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Five-step inquiry is necessary for decision in Murder trial

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

Criminal Appeal No. 341 of 2005
Decided On: 04.07.2014

Appellants: Richhpal Singh Meena
Vs.
Respondent: Ghasi

Hon’ble Judges/Coram:Ranjana Prakash Desai and Madan B. Lokur, JJ.

Citation: AIR2014SC3595, 2014CriLJ4339, 2014(4)RCR(Criminal)61, 2014(8)SCALE193, (2014)8SCC918

1. The question agitating us relates to the circumstances (if any) under which a conviction for murder Under Section 300/302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Indian Penal Code) could be altered into a conviction Under Section 322/325 of the Indian Penal Code (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) or Under Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), ignoring or overlooking the intermediate possibility of a conviction Under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code.

2. The question has arisen since in this appeal, despite a death having resulted in an incident involving the Respondents, their conviction for murder by the High Court has been altered to a conviction for voluntarily causing grievous hurt, ignoring or overlooking a homicide.

The facts
3. On 14th December, 1996 the Appellant (Richhpal Singh Meena) and a few others were sitting beside a well near the agricultural fields. Richhpal’s father Sunderlal Meena (deceased) had gone to inspect the fields. While he was there, Sunderlal met Kailash, Ghasi, Lala and their respective wives and their mother. Soon thereafter, there was a hot exchange of words between them regarding damage to the embankment in the agricultural fields.
4. Kailash, Ghasi and Lala told Sunderlal that they were looking for him and he had now walked into the trap. Saying this, Kailash caught hold of Sunderlal while Ghasi gave him a blow with a shovel and Lala gave him a blow with a lathi on his back. On receiving the blows Sunderlal fell down and on hearing noises, Richhpal and others ran towards the spot and found that Sunderlal was being beaten up by the ladies. With the assistance of those who were with him, Richhpal managed to take Sunderlal to a hospital in Alwar but he succumbed to the injuries.
5. A post-mortem examination was carried out by Dr. Amar Singh Rathore and he gave a report that the two injuries given to Sunderlal were sufficient to cause death in the normal course. The injuries were:

External injuries

1. Contusion abrasion measuring 8 x 10 cm reddish, located on left side of the rear side of the back.
2. Contusion abrasion measuring 8 x 8 cm located on right side of chest.

Internal injuries

Fracture on the 4th and 5th ribs located on right side of the chest. Right lung crushed measuring 4 x 3 x 1 cm. Blood clotting in lung. Fracture in 7th and 8th rib on left side. Lung crushed. Plurae and sic(?) of either side of the lungs torn.

Dr. Rathore deposed that shock, haemorrhage and lung injuries resulted in his death. The injuries were sufficient to cause death in the normal course.

6. On these broad facts, a charge sheet was filed against Ghasi and Lala for an offence punishable Under Sections 302, 302/34 and 447 of the Indian Penal Code.

7. On the evidence adduced before him, the Additional District and Sessions Judge-III, Alwar convicted Ghasi and Lala for an offence punishable Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code as well as for an offence punishable Under Section 447 of the Indian Penal Code. However, they were acquitted of the charge framed Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code.

8. Feeling aggrieved, the convicts preferred D.B. Criminal Appeal No. 403/1997 in the Jaipur Bench of the Rajasthan High Court. By a judgment and order dated 16th April, 2003 the High Court concluded that Ghasi and Lala could be convicted only Under Section 325/34 of the Indian Penal Code and not Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code. The High Court also held that they could not be convicted Under Section 447 read with Section 302of the Indian Penal Code. The sentence awarded to them was imprisonment for the period undergone; that is, about 18 months imprisonment.

9. It will be noticed that Ghasi and Lala were not convicted by the Trial Judge Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code but were convicted only Under Section 302 and Section 447 of the Indian Penal Code. Clearly, therefore, the High Court did not correctly record the final conclusion of the Trial Judge. However, this is a minor matter.

Our initial doubts

10. While hearing this appeal filed by the victim’s son, we were a little surprised that the fact of Sunderlal’s homicide was not taken into consideration by the High Court while convicting Ghasi and Lala and also that no attempt was made to ascertain from the evidence on record (if at all it was possible) to fix responsibility for his death either on Ghasi or on Lala or both. While we were ably assisted in the hearing by Ms. Sumita Hazarika, learned amicus curiae, we nevertheless felt that the issue required some greater experience. Accordingly Mr. Uday U. Lalit, Senior Advocate was requested to assist us in the matter, and he willingly agreed.

