Political interests are at play behind the move to free Anand Mohan Singh, a prominent Rajput leader in Bihar and a member of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, part of the ruling party alliance in Bihar, after an amendment to the Bihar Prison Manual, 2012. However, the move is not one that belongs in a fair and justifiable system.
ON April 18, the Bihar government’s home department released a controversial notification regarding an amendment to Rule 481(1)(a) of the Bihar Prison Manual, 2012. The particular rule, which we will talk about later in the article, has been allegedly tweaked by the government for the early release of former member of Parliament and member of legislative assembly in the state, Anand Mohan Singh, from jail. He was convicted in 2007 for the murder of the Gopalganj district magistrate, G. Krishnaiah in 1994, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008.
The state government’s recent action to grant him remission through the amendment is arbitrary, and the government is not empowered to do so under the guise of the Prisons Act, 1894. The manual interpretation of life imprisonment as imprisonment for a term of 14 years by the state government while exercising power under Section 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 is illegal.
What is the amendment in question?
Rule 481(1) of the manual paves way for the early release of general convicts on two conditions: (i) firstly, the convicts should be governed by the Section 433A (restriction on powers of remission or commutation in certain cases) of the code, which we will discuss later, and (ii) secondly, the convicts must have undergone imprisonment for 14 years. The specific class of convicts who shall not be eligible for remission even after serving 20 years in jail is also specified in Rule(1)(a).
The murder a public servant no longer being a “heinous crime” shifts Singh from the category of “specific class of convicts” to that of “general convict” under Rule 481(1), which ultimately makes him eligible for the remission of his sentence because he has served 14 years in jail.
Rule 481(1)(a) starts with the term “heinous crime“, which also includes the “murder of a public servant on duty“. This precise phrase has been removed from the manual through the amendment, which in turn produces the effect that the murder of a public servant is no longer a “heinous crime“. This shifts Singh from the category of “specific class of convicts” to that of “general convict” under Rule 481(1), which ultimately makes him eligible for the remission of sentence because he has served 14 years in jail.
How has the Bihar government misused the Prisons Act?
The preamble of the manual establishes it as a collection of “Rules“. The term ‘rule’ always refers to subordinate regulation enacted as a result of powers bestowed by a legislation. In this case, the power to make Rules has been conferred on the state government by Section 59 of the Prisons Act. Clause (28) of sub-section (1) of the Section also empowers the state to make Rules to give effect to the provisions of the Act.
Further, Rule 8 of the manual establishes the inspector general (IG) as the head of the jail administration across the state. However, at the same time, it mandates that the IG shall exercise power subject to “state orders“. It is also provided that the IG shall only act as per what is written in the manual, which does not give him the power to make any Rules. As per a plain and simple reading of these texts, the sole discretion to amend the provisions lies with the State.
The Supreme Court, in Union of India versus Cyanamide India Ltd (1987) had acknowledged the blurred line between an administrative Order and a legislative Order due to the rise of delegated legislation. The court had clarified that administrative Orders are generally passed for an individual in a specific case, while legislative Orders affect a class as a whole. Further, it had held that an administrative Order does not get published in the official gazette like legislative Orders do, and opined that this could be one of the practical tools to distinguish between these two.
In the instant case, firstly, the deleted provision dealt with a class of prisoners convicted of “murder of a public servant on duty”. The effect of such an amendment will be on a larger class of persons, and not on any individual alone. This is evident from the fact that the Bihar government, apart from Singh, has released 26 other convicts who fall under the same category.
Fundamental rights are enshrined in our Constitution to safeguard people against the vagaries of political power, and since the action of the Bihar government is not based on any reasonable classification, it violatesArticle 14 of the Constitution.
Why is the government’s interpretation of ‘life imprisonment’ unlawful?
As per the manual, the procedure to grant remission involves the following three steps:
The case should be forwarded to the Bihar State Sentence Remission Review Board.
It should be passed on to the competent authority— the IG of prisons, and finally to the state government.
The government shall exercise its power to grant remission under Section 432 of the code.
Under the manual, Rule 481(1)(a) is governed by Section 433A of the code. It is a non-obstante clause which has an overriding effect over Section 432. Further, it mandates 14 years of imprisonment as a yardstick to get remission in situations where (I) life imprisonment is given in place of the death penalty, and (II) where the appropriate government has commuted the sentence under Section 433 (power to commute sentence).
The Supreme Court held in 1980 that the government could not mechanically convert a life sentence into 14 years of imprisonment for convicts governed by Section 433A of the Code. This is because a life sentence stands for imprisonment till the end of life. The state government’s legislative power under Entry 4 of List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution can only deal with prisons and prisoners; it can never deal with shortening judicial sentences.
In the current situation, Singh received the death penalty from a trial court, which was later converted by the Patna High Court to life imprisonment. Hence, his case comes well under the ambit of Section 433A. However, the Supreme Court had held in Maru Ram versus Union of India (1980) that the government could not mechanically convert a life sentence into 14 years of imprisonment for convicts governed by Section 433A. This is because a life sentence stands for imprisonment till the end of life. The state government’s legislative power under Entry 4 of List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution can only deal with prisons and prisoners; it can never deal with shortening judicial sentences.
Political interests are at play behind the move to free Singh, a prominent Rajput leader in Bihar and a member of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, part of the ruling party alliance in the state. However, the move is not one that belongs in a fair and justifiable system.
Constitutional provisions and the judiciary have long ensured law and justice in our country. They cannot be undermined by the whim and fancies of the state government, whose actions are influenced by extraneous factors.