Supreme Court awards one year rigorous imprisonment to Navjot Singh Sidhu in 1988 road rage case

Just because a long period of 26 years had lapsed by the time the appeal was decided cannot be a ground to award the punishment which was disproportionate and inadequate, the court noted in its judgment.

IN a big setback to Indian National Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Supreme Court today sentenced him to one year of rigorous imprisonment in a road rage case from 1988 in which one person was killed. In 2018, the court had let him off with a fine of Rs. 1,000. The judgment was passed on a review petition filed by the kin of the victim, Gurnam Singh, and heard in open court.

A division bench comprising Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul observed that some material aspects which were required to be taken note of were somehow missed out at the stage of sentencing, such as the physical fitness of Sidhu, as he was an international cricketer, who was tall and well-built, and aware of the force of a blow that even his hand would carry.

“The blow was not inflicted on a person identically physically placed but a 65-year old person, more than double his age. Respondent No.1 cannot say that he did not know the effect of the blow or plead ignorance on this aspect. It is not as if someone has to remind him of the extent of the injury which could be caused by a blow inflicted by him. In the given circumstances, tempers may have been lost but then the consequences of the loss of temper must be borne”, the bench said.

The bench further noted that it had in 2018 accepted the plea of a single blow by hand being given on the head of the deceased. Thus, it is this significance which is an error apparent on the face of the record that needed some remedial action in the review petition.

Justice Kaul, who has authored the review judgment, was part of the 2018 bench comprising Justice J. Chelameswar and him that had let off Sidhu with a fine. Sidhu was found guilty of the offense under Section 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt) of the Indian Penal Code [IPC], which provides for punishment for voluntarily causing hurt. The punishment under section 323 has been prescribed as a sentence of a term which may extend to one year or a fine which may extend to Rs. 1,000, or both.

Explaining the law on sentencing, the bench observed that an important aspect to be kept in mind is that any undue sympathy to impose an inadequate sentence would do more harm to the justice system and undermine the public confidence in the efficacy of law.

“The society can not long endure under serious threats and if the courts do not protect the injured, the injured would then resort to private vengeance and, therefore, it is the duty of every court to award proper sentence having regard to the nature of the offence and the manner in which it was executed or committed. It has, thus, been observed that the punishment to be awarded for a crime must not be irrelevant but it should conform to and be consistent with the atrocity and brutality with which the crime has been perpetrated”, the court said.

It thus observed that when a 25-year-old man, who was an international cricketer, assaults a man more than twice his age and inflicts, even with his bare hands, a severe blow on his (victim’s) head, the unintended consequence of harm would still be properly attributable to him as it was reasonably foreseeable. That it would cause the death of a person is another matter since the conviction is only under section 323 of the IPC.

“Even though any harm might not be directly intended, some aggravated culpability must be attached if the person suffers a grievous hurt or dies as a result thereof”, the bench held.

It observed that a disproportionately light punishment humiliates and frustrates a victim of crime when the offender goes unpunished or is let off with a relatively minor punishment as the system pays no attention to the victim’s feelings. Indifference to the rights of the victim of crime is fast eroding the faith of the society in general and of the victim of crime in particular in the criminal justice system, the bench added.

The bench, however, rejected the plea of the review petitioners to enlarge the scope of review more than the aspect of sentencing.

“The evidence has been analysed in detail to come to a conclusion as to what is the nature of injury. It has been taken into account that only one blow with bare hands as inflicted by respondent No.1 had landed on the head of the deceased. The finding is that apparently in the fist fight, other blows may have been attempted but did not fall on the material part of the body. Aspects such as lack of post enmity, lack of any weapon used except bare hands and the result of a spontaneous fight over a right of way were also taken into account”, the court said.

Sidhu was acquitted by the trial court in 1999 after observing that the death was not caused by a subdural haemorrhage, and the deceased suffered sudden cardiac arrest under stress because of which he fell and received two abrasions, leading to subdural haemorrhage. The death was caused due to violence but it was not certain as to precisely when Singh had died, the trial court had said.

On an appeal filed by the state government and the complainant, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2006 convicted Sidhu of the offence under Section 304 Part II (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC, based on the testimony of the doctors. As per their testimony, the cause of death was cardiac failure and all that they had stated was that the cardiac condition of the deceased was very weak.

In 2018, the Supreme Court, on an appeal by Sidhu, set aside the high court decision to hold that he could not be held to be responsible for causing the death of Singh, but he was found guilty of causing hurt to him, which is punishable under section 323 of the IPC.

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