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In a debatable judgment, the apex court convicts a man on the grounds that his illicit relations with another woman abetted his wife’s suicide

~By Venkatasubramanian

Section 113A of the Indian Evidence Act presumes that if a married woman commits suicide within seven years of marriage, and her husband or a relative of his subjected her to cruelty, the crime would be seen as abetted by him or the relative. The word “cruelty” in this provision has the same meaning as under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the offence of subjecting of a married woman to cruelty by her husband or his relative.

Section 498A defines “cruelty” as any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause her grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical). Under Section 306 IPC, if any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Section 113A was inserted through an amendment to meet the social challenge of saving a married woman from being ill-treated or forced to commit suicide by the husband or her in-laws, demanding dowry. The prosecution has to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the deceased committed suicide on being abetted by the person charged under Section 306, IPC.

On August 9, a bench of Justices R Banumathi and Vineet Saran in Siddaling v The State, through Kalagi Police Station, Gulbarga district, Karnataka, held that the appellant’s illicit relations with another woman would have definitely created a psychological imbalance in the deceased (wife) which led her to take the extreme step of committing suicide. “It cannot be said that the appellant’s act of having illicit relationship with another woman would not have affected to negate the ingredients of Sections 306 IPC,” the bench concluded in its judgment.

In this case, the husband was convicted under Section 498A IPC and 306, IPC, and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for two years and five years, respectively, by the trial court. The Karnataka High Court set aside the separate sentence imposed under Section 498A, and maintained the sentence imposed under Section 306.

The Supreme Court rejected the plea for leniency in the quantum of sentence. It kept in view the fact that the wife committed suicide within four months of her marriage, and within three months of the convening of the panchayat which enabled her to return to her husband after he promised not to continue his illicit relationship.

The appellant’s counsel, Girish Ananthamurthy submitted to the apex court that there has to be a mens rea to commit the offence punishable under Sec­tion 306, IPC. Also, there ought to be an active or direct act leading to the deceased committing suicide, which is lacking in the present case. He cited the Court’s judgment in Gurcharan Singh v State of Punjab (2016) which held that:

“To constitute abetment, the intention and involvement of the accused to aid or instigate the commission of suicide is imperative. Any severance or ab­sence of any of these constituents would militate against this indictment. Remoteness of the culpable acts or omissions rooted in the intention of the accused to actualise the suicide would fall short as well of the offence of abetment essential to attract the punitive mandate of Section 306 IPC. Contiguity, continuity, culpability, and complicity of the indictable acts or omissions are the concomitant indices of abetment. Section 306 IPC thus criminalises the sustained incitement for suicide.”

In this case, the SC acquitted the accused of the offence of abetment of suicide of his wife and two children on the grounds that the suicide note left behind by the deceased contained omnibus of allegations of denial of share in the property by the husband and his relatives. However, the top court in its August 9 judgment relied on a 2004 judgment in Randhir Singh v State of Punjab to hold that abetment involves a mental process of instigating a person or in any manner aiding that person in committing the act.

Courts should carefully assess the facts of each case before deciding whether the cruelty meted out to the victim induced her to commit suicide, the bench observed. The top court concluded that the appellant continued his relations with another woman.

The High Court judgment reveals that in addition to an illicit relationship with another woman, the appellant harassed the victim on the grounds that she was not fair and not adept in cooking. It observed: “If the husband lives with another woman that definitely cause (sic) mental agony to the wife and it may lead to suicide also.” By using the word “may” here, the Court indicates that the husband’s illicit relations with another woman might have abetted her suicide, and therefore, it could only be a probable reason. However, rather than giving the benefit of the doubt to the husband, the High Court found him guilty in view of Section 113A, which mandates presumption of guilt. The Supreme Court did not find any reason to depart from the High Court’s finding.

Both the High Court and the Supreme Court did not find the husband guilty of the offence under the Dowry Prohibition Act, although the trial court convicted and sentenced him for that offence. But the factual matrix of Randhir Singh v State of Punjab, relied on by the Supreme Court in its August 9 judgment, shows that it was a dowry death and conspiracy. The Supreme Court held in Randhir Singh v State of Punjab that: “More active role which can be described as instigating or abetting the doing of a thing is required before a person can be said to be abetting the commission of offence under Section 306 IPC.” It also held in Randhir Singh v State of Punjab as follows: “If it transpires to the Court that a victim committing suicide was hypersensitive to ordinary petulance, discord and differences in domestic life, quite common to the society to which the victim belonged and such petulance, discord and differences were not expected to induce a similarly circumstanced individual in a given society to commit suicide, the conscience of the court should not be satisfied for basing a finding that the accused charged for abetting the offence of suicide should be found guilty.”

The August 9 judgment of Justice Banumathi, however, does not cite these sentences from the 2004 judgment, which confirmed the conviction of the accused persons, but reduced their sentences. It comes close on the heels of an order, pronounced by her (along with Justice Saran) upholding conviction of a woman accused of abetment of suicide of a young girl, by calling her a “prostitute”. The order in the case, Rani @Sahayarani v The State of Tamil Nadu, pronounced on August 8, confirms the High Court’s finding of conviction and the award of a sentence of one year to the accused for the offence. The dying declaration of the deceased clearly stated the abusive language used by the appellant against her, the order finds. “The deceased was aged 26 years and being a young unmarried girl, could have been upset over such verbal abuse heaped on her which led her to take a decision of committing suicide by setting herself ablaze. Based on the said dying declaration, the courts below rightly convicted the appellant…,” the bench concluded.

The August 8 order, like the August 9 judgment, is silent on whether the abuse could have led a similarly circumstanced individual to commit suicide. The latter is problematic because the constitution bench has reserved its judgment on decriminalisation of adultery and is expected to declare Section 497 of the IPC unconstitutional.

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