Unlocking the reality of preventive detention laws in India


Criminal laws act as a tool to prosecute criminals and also to prevent or reduce the risk of an anticipated future harm. Such measures enable the state to criminalize conduct at an early stage in order to allow the authorities to take action, to incapacitate suspected future wrong doers, keeping them behind the bars for an extended period and all this is done in the garb of public protection and security. Classical theories of jurisprudence comprehend the relationship between states and citizens. A citizen’s obligation to obey to the sovereign is a tacit form of consent and in return the state owes a deemed duty to protect the citizens from hazards, threats and any form of violence. With this rationale, the state proceeds towards fostering in itself the power the prevent an individual or a group from committing any harm. Broadly, preventive detention is a measure if it is created to avert or reduce the frequency or impact of an unacceptable risk or harm.


There is no universally accepted definition of preventive detention but in general sense preventive detention means to detain a person in order to prevent him from committing any possible future crime. There is another similar type of detention called ‘administrative detention’ which is more often used in civil law countries and on the other hand preventive detention’ is more often used in common law countries. The major difference between two types of detention is that in a former case detention is a tool for administration and on the other hand in the later case detention is a tool to prevent a ‘potential threat’.

There is also a third type of detention, ‘punitive detention’ the main purpose of which is to punish the person for an offence committed only after a trial and conviction in a court of law. As the name suggests the major difference between punitive detention and preventive detention is that one talks about punishment and other about prevention.


India chose to be a democratic country with inherent values of human rights embedded in our Constitution. However, the irony lies in the fact that the Constitution makers still chose to grant exemption to prevention detention laws when once they were victims of the same despotic laws.

Under Entry 9 the Union list, Parliament has the absolute power to enact laws with regard to preventive detention for reasons connected with security, defence and foreign affairs of India. Under Entry 3 of the Concurrent, both the state and the central government have been vested with the powers of enactment of such laws which related to the maintenance of public order, maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community etc. Preventive detention finds place in Constitution and that too under Fundamental Rights. Article 22(3) provides that: “if the person who has been arrested or detained under preventive detention laws then the protection against arrest and detention provided under Article22 (1) and 22 (2) shall not be available to that person.” This is why article 22(3) cannot be said as the fundamental right but a fundamental danger to the liberty of a person.

The Criminal Procedure Code of India also provides for Preventive detention under Section 151 as: “A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognizable offence may arrest, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented.”

In Union of India v Paul Nanickan and Anr, the Supreme Court of India stated: “the object of preventive detention is not to punish a man for having done something but to intercept him, before he does it, and to prevent him from doing it. No offence is proved, nor any charge formulated; and the justification for such detention is suspicion or reasonable probability and not criminal conviction, which can only be warranted by legal evidence.”

The main purpose for inserting preventive detention laws was to prevent the commission of a crime which are prejudicial to law and order of a state but it has failed miserably to serve its purpose and on the other hand is proving to be a tool to curtail the liberty of an individual.

Clause (3) of Article 22 is the main escape that outrightly exempts the applicability of rights of an arrested person as conferred by Article 22. Preventive detention thus allows detention without legal trial. At the same time, the constitution provides safeguards in case of misuse of preventive detention laws.


The first case in post-independent India where the constitutionality of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 was questioned was the AK Gopalan Vs State of Madras. The court gave a green flag to the Preventive Detention Act because of the presence of the explicit provisions of Article 22(5). Although the petitioner made a good attempt by challenging the law in violation of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. Later, PDA lapsed in 1969 and Parliament enacted the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) two years later. The infamous emergency of 1970s exercised MISA as a political weapon to curb political criticism and dissent. MISA expired in 1978 but paved way for the birth of another preventive detention law which is National Security Act (NSA) which is in effect today. Simultaneously, in 1967 the government enacted Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) to restrict the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assembly peaceably without arms and to form associations. UAPA has undergone half a dozen amendments since then and is currently also recognized as a terror law.

