9 Jan 2010

Ruchika - Rathore case and recent decision of Supreme Court: CBI's path not easy

Call it coincidence or otherwise but the timing of this recent decision of Supreme Court could not have been more apt to guide the police officials looking after the case against Former DGP SPS Rathore in the high-profile round-the-clock-media-covered case of Ruchika. The facts of the case leading to the recent proceedings against Rathore are known to all and so we will not repeat that. But what is of fatal consequence is this recent decision which has set aside the charge of 'abetment of suicide' under Section 306 of IPC which is sought to be invoked against Rathore.

In this recent decision the Supreme Court was dealing with the challenge to the conviction of an employer for having abetted the suicide of an employee to which regard the facts were noted by the Court as under;

According to the case of the prosecution, the appellant, who is an agriculturist had harassed his agriculture labour (servant) deceased Ramulu by levelling the allegation that he had committed theft of some gold ornaments two days prior to his death. It was also alleged that the appellant had demanded Rs.7,000/- from the deceased which was given in advance to him at the time when he was kept in employment.
4. The prosecution further alleged that the deceased Ramulu could not bear the harassment meted out to him and he committed suicide by consuming pesticides. The prosecution in support of its case examined the father of the deceased as P.W.1 Urikonda Jammanna in which he had stated that his son Ramulu was a farm servant and used to work at the house of the appellant. He also stated that the appellant gave Rs.7,000/- in advance to his son. PW1 also stated that about two years ago, the appellant had asked his son (Ramulu) that his wrist watch was missing from his house and harassed him on which his son had returned the watch to the appellant. PW1 in his statement stated that the appellant also levelled the allegation that the gold ear-rings were also missing from his house and the same were stolen by Ramulu. PW1 also stated that the appellant also demanded the advance of Rs.7,000/- paid to Ramulu at the time of his employment. He further stated that Ramulu committed suicide because the appellant had levelled the allegation of theft of ornaments.
On these facts the lower court and High Court allowed the conviction of the employer for the offence of abetment of suicide in terms of Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code and convicted the employer for both fine and imprisonment. The Supreme Court, however, was not impressed. It noted the legal position to set aside the conviction affirmed by the High Court. The Court declared that the deceased employee was a hyper-sensitive person and thus the employer could not be convicted. The Supreme Court declared as under;
18. In the instant case, the deceased was undoubtedly hyper sensitive to ordinary petulance, discord and differences which happen in our day-to-day life. Human sensitivity of each individual differs from the other. Different people behave differently in the same situation.
19. This court in Chitresh Kumar Chopra v. State (Govt. of NCT of Delhi) 2009 (11) SCALE 24 had an occasion to deal with this aspect of abetment. The court dealt with the dictionary meaning of the word "instigation" and "goading". The court opined that there should be intention to provoke, incite or encourage the doing of an act by the latter. Each person's suicidability pattern is different from the others. Each person has his own idea of self esteem and self respect. Therefore, it is impossible to lay down any straight-jacket formula in dealing with such cases. Each case has to be decided on the basis of its own facts and circumstances.
20. Abetment involves a mental process of instigating a person or intentionally aiding a person in doing of a thing. Without a positive act on the part of the accused to instigate or aid in committing suicide, conviction cannot be sustained.
21. The intention of the Legislature and the ratio of the cases decided by this court is clear that in order to convict a person under section 306 IPC there has to be a clear mens rea to commit the offence. It also requires an active act or direct act which led the deceased to commit suicide seeing no option and this act must have been intended to push the deceased into such a position that he committed suicide.
22. In the light of the provisions of law and the settled legal positions crystallized by a series of judgments of this Court, the conviction of the appellant cannot be sustained. Consequently, the appeal filed by the appellant is allowed and disposed of.
From this decision it is clear that conviction for the offence of 'abetment of suicide' is not for wanting of the prosecution. It must be shown that there was "an active act or direct act which led the deceased to commit suicide seeing no option and this act must have been intended to push the deceased into such a position that he committed suicide". Would that be possible in the case of Ruchika? The incident took place 14 years earlier. How would be investigation further the case as it has been advanced by the media is anyone's guess. But it is for sure that the conviction is not going to be easy given this declaration of law by the Supreme Court. When an employee who committed suicide on account of allegations of theft can be branded as hyper-sensitive, there is no do doubt that the same Court can employ the same standards in favour of the former police-officer unless the CBI shows real and credible evidence that SPS Rathore committed an active act or direct act which led Ruchika to commit suicide seeing no option. The investigating authorities, undoubtedly, have a tough task ahead.

Meanwhile it is also intriguing to note historical evolution behind the criminal offence of 'abetment of suicide' as noted by the Supreme Court in this decision as under;
7. The word suicide in itself is nowhere defined in the Indian Penal Code, however its meaning and import is well known and requires no explanation. `Sui' means `self' and `cide' means `killing', thus implying an act of self-killing. In short a person committing suicide must commit it by himself, irrespective of the means employed by him in achieving his object of killing himself.
8. Suicide by itself is not an offence under either English or Indian criminal law, though at one time it was a felony in England. In England, the former law was of the nature of being a deterrent to people as it provided penalties of two types:
- Degradation of corpse of deceased by burying it on the highway with a stake through its chest.
- Forfeiture of property of deceased by the State.
9. This penalty was later distilled down to merely not providing a full Christian burial, unless the deceased could be proved to be of unsound mind. However, currently there is no punishment for suicide after the enactment of the Suicide Act, 1961 which proclaims that the rule of law whereby it was a crime for a person to commit suicide has been abrogated.
10. In our country, while suicide in itself is not an offence, considering that the successful offender is beyond the reach of law, attempt to suicide is an offence under section 309 of IPC.

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