Mumtazunnisa Soz, wife of Saifuddin Soz, former central minister and leader of Congress party in Jammu-Kashmir, filed a habeas corpus writ petition in the Supreme Court, alleging that the government of Jammu-Kashmir had put him under arrest. Before the SC bench which heard the petition last Wednesday, the central government explained that Soz was not under arrest. Taking that response in good faith, the bench disposed of the habeas corpus petition, thereby making Ms Soz's petition became futile. The next day, mediapersons who turned up before Soz's residence, were in for a surprising sight. The former central minister was shouting to the reporters, who had gathered near the compound wall of his house, that he was not free and was in unlawful house arrest. The picture also showed police who were surrounding the premises trying to stop him.
It was the government, which had appointed a batch of policemen, both uniformed and in plainclothes, and were seen preventing the former minister from not only going out but even talking to reporters, that had told the apex court some hours ago that Saifuddin Soz was not under arrest. Thus the allegation that the government misinformed the court is not to be taken lightly.
Even as habeas corpus is a guarantee to give access for every citizen to his two fundamental rights – the rights to life and to freedom – the bench rejected the complaint of the arrested person's wife without full verification of the government's response, reposing trust in the government. And it was because of a similar trust in the government that the Supreme Court made an unusual error while giving its judgment after the Rafale deal case hearing in December. Following the court verdict, four petitions came before the Supreme Court citing that there was an irregularity behind the Modi government's signing the Rafale agreement with crucial changes. The prayer was for a probe under the court's supervision. In the verdict rejecting that plea, the court said that the government had shared with the Comptroller-Auditor General (CAG) the particulars regarding price decisions and that CAG had passed them to the the Public Accounts Committee for review. This fallacious statement happened to find an entry in the court's judgment too, only because the court believed the statement of the government as such. Then in order to remedy the unprecedented situation, the Centre was eventually obliged to take a rare step of filing a rectifiation statement. But by that time the government's wish of not subjecting the Rafale deal to judicial review, had been fulfilled.
There have been repeating incidents of Modi government's steps and statements that can be termed deliberately misleading. Another case in point is the recent draft notification of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA 2020), that deals with the inspection of environmental impact of various projects. A petition was filed in Karntaka High Court by a voluntary organisation demanding that more time shold be allowed for further detailed discussion in the public about the notification. In the counter filed against this petition, the Centre submitted that the zero draft of this notification had been sent to the states a year earlier. As a matter of fact, what had been sent to the states was not the 2020 circular, but an earlier version of that.
Regarding the manner of handling the Covid pandemic too, quite a few factually incorrect statements were made by the central government, some of them even before the courts. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta gave incorrect answers at least twice regarding Covid in the Supreme Court. What was incorrect was not only that the government contention that migrant labourers were given free travel, but the statement that all of them were served food and water on the train. On the very day of 31 March - when the court was told that no one was forced to walk along the road and all those who were outdoors were accommodated in shelter homes - several tell-tale images had come out as evidence in the press of labourers walking miserably on the roads in four or five states.
What is unfortunate is not only that the government makes such false statements, but also that before taking them at their face value, the court does not make any effort for a fact-check. Further, the government tells untruths in a smart and subtle manner, leaving clever room for some technical excuse to hang on to. Saifuddin Soz was not arrested in strict technical terms, but he was under house arrest. Even for giving the wrong affidavit on Rafale deal, the Centre has its own justification: that it was not what it had done, but what was normally done!. But the fact is that any reader of that would be misled, as the court was. Again, it is a fact that an EIA draft was provided to the states a year ago, but this year's notification did contain several core changes, which however was not made available and is not the same as what was sent a year ago. Thus, when matters ranging from national security to individual liberty and from environment to disease prevention are misrepresented under the cover of technicalities and legal complexity, the judiciary has an obligation to uphold constitutional values. The court is under no obligation to take the government for granted.