It is pertinent to note that, the law in India allows detention of individuals in order to prevent act that may threaten ‘national security’ or ‘public order’. But the author wants to argue that neither the constitution nor the preventive laws expressly define what amounts to national security or public order or what possibly are the range of acts that may fall under these categories of offences. This deficiency on the fundamental clarity poses a challenge on the legality of these laws. The courts have justified preventive detention orders and given some direction in this regard in the case of Ram Manohar Lohia v. State of Bihar, wherein the court differentiated the concepts pf ‘security of state, public order and law and order’. The Court concluded that law and order represent the largest circle within which there is a smaller circle of public order and the smallest circle is the security of the state. So, it can be seen that what may affect law and order might not affect public order, similarly what may affect public order might not affect security of state.

However, the state is trying to normalize preventive detention under the umbrella of ‘national security’ and invoking judicial remedies in preventive detention cases becomes a rare option. The Apex Court has also mistakenly made a dangerous viewpoint in the case of Union of India Vs Dimple Happy Dhakkad where the accused were already arrested under the regular criminal process but were also subject to the preventive detention order under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act, 1974 (COFEPOSA) as the case involved gold smuggling. Bail applications were rejected twice, The Apex Court very narrowly failed to consider the pre-existing detention of the accused when they were already languishing in jail for 2 months before the preventive detention order. The Supreme Court relied completely on the doctrine of the ‘subjective satisfaction’ of the detaining authority. The author undoubtedly admits the limitations of judicial review in detention orders but at the same time our Apex Court has itself widened the horizons of judicial review in arbitrary detention orders. The judiciary as in ADM Jabalpur has transformed itself to completely outlaw its tragic effect of fundamental freedoms and constitutionalism and overruled in the landmark Puttaswamy judgment. Moreover, the court in the case of Prabhu Dayal Deorah Vs. D.M Kamrup have rightfully assented to test the grounds on which the detention orders are passed on the lines of arbitrariness and vagueness. In another case of Bhawarlal Ganeshmalji v. State of Tamil Nadu, the court created a judicial requirement that the allegation must have a ‘live link’ with the present situation to justify the need of preventive detention.

It is significant to substantiate the recent judgment of Allahabad High Court in the Habeas Corpus case of NuzhatPerween Vs State of Uttar Pradesh. Briefly stating the facts of this case, Dr. Kafeel Khan (son of Nuzhat Perween) gave a public speech in Aligarh Muslim University. It was alleged that his speech incited feelings of communal disharmony and also lead to violent protests by some groups of students. A preventive detention order was passed against him to maintain public order in the district and he was put behind the bars. He applied for the bail and the bail was granted. What happens next is the episode which actually happens in our system. The executive did not enforce the bail order. When the court passed a second order to release Dr. Khan, the state claimed that the order was notified later and they have taken a preventive detention order authorized by the District Magistrate, Aligarh. When this matter reached the constitutional High Court of Allahabad, it took six months for a decision to be made. The inordinate delay is in itself a violation of the fundamental liberty of a person whose crime is a mere allegation. The petitioner mentioned that he did not have adequate material and thus his right to effective representation against is detention is violated. The Court agreed with this argument because the petitioner was given the CD of his speech but was given any means to play his disc. He was neither supplied the main transcript which was the primary basis for his preventive detention. Next, the court was asked to determine the contents of his speech as to whether it is of such a nature that a reasonable person could apprehend any disturbance to public order. The state correctly claimed that it is not open for the courts to wear the shoes of the preventive detention authority and the court cannot substitute their opinion in place of the ‘subjective satisfaction of the detaining authority’.

However, the court walked one step ahead and contradicting the above doctrine stated that ‘The expression “subjective satisfaction” means the satisfaction of a reasonable man that can be arrived at on the basis of some material which satisfies a rational man. It does not refer to whim or caprice of the authority concerned.’ In line with this principle of judicial scrutiny in the detention authority, the court noted that the speech delivered by the detenu was presented in parts by the police and not holistically. The speech is in no way against the maintenance of public order and therefore the closure of examining record as suggested would be nothing but a licence to allow the executives to act at their whims or caprice. This would be against the fundamentals of our constitutional values and provisions.