11. Mr. Lalit cited several decisions of this Court involving the death of a human being but in which the only punishment awarded to the accused was for voluntarily causing grievous hurt and not any punishment for homicide. Learned amicus expressed the view that the fact that a human being had died could not and should not have been ignored or overlooked in any of the cited decisions. Learned amicus was also of opinion that all these decisions were rendered by two Judge Benches of this Court and they needed reconsideration since they did not lay down the correct law.

12. We propose to deal with all the judgments cited by learned amicus as well as by learned Counsel appearing for the convicts and then determine whether they need reconsideration.

Homicide and the Indian Penal Code

13. The Indian Penal Code recognizes two kinds of homicide: (1) Culpable homicide, dealt with between Sections 299 and 304 of the Indian Penal Code,1 and (2) Not-culpable homicide, dealt with by Section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code.2 For the present discussion we are not concerned with Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code.

14. There are two kinds of culpable homicide: (i) Culpable homicide amounting to murder (Section 300/302 of the Indian Penal Code), and (ii) Culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code). A rash or negligent act that results in the death of a person may not amount to culpable homicide in view of Section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code. In other words, such a rash or negligent act would be ‘not-culpable homicide’. But, there could be a rash or negligent act that results in the death of a person and yet amount to a culpable homicide falling within the scope and ambit of Section 299 of the Indian Penal Code. This distinction was clearly brought out (following Naresh Giri v. State of M.P.MANU/SC/4297/2007 : (2008)1 SCC 791 which contains a very useful discussion) in State of Punjab v. Balwinder Singh MANU/SC/0005/2012 : (2012) 2 SCC 182 in the following words:

Section 304-A was inserted in the Penal Code by Penal Code (Amendment) Act 27 of 1870 to cover those cases wherein a person causes the death of another by such acts as are rash or negligent but there is no intention to cause death and no knowledge that the act will cause death. The case should not be covered by Sections 299 and 300 only then it will come under this section. The section provides punishment of either description for a term which may extend to two years or fine or both in case of homicide by rash or negligent act. To bring a case of homicide Under Section 304-A Indian Penal Code, the following conditions must exist, namely,

(1) there must be death of the person in question;
(2) the accused must have caused such death; and
(3) that such act of the accused was rash or negligent and that it did not amount to culpable homicide.

The distinction brought out in both the judgments has been accepted and followed, amongst others, in Alister Anthony Pereira v. State of Maharashtra MANU/SC/0015/2012 : (2012) 2 SCC 648 and State v. Sanjeev Nanda MANU/SC/0621/2012 : (2012) 8 SCC 450. In these two cases, this Court found that a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (within Section 299 read with Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code) was made out and a conviction handed down accordingly.

15. Therefore, it is quite clear that when there is a death of a human being, it may either be culpable homicide (amounting to murder or not amounting to murder) or not-culpable homicide, but it is a homicide nevertheless. Keeping this distinction in mind, the decisions cited by learned amicus may be considered.

Relevant decisions

16. This category consists of five cases in which despite a homicide, this Court convicted the accused only for voluntarily causing grievous hurt, apparently ignoring or overlooking the provisions of Section 299 and Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code.

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17. In State of Punjab v. Surjan Singh MANU/SC/0221/1975 : (1976)1 SCC 588 the Trial Court convicted Surjan Singh and Charan Singh for the murder of Labh Singh and thereby having committed an offence punishable Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code. On appeal, the High Court altered the conviction to an offence punishable Under Section 326/34 of the Indian Penal Code3 even though one of the injuries was sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. This was on the ground that they had, on the spur of the moment, formed a common intention to cause only grievous injury to Labh Singh. In other words, it was held that a common intention to cause the death of Labh Singh was lacking.

18. In an appeal filed by the State, this Court held that the High Court did not commit any error of law in coming to the conclusion that it did, namely, that a common intention of causing the death of Labh Singh was absent. The applicability of Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code was not adverted to by this Court despite a homicide. The quantum of sentence awarded is unfortunately not mentioned in the Report.

19. Sardul Singh v. State of Haryana MANU/SC/0843/2002 : (2002) 8 SCC 372 was a case in which the Trial Court convicted Sardul Singh for the murder of Naresh Kumar while Jagtar Singh was acquitted. The High Court confirmed the conviction of Sardul Singh and also set aside the acquittal of Jagtar Singh. Both were held liable for an offence punishable Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.

20. In appeal, this Court held that the assailants had a common intention to inflict injuries on the deceased and not cause his death, that being the unintended ultimate result. Based on this conclusion, it was held that Sardul Singh and Jagtar Singh could be convicted only for an offence punishable Under Section 325/34 of the Indian Penal Code4 and must be acquitted of an offence punishable Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. The sentence awarded was of two years imprisonment. Again, the applicability of Section 299 read with Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code was not considered despite a homicide.

