Updated: August 1, 2020 10:34:02 am
Their Lordships could look at the photograph. It was taken on Thursday, a day after the Supreme Court disposed of a petition by J&K Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s wife challenging his “illegal detention” and accepted the government’s contention that he was under no restrictions. It frames the 83-year-old leader speaking to reporters, from behind a boundary wall mounted by a barbed wire, before being pulled away by police personnel, at his residence in Srinagar. It is not necessary to listen to what Soz had to say across the wall on Thursday — that photograph and that video, tell the story and pose a question. It is not only: Why did the J&K administration take liberty with the facts in court? It is also, and more: Why did the court accept the J&K administration’s word for it? Why did it accept the state’s definition of freedom when it is clearly in conflict with the citizen’s? Unfortunately, that latter question is now embedded in a recurring pattern. In case after case involving citizens’ fundamental liberties and alleged transgressions by the state, the courts seem to give the government the benefit of the doubt.
On Jammu and Kashmir, a marker of this pattern came last year on October 1, when, responding to petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the August 5 decision to abrogate J&K’s special status, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court refused to order a stay and adjourned the hearing to November 4 — until well after the scheduled implementation of the Centre’s order sliced the state into two Union Territories on October 31. The pattern has continued through the Court’s treatment of habeas corpus petitions related to politicians, business leaders, lawyers and journalists — its lack of alacrity, its adjournments, effectively extended those detentions. In May, the SC order declining pleas for restoration of 4G internet services was disturbing not just for continuing the denial of such services but also because it seemed to cede its own powers of judicial review to a special committee headed by the Union home secretary — the very departments whose orders were in question would adjudicate on the validity of the curbs on citizens’ freedoms imposed by them.
Soz’s is a test case because there are many like him. Trapped in a zone between arrest and detention, unofficial and official, verbal and formal, at the mercy of the policeman at the gate. This is exactly the zone tailor-made for abuse, where the apex court needs to shine the light, clear the air. All the more reason for the court, as the custodian of constitutionally mandated individual liberties, to ask more questions, not less — of the administration that wields the power, before it decides to dismiss the plea of the family of an 83-year-old Indian citizen who needs police permission to step out of his home.
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