In a bizarre case, a judgment by the Telangana high court on April 23 indicted the state police for misuse of the Preventive Detention Act and quashed the preventive detention order against three accused in an ‘honour’ crime, resulting in their freedom.
The case illustrates how a well-reasoned Supreme Court judgment, delivered much prior to the caste-based honour killing incident, could not prevent the crime from taking place. It also shows the consequent botching up of the case by the state police.
As the high court judgment makes it clear, the state police failed to inform it that the bail applications of the accused were dismissed prior to their preventive detention. The high court, which shared the agony of the family members of the deceased, pleaded helplessness because the preventive detention order assumed that the accused were to be released on bail.
The high court’s judgment, while seeking to safeguard individual liberties against the state’s tendency to invoke the Preventive Detention Act, without application of mind, underscores the existing vacuum in the law to prevent and control “honour crimes”.
The long title of the law and its three requirements
The law in question may perhaps qualify as the one with the longest title ever enacted by a state. It has the propensity to have a chilling effect on people pursuing different professions, merely on the basis of suspicion of committing an offence, because authorities do not apply their mind before invoking it. The full title of the Act is: the Telangana Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Boot-leggers, Dacoits, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, and Land Grabbers, Spurious Seed Offenders, Insecticide Offenders, Fertiliser Offenders, Food Adulteration Offenders, Fake Document Offenders, Scheduled Commodities Offenders, Fake Document Offenders, Scheduled Commodities Offenders, Forest Offenders, Gaming Offenders, Sexual Offenders, Explosive Substances Offenders, Arms Offenders, Cyber Crime Offenders and White Collar or Financial Offenders Act, 1986.
The high court thus pointed out that due to non-application of mind, officials invoking the Act ignored its three crucial requirements: one, persons sought to be detained must come within the definition of one or more expressions such as bootlegger, dacoit and goonda etc; second, the detention should be with a view to prevent him or her from acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of “public order”, which is not defined under the Act; third, a person accused of an offence under the Act should have “habitually” committed or attempted to commit or abetted it. In other words, persons who merely attempt to commit offences or abet a crime on a solitary instance, cannot qualify to be a “goonda” under the Act.
The Telangana case
In the instant case, Amrutha Varshini, belonging to a Vaishya upper caste Hindu family, fell in love with a Dalit man, Perumalla Pranay Kumar in Miryalguda. They were married, against the wishes of her parents. Though a case of kidnapping was filed against Pranay, no prosecution could take place, as both were majors.
When Varshini was in the fifth month of pregnancy, her husband took her to a hospital for a check-up on September 14, 2018. Pranay Kumar was killed by an attacker while leaving the hospital. The police booked Varshini’s father, T. Maruthi Rao, and her paternal uncle, T. Sravan Kumar for offences of murder and conspiracy. They were also booked under the relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2015. Mohd. Abdul Kareem, a friend of the two accused, was also arrested.
In the normal course, these provisions would have been sufficient for the police to proceed against the accused, and file a chargesheet in the trial court, after investigation. But, merely on the apprehension that they are likely to be released on bail, the police foisted two subsequent First Information Reports on the accused, dealing with offences which are bailable and non-cognizable, merely in order to invoke the Preventive Detention Act. These subsequent FIRs were filed 21 days after the registration of the first FIR, and were unrelated to the “honour crime”.
The state contended before the high court that since it was a case of caste-based “honour killing”, it had the potential to trigger communal violence between persons belonging to two castes. It said by their actions, the accused had created a rift between two sections of society. The state also argued that the court ought to ask only whether there was material before the detaining authority to satisfy detention, and not to examine the material itself, for its relevance to detention.
The high court held that there was no allegation that two of the three accused had “habitually” committed offences, to justify their categorisation as “goondas” under the Act. Even if the two subsequent FIRs filed against them established “habitual” commission of offences, they are non-cognizable and bailable, the high court held. Moreover, the alleged offences under the subsequent FIRs could not be considered as ones “prejudicial to the maintenance of public order”, the high court added.
The high court also dismissed the applications of the family members of the deceased for impleading in the case, because it found no scope for any third party to intervene in a writ of habeas corpus for quashing the orders of preventive detention. “While the victims have a right to seek justice in the criminal cases filed against the perpetrators of the crime, they cannot seek to justify orders of preventive detention”, the bench of Justices V. Ramasubramanian and P. Keshava Rao held.
Lessons from the case
The honour crime in Telangana took place, much after the Supreme Court’s judgment in Shakti Vahini v Union of India, delivered on March 27 last year. The Centre told the court during the hearing that it was engaging various states and union territories for considering an amendment to the Indian Penal Code or enactment of a suitable legislation to address the menace of “honour killing” and related issues.
The Supreme Court, in its Shakti Vahini judgment, called for immediate steps to provide security to a couple which marries outside their caste or religion and their families and, if necessary, to remove them to a safe house within the same district or elsewhere, keeping in mind their safety and threat perception. The state government may consider establishing a safe house at each district headquarter for that purpose, under the supervision of the jurisdictional district magistrate and superintendent of police, it suggested.
An officer of the rank of additional superintendent of police shall conduct a preliminary inquiry and ascertain the authenticity, nature and gravity of the treat perception, and submit a report to the superintendent of police within a week of receiving a complaint from the couple or information about such marriage from an independent source, the Supreme Court held.
The Supreme Court also insisted on taking disciplinary action against the concerned officials, if it is found that they did not prevent the honour crime, despite having prior knowledge of its likelihood, or where the incident had already occurred, they did not promptly apprehend and institute criminal proceedings against the culprits.
The Shakti Vahini judgment also requires cases relating to honour crimes to be tried before the designated court/fast track court earmarked for that purpose. “The trial must proceed on day to day basis to be concluded preferably within six months from the date of taking cognizance of the offence,” the judgment reads.
The freeing of the accused in the Miryalguda honour crime may offer lessons on how not to investigate and institute criminal proceedings against the accused, and strengthen the existing legal provisions to plug any loopholes. The high court made no reference to the Supreme Court’s judgment in Shakti Vahini because it did not have to (as it was dealing with a challenge to the application of a preventive detention law). But there is sufficient reason for civil society to ponder whether it points to plausible loopholes in the law.
One such is the denial of the right to implead by the victims or their relatives in a challenge to the preventive detention of the accused. The high court may well be correct in its conclusion that there is no basis to their preventive detention. But the question is whether it should also deny the right to hear the relatives of the deceased. On this limited issue, the Supreme Court’s intervention, if there is an appeal, makes sense.
The state government ought to throw light on whether it could have prevented the incident, in terms of the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shakti Vahini case. If so, whether it had taken departmental action against the police officials first for their failure to prevent it, despite having prior information, and secondly, for botching the case by foisting the Preventive Detention Act against the accused without application of mind.