Reforms in Criminal Justice system

In the case of Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration[1](1980), the supreme court met the chance to consider the question of the handcuffing to under trial prisoners.

This petition came into existence when a prisoner of Tihar, ‘Prem Shankar shukla’ sent a letter to a judge of Supreme Court against the handcuffing of undertrial prisoners.

The brief message he sent runs thus:

In spite of Court order and directions of your Lordship in Sunil Batra v. Delhi, handcuffs are forced on me and others. Admit writ of Habeas Corpus.”

High Court Decision

When Supreme Court admitted the petition, it was informed to the court that the Delhi High Court had earlier dismissed this petitioner’s demand for directions for not putting the handcuffs when escorted from jail to the court and back to the Jail.

But the Delhi High Court dismissed the petition by holding that,

“In view of the circumstances of the case, it was observed that no directions were needed. However, it came to my notice that the requirements of Punjab Police Rules contained in Volume III Chapter 25 Rule 26, 22, 23 and High Court Rules and orders Volume III Chapter 27 Rule 19 are not being complied with.

I would also draw the attention of all concerned to the judgment delivered by Mr. Justice R.N. Aggarwal in Vishwa Nath Versus State[2]wherein it has been observed that a better class under-trial be not handcuffed without recording the reasons in the daily diary for considering the necessity of the use of such a prisoner is being escorted to and from the court by the police, use of handcuffs be not reported to unless there is a reasonable expectation that such prisoner will use violence or that an attempt will be made to rescue him. The practice of use of handcuffs be followed in accordance with the rules mentioned above.”

In plain language, it means that ordinary Indian under- trials shall be routinely handcuffed during transit between jail and court and the better class prisoner shall be so confined only if reasonably apprehended to be violent or rescued.

Petition in Supreme Court

Supreme Court admitted the petition with the view that this petition did not receive constitutional concern it deserves.

Supreme court said that the basic assumption we humanistically make is that even a prisoner is a person, not an animal, that an under-trial prisoner a fortiori so. If iron enters the soul of law and of the enforcing agents of law-rather, if it is credibly alleged so-this court must fling aside forms of procedure and defend the complaining individual’s personal liberty under Arts. 14, 19 and 21 after due investigation.

Steps on International level for Human Rights

Art. 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

And Art. 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Art. 10:

“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Indian Steps

In Maneka Gandhi’s case it has been stated:

“the ambit of personal liberty protected by Art. 21 is wide and comprehensive. It embraces both substantive rights to personal liberty and the procedure provided for their deprivation.”

Contention of Delhi Administration

Counsel from the side of Delhi Administration, urged that when a prisoner was a security-risk, irons were not allergic to the law and the rules permitted their use. The petitioner was a clever crook and by enticements would escape from gullible constables. Since iron was too stern to be fooled, his hands were clad with handcuffs.

The Rules state so and this explanation must absolve the police. All soft talk of human dignity is banished when security claims come into stern play. Surely, no cut-and-dried reply to a composite security-versus-humanity question can be given.

No prisoner is beneath the law and while the Act does provide for rules regarding journey in custody when the court demands his presence, they must be read in the light of the larger back drop of human rights.

The Wide Wings of Habeas Corpus Petition

In this case, Supreme Court enlarged the limits of habeas corpus writ. The Supreme Court said that the raw history of human bondage and the roots of the habeas corpus writ enlighten the wise exercise of constitutional power in enlarging the person of men in unlawful detention. This liberating writ of habeas corpus is no longer traditional limits of English vintage that it should only be use to release the person from Prison.

Our founding fathers exceeded the inspiration of the prerogative writs by phrasing the power in larger diction. That is why, in India, as in America, the broader horizons of Habeas corpus spread out, beyond the orbit of release from illegal custody, into every trauma and torture on persons in legal custody, if the cruelty is contrary to law, degrades human dignity or defiles his personhood to a degree that violates Arts. 21, 14 and l 9 enlivened by the Preamble.

Sunil Batra’s Case

Sunil Batra case was also the case when a prisoner sent a letter to Supreme Court against the torture in prison.

In Sunil Batra’s case, it has been laid down by a Constitution Bench of this Court that imprisonment does not, ipso facto Mean that fundamental rights desert the detainee There is no dispute that the petitioner was, as a fact handcuffed on several occasions.

Rules for Handcuffing

When present petition present to court, it was stated in rules of Punjab police that-

  • Prisoners brought into court in handcuffs shall continue in handcuffs unless removal thereof is “specially ordered by the Presiding officer”, that is to say, handcuffs even within the court is the rule and removal an exception.
  • Handcuffs are to be used if a person is involved in serious non-bailable offences, is a previous convict, a desperate character, violent, disorderly or obstructive or a person who is likely to commit suicide or who may attempt to escape.
  • There should ordinarily be no occasion to handcuff Persons occupying a good social position in public life, or professionals like jurists, advocates doctors, writers, educationists and well known journalists.
  • It shall be the duty of supervisory officers at various levels, the SHO primarily, to see that these instructions are strictly complied with. In case of non-observance of these instructions severe action should be taken against the defaulter. There is a procedural safeguard.

