Suresh v. State of U.P. [2001 SC]

THOMAS, J. – Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code is a very commonly invoked provision in criminal cases. With a plethora of judicial decisions rendered on the subject the contours of bits ambit seem well-nigh delineated. Nonetheless, when these appeals were heard a two-Judge Bench felt the need to take a re-look at the provision as to whether and if so to what extent it can be invoked as an aid in this case. Hence these appeals were heard by a larger Bench.

In one of the appeals A-1 Suresh and his brother-in-law, A-2 Ramji, are fighting their last chance to get extricated from the death penalty imposed on them by a Session Court which was confirmed by a Division Bench of the High Court. In the other appeal Pavitri Devi, the wife of Suresh (also sister of Ramji) is struggling to sustain the acquittal secured by her from the High Court in reversal of the conviction for murder ordered by the Sessions Court with the aid of Section 34 IPC.

On the night of 5-10-1996 when Ramesh (brother of the appellant Suresh) and his wife and children went to bed as usual, they would have had no foreboding that it was going to be the last night they were sleeping on this terrestrial terrain. But after they, in their sleep, crossed the midnight line and when the half crescent moon appeared with its waned glow above their house, the night turned red by the bloodiest killing spree befallen on the entire family. The motley population of that small house was hacked to pieces by armed assailants, leaving none, but a single tiny tot, alive. The sole survivor of the gory carnage could have seen what happened inside his sweet home only in the night which itself turned carmine. He narrated the tale before the Sessions Court with the visible scars of the wounds he sustained on his person.

That infant witness (PW 3 Jitendra) told the trial court that he saw his uncle (A-1 Suresh) in the company of his brother-in-law (Ramji) acting like demons, cutting the sleeping children with axe and chopper. He also said that his aunt (A-3 Pavitri Devi) clutched the tuft of his mother’s hair and yelled like a demoness in thirst for the blood of the entire family.

Lalji (PW 1), the uncle of the decreased Ramesh (who is uncle of Suresh also) and Amar Singh (PW 2) a neighbour gave evidence supporting the version of PW 3 Jitendra. But the said two witnesses did not attribute any overt act to Pavitri Devi except saying that she too was present near the scene of occurrence. The house of the accused was situated not for away from the scene of occurrence, but across the road which abuts the house of the decreased.

The doctor who conducted the autopsy on the dead bodies of all the deceased described the horrifying picture of the mauled bodies. The youngest of the victims was one-year-old child whose skull was cut into two and the brain was torn as under. The next was a three-year-old male child who was killed with his neck axed and the spinal cord, trachea and the larynx were snipped. The next in line was Jitendra – a seven year old child. His immediate next elder was Monisha-a nine-year-old female child, who too was axed on the neck, mouth and chest with her spinal cord cut into two.

The mother of those little children, Ganga Devi, was inflicted six injuries which resulted in her skull being broken into pieces. The last was Ramesh – the bread-winner of the family, who was the father of the children. Four wounds were inflicted on him. All of them were on the neck and above that. The injuries on Ramesh, when put together, neared just short of decapitation.

PW 3 Jitendra had three incised wounds on the scapular region, but the doctor who attended on him (PW 6) did not probe into the depth of one of them, presumably because of the fear that he might require an immediate surgical intervention. However, he was not destined to die and hence the injuries on him did not turn fatal.

The motive for the above dastardly massacre was the greed for a bit of land lying adjacent to the house compound of the deceased which A-I Suresh claimed to be his. But the deceased Ramesh clung to that land and it resulted in burgeoning animosity in the mind of Suresh which eventually grew alarmingly wild.

The evidence of PW 1 Lalji and PW 2 Amar Singh was considered by the Sessions Court in the light of various contentions raised by the counsel for the accused. The trial Judge found the said evidence reliable. The Division bench of the High Court considered the said evidence over again and they did not see any reason to dissent from the finding made by the trail court: The evidence of PW 3 Jitendra, the sole survivor of the carnage, was evaluated with greater care as he was an infant of seven years. Learned Judges of the Division Bench of the High Court accepted the evidence of PW 3 only to the extent it secured corroboration from the testimony of P.Ws 1 and 2.

Learned Senior Counsel focused on two aspects. First is that acquittal of Pavitri Devi does not warrant interference from this court. Second is that this is not a case belonging to the category which compels the Court to award death penalty to the two appellants, Suresh and Ramji.

