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Saturday, 3 June 2017

Gross misuse: on States using 'Goondas Act' (The Hindu - 03 June 2017)

       The Supreme Court’s caution against use of ‘Goondas Act’ for arbitrary detention is timely

       Preventive detention laws in the country have come to be associated with frequent misuse. Such laws confer extraordinary discretionary powers on the executive to detain persons without bail for a period that may extend to one year and courts tend to review them on the touchstone of strict adherence to the prescribed procedure. Sometimes they question the invocation of the draconian power when sufficient provisions are available in the ordinary laws of the land. Several States have a law popularly known as the ‘Goondas Act’ aimed at preventing the dangerous activities of specified kinds of offenders. In a recent order, the Supreme Court has questioned the use of words such as “goonda” and “prejudicial to the maintenance of public order” as a “rhetorical incantation” solely to justify an arbitrary detention order. It struck down the detention of a man who had allegedly sold spurious chilli seeds in Telangana, holding that the grounds of detention were extraneous to the Act. This detention order has captured what is wrong with the frequent resort to preventive detention laws. It stated that recourse to normal legal procedure would be time-consuming and would not be an effective deterrent against the sale of spurious seeds. Therefore, it claimed, there was no option but to invoke the preventive detention law to insulate society from the person’s evil deeds. The court rightly termed this as a gross abuse of statutory powers.

       The Goondas Act is meant to be invoked against habitual offenders, but in practice it is often used for a host of extraneous reasons. The police tend to use it to buy themselves more time to investigate offences and file a charge sheet. At times, it is used merely to send out a “tough message”. For instance, four persons seen in video footage of women being molested in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh were detained under the Act even though it was not clear if they were habitual offenders. And there are times when preventive detention is overtly political. The recent detention of four political activists in Chennai under the Goondas Act is a direct result of a pathological tendency in Tamil Nadu to crack down on any kind of political activity even remotely linked to the Sri Lankan Tamils issue. The detention of Thirumurugan Gandhi, leader of the ‘May 17 Movement’, a pro-Tamil Eelam group, and three of his associates under the Goondas Act is a brazen violation of their fundamental rights and another instance of abuse of the law. The case involved nothing more than violation of prohibitory orders to hold a candle-light vigil in memory of Sri Lankan Tamils who died in the last phase of the civil war in 2009. Those who authorise such preventive detention for flimsy reasons should understand that prevention of crime needs an efficient system of investigation and trial, and not draconian laws.

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