When an act forbidden by law is voluntarily done by a person, it constitutes a criminal offence. An act alone does not amount to guilt and is only considered as an offence when the performance of such an act is accompanied by a guilty mind. The legal maxim ‘actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea’ means that the two conditions for penal liability i.e. the guilty act and the guilty mind must be present for an act to be seen as a criminal offence. The Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, classifies criminal offences into certain categories such as cognizable, non-cognizable, bailable and non-bailable offences. Different offences have different procedural treatments under Indian law.
The criminal offences which are witnessed in legal systems around the world are often categorised into broad heads on numerous criteria such as procedural characteristics or the intended victims. By way of this article, we shall attempt to understand these numerous famous cases of criminal offences in India.
1. The Nanavati Murder Case (1959)
This case, K.M. Nanavati vs the State of Maharashtra(1961) is one of the landmark cases in Indian history and marked the end of jury trials in India. K.M. Nanavati was a respected naval officer who killed his wife’s extra-marital lover, Ahuja in 1959. Nanavati, after committing the crime went to the local police and turned himself in. The main point of contention was whether the action of Nanavati was due to grave provocation or it was a pre-mediated murder. The petitioners contended that during a confrontation of Nanavati with Ahuja, the latter stated that he “could not marry every woman he slept with”, which led to Nanavati killing Ahuja. Their arguments were based on the fact that Nanavati committed the murder in the heat of the moment and thus it was a case of culpable homicide, not amounting to murder. The Respondents contended that Nanavati had, after listening to his wife’s confession, dropped her and their children off to the cinema, gone to his ship to procure a rifle and then gone to visit Ahuja. It was contended that it was clearly implied that Nanavati had the intention to murder Ahuja and there was no sudden provocation.
The jury of the trial court declared that K.M. Nanavati was found not guilty with a majority verdict. The verdict, like the Tarakeswar case, reflected the popular sentiment that sympathised with Nanavati. But the Session’s judge overturned the verdict and sent it to the High Court of Bombay wherein the Court held the accused guilty of murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code and sentenced him to life imprisonment. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court judgment, saying that Nanavati had plenty of time to calm down and thus it was a case of premeditated murder. However, he was granted parole on grounds of ill health in 1963 and then later pardoned by the Governor of Bombay. The higher judiciary, purely on the touchstone of law, found Nanavati guilty. But beyond the realm of law is the world of morality; was Nanavati morally right in killing a man who had destroyed his marriage and family? The public opinion felt that Nanavati had been wronged, and so did the jury, but not the law.
2. The contract killing of Mrs Vidya Jain (1967)
The case of Narendra Singh Jain is linked to the infamous contract killing of Mrs Vidya Jain in 1973. In this case, the defendant was Dr N.S. Jain, the personal eye physician of the then-Indian President V.V. Giri, conspired with his paramour, Chandresh, to hire two persons to murder his forty-five-year-old wife.
The case involved several failed attempts to kill Mrs Jain by engagement with various assassins, but the plan eventually got executed on 4 December 1967. The trial court charged all the accused under Section 120-B of the Penal Code for having entered into a conspiracy to commit the murder of Vidya Jain and under Section 320 for her murder. Some of the accused were also charged with Section 27 of the Arms Act, 1959.
Conspiracy comes into being the moment the agreement to commit the crucial act is reached, and it does not cease to exist so long as the intention of acting upon the agreement exists. When Chandresh and Rakesh went to hire Karan Singh as an assassin, the criminal conspiracy had come into existence and did not cease when the latter refused to execute what was assigned to him. The duo then engaged with another assassin who also refused, and the conspiracy continued. Finally, the inclusion of the final two assassins was also part of the criminal conspiracy.
The crucial point of contention was the gravity of the crimes of all the involved parties i.e., who should be more responsible for the crime of murder. The trial court had sentenced the accused to life imprisonment but on appeal, the High Court, in N.S. Jain vs the State (1977) increased the punishment of the two contract killers to death by hanging.
3. Tandoor Murders (1995)
The Hotel Ashok Yatri Niwas of Delhi became the site of the very gruesome murder of a woman. The accused, hotel manager Keshav Kumar and co-owner of the hotel, Shushil Sharma were discovered to be stoking a fire in the kitchen tandoor with wood on that fateful night of 2 July 1995 by two police officers. Detecting a foul odour, the officers douse the flames and discovered that the tandoor was stuffed with partially burnt human remains, a torso and burnt bones. A black polythene sheet nearby bore traces of blood. The body was revealed to be of Naina Sahni, wife of Shushil Sharma. While Kumar was immediately caught by the police, Sharma fled and was later arrested by the Bangalore police and handed over to the Delhi authorities. The use of the tandoor to attempt to cover up the murder is what truly horrified people and made this become a case people could not stop talking about. Not many people remember that the tandoor was not the weapon of the murder, that Naina had been shot to death and the tandoor was only used to destroy the body.
