High Courts have reinforced that a suicide note naming a person is not sufficient evidence of the offence of abetment. This will relieve innocent people framed of these charges
~By Upendra Baxi
In the popular mind, a mere mention of names in a suicide note is sufficient, if not clinching, evidence of abetment to this crime. But this is scarcely so in law; nor is a first information report (FIR) or even a charge-sheet always decisive; these can be quashed by courts. The criminal justice system is based equally on presumption of innocence and jurisdiction of strong suspicion upon which investigation and prosecution rests. Justices have to find the right balance between guilt beyond reasonable doubt and self-victimage of a suicide, which is not always a victimless crime.
Three recent decisions of High Courts reinforce the position that a mere suicide note naming a person does not constitute sufficient evidence of the offence of abetment. Justice AH Joshi of the Bombay High Court delivered a stark message: “This is no mathematical equation, that a suicide note plus threat equals abetment…If harassment is proved, show the proof.” He further said: “A threat to kill is not abetment. …An advice to kill is also not abetment.” It is noteworthy that this appeal, filed by the woman victim’s family, was dismissed by the Court for non-appearance of the lawyer.
The second decision is by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court which relied on the Rajamannar case (2014) that said: “If a lover commits suicide due to love failure, if a student commits suicide because of his poor performance in the examination, a client commits suicide because his case is dismissed, the lady, examiner, lawyer respectively cannot be held to have abetted the commission of suicide. For the wrong decision taken by a coward, fool, idiot, a man of weak mentality, a man of frail mentality, another person cannot be blamed as having abetted his committing suicide.” But not all persons commit suicide because of such blameworthy reasons and a muscular app-roach is best avoided in apprising the evidence.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court was confronted by a situation where the victim, a manager (taxation) at a Gurgaon-based company, committed suicide on March 23, 2011 and claimed in his suicide note that four lawyers and two officers of his company had forced him to do the act. Justice PB Bajanthari held that a mere mention of a person’s name in the suicide note does not empower the Court to “jump to a conclusion that it is enough to mulct the accused with criminal liability under Section 306 IPC”. Rather than jumping around, “one has to analyse and examine the contents of the suicide note to find out whether it contains any incriminating information in the nature of instigation, provocation, forcing the victim to committed suicide.” It quashed the FIR against these six people.
The Court made a compelling case for an “overall analysis” of “incidents” of suicide and found that no “cogent material” exists. It said: “The offence of abetment requires ‘mens rea’ (guilty mind). There must be intentional doing/aiding or goading the commission of suicide by another. Otherwise, even a mere casual remark, something said in routine and usual conversation will be wrongly construed or misunderstood as ‘abetment’.”
For abetment to have been successfully proved, the first condition is, of course, that the suicide must have actually happened. The Supreme Court clearly held this in Satvir Singh (2001) because it is possible to abet the commission of suicide but not a mere attempt to do so. The second condition is that the accused must be shown to have “instigated” the victim by conduct of comprising acts and omissions. The apex court has urged caution and scrupulousness in appraising the evidence and insisted that instigation must entail a “live link” and “active role” in causing suicide. If the legislation has not defined “instigation”, neither have the courts. However, the courts have freely engaged terms like “urging”, “goading” or leaving “no other choice”.
At times, the Legislature makes this burden of proof explicit. For example, Section 113A of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, now enjoins the courts to presume abetment in situations where a death occurs of any woman within seven years of her marriage and on hard evidence of cruelty by her husband or any of the his relatives.
However, outside law reform that results in statutory directives, the burden of adjudicating abetment falls on courts. And of necessity, they take account of contexts. Some doctrinal inconsistency results, but nevertheless, the principles of liberty and fairness in the administration of criminal justice remain works in progress. For example, courts have held that no instigation can be said to exist in situations where there is a time gap between when the deceased was last harassed and her death; the death occurred within a few months of marriage and in the absence of any complaints by the deceased to her parents regarding any maltreatment, torture, bringing insufficient dowry; no implication of the husband in a dying declaration; instances of quarrel due to consumption of liquor; dissatisfaction and unhappiness owing economic disparity between natal and matrimonial family and failure of the accused to appear on the settled date of marriage with the deceased with whom he had a love affair. Even in situations of bigamy where subsequent separate living resulted, without means of support, the court found lacking any intention to abet suicide or knowledge that commission of suicide was a likely consequence.
A pattern seems to emerge out of the case law. One feature is that district courts more often convict, whereas appellate courts usually reverse.
Second, more attention in abetment cases is paid to comparative persuasive precedents from other High Courts than is usual. Third, a large number of cases of abetment involve suicides by women.
One can in some these situations suggest a more solicitous regard arising out of feminist jurisprudence and the fundamental duty of citizens in Article 51(a)(e) of the Constitution to “abjure practices derogatory of dignity of women”.
In the administration of criminal justice, this duty should not be relegated to the backseat or the boot of the judicial caravan.
—The author is an international law scholar, an acclaimed teacher and a well-known writer. He was recently felicitated by India Legal