Navjot Singh Sidhu Road Rage Case: Will the SC Give Him an Out?

On 20 March 2018, the Supreme Court finally began hearing the appeal filed by Navjot Singh Sidhu against his conviction by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a 1988 road rage case. Sidhu, a cricketer-turned-politician was acquitted of the killing of Gurnam Singh by the trial court in 1999, but the acquittal was overturned by the High Court in 2006, with him being convicted under section 304 of the IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder).

How then, was Sidhu allowed to be a Member of Parliament between 2006 and now? How is it possible that someone who committed a serious crime went on to become a TV personality who would join the BJP, then the Congress, and then be elevated to the post of Cabinet minister in the Punjab government? All this despite Sidhu being sentenced to three years imprisonment. What are the possible outcomes of the hearing in the Supreme Court case?

What are the details of the incident Sidhu was charged for?

According to the prosecution case, on the afternoon of 27 December 1988, 65 year-old Gurnam Singh and his relatives Jaswinder Singh and Avtar Singh were travelling in a Maruti car to Patiala to withdraw money from the Head Office of the State Bank of Patiala so that Gurnam could meet the wedding expenses of his son’s upcoming wedding. Around 12:30 pm, when they neared the bank, they found their way blocked by a Gypsy car bearing the licence number PAD-6030.

Gurnam’s relatives say that when they tried to get past the Gypsy, Sidhu got out of the car, abused them, then dragged Gurnam out of his vehicle and started beating him up. When Jaswinder tried to intervene, he was stopped and attacked by Rupinder Singh Sandhu, who was in the vehicle with Sidhu. Gurnam fell to the ground during the attack, at which point Sidhu and Sandhu then took away the keys to the Maruti and fled in their Gypsy.

Gurnam was taken to Rajindra Hospital by rickshaw, where the doctors declared him dead. An FIR was registered between 1:30-1:45 pm at a nearby police station, and an inquest into the death was conducted soon after. After completing their investigation, however, the police submitted a chargesheet only against Ravinder Sandhu. The Sessions Court eventually framed charges against Sidhu as well, and ordered him to stand trial.

Why did the trial court acquit Sidhu?

Sidhu and Sandhu were tried for murder under section 302 of the IPC. The prosecution argued that the injuries caused by Sidhu resulted in a subdural hemorrhage, leading to Gurnam’s death, and that Sandhu was guilty of the crime as it was committed as part of common intention. However, the trial court acquitted both.

A key reason behind the acquittals was that the medical evidence wasn’t conclusive, and the cause of death could actually have been a heart attack. The doctor who conducted the post-mortem was unable to provide a cause of death, and deferred his opinion till a Pathological Report was received. According to him, there was no bruising or fracture near the head injury, which could also have been caused by a fall to the ground.

Eventually the Pathological Report found that the deceased had a weak heart and that his main arteries were blocked. A board of seven doctors, that was later constituted to look into the case, couldn’t determine the exact cause of death, which they attributed to the “effects of head injury and cardiac condition.” While this left open the possibility that the head injury itself could have been sufficient to cause the death, Dr Vij, the doctor who headed the board, said during cross-examination that the external injury – an abrasion to Gurnam’s head (the only thing which could have tied Sidhu to the crime) – had nothing to with his death.

Other factors which went against the prosecution case included:

  1. The prosecution didn’t get the cardiology specialist, who was part of the board of doctors, to testify about the death – In fact, Dr Vij admitted during cross-examination that the cardiologist had been of the opinion that because of Gurnam’s abnormal heart conditions, he was susceptible to a heart attack if stressed;
  2. No evidence was provided about what happened to the Maruti car that Gurnam and the others had supposedly travelled in and it wasn’t present in the initial site plan prepared by the police – which raised doubts about how accurate Jaswinder’s story was;
  3. The jutti and turban worn by the deceased was lost – showing that evidence was not maintained carefully;
  4. The rickshaw puller who had taken Gurnam to the hospital wasn’t examined as a witness;
  5. Two eyewitnesses, Tejinder Singh and Gurvinder Singh, were not examined – which indicated that they didn’t support the prosecution theory;
  6. Jaswinder Singh, who filed the FIR for the whole incident, didn’t actually claim that Sidhu had landed any blow on Gurnam’s head in either the FIR or his initial statement to the judge, which was an important omission since this was crucial to the charge of murder.