We will now deal with the role played by Pavitri Devi to see whether the Court can interfere with the acquittal order passed in her favour by the High Court. P.W. 3 said that Pavitri Devi caught hold of his mother’s hair and pulled her up, thereafter she went outside and exhorted that everybody should be killed. But P.Ws 1 and 2 did not support the aforesaid version pertaining to Pavitri Devi. According to them, when they reached the scene of occurrence Pavitri Devi was standing in front of the house of the deceased while the other two were inside the house engaged in the act of inflicting blows on the victims.

The position which the prosecution succeeded in establishing against A-3 Pavitri Devi is that she was also present at the scene of occurrence. Learned counsel for the State contended that such presence was in furtherance of the common intention of the three accused to commit the murders and hence she can as well be convicted for the murders under Section 302 IPC with the aid of Section 34 IPC. Learned counsel contended that if Section 34 IPC is to be invoked against Pavitri Devi the prosecution should have established that she had done some overt act in furtherance of the common intention.

We heard arguments at length on the ambit of Section 34 IPC. We have to consider whether the accused who is sought to be convicted with the aid of that section, should have done some act, even assuming that the said accused also shared the common intention with the other accused.

Section 34 reads thus:

Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention: When a criminal act is done by several persons in furtherance of the common intention of all, each of such persons is liable for that act in the same manner as if it were done by him alone.

As the section speaks of doing “a criminal act by several persons” we have to look at Section 33 IPC which defines the “Act”. As per it, the word “act” denotes as well a series of acts as a single act. This means a criminal act can be a single act or it can be the conglomeration of a series of acts. How can a criminal act be done by several persons?

In this context, a reference to Sections 35, 37 and 38 IPC, in juxtaposition with Section 34, is of advantage. Those four provisions can be said to belong to one cognate group wherein different positions when more than one person participating in the commission of one criminal act are adumbrated. Section 35 says that when an act is done by several persons each of such persons who joins in the act with mens rea is liable for the act “in the same manner as if the act were done by him alone with that knowledge or intention”. The section differs from Section 34 only regarding one postulate. In the place of common intention of all such person (in furtherance of which the criminal act is done), as is required in Section 34, it is enough that each participant who joins others in doing the criminal act, has the required men rea.

Section 37 deals with the commission of an offence “by means of several acts”. The section renders anyone who intentionally co-operates in the commission of that offence “by doing any one of those acts” to be liable for that offence. Section 38 also shows another facet of one criminal act being done by several persons without connecting the common bond i.e., “in furtherance of the common intention of all”. In such a case, they would be guilty of different offence or offences but not for the same offence.

Hence, under Section 34, one criminal act, composed of more than one act, can be committed by more than one persons and if such commission is in furtherance of the common intention of all of them, each would be liable for the criminal act so committed.

To understand the section better, it is useful to recast it in a different form by way of an illustration. This would highlight the difference when several persons do not participate in the crime committed by only one person even though there was common intention of all the several persons. Suppose, a section was drafted like this: “When a criminal act is done by one person in furtherance of the common intention of several persons, each of such several persons is liable for that act in the same manner as if it were done by all such persons.”

Obviously Section 34 is not meant to cover a situation which may fall within the fictiously concocted section caricatured above. In that concocted provision, the co-accused need not do anything because the act done by the principal accused would nail the co-accused also on the ground that such act was done by that single person in furtherance of the common intention of all the several persons. But Section 34 is intended to meet a situation wherein all the co-accused have also done something to constitute the commission of a criminal act.

Even the concept of presence of the co-accused at the scene is not a necessary requirement to attract Section 34, e.g., the co-accused can remain a little away and supply weapons to the participating accused either by throwing or by catapulting them so that they can be used to inflict injuries on the targeted person. Another illustration, with advancement of electronic equipment can be etched like this: One of such persons, in furtherance of the common intention overseeing the actions from a distance through binoculars can give instructions to the other accused through mobile phones as to how effectively the common intention can be implemented. We do not find any reason why Section 34 cannot apply in the case of those two persons indicated in the illustrations.

Thus to attract Section 34 IPC two postulates are indispensable:

(1) The criminal act (consisting of a series of acts) should have been done, not by one person.

(2) Doing of every such individual act cumulatively resulting in the commission of criminal offence should have been in furtherance of the common intention of all such persons.

