By Abhinav Sekhri
On 22.04.2020, Ordinance No. 5 of 2020 was passed to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. It was a response to the most recent pleas by medical professionals for greater legal protection against physical attacks. I say most recent because this issue has been raised on many a prior occasion, but it only seems to have assumed critical importance for the Union Government now (and saw the results within one day) as doctors threatened not to go to work in the midst of a pandemic.
Attacking doctors for doing their job is unacceptable and the Ordinance certainly sends out a strong message to anyone who might do so. After all, while regular offences punishable under the Epidemic Diseases Act only attracted punishments of up to six months (at best), the Ordinance has added new offences which carry a jail term of up to five years for standard cases and up to seven years for cases with grievous hurt. There is also a stiff fine and the obligation to pay double the cost of any property damage suffered by the health workers. Surely, anyone would think twice before getting violent with doctors now.
A Temporary Solution
But, before we start high-fiving ourselves on this great new law, let’s give it a more careful reading. For starters, this is not a permanent answer to the problem of violence against doctors. The Ordinance will only help doctors if they are working in times of an “Epidemic” as declared under the Epidemic Diseases Act. But, as has been mentioned above, the problem of violence against doctors is one that is not restricted to the extraordinary times we find ourselves in.
Thus, what we actually have is a very temporary solution to what is a serious and lasting problem. And this temporary solution will become a bigger problem the moment states begin to declare that the Epidemic Diseases Act will no longer be applicable. Then, we will have a strange scenario in which the doctors in some areas will have better “protections” than others.
The Problem with Criminalising
The fact that doctors and healthcare professionals have been the target of violence across various parts of India is a problem. But passing a law that makes such violence punishable with extremely harsh jail terms and monetary fines is hardly the answer. That healthcare professionals in India have become a soft target for violence suggests many underlying issues. It could reflect a declining trust in doctors. Or even an extreme reaction to doctors’ perceived lack of respect for patients, who could be paying through their noses for medical services, and may thus be placed in an already tense situation, both emotionally and financially.
In the context of Covid-19, the aggressive physical reactions could very well be the consequence of the disinformation that surrounds the disease and the containment measures being adopted to tackle the same. Imagine if you have just got back home after an arduous journey and have, potentially, lost your job because of the lockdown that has forced everyone indoors. You return to a setting where everyone can’t stop talking about this virus, but nobody really knows what it does, or what happens to those who are found to be infected. There is no dissemination of verified information about what quarantine means, or what the conditions of containment buildings are like. Now, if a team of persons flanked by the police come around to “test” you, is it wrong for an individual to try and avoid being tested?
Criminalising conduct certainly sends a message. But it is a horrific answer to solve a problem that is not entirely of an individual’s own making. It might quell incidents of violence against doctors, but it will not help address the mentality which is the cause of such a response. Doing something about the underlying causes would require much more effort than what it takes to simply sign off on a new law. For starters, it would require spending a lot of money on an active information campaign (something that is fairly achievable). In addition to this, it would require governance of transparency that is open to questions, helps debunk fake news and, ultimately, forces the government to treat its citizens better (perhaps not so achievable given how the Union Government has managed the lockdown so far).
The Problem with This Manner of Criminalising
Alas, what we are always left with is a law, which brings me to the provisions of the Ordinance.
The new substantive offence itself is not very problematic. Section 3(2) punishes committing or abetting an “act of violence” against a healthcare service professional. The term “act of violence” goes beyond mere physical attacks and also covers harassment, and “healthcare service professional” goes beyond the medical professionals to all persons empowered under the Epidemic Act to take measures. Where the violence is of the level of causing “grievous hurt” as defined under Section 320 of the Indian Penal Code, Section 3(3) prescribes a harsher punishment.
I will not speak here about the broad discretion on sentencing conferred by the Ordinance, nor the expropriation clause inserted to threaten individuals with the seizure of their houses. Instead, my focus is purely on the problems posed by the procedure prescribed for investigating and prosecuting this new offence.
