This post was authored by Sama Zehra
The Bombay High Court (‘HC’) in Vinit Kumar v CBI was faced with a situation familiar to the constitutional courts in India. The HC was called upon to decide whether telephone recordings obtained in contravention of section 5(2) of the Telegraphs Act, 1885 (‘Act’) would be admissible in a criminal trial against the accused. Before delving into the reasoning of the HC, it will be instructive to refer to the facts of the case and an overview of India’s interception regime.
Section 5(2) of Telegraph Act, permits interception (or ‘phone tapping’) done in accordance with a “procedure established by law” and lays down two conditions: the occurrence of a “public emergency” and in the interests of “public safety”,under which such orders may be passed. Moreover, the order must be “necessary” for reasons related to the security of the state, friendly relations with other states, sovereignty or preventing the commission of an offense. The Apex Court in PUCL v. UOI (‘PUCL’) stated that telephone tapping without following the appropriate safeguards and legal process would infringe the Right to Privacy of an individual. Accordingly, procedural safeguards, in addition to those under section 5(2) of the Act, were laid down; eventually incorporated in the Telegraph Rules, 1951 (‘Telegraph Rules’). These included; such orders being only issued by the Home Secretaries of Central and State governments in times of emergency. Secondly, such an order shall be passed only when necessary and the authority passing the order shall maintain a detailed record of the intercepted communication and the procedure followed. Further, the order shall cease to be effective within two months, unless renewed. Lastly, the intercepted material shall be used only for purposes deemed necessary under the Act.
In the Vinit Kumar case, during a bribery related investigation, three interception orders were issued directing the interception of telephone calls by the petitioner. These were challenged as being ultra vires of section 5(2) of the Act, non-compliant with the Telegraph Rules, and for being in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part-III of the Indian Constitution.
The HC quashed the said orders by holding that:
Firstly, the right to privacy would include telephone-conversation in the privacy of one’s home or office. Telephone-tapping would, thus, impermissibly infringe on the interceptee’s Article 21 rights unless it is conducted under the procedure established by law (in this case, the law laid down in PUCL and the Telegraph Rules). In Vinit Kumar, the HC found the impugned orders were in contravention of the procedural guidelines laid down for the protection of the right to privacy by the Supreme Court in PUCL, section 5 of the Act and Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules. Additionally, (and crucially) the evidence obtained through infringement of the right to privacy would be inadmissible in the court of law.
This blog analyses this third aspect of the HC judgment and argues that the approach of the HC reflects a true reading of the decision of the SC in K.S. Puttaswamy v UoI (‘Puttaswamy’) and ushers us into a new regime of right to privacy for accused persons. While doing so, the author critically examines the previous decisions wherein the courts have held the evidence collected through processes that infringe the fundamental rights of the accused to be admissible.
Correct Reading of Privacy Doctrine and Puttaswamy Development
Based on the decisions of the SC in State v Navjot Sandhu and Umesh Kumar v State, the current legal position would appear to be that illegally obtained evidence is admissible in courts as long as it is relevant. Consequently, as Vrinda Bhandari and Karan Lahiri have argued, the State is placed in a position whereby it is incentivised to access private information of an accused in a manner which may not be legally permissible. There are no adverse legal consequences for illegally obtaining evidence, only prosecutorial benefits. This is reflected in the decisions concerning the admissibility of recordings of telephonic conversations without the knowledge of the accused. The rule regarding admissibility of illegally collected evidence stems from a couple of cases, however it is submitted that the rule has a crumbling precedential basis.
A good starting point is the Supreme Court’s decision in RM Malkani v State (‘Malkani’). It was held that telephone recordings without the knowledge of the accused would be admissible in evidence as long as they are not obtained by coercion or compulsion. The Court had negligible analysis to offer insofar as the right to privacy of an individual is concerned. However, this decision dates back to the Pre-PUCL and the Pre-Puttaswamy era, wherein the right to privacy (especially vis-a-vis telephonic conversations) was not recognised as a fundamental right. Hence, it becomes imperative to question the continued relevance and correctness of this decision in light of the new developments in our understanding of fundamental rights under the Constitution. Moreover, Malkani relied on Kharak Singh v. State of U.P, which was explicitly overruled by Puttaswamy. This also casts doubt on other cases which relied on the reasoning in Kharak singh on the issue of privacy.
In Vinit Kumar, the HC rejected the approach adopted in Malkani and Kharak Singh. Affirming the right to privacy as a fundamental right, and relying on the requirements of ‘public emergency’ or ‘public order’, the HC observes that the respondents failed to justify any ingredients of “risk to the people at large or interest of the public safety, for having taken resort to the telephonic tapping by invading the right to privacy” (¶ 19). It emphasized the need to adhere by procedural safeguards, as provided in the Act, the Telegraph Rules, and the PUCL judgment, so as to ensure that the infringement of the right to privacy in a particular case meets the standards of proportionality laid down in Puttaswamy. Crucially, the HC goes a step further to hold that since the infringement of the right to privacy is not in accordance with the procedure established by law, the intercepted messages ought to be destructed and not used as evidence in trial as it is sourced from the infringement of the fundamental right to life (¶ 22).
Thus, we can see an adherence to the new constitutional doctrines espoused by the Supreme Court whereby the HC emphatically rejected the now-overruled reasoning of Kharak Singh v State as far as the right to privacy is concerned, and refused to apply the cases of Malkani and Dharambir Khattar v UoI whose ratios flow from Kharak Singh’s non-recognition of a right to privacy. The HC held that such judgements have been overruled by Puttaswamy (to the extent that they do not recognise the right to privacy as a fundamental right). Furthermore, it was also held that these cases involved no examination of law on the touchstone of principles of proportionality and legitimacy, as laid down in Puttaswamy (¶ 37). It circumvented the issue of ‘relevancy’ by distinguishing between ‘illegally collected evidence’, and ‘unconstitutionally collected evidence’, ruling that the latter was inadmissible as it would lead to the erosion of fundamental rights at the convenience of the State’s investigatory arm.
The HC judgment is, therefore, an important landmark with respect to the admissibility of evidence involving violation of fundamental rights. However, given the absence of a clear Supreme Court judgment in this regard, the rights of the Indian citizenry are susceptible to the difference in the approaches taken by other HCs. A case in point is the Delhi HC judgment in Deepti Kapur v. Kunal Julka wherein a video-recording of the wife’s conversation with her friend, collected by the CCTV camera in her room was admitted in evidence despite the arguments raised with regards to infringement of the right to privacy. Thus, the exact application of a bar on evidence collected through privacy infringing measures in different contexts will need to be developed on a case by case basis.
The Bombay HC judgment correctly traces the evolution of the right to privacy debate in the Indian jurisprudence. It is based on the transformative vision of the Puttaswamy judgment and appropriate application of precedent with regards to the case in hand. It symbolizes a true deference to the Constitution by protecting the citizenry from state surveillance and potential abuses of power. Especially in the current electronic era where personal information can be extracted through unconstitutional means, the Vinit Kumar judgment affirms the importance of procedural due process under the fundamental rights regime in India.