Monday, September 19, 2016

Govindaswamy v. State of Kerala

It has been an interesting week. On one hand critics and moviegoers alike have been heaping praise on Pink, dubbed the first film to raise the issues of female sexual autonomy and choice in post-1991 India. On the other, the Supreme Court set aside the conviction for murder under Section 302 IPC and the attendant death sentence in Govindaswamy v. State of Kerala [made infamous by the deceased victim’s name, which this comment desists from using]. I argue here the decision is a brave one. But as much as my biases make me support it, its reasoning is not beyond reasonable doubt.

There is little to gain by recounting but the most essential facts. An adult woman was found lying grievously hurt near train tracks near Shornur, Kerala, on the night of 1st February, 2011. She was found at the insistence of two people who believed they saw her falling from the train, convinced the fellow passenger travelling with them was wrong in saying that she had willingly jumped and fled. Her condition when they found her convinced the witnesses that she had been attacked by the suspicious one-handed man lurking about the compartment. Subsequent medical treatment proved insufficient, and the victim succumbed to her injuries on 6th February. 

The Fast Track Court convicted the accused of Murder (Section 302 IPC), Rape (Section 376 IPC) and other offences. The death sentence was recommended which the High Court confirmed. As we know, the Supreme Court altered only one aspect of the decision – the conviction and sentence for Murder. What does a conviction for murder require, then, that the Supreme Court found the ingredients lacking? Section 300 IPC defines murder (punished by Section 302 IPC). Broadly, it explains that a Culpable Homicide (defined in Section 299 IPC) can amount to Murder in certain cases, where:
  1. If the act causing death is accompanied by the intention of causing death, or
  2. If the act causing death is caused with intention of causing such injury that the offender knows is likely to cause death of the person to whom the harm is caused, or
  3. If the act is done with the intention of causing injury, and the injury intended to be inflicted is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, or
  4. If the offender knows the act is so imminently dangerous that it must, in all probability, cause death or such injury likely to cause death, and commits such an act without any excuse for incurring the risk.
The first three categories require an intention, while the last can be satisfied with knowledge. To prove I intended on doing something is more onerous than proving that I knew something will happen i.e. I had foresight of the consequences of my actions. This is justified. It should not be easy to label someone as a murderer and inflict upon them the harshest sanctions of life imprisonment or death. There is a slight relaxation in the third clause – I intend the injury and not the consequence of death but a conviction is possible as long as the injury is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. The Trial Court and High Court decisions suggest this was how the case for Murder was made out. There was no direct evidence to show that the Accused caused the injuries, though, but both courts found the circumstances clinching. 

Proving a case on circumstantial evidence is tricky business. A testifying to seeing X killing Y with a knife is quite different from A testifying to seeing X with a knife 500 meters from where Y was found dead, and then convicting X for murder. Courts acknowledge this and there is a long line of decisions holding that a conviction on circumstantial evidence can only stand if the ‘chain of circumstances’ does not allow for any other conclusion other than guilt. Let’s take this case. The Supreme Court culls out three sets of injuries suffered by the victim. The first was injuries inflicted inside the train, the second those suffered from the fall on the railway tracks, and the third was the injuries associated with the sexual assault. The medical evidence was clear that a combination of the injuries suffered from the fall on the tracks with the subsequent sexual assault is what caused death. 

So the question, then, was whether the chain of circumstances only allowed for one conclusion here: that the accused intentionally inflicted injuries which were sufficient in the ordinary course to cause death. The three judges unanimously held it was not so. There was doubt whether the accused pushed the victim off the train or she fell herself. Therefore, it was also doubtful whether he intended the injuries resulting from the fall at all. Notice how the Supreme Court framed the issue: “However, so far as Injury No. 2 is concerned, unless the fall from the train can be ascribed to the accused on the basis of the cogent and reliable evidence, meaning thereby, that the accused had pushed the deceased out of the train and the possibility of the deceased herself jumping out of train is ruled out, the liability of the accused for the said injury may not necessarily follow.” The State argued the effects of the first injury could be seen as causing the victim to fall from the train, connecting the injuries to the accused. But the Supreme Court expressed reservations about this being the only conclusion, since a passenger near the compartment door said the victim had “made good her escape” by jumping.

Two related complaints can arise from this reasoning. First, when the medical evidence conflicted the escape theory (it could not be said the victim ‘made good her escape’), why give precedence to unverified oral testimony? Second, did it really matter whether the accused pushed the victim or she fell herself? The injuries to her head from the fall, as per medical evidence, were caused because the victim was dazed and had dulled reflexes owing to earlier injuries (not doubted as being caused by the accused). That being so, could the latter injuries from the fall not be considered as being caused by the initial attack by the accused? There is nothing to negative this causal connection on the facts. Of course the law does not allow X to walk away innocent by simply desisting from delivering the blow and causing Y to harm herself instead. But can we say that X intended those injuries or that X merely knew they are foreseeable? That, is the question.

I called this a brave decision because the Court could easily have maintained the conviction and reduced the sentence if it had doubts. Such a compromise might have been seen more appropriately in some quarters. But the Court went a step further. In doing so, it displayed a commitment to procedural rules not always easy in the face of ghastly facts. Judges are only human after all, and the perceived harshness of courts in sexual assault cases does display a tendency of playing to the pulpit, with the Supreme Court no exception. Nonetheless, the issues have not been thoroughly considered. Kerala has made a statement that it plans to file a Review Petition challenging the decision. As this comment argues, there may be enough material to warrant one.

[Thanks to Sonali Malik for her inputs]

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