Defending rights

The supreme court judgment which held that a person cannot be held guilty of criminal acts only because of his membership of a banned organisation has raised some questions which have a bearing on the fundamental rights of citizens and anti-terrorist laws and their enforcement. The court ruled that a citizen’s life and liberty cannot be compromised unless he indulges in an act of violence, incites people to violence or creates public disorder. The ruling was given on a petition filed by a suspected ULFA member who had challenged the case against him under the TADA, which rested on his confession to the police. The court’s observation that confessions made to the police do not make strong evidence will be accepted readily but the main part of the ruling has become contentious. The Central government has decided to file a revision petition against the ruling.

The court’s strong defence of fundamental rights is commendable and is in line with many of its recent judgments on the subject and a recent ruling of the supreme court of the United States. Many people believe in ideologies that preach violence or at least do not oppose violence. It would be wrong to consider them violators of the law if their belief in violence is not translated into action and does not harm the society. But those who criticise the judgment feel that membership of a banned organisation that propagates violence and indulges in it is different from a personal or ideological faith in violence and is a criminal offence. Membership sometimes amounts to active support for and facilitation of illegal actions. But, even after accepting the moral responsibility of a person for the actions of a body he belongs to and his unstated support for them, would it be right to punish him for the illegalities committed by other members?

The lines between legality and illegality, innocence and guilt and individual rights and social responsibility become thin and difficult to distinguish in such situations. Judgment may perhaps vary from case to case. But the problem is compounded by the way the police often seek to enforce the law and incriminate people in cases in which they are not involved. Many would feel that it is better to err on the side of the citizens’ rights in such situations.

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