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Upholding Prisoner’s Dignity: A PIL Journey- The landmark case of Citizens for Democracy v State of Assam

Avantika Chavan ,
  29 July 2023       Share Bookmark

Court :
Hon’ble Supreme Court of India
Brief :

Citation :
1995 3 SCC 743, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 22 of 1995


Citizens for Democracy through its President V. The State of Assam & Ors.


1st May 1995


Justice Kuldip Singh & Justice N. Venkatachala JJ. 


Petitioner- Citizens for Democracy through its President

Respondent- The State of Assam & Ors.


In the case Citizens for Democracy v. State of Assam, which centres on the idea of public interest litigation (PIL), it was decided that no prisoner shall be forced to wear handcuffs and that police officers do not have the right to order an inmate to be handcuffed while being transported to court. Instead, if the prisoner is afraid, they must appear before a magistrate and ask for permission to be handcuffed. The decision of the Supreme Court of India in this case profoundly influenced the PIL jurisprudence and established a standard for cases in the future involving public interest problems.


  • The Constitution of India, 1950

Article 14- Equality before the law: Within the boundaries of India, the State shall not deny anyone's right to equal treatment under the law or to equal protection of the laws. prohibition of discrimination based on a person's birthplace, race, caste, religion, or sexual orientation.

Article 19-protection of certain freedom of speech rights, among other things. Nothing in subclause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any law currently in force or prevent the State from enacting new legislation, to the extent that such legislation imposes justifiable restrictions on the exercise of the right granted by said subclause in the interests of India's sovereignty and integrity, the security of the State, friendly relations with other States, public order, decency, or morality.

Article 21- Protection of life and personal liberty No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.

Article 32- Remedies for enforcing rights granted by this Part

 (1) The right to file a proper petition with the Supreme Court for the enforcement of rights granted by this Part is guaranteed.

(2) The Supreme Court shall have the authority to issue orders, directives, or writs, including writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari, as may be necessary to enforce any of the rights granted by this Part.

Article 141- Supreme Court rules that the law is applicable to all courts All courts operating within the boundaries of India must adhere to the legislation that the Supreme Court has declared.

Article 144- The Supreme Court shall be assisted by all civil and judicial agencies within the territory of India..


  • In 1995, Mr. Kuldip Nayar, President of  the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Citizens for Democracy filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) through a letter in the Supreme Court of India. The PIL was concerned about the living circumstances of prisoners in Assam's detention facilities. 
  •  The Petitioner on his visit to Assam’s Government hospital saw the deplorable condition of the 7 TADA inmates who were believed to be hardcore activists of ULFA which is notorious for insurgent activities. These seven detainees were charged with terrorist and disruptive offences that included murder, extortion, stockpiling, and smuggling of weapons and ammunition.
  • The petitioner argued that the 7 detunes basic rights, particularly their right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, were violated by the appalling living circumstances in these detention facilities. 
  • The detainees allegedly were handcuffed to beds despite the fact that the rooms where prisoners were lodged were well guarded with armed police perosnnels giving the detenus no chance to escape.
  • Due to their vulnerability and marginalisation, detainees were unable to individually exercise their rights and were exposed to arbitrary incarceration without adequate legal remedy. Therefore, the petitioner asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on these matters and guarantee the protection of the detainees' fundamental rights.


  • Does PIL offer a viable tool to resolve public interest issues on behalf of vulnerable groups? What is the validity and scope of PIL in India?
  • Is it acceptable to cuff or iron-bear prisoners as they move between a jail and a courthouse?
  • Protection of prisoners' fundamental rights: Does Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees each person the right to life and personal liberty, apply to those held in detention facilities?


  •  The appellant claimed that the State owed it to all people, even alleged criminals to treat them with respect and give them humane living conditions. Handcuffing them to bed despite presence of police security violates their rights.
  • The appellant further asserted that the 7 detenus were handcuffed and on top of that tied with a long rope to contain their movement. There is no material whatsoever on behalf of the State Government to infer that the detenus were likely to jump jail or break out of custody.
  • The petitioner added that the detainees were held in cruel conditions, denied access to basic comforts, and forced to pay for their own medications out of their own pockets.
  • They emphasized that these detainees had extremely restricted access to justice, making a PIL the best course of action to bring the issue before the court.


