People gathering at the scene of an offence out of curiosity does not make them share the common intention of that unlawful assembly, ruled the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
A two judge bench of Justices S.K. Kaul and M.M. Sundresh held:
“The Court must guard against the possibility of convicting mere passive onlookers who did not share the common object of the unlawful assembly. There must be reasonable direct or indirect circumstances which lend assurance to the prosecution case that they shared common object of the unlawful assembly. Not only should the members be part of the unlawful assembly but should share the common object at all stages. This has to be based on the conduct of the members and the behaviour at or near the scene of the offence, the motive for the crime, the arms carried by them and such other relevant considerations.”
The decision came in response to a criminal appeal filed by one Taijuddin, who had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment under Sections 147 (Punishment for rioting), 148 (Rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 302 (Punishment for murder), and 201 (Causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender), read with Section 149 (Every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
He had allegedly been part of a mob that killed a person due to a land dispute. The trial court had found that Taijuddin had accompanied the other accused persons in chasing the victim, and assisted the other members of unlawful assembly to locate the victim. On this basis, it was decided by the court that a common intention was found to seek to kill the victim. This was confirmed by the Gauhati high court.
However, the Supreme Court noted that the mere fact that the appellant was not brave enough to conceal where the victim was hiding did not make him a part of the unlawful assembly. It relied on its previous judgment in Subal Ghorai vs. State of West Bengal (2013), in which it held that constructive liability cannot be stretched to lead to the false implication of innocent bystanders.
Considering the fact that the appellant was not carrying any weapon, did not assault anyone, and that only evidence of his involvement was that he pointed to the house where the victim was hiding, the Supreme Court exonerated him of being covered by section 149 of IPC
Also noting the importance of evidence being evaluated on the touchstone of consistency, in light of the inconsistencies among the witnesses’ testimonies about the role of the appellant, the Supreme Court acquitted the appellant on the ground that the case against him could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.