the investigation and independent application of mind is required by the Public Prosecutor while considering the evidence to be placed before Court or witnesses who are to appear before Court. The latest verdict penned by Justice R.F. Nariman places human rights and virtues on an unshakable pedestal and is a remarkable document in reclaiming human rights from the cinders of a chequered State. And the matter of paramount importance for us citizens is that the sentinel on the qui vive is awake, alert, unswerving and undaunted.

 

(Neeleshwar Pavani is a Delhi-based Lawyer. Views expressed herein are Personal to the Author.)


 

[1] SLP (Crl.) No. 3543 of 2020

[2] (2018) 5 SCC 311

[3] (2015) 8 SCC 744

[4] (1980) 3 SCC 70

[5] (2012) 1 SCC 10

[6] (2014) 8 SCC 273

[7] (2019) 15 SCC 470


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