Scope and Legality of Sting Operations in India
Yug Pratik 8 Jun 2021

Scope and Legality of Sting Operations in India

By: Yug Pratik

It is the foremost responsibility of the authorities of the state to keep its citizenry informed regarding the mechanisms devised and enforced for their welfare, for the better administration of the state. Further, they should also keep a check on various malpractices and, must expose and eliminate them, whenever it comes to their knowledge, for the well-being of the society. No democratic government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that the people should have the information about the working of the government.[1]

In India, the crucial task of keeping the masses informed and updated regarding the functioning of the government is largely undertaken by the media. This very task within its broad ambit comprises of ‘sting operation’, a method which is often employed by the media houses for fetching news for the public. Sting operations involve high-stake activities by media persons wherein, they garner information through sub rosa activities. Furthermore, such operations are also conducted by detectives and undercover law enforcement officers to nab the offenders red-handed and thus, gather significant evidence of their offences. String operations are carried out confidentially and certain aspects derived through them are kept undisclosed.

A sting operation is an operation designed and exercised to nab an offender by means of deception. The Delhi High Court recently held that conducting a sting operation by any citizen is a legitimate exercise. Although there is no clear law which specifically allows or legalizes sting operation, but the right to conduct sting operation can be derived under Article 51A (b) of the Constitution of India.[2] This particular article imposes a duty upon the citizens to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom. The court was of the opinion that in order to fulfill this duty, crime and corruption have to be dealt with heavy hands and by an organized machinery devised for the purpose, consequently making sting operations legal in the country.

Sting operations are classified into positive and negative sting operations, based on their purpose. The former one takes place in the interest of the society and helps to lift the veil from several malfunctions of the government and private institutions, while the latter one harms the society and its individuals by unnecessarily violating the privacy of the citizens.

A sting operation may be an exhibition of right under freedom of speech and expression but it is also bound to respect the privacy of others. Though freedom of speech and expression covers freedom of the press, it is not an absolute right.[3] Although they have been criticized time and again for the infringement of privacy rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India but, a sting operation with genuine motive to create awareness and bring down the existing nefarious practices should be encouraged or at least, should not be prohibited.

Time and again, Courts have regarded the ‘freedom of press’ as an indispensable part of law. In Romesh Thappar v. The State of Madras[4], the Supreme Court held that “the freedom of press comes under freedom of speech and expression which is granted to both citizens and non-citizens.” This has encouraged the media units to exhibit their role of collecting information and imparting it to the society for their interest, thus being an important role player in democracy.

Though sting operations are considered to be a legitimate exercise, their execution and implementation, and the conduct of the persons involved in it should be regulated by specific legal enactments. Lack of statutory provisions for governing the purpose and conduct of sting operations points towards a significant lacuna in the legal system.  Hence, a line has to be drawn between sting operations that invade privacy and those which expose corruption, which can be thoroughly realized by the formation and enforcement of a guiding statute. Moreover, it should be ensured that such operations are backed by bona fide purposes and are aptly distinguished from mere entrapments. Only then, a definitive statement regarding the legitimacy of sting operations can be made.

[1] S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 149.

[2] Aniruddha Bahal v. State, 2010 172 DLT 269.

[3] Diganth Raj Sehgal, A Legal Analysis of a Sting Operation, IPLEADERS (December 16, 2020), https://blog.ipleaders.in/legal-analysis-sting-operation/

[4] 1950 SCR 594.

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