The case of ADM Jabalpur vs. Shivkant Shukla, often simply referred to as the “Habeas Corpus case”, is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Indian judiciary. This landmark judgment dealt with the extent to which an individual’s right to not be unlawfully detained (habeas corpus) could be suspended during emergencies.
The case emerged against the backdrop of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. Civil liberties were suspended, and thousands of opposition leaders, activists, and dissenters were arrested without any charges.
In this context, several petitions were filed in various High Courts seeking the issuance of writs of habeas corpus, challenging the detainees’ arrests. The High Courts took a stand in favor of the citizens and held that even during the Emergency, the State did not have the power to detain a citizen without necessary justification. The government appealed against these decisions to the Supreme Court.
Key Aspects of the Judgment:
- Central Question: The primary question before the Supreme Court was whether a person’s right to not be unlawfully detained (habeas corpus) remains enforceable during a state of Emergency, when the right to move any court for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights under Article 21 is suspended.
- Majority Opinion: In a 4-1 majority, the Supreme Court held that during the Emergency, no person had any locus standi to move any writ petition under Article 226 before a High Court for habeas corpus or any other writ or order or direction to challenge the legality of an order of detention.
- Dissenting Opinion: Justice H.R. Khanna was the sole dissenting judge, taking a stand in favor of the citizen’s right to not be unlawfully detained. He opined that the Constitution did not permit the right to life and liberty to be at the mercy of absolute executive power without the scrutiny of the judicial system.
- Criticism: The judgment was widely criticized for empowering the government to make unlawful detentions without being answerable to the judiciary.
- Long-Term Impact on Judiciary: Justice H.R. Khanna’s dissent, though in the minority, became highly influential in the subsequent development of constitutional law in India. His courage to dissent against the popular narrative upheld the faith of the public in the judiciary.
- Overruling: The ruling in ADM Jabalpur was eventually overruled in 2017 in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. Union of India, where the Supreme Court declared that the ADM Jabalpur case was an aberration in the constitutional jurisprudence of our country.
The ADM Jabalpur case serves as a grim reminder of the vulnerability of fundamental rights in the face of unchecked power. The case stands as a lesson on the importance of judicial independence and the eternal vigilance required to protect and preserve the rights and liberties of citizens.