21. Rattan Singh v. State of Punjab (1988) Supp. SCC 456 is a Record of Proceedings, two steps lower in the ladder than a judgment and one step below an order, and yet it has been found worthy of being reported. In this case, Gaje Singh was attacked by number of persons and he ultimately succumbed to the injuries received. of the assailants, some were convicted for an offence punishable, inter alia, Under Section 302/149 of the Indian Penal Code. In appeal, the High Court upheld the conviction of three assailants, that is, Ram Singh, Dan Singh and Rattan Singh and acquitted the others. These three assailants were not only convicted for an offence punishable Under Section 302/149 of the Indian Penal Code but also for an offence punishable Under Section 325/149 of the Indian Penal Code and Under Section 324 of the Indian Penal Code.

22. This Court held that Ram Singh, Dan Singh and Rattan Singh had only caused grievous injuries to Gaje Singh and therefore their conviction Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code could not be sustained. Therefore, they were convicted for an offence punishable Under Sections 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, as the case may be, and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Again, this Court did not examine the applicability of Section299 read with Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code despite a homicide.

23. In Ninaji Raoji Boudha v. State of Maharashtra MANU/SC/0152/1976 : (1976) 2 SCC 117 two persons (Ninaji and Raoji) were convicted by the Trial Court for an offence punishable Under Sections 325 and 147 of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced to five years imprisonment. This was despite the fact that the injuries caused by them on Bhonaji had resulted in his death. In an appeal filed by the State, the High Court convicted them for offences punishable Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code for causing the death of Bhonaji.

24. Ninaji and Raoji appealed to this Court and it was held that they had given several blows to Bhonaji and one of them was “a forceful blow on the head which caused a depressed fracture and fissures all over” resulting in his death. This Court noted that from the evidence on record: (a) it could not be established who had given that forceful blow; (b) the evidence established that Ninaji and Raoji did not have a common intention of causing the death of Bhonaji but there was a common intention of causing him grievous injury. Consequently, due to the lack of any conclusive or specific evidence of who was responsible for the homicide and the absence of a common intention, Ninaji and Raoji were acquitted of the offence of murder but were convicted of an offence punishable Under Section 325/34 of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced to five years imprisonment. It appears to us that the principle applied by this Court, though not so stated, is to be found in Section 72 of the Indian Penal Code which reads as follows:
72. Punishment of person guilty of one of several offences, the judgment stating that it is doubtful of which.– In all cases in which judgment is given that a person is guilty of one of several offences specified in the judgment, but that it is doubtful of which of these offences he is guilty, the offender shall be punished for the offence for which the lowest punishment is provided if the same punishment is not provided for all.

25. Similarly, the principle laid down in Section 72 of the Indian Penal Code appears to have been invoked in Ram Lal v. Delhi Administration in which four persons (including Ram Lal) were accused of having murdered Har Lal. The Trial Court acquitted one of them but convicted the others, including Ram Lal for an offence punishable Under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code. In appeal, the High Court upheld the conviction of Ram Lal for an offence punishable, Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, while the other two were convicted Under Section 325/34 of the Indian Penal Code.

26. In appeal before this Court, the question was whether Ram Lal could have been convicted for an offence punishable Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. It was held (by a three-Judge Bench) that the High Court had erroneously concluded that the deceased received only one injury on the head. In fact, he had suffered two injuries on the head. Additionally, it was found that the High Court also held that Ram Lal had given only one blow with a stick to Har Lal on the head. On these facts, it could not be said with any degree of certainty whether the blow delivered by Ram Lal proved fatal or the blow given by him did not prove fatal. In the absence of any clear identification of the blow given by Ram Lal, he was entitled to a benefit of doubt. However, since the common intention of the three assailants was to cause a grievous injury to Har Lal, therefore Ram Lal was liable for conviction Under Section 325/34 of the Indian Penal Code apparently applying the principle laid down in Section 72 of the Indian Penal Code. Accordingly, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

27. It will be seen that these decisions were decided on their own particular facts. This Court did not lay down any law that if there is only a common intention to cause a grievous injury without any intention to kill, an accused cannot be convicted of murder. This is quite obvious since it would result in an absurd situation in cases where a person smashes the head of another and pleads that he had no intention to kill the victim but only cause a grievous injury. The accused must be deemed to know the consequences of his act, unless it was accidental or unintentional.

Partially relevant decisions

28. The second category of decisions cited by learned amicus, though relevant, do not greatly advance our discourse any further since, in these cases a homicide had taken place and at least one of the accused was convicted for that homicide.

29. In Radhey Shyam v. State of U.P. MANU/SC/0660/1998: (1999) 1 SCC 168 three persons were convicted by the Trial Court for the murder of Ram Saran. On appeal, the High Court set aside their conviction for an offence punishable Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code but convicted the