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A Roller-coaster Ride

The judgment will go a long way to serve as a guiding principle to all courts for imposition of commensurate sentence keeping in view the nature of crime and competing interests of the accused and the victim  

By Amit Jaiswal

On May 19, 2022, the curtains finally came down to a 34-year-old court case. This is when the Supreme Court sentenced sportsman, TV personality and three-time MP Navjot Singh Sidhu to one year rigorous imprisonment in a road rage case pertaining to 1988. The case has been a long roller-coaster journey for him and the victims.  

On December 27, 1988, at about 12:30 pm, one Gurnam Singh, 65, went to the State Bank of Patiala in his Maruti car and was accompanied by Jaswinder Singh (complainant in the FIR) and Avatar Singh. On turning towards the Bank, a dispute arose between the occupants of a Maruti Gypsy—Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rupinder Singh Sandhu (referred to as a clean-shaven man in the FIR)—and Gurnam Singh. 

As per the allegations, Sidhu came out of the Gypsy and pulled Gurnam Singh out of the car and gave him blows with his fist. As Jaswinder Singh tried to save Gurnam Singh, the clean shaven man sitting in the driver’s seat of the Gypsy alighted and gave blows to Jaswinder Singh. After receiving the blows, Gurnam Singh fell on the road and was taken to Rajendra Hospital, Patiala, in an unconscious state by Jaswinder Singh in a rickshaw. The doctors pronounced him dead.  

The postmortem recorded two injuries—one external and one internal. One was a 0.75 cm x 0.5 cm abrasion over the left temporal region at the injunction of the upper part of the pinna and the second was a 0.5 cm x 0.5 cm abrasion over the front of the left knee and a subdural haemorrhage over the left temporal region. 

The pathology report, dated January 9, 1989, indicated that the deceased had a weak heart and his main arteries were blocked. However, no definite opinion could be given regarding the cause of death. A board of doctors was constituted and its convener Dr Krishan Vij gave a cryptic opinion: “Death in this case is attributed to the effects of head injury and cardiac condition. However, the head injury in itself could be sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature.”   

The trial court noticed the discrepancies in the versions of Jaswinder Singh and Avtar Singh and disbelieved them. It acquitted both the accused persons in its judgment on September 22, 1999. Among other grounds for acquittal, the trial court also recorded that the death was caused due to cardiac arrest because of which Gurnam Singh fell on the ground and received the head injury. The judgment was challenged before the Punjab and Haryana High Court by the State of Punjab as well as the complainant. 

The High Court after hearing the arguments, set aside the judgment of acquittal through its judgment on December 6, 2006, and recorded that it was, in fact, subdural haemorrhage in the left temporal region which caused the death of Gurnam Singh and not cardiac arrest. The High Court convicted Sidhu and Rupinder Singh Sandhu under Section 304 Part-II of the IPC for committing culpable homicide not amounting to murder. It sentenced both the accused to undergo rigorous imprisonment for three years. Both were also directed to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh each to the victim/s.

The matter reached the Supreme Court, which finally decided the appeals on May 15, 2018. The Court found the evidence against Rupinder Singh Sandhu sketchy and acquitted him. However, it found that the evidence on record did prove that Sidhu gave one fist blow on the head of Gurnam Singh. The Court also recorded that the medical evidence was uncertain regarding the exact cause of death of Gurnam Singh. Finally, it held that Sidhu was guilty of causing voluntary hurt to Gurnam Singh and convicted him under Section 323 of the IPC. Noticing that the incident was 30 years old, no weapon was used by the accused and that there was no previous enmity between the accused and the deceased, the Court deemed it fit to impose a fine of Rs 1,000 on Sidhu.    

However, the complainant side filed a review petition before the Supreme Court in which notice was issued to the parties on September 11, 2018, on the issue of quantum of sentence only.  The review jurisdiction in criminal matters is exercised sparingly and on the ground of an error apparent on the face of the record.  

The Court chose to exercise its review jurisdiction and imposed a sentence of one year rigorous imprisonment on Sidhu on May 19, 2022. The takeaway is that the Court did recognise the victim’s right to be heard even on the question of sentence. It held that disproportionately light punishment humiliates and frustrates a victim of crime and does not have a deterrent effect on the criminal. The Court observed “that any undue sympathy to impose inadequate sentence would do more harm to justice system and undermine the public confidence in the efficacy of law”.

The Court held that lapse of time in the decision of case/appeal cannot be a ground to award inadequate punishment. The observations made by the Supreme Court will go a long way to serve as a guiding principle to all courts in India for imposition of commensurate sentence keeping in view the nature of the crime and competing interests of the accused and the victim.  

Apart from delving into the principles of just punishment, the apex court also noticed an error apparent on the face of the record which it failed to take into consideration. It observed that a hand can also be used as a weapon when a sportsman or an extremely fit person inflicts the same. The Court noticed that Sidhu was an international cricketer, well-built and aware of the force of a blow that his hand would carry. It observed that the convict cannot say that he did not know the effect of the blow. This line of reasoning answers the description of offence as described in Section 299 of the IPC which says that if an act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, then it is culpable homicide punishable under Section 304 Part II of the IPC.  

It may be noticed that the Punjab and Haryana High Court had taken this line of reasoning while convicting Sidhu under Section 304 Part II of the IPC. In para 28 of the judgment, the High Court observed that “Gurnam Singh was an old man of 65 years and he could not take the impact of the blow given by a young, physically fit man”.  

However, the Supreme Court set that conviction aside and convicted Sidhu for an offence under Section 323 of the IPC. Thus, once the reasoning adopted by the High Court was discarded by the apex court to alter the conviction from culpable homicide to causing voluntary hurt, then the same reasoning should not be used to pass an order of sentence. The observation made in para 24 rather shows the ambivalence on the part of the Supreme Court.

Besides, there were certain facts which should have been taken into consideration by the Supreme Court while allowing the review petition. These are as follows. The convict was a cricket player who played for India from 1983 to 1999. After retirement, he donned the cap of a cricket commentator. In 2004, Sidhu successfully contested parliamentary elections from Amritsar. However on December 6, 2006, he was convicted by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in the present case. Sidhu resigned from the membership of the Lok Sabha only on moral grounds and went back to the electorate seeking a fresh mandate. He challenged his conviction before the apex court, which suspended his conviction on January 23, 2007. Sidhu contested and won the by-election. In the 2009 general elections, he again won from Amritsar. Sidhu also remained a member of the Rajya Sabha from April 28, 2016 to July 18, 2016, when he resigned. During this period, Sidhu remained part of various TV shows as a judge and participant. He successfully contested assembly elections from Amritsar (East) constituency in 2017 and was sworn in as minister for tou­rism and local bodies in Punjab. 

The antecedents of the convict were not so trivial as to be brushed under the carpet. The lapse of 34 years was too long a period to be ignored. Even if the Supreme Court was convinced that Sidhu was let off with a disproportionately light punishment, there were ways in which justice could have been done to the victim’s side.  

One way was for the Court to pass a nominal sentence of imprisonment and grant a reasonable and adequate sum as compensation to the victim through Section 357(3) of the CrPC.  

—The writer is an advocate in the Punjab and Haryana High Court

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