Handcuffing Laws on the touchstone of Constitution

According to the court, no rule which is violative to the Part III of the constitution shall be allowed to be followed. The handcuff law must meet the demands of Arts. 14, 19 and 21. Rules, Standing orders, Instructions and Circulars must bow before Part III of the Constitution.

  • The Preamble sets the humane tone and temper of the founding Document and highlights Justice, Equality and the dignity of the individual.
  • Art. 14 interdicts arbitrary treatment discriminatory dealings and capricious cruelty.
  • Art. 19 prescribes restrictions on free movement unless in the interests of the general public.
  • Art 21 after the landmark case in Maneka Gandhi followed by Sunil Batra (supra) is the sanctuary of human values prescribes fair procedure and forbids barbarities, punitive or processual.

Handcuffing is against the spirit of Constitution

The court held that, Handcuffing is prima facie inhuman and, therefore, unreasonable, is over-harsh and at the first flush, arbitrary. Absent fair procedure and objective monitoring, to inflict ‘irons’ is to resort to zoological strategies repugnant to Art. 21.

Court said that,

“The competing claims state for securing the prisoner from fleeing and protecting his personality from barbarity have to be harmonised. To prevent the escape of an under-trial is in public interest, reasonable, just and cannot, by itself, be castigated. But to bind a man hand-and- foot, fetter his limbs with hoops of steel, shuffle him along in the streets and stand him for hours in the courts is to torture him, defile his dignity, vulgarise society and foul the soul of our constitutional culture.”

The supreme Court further laid down that,

“We lay down as necessarily implicit in Arts. 14 and 19 that when there is no compulsive need to fetter a person’s limbs, it is sadistic, capricious despotic and demoralizing to humble a man by manacling him. Such arbitrary conduct surely slaps Art. 14 on the face.

The criminal freedom of movement which even a detainee is entitled to under Art. 19 (Sunil Batra, supra) cannot be cut down cruelly by application of handcuffs or other hoops. It will be unreasonable so to do unless the State is able to make out that no other practical way of forbidding escape is available, the prisoner being so dangerous and desperate and the circumstance so hostile to safe-keeping.”

Handcuffing should be last option

It is that to be consistent with Arts. 14 and 19 handcuffs must be the last refuge, not the routine regimen. If a few more guards will suffice, then no handcuffs. If a close watch by armed policemen will do, then no handcuffs. If alternative measures may be provided, then no iron bondage. This is the legal norm.

No classification among prisoners for handcuffing

In this case, it was urged by the petitioner that he is better class prisoners even though he is forced to handcuffed. So, the supreme court held it to not handcuff on the basis of classes.

The court said that,

It is unconscionable, indeed, outrageous, to make the strange classification between better class prisoners and ordinary prisoners in the matter of handcuffing. This elitist concept has no basis except that on the assumption the ordinary Indian is a sub-citizen and freedoms under Part III of the constitution are the privilege of the upper sector of society.

Serious offence is not the rule to handcuffing

As we read above, it was mentioned in the standing order that prisoners of non-bailable offence shall be handcuffed.

But the court held it bad law and said that,

“Merely because a person is charged with a grave offence he cannot be handcuffed, He may be very quiet, well-behaved, docile or even timid. Merely because the offence is serious, the inference of escape proneness or desperate character does not follow.

Tangible testimony, documentary or other, or desperate behaviour, geared to making good his escaped alone will be a valid ground for handcuffing and fettering, and even this may be avoided by increasing the strength of the escorts or taking the prisoners in well protected vans. It is heartening to note that in some States in this country no handcuffing is done at all, save in rare cases, when taking under-trials to courts and the scary impression that unless the person is confined in irons he will run away is a convenient myth.”

Alternative of Handcuffing

The court suggested the alternative of handcuffing that some increase in the number of escorts, arming them if necessary, special training for escort police, transport of prisoners in protected vehicles, are easily available alternatives and, in fact, are adopted in some States in the country where handcuffing is virtually abolished, e.g. Tamil Nadu.

Decision of the Court

The court held that the petition must be allowed and handcuffs on the prisoner dropped. And declared that the Punjab Police Manual, in so far as it puts the ordinary Indian beneath the better class breed is untenable and arbitrary and direct that Indian humans shall not be dichotomised and the common run discriminated against regarding handcuffs.

A law which handcuffs almost every undertrial (who, presumably, is innocent) is itself dangerous.

Order to the lower Court

Apart from holding unnecessary handcuffing arbitrary, the Supreme court further ordered to lower courts that the judicial officer before when the prisoner is produced to interrogate the prisoner, as a rule, whether he has been subjected to handcuffs or other “irons” treatment and, if he has been, the official concerned shall be asked to explain the action forthwith in the light of this Judgment.


Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration; 1980 AIR 1535

[1] 1980 AIR 1535, 1980 SCR (3) 855

[2] Crl. Misc. Main No. 430 of 1978 decided on 6-4-1979