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Drop of a Hat

Drop of a Hat
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The Delhi High Court recently expressed anguish at the misuse of laws meant for protection of women from sexual harassment by falsely invoking the provision “at the drop of a hat” to register displeasure of the conduct of another individual. Justice Subramonium Prasad, while setting aside an FIR registered by the Delhi Police against an assistant professor of Delhi University, declared that such instances of laws meant for protecting women being used as tools for wreaking personal vengeance sets back the cause of women empowerment.

Justice Prasad noted: “This merely trivialises the offence of sexual harassment and casts doubts on the veracity of the allegations filed by every other victim who has in reality faced sexual harassment, thereby setting back the cause of women empowerment.”

The Court was dealing with a petition seeking quashing of an FIR registered in February last year at Jahangirpuri police station at the instance of petitioner’s neighbour alleging sexual harassment and criminal intimidation at the hands of the petitioner. The case involves a dispute between neighbours over an illegal construction raised by the complainant in December 2016 on the rooftop of the building, thereby breaking the pipe that was being used to supply water to the petitioner’s flat as well as blocking his source of ventilation. The petitioner and his wife made numerous representations regarding the illegal construction to the Delhi Development Authority and the local police. However, no action was taken.

In the meantime, the petitioner’s wife filed a civil suit seeking demolition of the illegal construction. Infuriated by the civil suit, the complainant and her family started abusing and threatening the petitioner and his family with dire consequences. As a corollary, the petitioner’s wife lodged a complaint at the nearest police station. The police did not register an FIR upon her complaint and rather, pressurised the petitioner and his family to compromise on the matter. On their refusal to do so, the complainant in collusion with the police, lodged the instant FIR.

The counsel for the petitioner contended that the instant FIR was lodged with a mala fide intent in an attempt to coerce and arm-twist the petitioner and his family into withdrawing the complaint filed by petitioner’s wife.

A detailed analysis of the provisions enumerated under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, elucidates that the inherent powers conferred upon the High Courts to pass such orders as may be necessary can be exercised only in so far as it relates to preventing abuse of process of any Court or to securing the ends of justice.

The Supreme Court in Narinder Singh vs State of Punjab (2014) laid down the twin objectives which guides High Courts while exercising its inherent powers under Section 482, which involves preventing abuse of the process of Court and/or securing the ends of justice.

It has been time and again observed that the inherent power for quashing of FIRs has to be exercised sparingly and with caution and only when such exercise meets the twin objectives specifically laid down in the provision itself, that is where the complaint does not disclose any offence, or is frivolous, vexatious, or oppressive. The Supreme Court in State of Haryana and Ors. vs Bhajan Lal and Ors 1992 laid down a clearly defined set of guidelines specifying conditions wherein the power to quash FIRs could be exercised. These are:

  • Where the allegations made in the FIR or the complaint, even if they are taken at their face value and accepted in their entirety, do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused.
  • Where the allegations in the FIR and other materials, if any, accompanying the FIR, do not disclose a cognizable offence, justifying an investigation by police officers under Section 156(1) of the Code except under an order of a magistrate within the purview of Section 155(2) of the Code.
  • Where the uncontroverted allegations made in the FIR or complaint and the evidence collected in support of the same do not disclose the commission of any offence and make out a case against the accused.
  • Where, the allegations in the FIR do not constitute a cognizable offence but constitute only a non-cognizable offence, no investigation is permitted by a police officer without an order of a magistrate as contemplated under Section 155(2) of the Code.
  • Where the allegations made in the FIR or complaint are so absurd and inherently improbable on the basis of which no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there is sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused.
  • Where there is an express legal bar engrafted in any of the provisions of the Code or the concerned Act (under which a criminal proceeding is instituted) to the institution and continuance of the proceedings and/or where there is a specific provision in the Code or the concerned Act, providing efficacious redress for the grievance of the aggrieved party.
  • Where a criminal proceeding is manifestly attended with mala fide and/or where the proceeding is maliciously instituted with an ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance on the accused and with a view to spite him due to private and personal grudge.

The Supreme Court in Parbatbhai Aahir & Ors. vs State of Gujarat & Anr in 2017 had laid down broad principles in isolation to Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for quashing of FIRs, while noting that the inherent powers of High Courts could not be invoked to quash criminal proceedings involving serious and heinous crimes which were not private in nature and had a serious impact upon society. It was also noted that sexual harassment cases cannot be quashed under Article 226/227 of the Constitution and the same needs to be decided through the process of trial.

In the latest case, Justice Prasad was of the view that the FIR in question is based on bald allegations, instituted with an ulterior motive to wreak vengeance against the petitioner. “The contents of the FIR are sketchy in nature and are void of any specifics regarding the offences which have allegedly been committed…. The instant FIR was maliciously instituted with an ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance on the Petitioner, and with a view to spite him and his wife due to a private and personal grudge,” he observed while setting aside the FIR.

In a similar instance, the Delhi High Court, in February last year, in the landmark case of Laishram Premila Devi & Ors vs The State & Ors, imposed a cost of Rs 30,000 in two petitions seeking quashing of FIRs filed against each other by residents of Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, while ruling that it is becoming a “trend” to register frivolous FIRs under provisions relating to crime against women either to force a party from withdrawing a complaint instituted against them or to arm-twist a party.

“Offences under Sections 354, 354A, 354B, 354C, 354D IPC are serious offences. Such allegations have the effect of tarnishing the image of the person against whom such allegations are made. Allegations regarding these offences cannot be made at the drop of a hat,” underscored Justice Prasad, calling such a practice to be an abuse of process of law. “The instant case is a classic example as to how frivolous allegations of Section 354 and 354A have been levelled by the parties against each other. A small fight regarding parking has been escalated by levelling allegations of outraging modesty of women,” the Court observed.

—By Banshika Garg and India Legal Bureau

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