When can members of a group be held individually guilty for an offence? Supreme Court explains applicability of Sections 34 and 149 of IPC

Supreme Court: Explaining the difference between Sections 34 and 149 of the IPC, the 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, Surya Kant* and Aniruddha Bose, JJ has held that

“Although both Section 34 and 149 of the IPC are modes for apportioning vicarious liability on the individual members of a group, there exist a few important differences between these two provisions. Whereas Section 34 requires active participation and a prior meeting of minds, Section 149 IPC assigns liability merely by membership of the unlawful assembly. In reality, such ‘common intention’ is usually indirectly inferred from conduct of the individuals and only seldom it is done through direct evidence.”

The Court was hearing a case where all the accused had individually inflicted blows on the victim’s body using axes. The appellants made death threats to the complainant on 24.01.1998 if he were to attempt to irrigate his fields and then they used sharp edged weapons the very next day and further declared that they would not rest till they killed the complainant.

Applying the aforementioned principles to the case, the Court noticed that both the common object and the common intention were traced back to the same evidence, i.e., evaluating the conduct of the accused as narrated by the injured and the eye-witness. Further, a perusal of Section 313 CrPC statement showed that the appellants were expressly confronted with their specific role in the offence: that each of them had individually attacked the complainant with a deadly object in furtherance of the common intention of killing him.

The Court, hence, held that the appellants did not suffer any adverse effect when the High Court held the three of them individually guilty for the offence of attempted murder, without the aid of Section 149 IPC.

Noticing that an offence under Section 307 IPC was clearly made out against each of the appellants, the Court held that the medical experts have in their depositions clearly explicated that the weapons used and the injuries inflicted were more than sufficient to cause death in ordinary course of nature. Also, the facts of the case manifest the appellant’s intention to inflict bodily injury knowing fully that such injuries would ordinarily lead to the complainant’s death.

“The gravity of the injuries is beyond doubt. Not only were there seven injuries, some of which were deep cuts on vital parts of the body including on the head (above the ear); but the appellants broke all the bones in the complainant’s feet below the knee. Most appallingly, the injuries have led to amputation of an entire limb, leaving the complainant permanently disabled.”

That apart, even the requirements of Section 34 of IPC are well established as the attack was apparently pre-meditated. The incident was not in a spur-of-the-moment. The appellants had previously threatened the complainant with physical harm if he were to attempt to irrigate his fields.

Noticing that there was nothing on record to suggest that the complainant caused any provocation, the Court held that specific roles have been attributed to each of the appellants by the injured and the solitary eye-witness, establishing their individual active participation in the crime.

On the issue of mitigation of sentence, the Court said that it cannot be oblivious of the fact that the appellants and their deceased co-accused were all armed with deadly weapons.

“They surrounded the complainant and in a brutal attack caused him gruesome injuries and disabled him for life.”

It further noticed that the appellants have not undergone even half of their sentence period.

“Having enjoyed the more productive part of their lives outside jail cannot be, per se, taken as a mitigating factor. Any misplaced sympathy with the appellants is likely to cause injustice to the victim of the crime.”

The Court, hence, refused to show leniency and reduce the sentence.

[Rohtas v. State of Haryana, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 1014, decided on 10.12.2020]

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