Delhi High Court: Stating that the manner in which Court records tampered was insidious and revealed a well-planned and methodical attempt to subvert the justice system in order to escape conviction in the Main Uphaar Case, Subramonium Prasad, J., held that since the matter relates to tampering of judicial record, the same has to be decided expeditiously in order to ensure faith of the public in the judicial system.

Petitioners challenged the decision of Additional Sessions Judge, Patiala House Courts, which rejected the applications of the petitioners under Section 389(2) of CrPC for suspension of sentence during the pendency of the appeal.

Factual Background

Uphaar Cinema Tragedy

The genesis of the entire proceedings stemmed from the devastating fire that occurred in Uphaar Cinema which resulted in the death of 59 people due to asphyxia and caused injuries to more than 100 people.

After the police investigation, the same was transferred to the CBI. The charge sheet was filed against 16 persons, including the petitioners. Due to delay in trial, the petition was filed by the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) before this Court for expeditious trial.

This Court had directed the trial court to complete the examination of prosecution witnesses on a day-to-day basis. Adding to this, Court also directed that no adjournments would be granted for non-availability of a defence counsel resulting in deferring of the cross-examination of a prosecution witness and in that event, it would be open to the Trial Court to take recourse to various options in terms of Section 309 Cr.P.C, including closure of cross-examination or cancellation of bail of the accused persons.

Special Public Prosecutor brought to the notice of the Court that certain important documents that were seized by the investigating agencies during the course of investigation, which were part of the charge-sheet and judicial record, were missing/mutilated and had been tampered with. Hence, the Court granted permission to prosecution for leading secondary evidence to prove that certain documents were found to be missing/mutilated.

Tampering of Documents

Additional Sessions Judge directed for an inquiry against Dinesh Chandra Sharma, the Court Ahlmad. It is pertinent to mention here that Dinesh Chandra Sharma took charge as the Court Ahlmad in the Court in which trial of the main Uphaar case was being concluded. Pursuant to the inquiry, it was found that Dinesh Chandra Sharma was prima facie guilty of misconduct as well as for the loss and tampering with the documents which formed a part of the judicial record.

Later an application was filed before the Sessions Court for cancellation of bail granted to the accused in the Main Uphaar case. The Sessions Court dismissed the application on the ground that the trial in the main Uphaar case was at its fag end.

The above order was challenged along with the application of filing of FIR against petitioners and other co-accused for tampering with the Court records. Hence, Delhi Police was directed to register a case against persons who were responsible for the disappearance/mutilation and tampering of documents.

Hence an FIR was registered for the offences under Sections 109,193,201, 218, 409 and 120B of the Penal Code, 1860.

In the instant matter, initially, the FIR was registered only against the Court Ahlmad. Subsequently, charge sheets were filed, and petitioners were arrayed as accused. Trial Court relied upon various circumstances to come to the conclusion that there was motive on the part of the accused to destroy the documents which had been entrusted to Dinesh Chandra Sharma who was the Court Ahlmad.

Petitioners vide an order dated 8-11-2021 were convicted for offences under Sections 120B and 409 IPC read with Section 201 IPC and sentenced to undergo imprisonment for seven years with a fine of Rupees 1 Crore only; for offence punishable under Section 409 IPC read with Section 120B IPC, the petitioners were sentenced to imprisonment for a period of 3 years with a fine of Rs 1 crore only and for an offence punishable under Section 201 IPC read with Section 120B IPC, the Petitioners were sentenced to undergo simple imprisonment for three years with a fine of Rs 25 lakhs.

Additional Sessions Judge dismissed the application of petitioners under Section 389(2) of CrPC for suspension of sentence, hence the said decision has been challenged in the present case.

What does the matter pertain to?

Tampering with Court records which obstructs the free flow of justice and has the effect of striking to the core of the rule of law.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Existence of Conspiracy

As per the material on record, the accused P.P. Batra who was a stenographer at Ansal Properties and Infrastructure Ltd. (APIL) as well as the pairvi for the petitioners was in regular touch with Dinesh Chandra Sharma, the Court Ahlmad, till the time it was discovered that documents had been tampered with.

It is well settled that conspiracy is a distinct offence and all conspirators are liable for the acts of each other for the crime or crimes which have been committed as a result of the conspiracy.

