Tamil Nadu

‘Goondas Act has become the favourite hunting ground for police’: Madras HC

Written by : Azeefa Fathima

The Madras High Court, on Monday, November 14, ordered the release of two persons arrested under the Tamil Nadu Goondas Act and issued directions to provide compensation for one of them. It observed that the impression of law enforcement officials that anyone who questions them or indulges in protest activities can be shut down by invoking the provisions under the Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Forest Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982, known in short as Act 14 of 1982, will directly result in the infraction of Article 21 of Constitution of India. Article 21 deals with Protection of Life and Personal Liberty.

The orders were issued by bench of justices MS Ramesh and N Anand Venkatesh while hearing two habeas corpus petitions filed by two women seeking to produce men detained by the police in June and September of this year.

The court also asked the state government to be careful of such illegal detentions and warned that if a detention is found to be illegal, cost will be imposed on the state.

“Of all the things a system should fear, complacency heads the list. The case on hand gave us a wake-up call and made us question ourselves as to whether we have become complacent and conditioned while dealing with preventive detention cases. Having got that call from within, we decided to shake up and wriggle out of the complacency and do a reality check,” the bench headed by justice MS Ramesh said in their opening remarks.

The judges also took note of prison statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and pointed out that the State of Tamil Nadu has occupied the first place in detaining the maximum number of people under its preventive laws in the entire country for a whole decade. Stating that the state accounts for 51.2% of all detentions in the country, the court also said that the numbers appear to rise every year. Tamil Nadu detains people under two acts. Preventive Detention Act and Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Forest Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video Pirates Act.

Based on the data available with the NCRB, the court said that one of the following two inferences can be drawn: either the state is inching towards lawlessness or that suspicion had become a convenient and potent weapon, and is used by law enforcing agencies to indiscriminately detain people which is a conscious abuse of its statutory powers.

“It is, therefore, clear to us that the spectre of gross abuse of preventive detention laws hangs over the State and has reached Orwellian proportions” justices MS Ramesh and N Anand Venkatesh observed.

The court, pointing out that the definition for ‘goonda’ under Act 14 of 1982 is wide, said it has become the ‘favourite hunting ground for the police’ to deal with common criminals and other undesirables. Looking into the records of the statistics of the cases under Act 14 of 1982 disposed by the Madurai Bench between January and October 2022, the court observed that there was not a single case under the Goondas Act, where the order of detention was upheld.

The Madras High Court bench also observed that the existing callous indifference in passing detention orders coupled with total apathy towards the violation of the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 would clearly constitute a “constitutional tort,” a legal tool that allows the state to be held vicariously accountable over the actions of its agents

What are the two cases about

58-year-old Jeyaraman was detained through an order by Tenkasi District Magistrate and District Collector, on September 19, 2022, holding him to be a "Goonda". Jeyaraman was part of agitation against land acquisition proceedings initiated for Thirumangalam–Rajapalayam–Shenkottai National Highway and several peaceful protests were conducted demanding to choose an alternative route for the proposed four lane project. An initial case was registered against him in 2018 alleging that Jayaraman and his associates abused the Special Tahsildar and prevented him from discharging his official duties. In 2022, another case was registered alleging that he threatened, abused and attacked a village assistant, who was asking the landowners to appear for enquiry.

Observing that Jayaraman was indulging in agitations opposing land acquisition, the court said that it can only be construed to constitute an individual offence and not a public offence.

“The officials seem to be under the impression that if anyone questions them or indulges in raising a protest, the same can be shut down by invoking Act 14 of 1982. Such a mindset goes against the very purpose for which preventive detention laws are enacted and such casual invocation of preventive detention laws will directly result in the infraction of Article 21 of Constitution of India,” the bench of justices MS Ramesh and Anand Venkatesh said while releasing Jayaraman. 

The court also directed the Additional Chief Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government in charge of the departments of Home, Prohibition and Excise to pay a sum of Rs 25,000 as compensation to Jayaraman for violating his rights guaranteed under Article 21 of Constitution of India.

The second case pertained to 27-year-old youth Karuppasamy, who was arrested by invoking the provisions of the same Act over an alleged assault on a police constable. “Without any hesitation, we hasten to add that this is not a condonable act and this is an act which deserves maximum punishment. The only question is as to whether this act on the part of the detenu will disturb the even tempo or the normal life of the community in the locality or it will disturb the general peace and tranquillity or it will create a sense of alarm or insecurity in the locality,” the court said and added that the ‘detestable act’ of Karuppasamy does not fall under any of these categories. 

Observing that the case can be easily dealt with the available penal laws, the court said that it was not necessary to invoke Act 14 of 1982 to deal with the accused. “Just because the detenu indulged in a horrendous act against the police official, that by itself is not a ground to invoke detention laws,” the bench headed by justice MS Ramesh added.

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