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PUCL Bulletin, April 2004

Anamolies in the arrest procedure

-- By Anil Nauriya

A recent case of a Gujarat magistrate who issued arrest warrants against the President of India, the Chief Justice of India, a Supreme Court judge and a former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, has evoked interest in the media. There has been public concern essentially over the circumstances in which this order was procured and about how the names of the dignitaries concerned were disguised by not mentioning their designations and by seemingly spelling the names in full rather than as they are usually written. The complainant — there is a doubt whether the person in whose name the complaint was filed is real or virtual — simply approached a magistrate and made an apparently fictitious claim of having been cheated or defrauded.

The criminal justice process reached the arrest warrant stage without anyone taking the precaution of finding out whether there was an iota of truth in the complaint. Why did this happen in this particular case? How could such a thing happen under criminal procedure? The Supreme Court is seized with the first question and it is not desirable to comment on it. But the second question can and should be discussed.

A vital point to note about the “ordinary” criminal procedure (as distinguished from so-called special laws like the earlier Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act) is that it is not in fact ordinary. As in the case of the existing Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, applicable in India, criminal procedure in post-colonial societies is modelled on or is an outgrowth of colonial procedure. Many provisions have been mechanically continued.

There are several problem areas in criminal procedure relating to case registration, police powers of arrest in respect of certain offences considered graver than others, magisterial powers to direct investigation and, in given situations, issue warrants of arrest, and, finally, in the investigation itself. These aspects of criminal procedure lend themselves to considerable abuse by the police and the subordinate judiciary.

The Code enables a complaint to be made to a magistrate under Section 190 and certain other provisions in case the police do not register an FIR on their own or after a complaint is made to them. On being so approached, magistrates have a variety of options, superimposed on, and sometimes even apart from the usual classification of offences on the basis of seriousness. But broadly during the pre-trial stage there are two magisterial approaches that may, with some risk of simplification, be called the Red and Green Channels. The first is to insist on some elaborate evidence or material being brought on record by the complainant before setting the law in motion. The second is to simply take the complaint on record, ask the complainant a question or two, and initiate the process by directing the police to investigate and, if necessary, issuing summons or warrants as the case may be. Complaints about cognisable (that is, cases in which the police may arrest without warrant) and non-bailable offences often tend to go through the Green Channel.

The difference in the two approaches is ironical and paradoxical. Thus if a parent finds that a minor daughter has been to enticed into a child marriage, and the police have failed to take action against those who organised it, the complaint would generally have to travel through the Red Channel. A child marriage is not necessarily treated as void in personal law, but those who organise it are liable to some minor punishments. A complainant under Section 190 of the Code read with the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 would have to produce what is known as “pre-summoning” evidence before the magistrate. Long dates might be fixed by the magistrate. Unless other steps are taken, the minor girl might even have produced a child and come of age by the time summons are actually issued to the accused persons.
The Green Channel operates differently. These cases include but are not limited to matters where the police are empowered to make arrests on their own. In a given case, the police may register an FIR and, if empowered, effect arrests on their own initiative.

On the other hand, they may choose not to do so because of political or other pressure. They may also drag their feet for the reason that they are aware of the false and vexatious nature of the complaint. The complainant must then approach the magistrate concerned. At this stage there are few strong safeguards to sieve out fabricated complaints. In fact, if the complaint is fabricated it stands a better chance of receiving Green Channel treatment if it alleges the commission of a serious offence, usually referred to as “cognisable” and “non-bailable.” Odd though it may sometimes seem, in such matters elaborate preliminary evidence is not insisted upon as much as it is in the case of lesser offences.

The magistrates are quicker in such cases to direct police investigation and, as the Gujarat magistrate’s case shows, even go further and issue arrest warrants; the initial burden placed upon the complainant by the magistrate is much lighter in such cases. Even a mere order for investigation means, under some judicial decisions, that the police must now necessarily register an FIR. The registration of an FIR implies, in most such cases, arrest of the persons complained against. Since colonial days, the police have often treated as dead letters provisions like Section 41 of the Code which require “credible information” and “reasonable suspicion” before the police may arrest a person without warrant. Similarly, during investigation the police have traditionally taken little notice of the stipulation in Section 157 of the Code that an arrest is to be made when it is “necessary”; there is little appreciation of the fact that the test of “necessity” is a condition precedent to arrest.

The upshot is that under the existing Code of Criminal Procedure it is easier to obtain, with magisterial aid, arrest of persons in a false case concerning serious-looking offences than to obtain, in a genuine case, even a summons to the wrong-doer in what the law treats as less serious offences. The law offers a Green Channel for the first category and a Red Channel for the second category. There are no “remedies” to this particular malice; much depends upon the human material in the police and in the subordinate judiciary. But three important safeguards may be suggested. First, if it is not a capital case involving murder or rape or a case where there is a chance that the person against whom the charges are made would flee the country, there is no reason why a prior inquiry cannot be made before the criminal process is permitted to reach the stage of arrests or warrants for arrest. Second, if the complaint is not for a capital offence an affidavit ought to be required at an early stage from the complainant affirming the truth of the averments made by him. In the case of capital offences, which may involve greater urgency, such an affidavit may follow later.

Recently the Civil Procedure was amended to require the plaintiff’s affidavit in civil suits. There is greater reason for such affidavits to be required in respect of criminal complaints. The penal law does provide for punishment for filing false complaints. But the suggested affidavit requirement could help discourage false complaints at the threshold. Third, further safeguards are required in cases of cross complaints that is complaints made by more than one side against one another about the same incident or group of incidents. Such situations, often generated by business or political rivalries, are a common source of mischief. Sometimes the police, having registered the initial FIR, do not register the counter complaint, knowing or believing it to be false. At other times the reverse happens. These moves are accompanied with a complex interplay of the political, business and legal process, with unpredictable and ever-changing results. The complaint made by one side could even be suppressed. A cross complaint may be activated. Much depends on who was contacted by whom e.g. Politicians in New Delhi instructing Commissioners of Police, Fascist outfits functioning under a sham civil rights signboard in Ahmedabad. All participate in determining the outcome of a process in which criminal procedure is reduced to naught.
It should be mandatory for a complaining party to disclose, in its own complaint before a magistrate, any prior complaints pending against it that may be connected with the same incident or party. A similar responsibility of disclosure must rest upon the police so that such cross complaints may, where appropriate and necessary, be taken up together in the criminal process. The criminal justice process must insist, to the extent this is attainable, upon truth at each stage rather than truth deferred in a bid to achieve interim and collateral objects.

Finally, closer attention is required at the drafting stage.

When the present Code was being drafted and the then Attorney-General appeared to give his evidence before the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill in October 1971 the following exchange occurred:
Chairman: Mr. Attorney General, you must have been very busy...
Witness: I have not gone into the matter in detail; I had no time.

Chairman:
Have you gone through the Questionnaire?
Witness: I have read this Press Communiqué.

Chairman:
And the Bill?
Witness: No.
(Joint Committee on the Code of Criminal Procedure Bill, 1970, Evidence, Volume II, p. 178).

 

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