This article is written by Pratap Alexander Muthalaly, from the Government Law College, Trivandrum. It examines the landmark case Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others, its impact on the law of the time and the various important issues and points of contention pertaining to the case.
The case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others stands out in our legal history as a landmark judgment that helped secure the fundamental rights of prisoners. It was unique in a multitude of ways, one being that the petitioner in question was a convict on death row, something very much unheard of at that time. It brought to light a host of issues, including the clashes between various fundamental rights and the Prison Act of 1874. Furthermore, it exposed the poor treatment of prisoners, with many being subject to torture and sexual abuse. It went a long way in shedding light to the alarming behaviour exhibited by prison officers towards the inmates.
Facts of the case
The petitioner in question, Sunil Batra was a convict serving a death sentence at the Tihar Central Jail. He wrote a letter to a Judge of the Supreme court entailing the poor living conditions and questionable treatment of inmates at the jail. In his letter, he also complained of the brutal assault and torture by the Head Warden Maggar Singh of another prisoner, Prem Chand as a ploy to extract money from the victim’s visiting relatives. This letter was converted into a habeas corpus proceeding and by that extension treated as Public Interest Litigation under the ambit of Article 32 of the Constitution by the Supreme court. Following this, the court issued a notice to the state and the concerned officials.
It also appointed Dr. YS Chital and Shri Mukul Mudgal as amicus curiae and authorised them to visit the prison, meet the prisoner, check the requisite documents and also interview the necessary witnesses so as to ensure that they were as well informed as possible about the relevant details, surrounding the circumstances and chain of events pertaining the case.
The amicus curiae after paying a visit to the prison and examining the witnesses reported and also confirmed that the prisoner had sustained serious anal injury. They reported that in the process of torturing said prisoner a rod had been driven into his anus. The prisoner suffered from continuous bleeding as a result of this. Due to the bleeding not ceasing, he was removed to the jail hospital and later transferred to Irvin hospital. It was also reported that the prisoner’s explanation for the anal rupture was the failure to fulfil the demands of the warden for money, furthermore, attempts were made by departmental officers to cover up the crime by overawing the prisoner and the jail doctor. Officials also offered excuses claiming that the injuries were self-inflicted or due to piles.
This case raised a number of critical issues such as:
- Whether prisoners were entitled to the same rights and standards as a regular human being.
- Did the supreme court have the jurisdiction to entertain the petition of a convict.
- Whether the fundamental rights, notably Articles 14,19,21 were applicable to one who is detained.
- Addressing the brutal and abject conditions in prisons.
- Which of the two took primacy, the aforementioned prisons act or the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.
- Questions were raised in relation to Section 30 (to confiscation of prisoner’s property and also solitary confinement of those on death row) and also Section 56 (Jailer or his subordinate, if found to breach his duty or doing any anything against the law or regulation shall be punished with imprisonment, not more than 3 months or fine not exceeding 200 rs. or both) of the Prison Act 1894, as they were supposedly in violation of Articles 14 and 21.
- Furthermore, questions were raised as to what amendments and changes were to be undertaken in the future with regard to the Prison Act.
- Firstly it was argued that Section 30(2) of the Prisons Act did not authorise the placing of a prisoner under death sentence in solitary confinement and that jail authorities did not have the ambit to claim this power on the basis of it enforcing Section 30(2).
- In spite of Prem Chand, being a French citizen he was still entitled to protections under the Fundamental Rights (14, 20, 21 and 22) as that was the only humane thing to do.
- The Petitioner challenged Section 30(2) and Section 56 of Prison Act, 1894, and Paragraph 399(3) of Punjab prison manual, as it was against fundamental rights under article 14, 21 of the Constitution of India.
- While it was only natural that some of the rights of prisoners would be on their conviction, it was necessary to defend what rights that remained and ensure that the prison authorities did not arbitrarily take them away.
- Section 56 of the Prison Act should be done away with (allows the use of any type of irons for fetters, this gives arbitrary power to jail authorities to discriminate against the prisoners) as it violates Article 14 of the Constitution.
- The State argued that Section 30(2) of the Prison Act did not mention anything about the safety of prisoners and instead of placing the blame on the jail authorities, the court should look to give a more elaborate definition to this section so as to prevent the inhumane behaviour of prisoners.
- The respondent side also argued that irrespective of whether the detainees have the right to life and individual freedom under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the state as per the law, still has the power to restrict the liberty of prisoners. This is due to the possibility that the prisoner may attempt to harm himself or any of the other inmates if he is not kept separate. The state argued that this is why Section 30(2) of the Prison Act should be upheld by the court. The respondent side also argued that given the state of mind of a prisoner under a death sentence, there was a serious chance of the prisoner attempting to commit suicide or cause harm to others. Owing to this, Section 30 was absolutely necessary in the eyes of the respondents.
