OPINION

Giving Human Rights Commissions more teeth

The Madras High Court is to decide on whether the recommendations made by such panels are binding upon the state

In 1993, the Indian Parliament enacted the Protection of Human Rights Act. The purpose of the Act was to establish an institutional framework that could effectively protect, promote and fulfil the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. To this end, the Act created a National Human Rights Commission, and also, Human Rights Commissions at the levels of the various States.

The National and State Human Rights Commissions are examples of what we now call “fourth branch institutions.” According to the classical account, democracy is sustained through a distribution of power between three “branches” — the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, with each branch acting as a check and a balance upon the others. However, the complexity of governance and administration in the modern world has necessitated the existence of a set of independent bodies, which are charged with performing vital functions of oversight. Some of these bodies are constitutional bodies — established by the Constitution itself. These include, for instance, the Election Commission and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Others have been established under law: for example, the Information Commission under the Right to Information Act, and Human Rights Commissions under the Protection of Human Rights Act.

In the two-and-a-half decades of their existence, however, the functioning of the Human Rights Commissions has come under scrutiny and criticism. There have been the usual critiques of the politicisation of autonomous bodies, and selectiveness. Even more than that, however, it has been alleged that for all intents and purposes, the Human Rights Commissions are toothless: at the highest, they play an advisory role, with the government left free to disobey or even disregard their findings.

Pending case

In this context, a pending case before the High Court of Madras has assumed great significance. A Full Bench of the High Court will be deciding upon whether “recommendations” made by the Human Rights Commissions are binding upon their respective State (or Central) governments, or whether the government is entitled to reject or take no action upon them.

Under the Protection of Human Rights Act, the Human Rights Commissions are empowered to inquire into the violations of human rights committed by state authorities, either upon petitions presented to them, or upon their own initiative. While conducting these inquiries, the Commissions are granted identical powers to that of civil courts, such as the examining witnesses, ordering for documents, receiving evidence, and so on. These proceedings are deemed to be judicial proceedings, and they require that any person, who may be prejudicially affected by their outcome, has a right to be heard.

The controversy before the Madras High Court stems from the issue of what is to be done after the Human Rights Commission completes its enquiry, and reaches a conclusion that human rights have been violated. Section 18 of the Protection of Human Rights Act empowers the Human Rights Commission to “recommend” to the concerned government to grant compensation to the victim, to initiate prosecution against the erring state authorities, to grant interim relief, and to take various other steps. The key question revolves around the meaning of the word “recommend.”

The Full Bench of the Madras High Court is hearing the case because different, smaller benches, have come to opposite conclusions about how to understand the word “recommend” in the context of the Protection of Human Rights Act. According to one set of judgments, this word needs to be taken in its ordinary sense. To “recommend” means to “put forward” or to “suggest” something or someone as being suitable for some purpose. Ordinarily, a mere “suggestion” is not binding. Furthermore, Section 18 of the Human Rights Act also obligates the concerned government to “forward its comments on the report, including the action taken or proposed to be taken thereon, to the Commission”, within a period of one month. The argument, therefore, is that this is the only obligation upon the government. If indeed the Act intended to make the recommendations of the Commission binding upon the government, it would have said so: it would not simply have required the government to communicate what action it intended to take to the Commission (presumably, a category that includes “no action” as well).

While intuitively plausible, I suggest that this view needs to be rejected, for many reasons.

The first is that there is often a gap between the ordinary meanings of words, and the meanings that they have within legal frameworks. Legal meaning is a function of context, and often, the purpose of the statute within which a word occurs has a strong influence on how it is to be understood. For example, the Supreme Court has held, in the past, that the overriding imperative of maintaining judicial independence mandates that “consultation” with the Chief Justice for judicial appointments (as set out under the Constitution) be read as “concurrence” of the Chief Justice (this is the basis for the collegium system). Recently, while interpreting the Land Acquisition Act, the apex court held that the word “and” in a provision had to be construed as “or”.

Constitutional commitment

Of course, there needs to be good reason for interpretations of this kind. This brings us to the purpose of the Human Rights Act, and the importance of fourth branch institutions. As indicated above, the Human Rights Act exists to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights. To fulfil this purpose, the Act creates an institutional infrastructure, via the Human Rights Commissions. The Human Rights Commissions, thus, are bodies that stand between the individual and the state, and whose task is to ensure the adequate realisation of constitutional commitment to protecting human rights. It stands to reason that if the state was left free to obey or disobey the findings of the Commission, this constitutional role would be effectively pointless, as whatever the Human Rights Commission did, the final judgment call on whether or not to comply with its commitments under the Constitution would be left to the state authorities (effectively, the state judging itself). This, it is clear, would defeat the entire purpose of the Act.

Indeed, in the past, courts have invoked constitutional purpose to determine the powers of various fourth branch institutions in cases of ambiguity. For example, the Supreme Court laid down detailed guidelines to ensure the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation; various judgments have endorsed and strengthened the powers of the Election Commission to compulsorily obtain relevant details of candidates, despite having no express power to do so. It is therefore clear that in determining the powers of autonomous bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, the role that fourth branch institutions are expected to play in the constitutional scheme is significant.

And lastly, as pointed out above, the Human Rights Commission has the powers of a civil court, and proceedings before it are deemed to be judicial proceedings. This provides strong reasons for its findings to be treated — at the very least — as quasi-judicial, and binding upon the state (unless challenged).

Indeed, very recently, the Supreme Court held as much in the context of “opinions” rendered by the Foreigners Tribunals, using very similar logic to say that these “opinions” were binding.

In sum, the crucial role played by a Human Rights Commission — and the requirement of state accountability in a democracy committed to a ‘culture of justification’ — strongly indicates that the Commission’s recommendations should be binding upon the state. Which way the Madras High Court holds will have a crucial impact upon the future of human rights protection in India.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer

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