Grave and sudden provocation or a sudden fight: Supreme Court relies on landmark Nanavati case to give relief to a murder-accused

ON August 2, a Supreme Court division bench comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Bela M. Trivedi modified the sentence of a murder convict, and changed his conviction from under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’), dealing with the punishment for murder, to the first part of Section 304 of the IPC, dealing with the punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

This, the bench did, by relying on the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in K.M. Nanavati versus State of Maharashtra (1961), wherein the court laid down certain conditions for the applicability of Exception 1 of Section 300 of IPC. Section 300 defines the offence of murder, and the five exceptions in the section delineate circumstances in which the less grievous offence of culpable homicide is committed. In K.M. Nanavati, the Supreme Court had held that Exception 1 to section 300 would not apply to the case because it did not satisfy the requirements for the defence of grave and sudden provocation.

In the instant case, the bench held that the case of the appellant, who had been convicted under section 302 of IPC for the murder of his brother and had already served ten years’ imprisonment, fell under the exception of grave and sudden provocation, that is, Exception 1 of section 300.

On the night of the occurrence of the offence, the deceased had consumed alcohol and had threatened to kill the appellant, which led to a sudden loss of self-control “on account of a ‘slow burn’ reaction”, followed by the final and immediate provocation from the deceased. The former had a history of alcoholism, abuse and a bad temper, and would frequently torment and threaten the appellant.

The bench found that although the facts were a little unclear, it was established that the appellant, due to a temporary loss of self-control, had then killed his brother with a pick-axe. He had also tried to kill himself by holding live electrical wires. All of these facts were disclosed by the appellant himself, who had voluntarily gone to a police station and confessed the crime. (The confession was held inadmissible, as proof of confession is prohibited under Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act.)

Supreme Court modifies the sentence

The Supreme Court held that the case would fall under Exception 1 to section 300 of the IPC, that is, grave and sudden provocation leading to a loss of self-control, and went on to elaborate upon the ambit of Exception 1 of section 300.

It placed reliance on K.M. Nanavati, wherein a three-judge bench of the court had laid down the following conditions which have to be fulfilled for the exception to be invoked:

“(a) the deceased must have given provocation to the accused; 

(b) the provocation must be grave; 

(c) the provocation must be sudden; 

(d) the offender, by the reason of the said provocation, should have been deprived of his power of self-control; 

(e) the offender should have killed the deceased during the continuance of the deprivation of power of self-control; and 

(f) the offender must have caused the death of the person who gave the provocation or the death of any other person by mistake or accident.”

Furthermore, the court had held that the mental background created by the previous act(s) of the deceased may be taken into consideration in ascertaining whether the subsequent act caused sudden and grave provocation for committing the offence. Holding that sustained and continuous provocations over a period of time are covered within Exception 1, the court had clarified that in such cases, preceding the offence, there must have been a last act, word or gesture in the series of incidents comprising of that conduct, which amounted to sudden provocation sufficient for reactive loss of self-control.

Based on this, the bench in the instant case noted that the question of loss of self-control by grave and sudden provocation is a question of fact. It observed that the act of provocation and loss of self-control, must be actual and reasonable. It explained:

“The law attaches great importance to two things when defence of provocation is taken under Exception 1 to Section 300 of the IPC. First, whether there was an intervening period for the passion to cool and for the accused to regain dominance and control over his mind. Secondly, the mode of resentment should bear some relationship to the sort of provocation that has been given. The retaliation should be proportionate to the provocation. … Here again, the court would have to apply the test of a reasonable person in the circumstances.”

The court further observed that while examining these questions, it “should not be short-sighted, and must take into account the whole of the events, including the events on the day of the fatality, as these are relevant for deciding whether the accused was acting under the cumulative and continuing stress of provocation. Gravity of provocation turns upon the whole of the victim’s abusive behaviour towards the accused and it does not hinge upon a single or last act of provocation deemed sufficient by itself to trigger the punitive action. Last provocation has to be considered in light of the previous provocative acts or words, serious enough to cause the accused to lose his self-control. The cumulative or sustained provocation test would be satisfied when the accused’s retaliation was immediately preceded and precipitated by some sort of provocative conduct, which would satisfy the requirement of sudden or immediate provocation.”

The bench also relied on the test for application of Exception 1 to section 300 given by the court in Budhi Singh versus State of Himachal Pradesh (2012), as per which the court must examine, from the point of view of a reasonable person, if there was such grave and sudden provocation as to reasonably conclude that a person placed in such circumstances could temporarily lose self-control and commit the offence in the proximity to the time of provocation.

In the instant case, based on the history of the abuse by the deceased towards the appellant, the Supreme Court held that there was cumulative and sustained provocation from the former that led to the offence, providing it the protection of Exception 1.

Hence, the court modified the sentence of imprisonment to the period already undergone, and imposed a fine of Rs. 1,000 on the appellant, in default of which, he would undergo simple imprisonment for six months.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s full judgment.

(With editorial inputs)