A Division Bench of the Patna High Court yesterday ruled that the Bihar government’s prohibition measures were unconstitutional. These measures included notifications passed by the executive as well as amendments to the Bihar Excise Act made in 2016 by the Bihar Legislative Assembly. My friend at The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog is most likely to post a scintillating analysis of the various constitutional law issues discussed by the Division Bench very soon. I’m trying to beat my friend at his game here. In this short comment I focus on the penal provisions introduced by the amendments which have been held unconstitutional.
The separate opinion of Justice Singh covers seven issues and he saves the best for last with his analysis of punishment clauses coming right at the end at Paragraph 89. Effectively, the law criminalised anything one did with alcohol (i.e. acts/omissions associated with its production, possession and consumption) contrary to the Act and rules. Punishments for these offences are neatly summarised into three categories in the judgment: (i) incarceration and fine (Sections 47, 53), (ii) confiscation of property (Sections 68-A, 68-G), and (iii) collective fines (Section 68-I) [There are other provisions on punishments in the Act as well that developed on these basic offences]. These were supplemented by the now-standard provision on reversing the burden of proof and presuming the accused is guilty (Section 48). The High Court unanimously held that these penal clauses were unconstitutional.
Out of these three categories, take categories (i) and (ii) separately from category (iii) which is collective fines. The collective fine provision is set aside for obvious violations of Article 21 of the Constitution as it imposed punishments contrary to a procedure established by law as no right of hearing or right of appeal was provided by the clause. Similar provisions for collective fines are present elsewhere that have these procedural safeguards [See, Section 16 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989].
Which brings me to the more interesting part of the decision concerning categories (i) and (ii). The primary plank on which these penal clauses are set aside is an argument on proportionality, i.e. the sentence imposed for an offence must be proportionate to the harm purportedly caused by the offence. This is a rather crude summation of what is a highly technical concept in sentencing theory [See, Andrew Ashworth Sentencing and Criminal Justice (5th edn., 2010); Andrew Von Hirsch Censure and Sanctions (1993)]. The High Court located the concept of proportionality in criminal statutes in Article 21 of the Constitution by relying upon the Supreme Court decisions in Mithu Singh v. State of Punjab [(1983) 2 SCC 277] and Vikram Singh v. Union of India [(2015) 9 SCC (502)]. The three judges in Vikram Singh framed the proportionality test as follows: “Courts, however, have the jurisdiction to interfere when the punishment prescribed is so outrageously disproportionate to the offence or so inhuman or brutal that the same cannot be accepted by any standard of decency.”
In this case, the harm as per the State of Bihar was the various evils associated with excessive alcohol consumption that are afflicting its people. The response was to introduce penal provisions that had these notable features:
- A presumption of guilt which the accused must rebut without specifying whether the State had any burden to prove objective facts displaying commission of the offence;
- Broad constructive liability attracting persons whose property was allegedly involved in the commission of offences. These persons would be subjected to the similar presumption of guilt which they must rebut;
- Mandatory minimum punishments – warranting that a sentence of at least ten years’ imprisonment be awarded for possessing alcohol and at least five years for consuming it in a public place;
- Sealing of properties allegedly involved in commission of offences and their confiscation upon conviction;
The Court posed to itself a question – was this response proportionate to the harm – and answered it in the negative as it found the penal clauses were notoriously overbroad and unspecific. There was no gradation of punishment to differentiate minor and major violations. Nor did the punishment clauses show any sensitivity to how different acts posed different harms. The NDPS Act was cited as an example of how such clauses can be provided within constitutional limits (to think that the NDPS Act would appear as a measure for principled criminal legislation!). Notably, Justice Singh did not restrict his opinion to the badly drafted punishment provisions for his proportionality analysis. It also looked at the various procedural conveniences incorporated by the 2016 Amendments, i.e. the reversed burdens of proof and coercive procedures of confiscation and sealing of property. Although persons could plead ignorance as a defence, broad constructive liability meant far too many people would be unfairly accused and subjected to these coercive procedures while having to prove their innocence. These dangers were not set aside by the stringent punishments imposed on vexatious actions by overzealous state agents.
The absence of any sentencing policy or guidelines has been a common lament for several criminal law scholars in India over the years. This decision puts the problems starkly into perspective. Imposing a minimum ten-year imprisonment for possessing alcohol and confiscating premises where nobody knew alcohol was present there seems to satisfy the outrageously disproportionate standard of the decision in Vikram Singh. However, the Supreme Court in both Mithu Singh as well Vikram Singh was at pains to stress the different position that the death penalty occupied from a sentence of imprisonment. In Mithu Singh, one may recall, Section 303 IPC was set aside because it only allowed for the death sentence without any alternative. The Supreme Court in Vikram Singh put it bluntly: “there are very few and rare cases of sentences of imprisonment being held disproportionate.” The Patna High Court decision is therefore remarkable, for it places the penal clauses in the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act 2016 in this category of very few and rare cases. To my knowledge, this is the first decision to use the proportionality doctrine to set aside penal clauses despite no death sentence being involved.
There are deeper problems though. The decision in Vikram Singh provided a neat ‘sum up’ of principles on proportionality at Paragraph 52. It was a summing up of principles drawn from Canadian and American jurisprudence – both have specific constitutional prohibitions on certain kinds of punishment. India does not. In fact, the Supreme Court on an earlier occasion in Jagmohan Singh v. State of U.P. [AIR 1973 SC 947] specifically noted that American jurisprudence on prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment [flowing from the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution] could not be imported in India because the Indian Constitution did not have similar clauses. Of course, Maneka Gandhi came after Jagmohan Singh and expanded the boundaries of Article 21 allowing us to possibly incorporate the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The problems of having such an indeterminate constitutional jurisprudence have been seen with the tussles over the right to privacy and its scope. Therefore, it should be clear that proportionality analysis of punishment clauses does not have a sure footing in Indian constitutional law and the expansion by the Patna High Court may well be considered beyond its current scope.
For now, though, one can only be happy with how proportionality is invoked to set aside statutes inflicting persons with disproportionate terms of imprisonment. This experience is similar to what happened in Maharashtra with the beef ban, where again a proportionality argument was raised to set aside the reverse burden clauses. It shows us that High Courts are stressing on a more principled brand of criminalisation, something that has not been the hallmark of how criminal law developed in India over time. A refusal to budge especially when prohibition was such an integral scheme of the ruling government reflects a commitment to principles that must be lauded. The decision is kind, for it tells the legislature what can be done to fix the law. If the State of Bihar chooses to challenge the decision rather than amend the statute, the Supreme Court will be able to consider these important questions. One hopes it upholds how the Patna High Court applied proportionality to restrain the legislature from abusing its near-plenary powers in sending people away for a decade for having a pint.