  • It was argued that during the period of 1991-94, there has been as many as fifty escape or rescue of terrorist from judicial and police custody from different hospitals and all this happened while the TADA detainees were not in handcuffs. Thus, the same mistake cannot be repeated again for the sake of security of the country.
  • The 7 detenus are hardcore activists of ULFA all of them accused of heinous offences. Handcuffing them is preventing their escape from police, judicial and hospital custody which is very crucial for administering justice.
  • It was also stated that the detenus were not completely tied and handcuffed to their beds and were allowed to go without handcuffs to hospital lavatories outside the ward and routine checkup while under police scrutiny. They were allowed to go for morning and evening walk as per doctor advise. Hence the violation of Article 21 does not come into picture. 
  • It was further stated by the Home Secretary that all the detenus were provided required medical treatment and had access to the prescribed drugs; hence they were not deprived of basic amenities and were not kept in inhuman conditions.


  • The SC has repeatedly stated that a prisoner's character, antecedents, and propensities are relevant factors while deciding whether to place him or her in fetters. The type of crime the prisoner is accused of committing, the length of the sentence, the number of convictions, or the graphic nature of the alleged crime are not by themselves important factors.
  • The 7 detainees' antecedents are unknown, and there is no record that would indicate that they are violently inclined, according to the court, therefore there is absolutely no reason for supposing that they were likely to escape detention.. 
  • The Court cited the case of Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration (1980) 3 SCR 855 and said that handcuffing is prima facie inhuman, unreasonable, arbitrary and repugnant to Article 21. In the Shukla case, Justice Krishna Iyer established the rule that other means could be utilised to prevent escape without subjecting the detenue to humiliation.
  • They are being handcuffed in addition to being bound by ropes, which is inhumane and a flagrant breach of their right to humane treatment under domestic and international law.. 
  • The Court ruled that people who are awaiting trial should be in custody but not subject to punitive detention citing Sunil Batra etc. v. Delhi Administration and Ors. etc. (1979) 1 S.C.R. 392. Bar fetters must be avoided since they violate human dignity both inside and outside of jails. Except in a very limited subset of circumstances where an accused individual is facing real charges of violence, the practise of routinely using handcuffs to transport suspects to and from court and the tactic of imposing irons on prisoners must stop immediately.
  • The Court further ruled that when police or jail officials have solid evidence to believe that a particular prisoner is likely to escape from custody, they must present that prisoner to the relevant magistrate and ask for permission to handcuff him or her..


The Citizens for Democracy v. State of Assam decision is still regarded as a landmark decision that illuminates PIL in India and demonstrates the judiciary's proactive involvement in defending public interests and upholding the fundamental principles of justice.

  • Expanding Locus Standi: The Court's broadening of the locus standi principle was one of the most important components of the ruling. The Court ruled that standing laws should be loosened in cases of the public interest. This meant that any concerned individual or group could approach the court on behalf of impacted groups or people who might be unable to personally exercise their rights.
  • Protection of Fundamental Rights: The Court emphasised that it is vitally important to uphold fundamental rights at all costs in order to preserve human dignity. It was decided that even if the detainees were undocumented residents, they were nevertheless entitled to fundamental human rights, such as a respectable existence and fair treatment.
  • Judicial activism: The Court demonstrated judicial activism by stating that it had the power to step in when fundamental rights were being violated, even when it came to considerations of national security. It made it clear that the judiciary had a responsibility to make sure that the State's acts were legal and in accordance with the Constitution.
  • Monitoring process: To oversee the application of its directives and guarantee compliance by the authorities, the Court established a monitoring process. This oversight system was essential for maintaining the Court's directives and thwarting potential abuses. The Court formally decided that all ranks of police and prison officials must abide by the established standards; failure to do so would result in sanctions under the Contempt of Court Act in addition to other criminal laws.
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