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The Wise Constitution: Supreme Court's Interpretation of the Due Process of Law

The drafters of the Indian Constitution conducted a detailed study of various constitutions, existing in different countries of the world, to give India, the damnedest and the largest constitution, that any country could ever have. Ours is not only the lengthiest but also the most widely interpreted one. The drafters executed their work really assiduously, categorizing the division of power between the three organs, including what they thought would help a nation, that was suppressed for 200 years, regain its glory and achieve peaks.

The framers of our constitution did their best to refrain from writing anything in the constitution, that would trigger a cold war between the 'Law makers' and the 'Guardians of Law' i.e., the legislature and the judiciary. One such area was the 'Due process of Law', which was adopted by the US and the concept which widely gained momentum mainly after the 5th and the 14th Amendments to the US Constitution. In a meeting with B.N. Rau, one of the primary architects of the Indian Constitution, Justice Frankfurter of the American Supreme Court strongly advised him to drop the idea of including the 'Due process of Law' in the Indian Constitution and instead, going with a safer alternative of the 'Procedure Established by Law'.

The Indian Constitution, nowhere explicitly mentions the Due process of law due to the same reason. But the Supreme Court has, time and again, not shied away from interpreting the 'due process of law' by widening the scope of 'procedure established by law' and saying that the later cannot be arbitrary and unfair, and has to comply with others provisions of the constitution. Given below is a list of a few cases which have tacitly applied the concept of 'Due process of Law' in India.

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, 1978:

This case required a substantial question of law and presented a much wider interpretation of Article 21. The petitioner was a journalist whose passport was confiscated by the Ministry of External Affairs, without providing any justifiable reasoning. She approached the court under Article 32 contending that the unlawful seizure of her passport has resulted in the violation of her fundamental rights, mainly Article 14, 19 and 21.

A bench of 7 judges heard the case. The main issues that confronted the court were:
  • Whether the 'Right to travel abroad' could be a fundamental right under article 21?
  • Interpretation of the scope of 'Procedure established by Law'.
  • Whether fundamental rights could be used unconditionally without any territorial limitations?
  • Whether the rights guaranteed under article 14, 19 and 21 were interconnected to one another?
  • Whether the procedure laid down in Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act, 1967, violates the fundamental rights?

The court observed that 'Personal Liberty' guaranteed under the constitution, in its wider sense already includes the right to locomotion and travelling abroad. Considering the same, the confiscation of the petitioner's passport violated article 21 and the arbitrary grounds of confiscation resulted in the violation of article 14.

The case was decided with a ration of 4:3. Hence, this landmark judgment considerably widened the scope Article 21 and the judiciary's inclination towards the due process of law to be a part of the Indian justice system became evident by the same.

R.C. Cooper v. Union of India, 1970:

This landmark case, famously known as the Bank Nationalization Case, was decided by a bench of 11 Judges and was decided by a 10:1 majority. The petitioner was the director of the Central Bank of India, who also held shares of the same. He filed a writ petition under article 32, stating that his fundamental rights have been violated due to the promulgation of the ordinance that required 14 banks to be nationalized.

The main issues raised by the petitioner were:

  • Whether a writ petition could be filed by a shareholder for violation of his fundamental rights, when the government acquires the company of his interest?
  • Whether the ordinance in dispute was valid or not?
  • Whether the method devised for ascertaining the compensation was valid?
  • Whether the parliament was entitled to formulate the act in question?

The court opined that a shareholder didn't carry the right to move the Supreme Court for enforcement of fundamental rights in the name of his company, as long as his own rights weren't infringed. For the part where the validity of the ordinance was concerned, the court said that the ordinance was already an act by that time, hence it was meritless to discuss the same. The decision of this case was a major deviation from the rigid positivism and tried protecting the right to protect property along with the right to personal freedom.

ADM Jabalpur v. Shiv Kant Shukla:

This landmark judgement counts from the time of Emergency. The proclamation of emergency overnight by the Indira Gandhi government, marks the black spot of the Indian Political History. Popularly known as the Habeas Corpus Case, it was heard by a bench of 5 judges.

To suppress dissent, the emergency period saw unlawful detainment of people who held the power of rising their voice against the government. Writ petitions were filed in various high courts across the nation, for the same. Maximum of these decisions given by the high courts were in favor of the petitioners. Aggrieved with the same, the Indira Gandhi government moved the Supreme Court.

The court, with a ratio decendi of 4:1, ruled in favor of the government saying that no person holds the locus standi to approach the high court with a writ petition under article 226, disputing the lawfulness of a detention order on the grounds of its non-compliance with the constitutional norms.

The judgment of this case is looked down as completely flawed in its undertaking. The narrow interpretation of fundamental rights and individual liberty and the undue validation given to the arbitrary actions of the government in pretext of the national emergency had posed a grievous question on the misuse of the procedure established by law.

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