Looking at the first postulate pointed out above, the accused who is to be fastened with liability on the strength of Section 34 IPC should have done some act which has nexus with the offence. Such an act need not be very substantial, it is enough that the act is only for guarding the scene for facilitating the crime. The act need not necessary be overt, even if it is only a covert act it is enough, provided such a covert act is proved to have been done by the co-accused in furtherance of the common intention. Even an omission can, in certain circumstances, amount to an act. This is the purport of Section 32 IPC. So the act mentioned in Section 34 IPC need not be an overt act, even an illegal omission to do a certain act in a certain situation can amount to an act, e.g., a co-accused, standing near the victim face to face saw an armed assailant nearing the victim from behind with a weapon to inflict a blow. The co-accused, who could have alerted the victim to move away to escape from the onslaught deliberately refrained from doing so with the idea that the blow should fall on the victim. Such omission can also be termed as an act in given situation. Hence an act, whether overt or covert, is indispensable to be done by a co-accused to be fastened with the liability under the section. But if no such act is done by a person, even if he has common intention with the others for the accomplishment of the crime, Section 34 IPC cannot be invoked for convicting that person. In other words, the accused who only keeps the common intention in his mind, but does not do any act at the scene, cannot be convicted with the aid of Section 34 IPC.

There may be other provisions in the IPC like Section 120-B or Section 109 which could then be invoked to catch such non-participating accused. Thus participation in the crime in furtherance of the common intention is a sine qua non Section 34 IPC. Exhortation to other accused, even guarding the scene etc. would amount to participation. Of course, when the allegation against an accused is that he participated in the crime by oral exhortation or by guarding the scene the court has to evaluate the evidence very carefully for deciding whether that person had really done any such act.

A Division Bench of the Madras High Court had said as early as in 1923 that “evidence of some distinct act by the accused, which can be regarded as part of the criminal act in question, must be required to justify the application on Section 34 IPC.” (vide Aydroos v. Emperor 1923 Mad).

In Barendra Kumar Ghosh v. King Emperor the Judicial Committee after referring to the cognate provision adverted to above, held thus:

Section 34 deals with the doing of separate acts, similar or diverse, by several persons; if all are done in furtherance of a common intention, each person is liable, for the result of them all, as if he had done them himself, for that act” and ‘the act’ in the latter part of the section must include the whole action covered by ‘a criminal act’ in the first part, because they refer to it.

It is difficult to conclude that a person, merely because he was present at or near the scene, without doing anything more, without even carrying a weapon and without even marching along with the other assailants, could also be convicted with the aid of Section 34 IPC for the offence committed by the other accused. In the present case, the FIR shows that A-3 Pavitri Devi was standing on the road when the incident happened. Either she would have reached on the road on hearing the sound of the commotion because her house is situated very close to the scene, or she would have merely followed her husband and brother out of curiosity since they were going armed with axe and choppers during the wee hours of the night. It is not a necessary conclusion that she too would have accompanied the other accused in furtherance of the common intention of all the three.

Thus we are unable to hold that Pavitri Devi shared common intention with other accused and hence her remaining passively on the road is too insufficient for reversing the order of acquittal passed by High Court in order to convict her with the aid of Section 34.

Learned Senior Counsel made an all out effort to save the convicted appellants from death penalty. The trial court and the High Court have given very cogent reasons and quite elaborately for choosing the extreme penalty. Knowing fully well that death penalty is now restricted to the rarest of rare cases in which the lesser alternative is unquestionably foreclosed as held by the Constitution Bench in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab [1980 SC] we could not persuade ourselves in holding that the acts committed by A-1 Suresh and A-2 Ramji should be pulled out of contours of the extremely limited sphere. Even after bestowing our anxious consideration, we cannot persuade ourselves to hold that this is not a rarest of rare cases in which the lesser alternative is unquestionably foreclosed.

Accordingly, we dismiss both the appeals.

SETHI, J. (for himself and Agrawal, J.)(Concurring)-

We agree with the conclusions arrived at by Brother Thomas, J. in his lucid judgment.

However, in view of the importance of the matter, in so far as the interpretation of Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code is concerned, we have chosen to express our views in the light of consistent legal approach on the subject throughout the period of judicial pronouncements. For the applicability of Section 34 to a co-accused, who is proved to have common intention, it is not the requirement of law that he should have actually done something to incur the criminal liability with the aid of this section. It is now well settled that no overt act is necessary to attract the applicability of Section 34 for a co-accused who is otherwise proved to be sharing common intention with the ultimate act done by any one of the accused having such intention.

