The Supreme Court on Monday told the Telangana government that it could not issue preventive detention orders under a state law at “the drop of a hat”.

A division bench of Justices Surya Kant and Dipankar Datta was hearing an appeal by a woman against her husband’s detention. On June 28, the Telangana High Court refused to interfere with the detention order, after which the woman approached the Supreme Court.

The detention order stated that the police were satisfied with the fact that the detainee was “habitually committing the offences including outraging the modesty of women, cheating, extortion, obstructing the public servants from discharging their legitimate duties, robbery and criminal intimidation along with his associates in an organised manner”.

The detention order said that on this basis, the man could be defined as a “goonda” under the Telangana Prevention of Dangerous Activities Act of 1986.

The court, however, said that in the three criminal cases that the man was involved in, the state government had not filed any applications to get his bail cancelled. It said that in light of this, the government should not have resorted to preventive detention under the Telangana Prevention of Dangerous Activities Act when ordinary criminal law “provided sufficient means” for this purpose.

The court also said that the detaining authority had failed to differentiate between offences that create a “law and order” situation and those that tend to prejudicially affect “public order”. It noted that an offence can be said to affect public order only when the public at large is adversely affected.

The bench said that preventive detention, conceived as an extraordinary measure by the framers of India’s Constitution, has been rendered ordinary with its “reckless invocation” over the years.

“To unchain the shackles of preventive detention, it is important that the safeguards enshrined in our Constitution, particularly under the ‘golden triangle’ formed by Articles 14, 19 and 21, are diligently enforced,” the bench said.

While Article 14 of the Constitution relates to equality before the law, Article 19 pertains to freedom of speech and expression, and Article 21 provides India’s citizens the right to life and personal liberty. All these are fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution to the citizens of the country.

Referring to a chain of judgments, the bench said that the courts need to ensure that a detention order is only passed after the concerned authority takes all relevant circumstances into account and is satisfied that such an order is needed.

Previous criticism of preventive detention

Hearing a separate case in April 2022, the Supreme Court had told the Telangana police that it had quashed over five detention orders under the Telangana Act of 1986, saying that the authorities relied on stale material and did not interpret “maintenance of public order” correctly.

Justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant had observed that preventive detention cannot be ordered merely because a person is implicated in a criminal proceeding.

“The personal liberty of an accused cannot be sacrificed on the altar of preventive detention merely because a person is implicated in a criminal proceeding,” said the bench. “The powers of preventive detention are exceptional and even draconian.”