The trial was held in the sessions court in Delhi, in 2003 where Sharma pleaded that due to the media furore and the misdirected public hatred he would be subjected to an unfair and unjust trial. Therefore, he claimed, he should either be discharged or the trial be postponed but the same was not granted. Capital punishment was awarded to Sharma, placing the case in the ‘rarest of rare’ category, warranting the imposition of extreme punishment by the trial court. In State vs Sushil Sharma (2007), the Delhi High Court admitted an appeal filed by Sushil Sharma, challenging his conviction and death sentence by the trial court. However, the High Court rejected these assertions and upheld the verdict of the trial court in this case. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, while reaching the conclusion that the accused were indeed liable to be convicted for committing the heinous crime of murder and brutally disposing of the body of the accused, said that the action of Sharma was the result of a strained individual relationship and not an offence against society. Thus, the Supreme Court in Sushil Sharma vs State (NCT) of Delhi (2013) commuted capital punishment to life imprisonment, while also taking into account certain mitigating factors like the accused previous criminal record and the age of the accused.
4. The murder of Neeraj Grover (2008)
Neeraj Grover was a media executive. Maria Monica Susairaj was a Kannada actress who wanted to work in the TV industry. When she moved to Mumbai, Maria befriended Grover and they soon entered into an intimate relationship. However, Maria started having doubts about whether Grover was serious about aiding her career. The prosecution alleged that the plan to kill Grover was hatched on 6 May 2008, when Maria contacted Emile Jerome Joseph, her fiancé. On 7 May 2008, both Maria and Joseph killed Grover and chopped up his body. Later, Maria confessed to her crimes and led the police to the place where the body parts were burned. She also stated that Joseph had forced her to commit the act with him with the threat of rape. Later, their confessional statement was retracted by Maria. According to the Court’s analysis of Maria’s confession, it was concluded that only Joseph was responsible for the murder of the victim.
After considering the evidence, the Court held the accused guilty of both causing disappearance and destruction of evidence. The prosecution proved that Joseph killed the victim but the defendant pleaded the first exception to murder, i.e., culpable homicide due to the grave and sudden provocation. The Court ruled out premeditation on the part of Joseph and maintained that he was under provocation. Both of the accused were charged under section 201 for causing the disappearance of evidence, with a maximum penalty of three years. Joseph was charged under Section 304 (1) of the IPC for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and was given ten years’ rigorous imprisonment as well as a fine of Rs 50,000. Maria was convicted under Section 201 of the IPC for the destruction of evidence and was given three years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000. Joseph was also convicted under the same offence and given the same punishment, for which his sentence would run concurrently.
5. D.K. Basu and custodial deaths
Shri D.K. Basu, Ashok K. Johri vs State of West Bengal, State of U.P. (1996) was a landmark judgement that elaborated on custodial deaths. The initial party to the case was West Bengal and D.K. Basu. D.K. Basu was the Executive Chairman of Legal Aid Services of West Bengal. Basu wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India enumerating certain news articles in newspapers that have spoken about custodial deaths and instances of custodial torture. The letter emphasized the need to draw up guidelines that an arresting authority must follow while remanding a person to custody and to draw up victim compensation schemes in those scenarios of custodial death and torture. Because the issue that was mentioned in the letter was of gravity, the letter was considered to be a writ petition and accordingly proceedings were initiated. Later, Shri Ashok K. Johri wrote a similar letter to the Chief Justice about a custodial death in Uttar Pradesh and accordingly that letter was also considered to be a writ petition and the two were clubbed together. The state governments in their reply stated that custodial deaths were taken into consideration and appropriate actions were taken against the concerned individual. Further, the Supreme Court solicited the Law Commission to deliver an official report on this issue and accordingly the 113th report on “Injuries in Police Custody” was released.
In the judgement, the Supreme Court reiterated that any type of torture or cruel, inhuman, or humiliating treatment, whether it occurs during an investigation, interrogation, or otherwise, is covered by Article 21. The rights protected by Article 21 cannot be denied to undertrials, convicts, detainees, and other detainees in custody unless they are refused in accordance with the method established by law, which may include reasonable restrictions on the right.
The primary achievement of this judgement was that the Court gave out certain specific guidelines that had to be followed while making arrests. These included the need for arresting or interrogating officers to bear accurate, visible and clear identification and name tags with their designations and allowing one relative of the arrested person to be informed about the arrest and place of detention.