Why did the High Court reverse the acquittal and convict Sidhu?

In any criminal trial, there is a high standard of proof that needs to be met – proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt. For the High Court to reverse the acquittal, an additional level of scrutiny was required, since, according to the Supreme Court: “an order of acquittal will not be interfered with, by an appellate court, where the judgment of the trial Court is based on evidence and the view taken is reasonable and plausible”.

The High Court can’t reverse a trial court decision just because a different story is possible, and the accused person has to get the benefit of the doubt. If the appellate court changes an acquittal to a conviction, it has to assign specific reasons for why it reached a different view from the trial court.

A tw-judge division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court held that the judgment of the trial court was unreasonable and not based on the evidence on record. They addressed each of the factual issues raised in the original judgment, but found that the evidence didn’t support the judge’s findings.

Instead, they held that the medical evidence was sufficient to say that Gurnam died because of a “fist blow” to the head, and that the eyewitness testimony of Jaswinder Singh and Avtar Singh was reliable. The issues relating to the absence of the Maruti, and the failure to examine certain witnesses were also dismissed as being irrelevant since the prosecution case was not reliant on any of these things.

However, even though the High Court found that Sidhu had caused the injury which led to Gurnam’s death, they noted that Sidhu and Sandhu had no intention (or motive) to kill him. As a result, they were convicted for the lesser charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (section 304, Part II of the IPC) and sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment.

If the High Court conviction was in 2006, how has Sidhu been allowed to be an MP/MLA after it?

The Representation of the People Act 1951 sets out the rules for appointment, disqualification, etc of legislators. Under section 8(3) of the Act, if any person is convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment of two or more years, they are disqualified from holding any position in Parliament or a State Legislature from the date of conviction. They are also disqualified from holding any future office for an additional six years from the date of their eventual release.

Section 8(4) also provides an additional benefit to sitting MPs or members of a State Legislature: the disqualification doesn’t take place immediately, but three months after the date of conviction. If they file an appeal against the conviction in those three months, then the disqualification doesn’t take effect till that appeal is decided. This additional protection was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, but still applied in 2006/2007 when Sidhu was convicted.

Sidhu resigned his position as an MP from Amritsar after the High Court judgment, even though he had filed an appeal against the decision. This gesture of good faith proved to be useful when he subsequently approached the Supreme Court to stay his conviction till it decided the appeal, so that he could stand for election as an MP again when the bypoll took place.

On 23 January 2007, the Supreme Court stayed Sidhu’s conviction and sentence, which effectively took away his disqualification to contest the bypoll. One does not often see a person’s conviction stayed during an appeal – normally only a sentence of imprisonment is stayed, allowing the convict to stay out of jail till the case is finally decided. However, this wouldn’t have been enough to remove Sidhu’s disqualification.

Fortunately for Sidhu, the law does allow an appellate court to suspend a conviction as well. Section 389(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 allows the court to order that the “execution of the sentence or order appealed against be suspended” (emphasis supplied). Case law of the Supreme Court shows that this power can only be exercised in exceptional cases, where the failure to stay the conviction will lead to injustice and irreversible consequences.

As mentioned earlier, the fact that Sidhu didn’t look to rely on the special rules for sitting MPs in section 8(4), worked in his favour, and the Court viewed this as giving him “greater moral authority”. Keeping in mind the inconclusive nature of the medical evidence and Jaswinder Singh’s failure to mention in the FIR or first judicial statement that Sidhu had caused the head injury to the deceased, the apex court felt that, on the face of it, the evidence was in Sidhu’s favour.