Section 34 recognises the principle of vicarious liability in the criminal jurisprudence. It makes a person liable for action of an offence not committed by him but by another person with whom he shared the common intention. It is a rule of evidence and does not create a substantive offence. The section gives statutory recognition to the commonsense principle that if more than two persons intentionally do a thing jointly, it is just the same as if each of them had done it individually. There is no gainsaying that a common intention pre-supposes prior concert, which requires a pre-arranged plan of the accused participating in an offence. Such a pre-concert or pre-planning may develop on the spot or during the course of commission of the offence but the crucial test is that such plan must precede the act constituting an offence. Common intention can be formed previously or in the course of occurrence and on a spur of moment. Existence of a common intention is a question of fact in each case to be proved mainly as a matter of inference from circumstances of the case.

The dominant feature for attracting Section 34 is the element of participation in action resulting in the ultimate “criminal act”. The “act” referred to in latter part of Section 34 means the ultimate criminal act with which the accused is charged of sharing the common intention. The accused is, therefore, made responsible for the ultimate criminal act by several persons in furtherance of the common intention of all. The section does not envisage the separate act by all the accused persons for becoming responsible for the ultimate done criminal act. If such an interpretation is accepted, the purpose of Section 34 shall be rendered infructuous.

Participation in the crime in furtherance of the common intention cannot conceive of some independent criminal act by all accused persons, besides the ultimate criminal act because for that individual act law takes care of making such accused responsible under the other provisions of the Code. The word “act” used in Section 34 denotes a series of acts as a single act. What is required under law is that the accused persons sharing the common intention must be physically present at the scene of occurrence and be shown to not have dissuaded themselves from the intended criminal act for which they shared the common intention.

In Barendra Kumar Ghosh v. King Emperor [1925 PC] the Judicial Committee dealt with the scope of Section 34 dealing with the acts done in furtherance of the common intention, making all equally liable for the results of all the acts of others. It was observed:

By Section 33 a criminal act in Section 34 includes a series of acts and, further, “act” includes omissions to act, for example, an omission to interfere in order to prevent a murder being done before one’s very eyes. By Section 37, when any offence is committed by means of several acts whoever intentionally co-operates in the commission of that offence by doing any one of those acts, either singly or jointly with any other person, commits that offence. Even if the appellant did nothing as he stood outside the door, it is to be remembered that in crimes as in other things ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’. By Section 38, when several persons are engaged or concerned in the commission of a criminal act, they may be guilty of different offences by means of that act. Section 37 provides that, when several acts are done so as to result together in the commission of an offence, the doing of any one of them, with an intention to co-operate in the offence (which may not be the same as an intention common to all), makes the actor liable to be punished for the commission of the offence.

In Ramaswami Ayyangar v. State of Tamil Nadu [1976 SC] this Court declared that Section 34 is to be read along with preceding Section 33 which makes it clear that the “act” mentioned in Section 34 includes a series of acts as a single act. The acts committed by different confederates in the criminal action may be different but all must in one way or the other participate and engage in the criminal enterprise. Even a person not doing any particular act but only standing guard to prevent any prospective aid to the victims may be guilty of common intention. However, in case of an offence involving physical violence it is essential for the application of Section 34 that such accused must be physically present at the actual commission of crime for the purposes of facilitating accomplishment of “criminal act” as mentioned in that section.

The distinction between a “common intention” and a “similar intention” which is real and substantial is also not to be lost sight of. The common intention implies a pre-arranged plan but in a given case it may develop at the spur of the moment in the course of the commission of the offence. Such common intention which developed at the spur of the moment is different from the similar intention actuated by a number of persons at the same time. The distinction between “common intention” and “similar intention” may be fine but is nonetheless a real one and if overlooked may lead to miscarriage of justice.

However, in this case on facts, the prosecution has not succeeded in proving that Pavitri Devi shared the common intention with the other two accused persons, one of whom was her husband and the other her brother. It has come in evidence that when the witnesses reached on the spot, they found the said accused standing on the road whereas the other accused were busy committing the crime inside the house. The exaggerated version of PW3 regarding the participation of Pavitri Devi by allegedly catching hold of his mother’s hair cannot be accepted as P.Ws 1 and 2 have not supported the aforesaid version. The High Court was, therefore, justified in holding that Pavitri Devi did not share the common intention with the other accused persons. By her mere presence near the place of occurrence at or about the time of crime in the absence of other evidence, direct or circumstantial, cannot hold her guilty with the aid of Section 34. But in case the prosecution had succeeded in proving on facts of her sharing of common intention with A1 and A2, she could not be acquitted of the charge framed against her only on the ground that she had actually not done any overt act.

The appeal of the State filed against Pavitri Devi has no merit and has thus rightly been dismissed by Brother Thomas, J.