Of course, such cases are made cognizable and non-bailable, i.e., the police can arrest persons without a warrant, and bail is not a matter of right for them. Such powers are too normalised now to raise eyebrows. But, the same cannot be said about Sections 3C and 3D, both of which create presumptions about the illegal conduct in a manner almost entirely ignorant of basic criminal law and procedure.
Section 3C requires that the court “shall presume” that a person committed the offence in a prosecution brought under Section 3(3) [grievous hurt caused by an act of violence committed against a healthcare service professional]. Yes, this is similar to Section 29 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. It is also similar to the law that Maharashtra had introduced criminalising the possession of beef. But the problem is that in both of these examples (and others), such blanket clauses which effectively shift the entire burden of proving a crime onto the accused have been held unconstitutional.
Instead, the prosecution has been required to prove certain foundational facts, such as whether or not grievous hurt was actually caused by the accused, after which the accused is required to prove her innocence [discussed in detail here]. Based on these judgments, I would argue that Section 3C should be struck down. Even if it is not, courts rarely convict purely on the basis of this presumption (I say this based on handling / reading judgments in child sexual assault cases), which would render Section 3C ornamental at best.
What makes Section 3C even more peculiar is Section 3D, which requires that the court shall presume the existence of the culpable state of mind required for committing the Section 3(3) offence of causing “grievous hurt”. As I have explained above, this is the extent to which the reverse burden clauses in other laws have been held to be valid, and one would imagine that even in cases under the Ordinance it is Section 3D which will be more important.
But, where Section 3D parts with a basic criminal procedure are by prescribing that an accused person proves that she did not have any such mental state “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Normally, this is the standard of proof to which the prosecution is tested in a criminal trial. Is it fair, or constitutional, to require that the accused be tested on the same burden? The Supreme Court unequivocally held in Noor Aga [(2008) 16 SCC 417] that it was not. In Noor Aga, the Court looked at Section 35(2) of the NDPS Act, 1985 which carried similar language and specifically held that the accused could not be required to establish facts by meeting this strict standard.
It beggars belief that the Union Government would be so unaware of basic criminal procedure, which then leaves two alternatives explaining why the Ordinance has Sections 3C and 3D: (i) it is an open challenge to the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, or (ii) it is a strategic move and the government knows the law but is still using these provisions which look harsh to score brownie points and spread fear. Both of these two alternatives are extremely distressing.
Even otherwise, it is not a “zero cost” issue if the government repeatedly passes legislation which is, on its face, contrary to law. For the same battles that were fought earlier must now be fought again. Valuable judicial time and effort, not to mention lawyers’ fee, must be spent upon merely restating the law. Passing provisions totally shifting the burden of proof on the accused will lead to the police filing charge sheets within 30 days (as required under Section 3A) with little or no facts in support of their case.
The new Ordinance with its harsh punishments for violence against healthcare service professionals is a great solution for governments which remain non-committal to heavy spending on social justice issues and remain antithetical to values such as transparency in governance through a crisis which has upended the lives of crores of citizens. And even though all that is required in passing a law is putting pen to paper, the Ordinance suggests that the Union Government was either ignorant of existing law or actively chose to ignore it — both of the alternatives equally damning.
Of course, the Ordinance will help prosecute persons who commit violence against doctors. But what the Ordinance has also done is tell the citizens that their fears, apprehensions, and misgivings about Covid-19 — created in no small measure due to the failure of governments to spend money and be transparent — are exclusively their problem. Any untoward (though unjustified) reactions arising, as a result, will not bring the government to account but will require the citizen to prove her innocence in court. The Ordinance channels the feeling that the Maharashtra police put across bluntly: there are only two choices, lockdown or lockup.
[The author is a criminal lawyer based in New Delhi. This article first appeared on his blog, ‘The Proof of Guilt’.]
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