It is equally well settled that the offence of criminal conspiracy consists of a meeting of minds of two or more persons for agreeing to do or causing to be done an illegal act or an act by illegal means and the performance of an act in tune thereof [State of H.P. v. Krishan Lal Pardhan, (1987) 2 SCC 17].

High Court opined that the Trial Court’s conclusion was based on analysis of the material on record to establish that there indeed was a conspiracy in place and the petitioners were involved in the same.

Bench added that the tampered documents were handpicked in order to shield the petitioners from conviction by ensuring that their control over Uphaar Cinema did not come to light.

Documents pertaining to Bhikaji Cama Place Fire Station and the headquarters, Delhi Fire Service would have exhibited and brought home the point that the accused H.S. Panwar had given bogus NOCs to Uphaar Cinema without conducting the physical inspection of the cinema and despite the cinema not having followed the mandate of the law laid down regarding the fire safety in Delhi.

Hence, prima facie it was established that there was an agreement to hatch a conspiracy that had the potential of leading to the exoneration of petitioners.

It is also settled law that one who commits an overt act with the knowledge of the conspiracy is guilty, along with one who tacitly consents to the object of conspiracy and goes along with other conspirators.

Therefore, the trial court had correctly concluded with regard to observations about conspiracy.

Parameters of Section 389 CrPC vis-à-vis Section 439 CrPC

While granting the suspension of sentence, the scope of Section 389 CrPC has to be kept in mind.

It is well settled now that there is a difference between the factors that have to be taken into consideration for grant of bail under Section 439 Cr.P.C prior to conviction and grant of suspension of sentence under Section 389 Cr.P.C which is post-conviction for the simple reason that presumption of innocence is no longer applicable to the person who stands convicted for an offence.

In the present matter, the petitioners were convicted for the offence of tampering with the Court records which was an extremely serious offence and could shake the confidence of the public in the entire judicial system.

The Bench added that there was no presumption of innocence that was in favour of the petitioners.

High Court opined that there was no patent infirmity in the order of the trial court.

Public Confidence in the Judicial System

High Court expressed that one of the most important factors while considering an application under Section 389 CrPC is to decipher the effect that such a decision may be on public confidence in the judicial system.

In the Supreme Court’s decision of Mohan Singh v. Amar Singh, (1998) 6 SCC 686, the Court held that tampering with the record of judicial proceedings and filing of a false affidavit in a court of law has the tendency of causing obstruction in the due course of justice. It undermines and obstructs free flow of the unsoiled stream of justice and aims at striking a blow at the rule of law. The stream of justice has to be kept clear and pure, and no one can be permitted to take liberties with it by soiling its purity.

Bench found the petitioners in the present matter to be guilty of tampering with the evidence that was in custody of the Court. In case, the said tampering would not have been brought o Court’s notice, it would have interfered with the administration of justice.

“…suspending the sentence of the Petitioners would, therefore, amount to eroding the faith of the public in the judicial system as it would entail allowing convicts, whose finding of guilt has already been established, to take advantage of the passage of time as well as the judiciary as an institution.”

While dismissing the petition, High Court observed that the petitioners herein inhabit the stigma of desecrating the temple of justice and a quietus needs to be put to the same.

Bench requested Appellate Court to expedite and complete the hearings within a period of one month. [Sushil Ansal v. State of NCT of Delhi, 2022 SCC OnLine Del 482, decided on 16-2-2022]

Advocates before the Court:

For the Petitioner (Sushil Ansal) : Mr. Arvind Nigam, Senior Advocate with Mr. Tanveer Ahmed Mir, Mr. Dhruv Gupta, Mr. Vaibhav Suri, Mr. Shivaz Berry and Mr. Siddharth Kashyap, Advocates.

For the Respondent: Dayan Krishnan, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Amit Chadha, APP, Ms. Manvi Priya, SPP, Mr. A.T. Ansari, Mr. Sanjeevi Seshadri and Mr. Sukrit Seth, Advocates with IO/SI Nikhil Chaudhary, PS EOW.
Mr. Vikas Pahwa, Sr. Advocate with Ms. Raavi Sharma, Advocate for the Complainant.

For Gopal Ansal: Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Sr. Advocate with Mr. N. Hariharan, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Pramod K. Dubey, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Amit Bhandari, Mr. Vikas Aggarwal, Mr. Nishaank Mattoo, Mr. Avishkar Singhvi, Mr. Siddharth Singh Yadav, Mr. Vikalp Sharma, Advocates

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