It also found it problematic that the High Court took such a diametrically opposite view on the very factual aspects of the case which had resulted in the acquittal; To be honest, the High Court judgment doesn’t really explain how it reached the conclusions it did.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s order, Sidhu was able to contest the bypoll, and subsequent elections both as an MP and, after his switch to the Congress, as an MLA in Punjab, without being disqualified.

What can we expect from the case in the Supreme Court now?

It’s been 11 years since his conviction, 19 years since the original trial and 30 years since the actual incident. It is only now, after whatever decision the Supreme Court reaches, that the case will finally be decided.

With the additional elements that this case has – (seemingly) favourable treatment for a celebrity and issues with evidence collection and presentation – the incredible delay in disposal is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with our criminal justice system.

Sidhu has provided a different version of the whole incident from the start. He claims that he was in his office at the State Bank of Patiala (Sidhu was an employee of the bank till 2004), not in a car on the road, and that he came out of the bank after there was an altercation between a scooterist (Gurnam) and a truck-driver. When he arrived on the scene, Gurnam had fallen to the ground, and he (Sidhu) was implicated only because he was a celebrity. Sandhu also supported this version, and claimed he had never been present at the scene.

Sidhu is obviously going to stick to this version, but he doesn’t have to prove it to secure an acquittal. His version does emphasise the various factual issues which had led the trial court to acquit him, but the focus of his case will still be on poking holes in the prosecution story, and showing that the High Court arrived at its conclusions without any sound basis. As mentioned earlier, the High Court judgment isn’t the most convincing, and the Supreme Court did, in 2007, find that the evidence was prima facie in Sidhu’s favour. The first day of arguments saw senior advocate RS Cheema, representing Sidhu, focus on how the medical evidence doesn’t stack up, and that the deceased instead died of cardiac arrest – an argument that seemed persuasive enough to the trial court and Supreme Court previously.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the current bench will come to the same conclusions. The judges hearing the appeal, Justices Chelameswar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul, are known for drilling into the issues before them in great detail, and both sets of lawyers will need to be at their best when making their arguments.

What are the possible consequences for Sidhu after the final judgment?

There are three possibilities for how the Court’s decision will turn out:

  1. If Sidhu is acquitted, he gets to keep his seat and finally be free of a blot on his character that he hasn’t been able to shake (not that this has prevented him from achieving success in cricket, politics or comedy).
  2. If the High Court decision is upheld, however, he will be disqualified immediately from his position in the Punjab government. Since he never spent any time in jail after his conviction, he will have to go to jail for three years, and will be unable to contest another election till 6 months after his eventual release, so we wouldn’t see him in an MP or MLA position for 9 years.
  3. The third possibility is that the Supreme Court finds him guilty of a lesser offence like causing hurt, and gives him a sentence of less than two years. If this happens, even though he will stand convicted of an offence, this won’t fall foul of the Representation of the People Act, and he will not be disqualified, allowing him to continue to function in the Punjab government or stand as an MP next year.

Whatever the result, Sidhu can at least be thankful that the courts have given him a pretty good deal on the whole, throughout this case. As pointed out earlier, it is rare to get a stay on conviction, at least for the average person. He also had no problems getting bail when awaiting trial, with little to none of the harassment most accused face. Yes, it is within the framework of the law, but that will be of little comfort to the thousands of undertrials who languish in jails in India, or the vast majority of people waiting for their appeal to be heard, no matter how justified.

Allegations have also been raised that Sidhu had attempted to influence the investigation and prosecution, which is used to explain why Sidhu wasn’t originally chargesheeted, why the other witnesses were not called to the stand, and so on. However, none of this was conclusively proven, even before the High Court. At the end of the day, that is how this case will end – without us knowing exactly what happened, left with two versions of events, neither of which we can ever be entirely sure of.

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