Read Order: Jatinder Singh v. Union of India and Others
Chandigarh, May 07, 2022: While dealing with a case of impounding the passport of a Punjab Police constable for allegedly being involved in the illegal trafficking of humans in Europe since 2003, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that this act of impounding amounts to curtailing a citizen’s right to travel abroad on the basis of suspicion alone and that it is settled law that personal liberty cannot be curtailed on the basis of suspicion.
The Bench of Justice Sudhir Mittal observed,“The sovereignty and integrity of a country may be threatened in case of subversive and terrorist activities. Trafficking of human beings would not fall in either category… Trafficking in human beings may jeopardize friendly relations of India with a foreign country but it would be so only if there is tangible evidence available.”
Such evidence was found missing in the present case by the Court, and thus the Court while observing that due process was not followed in impounding the passport held that in terms of the language of Section 10(3)(c) of the Passports Act, 1967 (the Act), the action of impounding of passport or revoking of travel documents should be taken only when the adequate and credible material reflecting a ‘necessity’ (so to do) is available.
The petitioner, a Punjab Police constable, obtained Ex-India Leave from May 19, 2017, to June 05, 2017, from the O/o Senior Superintendent of Police, Gurdaspur. On May 20, 2017, when he was about to board the flight to London at the International Airport, Amritsar, his passport (issued on June 21, 2016) was impounded without giving any satisfactory reason.
On May 23, 2017, the petitioner approached the Regional Passport Officer, Jalandhar for reasons for impounding the passport and he was informed that the same was done on receipt of orders from the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India through a communication dated November 08, 2017 (MoEA letter).
The petitioner thus filed a writ for quashing the MoEA letter/ communication. The Writ was disposed of with a direction to the respondents to consider a fresh application to be filed by the petitioner in accordance with the law. When the petitioner filed a fresh application, the same was rejected in view of the reasons given in the MoEA letter.
The MoEA mentioned that the Indian Embassy in France had received information from the French Authorities that an anonymous source had informed them that the petitioner could be involved in smuggling illegal immigrants into Europe since 2003. This was brought to the notice of the CBI who brought it to the attention of MoEA which consequently issued a communication dated March 16, 2017, to the Passport Officer, Amritsar to take appropriate action in accordance with the Act and The Passport Manual, 2016.
This information further reached the Passport Officer, Jalandhar vide communication dated May 11, 2017. Thus, on this account, the petitioner’s passport was impounded. Another reason for such impounding was that between 2000 to 2016 five passports were issued to the petitioner but he disclosed the issuance of only four such passports.
The Counsel for the petitioner argued that the passport was impounded on the basis of suspicion alone and even after the passage of five years (of the impugned order), no material information was placed on record to show that the respondents were in possession of credible and tangible evidence that the petitioner was involved in trafficking of human beings in Europe. Thus, Section 10(3)(c) of the Act is not attracted, the Counsel argued.
After perusing Section 10(3)(c) of the Act, the Court opined that this provision entitles the passport authority to impound or revoke a passport or travel document if it deems it necessary to do so in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of India, friendly relations of India with any foreign country or in the interests of the general public.
Further, the Court observed that even if assumingly the petitioner trafficked human beings into Europe, it would not amount to jeopardizing the sovereignty and integrity of India. The sovereignty and integrity of a country, the Court added, maybe threatened in case of subversive and terrorist activities. Justice Mittal further asserted that the trafficking of human beings would not fall in either category and thus, the reason given in the MoFA letter was erroneous and improper.
Additionally, the Court held that the Trafficking of human beings may jeopardize friendly relations of India with a foreign country but it would be so only if there was tangible evidence available. The Court opined that information received from the French Authorities through an “anonymous source” was not substantiated to date as no material was placed on record by way of credible evidence.
Against this backdrop, the Court opined that the impounding of the passport amounted to curtailing a citizen’s right to travel abroad on the basis of suspicion alone and that it is settled law that personal liberty cannot be curtailed on the basis of suspicion.
The Court observed that in this case due process was not followed while impounding the passport and that the said information of the petitioner’s involvement was received by the Government of India in October 2016 and the petitioner was working in the police department at that time and thus, he could easily have been granted an opportunity of hearing before impounding the passport.
Further, the Court held, on the provisions of Section 10(3)(c) of the Act, that the action of impounding of passport or revoking travel documents should be taken only when the appropriate authority deems it necessary and that ‘necessity’ implies that the facts of a particular case require action to be taken. The Court added that a requirement to take a particular action can only arise if adequate and credible material is available and in the absence of any such material, there cannot be a requirement to take positive action and thus, necessity would be nonexistent.
In the instant case, the Court expounded that the action was taken only on the basis of suspicion and the same does not fulfil the requirement of the relevant provision of law.
Thus, the impugned orders were quashed by the Court while holding,
“From the above it is evident that there is no substantial evidence on record which may justify a conclusion that the actions of the petitioner endangered the sovereignty and integrity of the country or jeopardized friendly relations with a foreign country. Accordingly, no necessity existed to impound the passport. Even, due process has not been followed while impounding the passport. The impugned orders are patently illegal and deserve to be quashed.”