- It was also argued that in accordance with Section 46 of the Prison Act the Superintendent is empowered with the authority to examine the prisoner and impose necessary punishments. Essentially they said that everything that was done to Prem Chand was justified under the law.
In this case, the Supreme court held that, vis-a-vis Article 32 and Article 226, it had the power to intervene and restore the fundamental rights of prisoners. That is, it was completely within the authority of the honourable court to intervene and protect prisoners from harsh or inhuman treatment. Also, it was made clear that during the prisoner’s time in jail, the jail authorities do not have any rights to punish, torture or in any way discriminate against them without the explicit permission or orders of the court. Only the court had that right.
Moreover, in spite of Section 30(2) of the Prison Act vesting jail authorities with the power to keep a prisoner in a separate cell, this provision was not to be misinterpreted as a right or freedom to torture inmates. This is because the prisoner still possesses the right to life and liberty. It was made clear that Section 30(2) of the Prison Act was in violation of Article 21. This is because the freedom of prisoners can only be curtailed when there is clear backing of the law. This section was considered too arbitrary, as it did not highlight anything in particular with regard to the need for separate confinement to have the support of the law.
The Court also found that Section 30(2) not to be in violation of Article 14, as prisoners under death sentence may run the risk of being a danger to other prisoners and jail authorities. As such, keeping them in separate cells was seen as necessary. The Supreme Court also held that a prisoner under a death sentence does not come under the ambit of Section 30(2) when there are still chances of getting the decision of the court reversed. If a Death sentence given to any prisoner is final and irreversible, then and only then can the said prisoner be kept in a separate cell under the provisions of Section 30(2).
It was also held that Section 56 of the Prison Act should be trimmed and controlled by the court as it was in violation of basic human dignity. Similarly, the Superintendent’s powers under this section were to be kept under check as well. Rehabilitating convicts with humiliation and disrespect was not seen as the best course of action by the court It was also held that the definition of solitary confinement was wrongly interpreted by the Jail authorities. As a result, the court held that under subsection 8 of Section 30, ‘solitary confinement’ meant to restrict the prisoner from talking to any other prisoner but this did not necessarily mean prisoners should be kept out of the view of other inmates.
Moreover, Section 56 of Prison Act empowered the Superintendent to take necessary precautions by putting the prisoners in irons, but they were allowed to do that only when such orders were duly confirmed by the local government and they could not do this on their own discretion. In this specific case, Prem Chand was kept in a separate cell with irons without express permission from the local government. As a result, the Superintendent was liable for his actions.
It is the duty of the Supreme court and all other subordinate courts to protect the rights of our country’s citizens, in no way are prisoners and convicts exempt from this. This judgment was pivotal ensuring that Articles 14,19 and 21 were available for even those in prisons. This case also highlighted the urgent need for reforms in the Prison Act of 1894 and the Punjab Jail Manual. It was also made clear that checks and balances were essential in ensuring that the prison system in this country worked and was not deterred by an abuse of power or arbitrary acts by prison authorities.
It also highlighted the folly of the then-common practice of solitary confinement, shedding light on its inhumane nature. In light of the horrifying discoveries, the court also directed the district magistrate visit the jail every week so that he/she could constantly survey the living conditions and environment of the prisoners. The acceptance of Sunil Batra’s writ petition was a revolutionary direction by the top court, with the usage and versatility of article 32 being pushed further and the skills of the top court in full display for all to see. Also, all state governments were required to take the necessary steps to end cruelty and torture in prisons across the country.
Jailors and Jail authorities were under increased scrutiny and were expected without compromise to follow the rule of law and were under the strict obligation to work in tandem with the various legal provisions. Inflicting of supplementary sentences on prisoners was strictly banned. Moreover, this judgement pushed for a more reformative form of punishment rather than simple punitive action.
The laws that stood exposed in this case like many others, were creations left behind from the era of British colonialism. It was not in keeping with the international human rights legislation of the time and was clearly exposed as being outdated and pervasive to the growth of a modern India. This case also put an intense focus on the duties and responsibilities of jail superintendents. It highlighted the perils of what a lapse of duty could lead to. Issues like adequate medical care for prisoners, proper living conditions, and free access to court authorities were all highlighted here. It also marked a turning point in the treatment of prisoners, with lawyers being nominated henceforth by the District Magistrate, Session Judge, High Court or Supreme Court for interview visits and confidential communication with prisoners in relation to their treatment in cells among other things.
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