The case of ‘Rudal shah v. Union of India[1]’ is a landmark case in constitutional and human rights law. In this case, the court established the principle of ‘compensation for victims’ in criminal laws.

The judgment was delivered by Chief Justice Chandrachud.

Facts of the case

  • Though the petitioner was acquitted by the Court of Sessions, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, on June 3, 1968 he was released from the jail on October 16, 1982, that is to say, more than 14 years after he was acquitted.
  • By Habeas Corpus petition in this case, the petitioner asked for his release on the ground that his detention in the jail is unlawful.
  • He also asked for certain ancillary reliefs like rehabilitation, reimbursements of expenses which he may incur for medical treatment and compensation for the illegal incarceration.
  • This petition came up before the court on November 22, 1982 when the court was informed by Shri Goburdhan, counsel for the State of Bihar, that the petitioner was already released from the jail.

Release was not the end of the matter

  • The court directed that a Notice to show cause be issued to the State of Bihar but they offered no explanation for over four months. However, when the petition was listed before the court, the petitioner had been already released from the jail.
  • But release of the petitioner was not considered by the supreme court as the closing of the matter and called upon the Government of Bihar to submit a written explanation supported by an affidavit as to why the petitioner was kept in the jail for over 14 years after his acquittal.
  • On April 16, 1983, Shri Alakh Deo Singh, Jailor, Muzaffarpur Central Jail, filed an affidavit in pursuance of that order.

The insanity of Prisoner

In that affidavit, the cause of the detention of Rudal shah for such a long period was stated like that,

“That accused Rudul Sah was of unsound mind.

That the Civil Surgeon, Muzaffarpur, reported on 18.2.77 that accused Rudul Sah was normal and this information was communicated to the Law Department on 21.2.77.

That the petitioner, Rudul Shah was treated well in accordance with the rules in the Jail Manual, Bihar, during the period of his detention.

That the petitioner was released on 16.10.82 in compliance with the letter No. 11637 dated 14.10 82 of the Law Department.”

Although, it was not clear either from the affidavit filed by the Jailor or from the order of the learned Additional Sessions Judge, Muzaffarpur, as to what was the basis on which it was stated in the affidavit that the petitioner was of unsound mind or the reason why the learned Additional Sessions Judge directed the detention of the petitioner in jail, until further orders of the State Government and the Inspector General of Prisons.

The court noted that there is nothing to show that the petitioner was found insane on the very date of his acquittal. And, if he was insane on the date of acquittal, he could not have been tried at all for the simple reason that an insane person cannot enter upon his defence Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, insane persons have certain statutory rights in regard to the procedure governing their trial.

The court said that,

“We are inclined to believe that the story of the petitioner’s insanity is an afterthought and is exaggerated out of proportion. If indeed he was insane, at least a skeletal medical record could have been produced to show that he was being treated for insanity.

In these circumstances, we are driven to the conclusion that, if at all the petitioner was found insane at any point of time, the insanity must have supervened as a consequence of his unlawful detention in jail. A sense of helplessness and frustration can create despondency and persistent despondency can lead to a kind of mental imbalance.”

The recklessness of Bihar law department

The court also stricted on the Bihar law department because according to court, the concerned Department of the Government of Bihar could have afforded to show a little more courtesy to this Court and to display a greater awareness of its responsibilities by asking one of its senior officers to file an affidavit in order to explain the callousness which pervades this case. Instead, the Jailor has been made a scapegoat to own up vicariously the dereliction of duty on the part of the higher officers who ought to have known better.

The use of power under Article 32 by the court

Article 32 of the Constitution confers power on the Supreme Court to issue directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari, whichever may be appropriate, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III.

The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by Part III is “guaranteed”, that is to say, the right to move the Supreme Court under Article 32 for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III of the Constitution is itself a fundamental right.

While holding for the compensation of the petitioner, the court observed that,

“It is true that Article 32 cannot be used as a substitute for the enforcement of rights and obligations which can be enforced efficaciously through the ordinary processes of Courts, Civil and Criminal. A money claim has therefore to be agitated in and adjudicated upon in a suit instituted in a court of lowest grade competent to try it. But the important question for our consideration is whether in the exercise of its jurisdiction under article 32, this Court can pass an order for the payment of money if such an order is in the nature of compensation consequential upon the deprivation of a fundamental right.

The instant case is illustrative of such cases. The petitioner was detained illegally in the prison for over fourteen years after his acquittal in a full-dressed trial. He filed a Habeas Corpus petition in this Court for his release from illegal detention. He obtained that relief, our finding being that his detention in the prison- after his acquittal was wholly unjustified. He contends that he is entitled to be compensated for his illegal detention and that we ought to pass appropriate order for the payment of compensation in this Habeas Corpus petition itself.

In these circumstances, the refusal of this Court to pass an order of compensation in favour of the petitioner will be doing mere lip-service to his fundamental right to liberty which the State Government has so grossly violated. Article 21 which guarantees the right to life and liberty will be denuded of its significant content if the power of this Court were limited to passing orders to release from illegal detention.

One of the telling ways in which the violation of that right can reasonably be prevented and due compliance with the mandate of Article 21 secured, is to mulct its violaters in the payment of monetary compensation. Administrative sclerosis leading to flagrant infringements of fundamental rights cannot be corrected by any other method open to the judiciary to adopt. The right to compensation is some palliative for the unlawful acts of instrumentalities which act in the name of public interest and which present for their protection the powers of the State as a shield.

If civilization is not to perish in this country as it has perished in some others too well-known to suffer mention, it is necessary to educate ourselves into accepting that, respect for the rights of individuals is the true bastion of democracy. Therefore, the State must repair the damage done by its officers to the petitioner’s rights. It may have recourse against those officers.”

Decision of the court

The court held that,

Taking into consideration the great harm done to the petitioner by the Government of Bihar, as an interim measure, the State must pay to the petitioner a further sum of Rs. 30,000 (Rupees thirty- thousand) in addition to the sum of Rs. 5,000 (Rupees five thousand) already paid by it.

Concluding remarks of the court

At the end of the judgment, the court said,

“The Government of Bihar agrees to make the payment though, we must clarify, our order is not based on their consent. This order will not preclude the petitioner from bringing a suit to recover appropriate damages from the state and its erring officials. The order of compensation passed by us is, as we said above, in the nature of a palliative.

We cannot leave the petitioner penniless until the end of his suit, the many appeals and the execution proceedings. A full-dressed debate on the nice points of fact and law which takes place leisurely in compensation suits will have to await the filing of such a suit by the poor Rudul Sah. The Leviathan[2] will have liberty to raise those points in that suit. Until then, we hope, there will be no more Rudul Sahs in Bihar or elsewhere.”


Rudul Sah vs State Of Bihar And Another; 1983 AIR 1086, 1983 SCR (3) 508

[1] 1983 AIR 1086

[2] Leviathan means ‘state’, the term ‘leviathan’ is known due to the work of one of the ‘social contract theory of state’ propounder ‘Thomas Hobbes’ whose book name was ‘leviathan’.