The spirit behind the phrases “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” and “Clear and Convincing Evidence” have been the backbone of the law during instances of crimes and convictions. As students of law, we are made to evaluate evidence and reasonability in all circumstances and arrive at logical explanations and arguments that lead to well-rationaled judgements.
This analysis is an attempt to understand and discuss the landmark case of Shri Bhagwan vs State of Rajasthan. Determined under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in the year 2001, it was handled by a division bench of Hon’ble Justices M B Shah, K.G. Balakrishnan.
At a glance, this is a case of robbery and murder. Quoting from the judgement authored by Hon’ble Justice K.Balakrishnan, “The facts in this criminal appeal disclose acts of unparalleled evil and barbarity as five persons of a family were battered to death without mercy by a young culprit aged about 20 years.”
- Factual Recollection:
Mr. Shiv Pratap (hereafter referred to as PW 17) was staying in Bidasar, Rajasthan with his family consisting of his wife, parents and three daughters. One of his daughters was to be married in February of 1994. He had travelled to Jaipur to make some purchases for the same on 14/12/1993 accompanied by his wife and returned from Jaipur on 17/12/1993. On arriving at his house at 9.30pm, he noticed that the door to his house was open and his daughters’ and parents’ rooms were both latched. On prying the door open he was met with the gruesome sight of his parents and daughters bloodied bodies and various items strewn across the rooms. He also noticed that ornaments and money that he has kept aside were missing from the rooms.
Soon a crowd gathered at the location and PW17 recounted the situation in a police statement (P8) at 9:45 pm. Further investigation led to an individual (bystander) Mr. Murlidhar recording a statement that he had seen the appellant enter the house with PW17 ‘s father. It is pertinent to mention that the appellant had prior history with the victim’s family and had been an apprentice in the victim’s shop.
On 18/12/1993 the appellant was arrested and on searching his Brother-in-law’s (Ramu Ram) house, all the stolen ornaments and money were recovered and the same was identified by PW17 as the items stolen from his home. Applying the law, the Sessions judge convicted the appellant on grounds of murder, robbery and robbery leading to aggrieved injury.
- Procedural History
The sessions court Judge awarded the appellant
- Death Penalty and 200rs Fine under Section 302 of the IPC on account of murder
- 7 years and 200rs Fine under Section 392 read with Section 397 of the IPC on account of the robbery
The same was upheld by the division bench of the High Court of Rajasthan post which this case was presented before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
- Whether the decision of the lower courts is to be revised on appeal
- Whether appellant can be held guilty of murder
- Whether the evidence collected has been proved beyond reasonable doubt
- Whether the punishment awarded to the accused is appropriate
- Whether death penalty is the appropriate punishment
- Legal Provisions Employed
Indian Penal Code, 1960
. §. 302 – Punishment for Murder (punishable with death or imprisonment for life accompanied with fine)
. §392 w/ §.397 – Punishment for robbery (Punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term up to 10 years or fine) / if the robber uses any deadly weapon or causes grievous hurt he will be sentenced to at least 7 years in prison
. §. 57 – While calculating terms of punishment, imprisonment for life is equivalent to 20 years.
Criminal Procedure Code, 1973
. § 433 (b) –commuting of life sentence to a period not exceeding 14 years.
.§ 433A – Restriction on powers of remission or Commutation in certain cases
Evidence Act, 1872
.§ 114 – Court may presume existence of certain facts.
Prison Manual and Prison Act
- Arguments and Judgement
The appellant was represented by senior advocate Shyamlal Pappu who made the following points-
- The evidence against the appellant was circumstantial and could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt
- The incriminating circumstances were not sufficient to prove sole guilt
- A minor misunderstanding in the statements made by PW17 and PW2 in the recorded statement.
The council also contended that it was not possible for a single person to stage the entire murder as there were 5 people involved and that there was a lot of chaos that had been caused.
However, the accused had recorded a statement regarding how he had discarded his own blood-stained clothes off a bus. In addition, the same was recovered and the stitched shirt was also confirmed to be owned by the appellant by his tailor, thus strengthening the evidence. Further, since the events unfolded during the night, the court stated that the appellant who had accompanied the father of PW17 into the house could have single-handedly committed the crime during midnight when the victims were asleep and incapable of fighting back. In addition, there were no signs of forced entry thus adding to the suspicion that the accused could not have been an outsider.
Thus, the court held that the appellant was the accused in the act and must be convicted. However, the court, citing the case of Devendran vs State of TN held that the death penalty could only be awarded during the rarest of rare cases and decided to commute the punishment awarded to the appellant.
Thus, the judgement held that the appellant would be convicted of his crimes and would serve life imprisonment.
The analysis of the judgement can be done in a two-fold manner
1.Whether the decision of the lower courts is to be revised on appeal
The SC held the appellant was guilty of murder and robbery and thus the lower court’s judgement was not revised on those accounts. However, the SC held that the death penalty could only be awarded in the rarest of rare cases and that the punishment was to be commuted to Life Imprisonment.
In the question regarding the appellant being accused under circumstantial evidence, the court held that
-The appellant had worked as an apprentice with the victim’s family but had been removed due to a case of minor theft.
– The appellant was seen entering the house of the victim on the 14/12/1993
– His prior cases of minor theft supplement his criminal tendency
– He had confessed to discarding the bloodied clothes
– The ornaments were found in his possession and employing cases of murder accompanied with robbery, and illustration under Section 114(a) of the Evidence Act, he could be convicted
– The appellant had sustained injuries for which he had no reasonable explanation.
These instances were held sufficient to prove his guilt.
- Whether the punishment awarded to the accused is appropriate
The court held that even though his act was heinous in nature, the court would take a lenient stand. There are two branches to this issue- Type and Time of punishment
Section 57 of the IPC is employed to calculate the intensity of one’s punishment. When the court commuted the punishment to life imprisonment, it was held that the case did not fall under the rarest of rare cases
However, the tenure of such punishment was questioned on application of section 57. It was held that although 20 years is expected, in practicality life imprisonment is remitted post 10-14 years.
The law, on applying Section 433(b) and Section 433A of the CrPc held that the former section allowed an appropriate government to commute life imprisonment to less than 14 years but the latter section enforced that when death had been an alternate punishment in a particular case, at least 14 years must be served if not more.
The court also quoted cases State of Madhya Pradesh vs Ratan Singh to state that Life imprisonment meant until one’s life was complete and only allowed exceptions in few cases.
The court also held that the Prison Act and prison manual was in spirit only concerned with the regulation and treatment of prisoners and cannot be used as a mechanism to remit one’s sentence. Such remittance can only be performed by an appropriate government under s. 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
The appellant was awarded a life imprisonment of at least 20 years under S. 302 of IPC and 7years and 200rs under S. 392 and 397 of IPC.
Thus, analysing the judgement of the court we may conclude that although life sentence, may imply 20 years, the same cannot be guaranteed as a matter of right. However, in my personal opinion, cases of murder in general must be treated with utmost care as one’s life is one’s most valuable possession. In the present scenario, the convict was accused of murdering 5 individuals. This act accompanied by the robbery proves that he is capable of murder for materialistic wants and releasing him into the public post his punishment would only prove to be harmful unless he is truly a reformed man. Further, the convict was only 20 years at the time of the act. Only time will tell if he has truly reformed and is fit to resume life in society or if the legal and reformative systems need a stronger arm.