In the recent bail order of the Delhi High Court in the case of Devangana Kalita Vs State of NCT of Delhi the court strongly observed that the state in its anxiety to suppress dissent has blurred the line of constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity. The Court uprightly confronted Section 43D(5) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Quoting the court ‘The making of inflammatory speeches, organising chakkajams, and such like actions are not uncommon when there is widespread opposition to Governmental or Parliamentary actions Even if we assume for the sake of argument, without expressing any view thereon, that in the present case inflammatory speeches, chakkajams, instigation of women protesters and other actions, to which the appellant is alleged to have been party, crossed the line of peaceful protests permissible under our Constitutional guarantee, that however would yet not amount to commission of a ‘terrorist act’ or a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘act preparatory’ to the commission of a terrorist act as understood under the UAPA’

In the latest 2019 amendment, individuals can also be designated as ‘terrorist’ by way of Section 35. Not just that, under Section 43D(5), bail can be denied by relying upon the prosecution documents even though they are inadmissible in courts. This archaic provision has been affirmed by the Apex Court of the country in the case of National Investigation Agency Vs. Zahoor Ahmed Shah Watali. This is the point of concern.

The tragic death of Father Stan Swamy is one such harshest reality of UAPA who was languishing in jail at the age of 84, a man who fought for the rights of the tribals and is applauded by the world. Many other renowned educators and activists like Professor Sudha Bhardwaj, Tamil Poet Varvara Rao etchave been detained under this law in the controversial ElgaarParishad and Bhima Koregaon case. Student activists have been put behind the bars for more than a year only because they dissent from those in power. The dissenting opinion of Hon’ble Justice DY Chandrachud in the Romila Thapar Case enlightens the current scenario of the arbitrariness of these laws. The complexity is embedded in Article 22 which guarantees protection against arrest and detention, yet it provides exception for preventive detention laws and our so called ‘democratic governments’ have time and again enacted preventive detention laws like MISA, UAPA, TADA, POTA, NSA etc. to curb voice raised against them.


All these legislations outlaw the fundamental rights coupled with the basic human rights. Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights embodies the rule of fair hearing in every circumstance and this has been recognized as the basic human tenant. The state, under the misconception of protecting the security of the country, has actually put the country in a state of turmoil. Where at one instance Arnab Goswami is granted bail in 24 hours,

Father Stan Swamy was denied medical bail every time he knocked the doors of the court. The question is who actually are we protecting under these arbitrary preventive detention laws. The answer is none. We are actually protecting the state from dissent.

The constitutional courts of the country must remind themselves the crucial judgment if Maneka Gandhi Vs. Union of India which has expanded the horizons of Article 21 and the court also heard a batch of petitions challenging the National Security Act. In the case of A.K. Roy Vs Union of India upheld the validity of the Act by completely relying on Article 22 (3)(b). After this judgment, preventive detention laws have never been tested constitutionally and this settled proposition is proving to be very unsettling now. The author argues and concludes by stating that the narrowed interpretations of Article 22 have ceased to exist when the Apex Court re-affirmed due process into the constitution and the State cannot rely on this provision anymore while putting people behind the bars for months without giving them adequate legal representation. The judiciary must uphold constitutionalism of the constitution.

It is pertinent to note that the law in India allows detention of individuals in order to prevent acts that may threaten ‘national security’ or ‘public order’. But the author wants to argue that neither the Constitution nor the preventive laws expressly define what amounts to national security or public order or what possibly are the range of acts that may fall under these categories of offences. This deficiency on the fundamental clarity poses a challenge on the legality of these laws. The courts have justified preventive detention orders and given some direction in this regard.