Before talking further, it is necessary to bear in mind the distinction between ‘preventive detention’ and punitive detention’, when we are considering the question of validity of conditions of detention. There is a vital distinction between these two kinds of detention.

‘Punitive detention’ is intended to inflict punishment on a person, who is found by the judicial process to have committed an offence, while ‘preventive detention’ is not by way of punishment at all, but it is intended to pre-empt a person from indulging in conduct injurious to the society.

Prevention Detention- A necessary evil

The power of preventive detention has been recognized as a necessary evil and is tolerated in a free society in the larger interest of security of the State and maintenance of public order. It is a drastic power to detain a person without trial and there are many countries where it is not allowed to be exercised except in times of war or aggression.

Provisions for Preventive Detention in our Constitution

Our Constitution does recognize the existence of this power, but it is hedged-in by various safeguards set out in Articles 21 and 22.

Art. 22 in clauses (4) to (7), deals specifically with safeguards against preventive detention and any law of preventive detention or action by way of preventive detention taken under such law must be in conformity with the restrictions laid down by those clauses on pain of invalidation.

But apart from Art. 22, there is also Art. 21 which lays down restrictions on the power of preventive detention.

Until the decision of this Court in Maneka Gandhi. v. Union of India, a very narrow and constricted meaning was given to the guarantee embodied in Art. 21 and that article was understood to embody only that aspect of the rule of law, which requires that no one shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty without the authority of law. It was construed only as a guarantee against executive action unsupported by law. So long as there was some law, which prescribed a procedure authorising deprivation of life or personal liberty, it was supposed to meet the requirement of Art. 21.

But in Maneka Gandhi’s case (supra), this Court for the first time opened-up a new dimension of Art. 21 and laid down that Art. 21 is not only a guarantee against executive action unsupported by law, but is also a restriction on law making. It is not enough to secure compliance with the prescription of Article 21 that there should be a law prescribing some semblance of a procedure for depriving a person of his life or personal liberty, but the procedure prescribed by the law must be reasonable, fair and just and if it is not so, the law would be void as violating the guarantee of Art. 21.

Supreme Court expanded the scope and ambit of the right to life and personal liberty enshrined in Art. 21 and sowed the seed for future development of the law enlarging this most fundamental of Fundamental Rights.

This decision in Maneka Gandhi’s case became the starting point-the-spring-board-for a most spectacular evolution the law culminating in the decisions in M. O. Hoscot v. State of Maharashtra, Hussainara Khatoon’s case, the first Sunil Batra’s case and the second Sunil Batra’s case.

Current Position on Article 21

The position now is that Art. 21 as interpreted in Maneka Gandhi’s case (supra) requires that no one shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except by procedure established by law and this procedure must be reasonable, fair and just and not arbitrary, whimsical or fanciful and it is for the Court to decide in the exercise of its constitutional power of judicial review whether the deprivation of life or personal liberty in a given case is by procedure, which is reasonable, fair and just or it is otherwise.

The current test for preventive detention law

The law of preventive detention has therefore now to pass the test not only of Art. 22, but also of Art. 21 and if the constitutional validity of any such law is challenged, the Court would have to decide whether the procedure laid down by such law for depriving a person of his personal liberty is reasonable, fair and just.

But despite these safeguards laid down by the Constitution and creatively evolved by the Courts, the power of preventive detention is a frightful and awesome power with drastic consequences affecting personal liberty, which is the most cherished and prized possession of man in a civilized society.

It is a power to be exercised with the greatest care and caution and the courts have to be ever vigilant to see that this power is not abused or misused. It must always be remembered that preventive detention is qualitatively different from punitive detention and their purposes are different. In case of punitive detention, the person concerned is detained by way of punishment after he is found guilty of wrong doing as a result of trial where he has the fullest opportunity to defend himself, while in case of preventive detention, he is detained merely on suspicion with a view to preventing him from doing harm in future and the opportunity that he has for contesting the action of the Executive is very limited.

Having regard to this distinctive character of preventive detention, which aims not at punishing an individual for a wrong done by him, but at curtailing his liberty with a view to pre-empting his injurious activities in future, it has been laid down by this Court in Sampat Prakash v. State of Jammu and Kashmir,

that the restrictions placed on a person preventively detained must, consistently with the effectiveness of detention, be minimal.”


Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administrator of Union Territory Delhi, 1981 AIR 746

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