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SC Protects Right to Privacy and Sets 12 Principles for S. 313 CrPC

Introduction

In this landmark decision, Indrakunwar v. State of Chhattisgarh[i], the Supreme Court (‘SC’) allowed a criminal appeal filed by a woman convicted under s. 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) for killing her newborn child and disposing of the body in a pond. The SC in rendering its decision, overturned the conviction and life imprisonment sentence of the convict-appellant. This decision underscored the paramount importance of upholding fundamental rights and ensuring a comprehensive and just examination of evidence in cases of serious offences.


Facts of the Case

  • In this case, the appellant was convicted by the trial court under s. 302 of IPC based on circumstantial evidence, including witness testimonies and the accused’s statement under s. 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (‘CrPC’).

  • The accused was living alone in the village as her husband had deserted her and the case of the prosecution was that she had relations with a co-villager, namely, Baiga Gond, as a result of which she conceived. Upon giving birth, it was alleged that she killed her newborn and threw the corpse into a dabri. She was charged with murder based on the discovery of a dead newborn in a pond and her recent pregnancy. However, the accused denied the accusations, claiming a miscarriage due to forceful actions by the alleged father.

  • The High Court (‘HC’), considering the testimony of a medical practitioner (PW11) who confirmed that the appellant had delivered a child and that the deceased child had suffered injuries, upheld the appellant’s conviction. The HC concluded that the statement of the accused under s. 313 CrPC confirming her pregnancy and the injuries on the deceased child indicated a homicidal death.

  • Both the trial court and the HC relied on the statements of 8 independent witnesses, including the medical practitioner’s testimony, and the appellant’s statement under s. 313 of CrPC to convict the appellant.

  • The impugned judgement of the HC was challenged before the SC, where the SC deliberated upon the following issues in the appeal:

1) To what extent does the right to privacy shield the matters concerning the personal life of a woman accused of committing a crime, particularly when the prosecution has failed to discharge its duty?

2) To what extent are the rights or duties of the accused to explain the incriminating circumstances appearing against them in a statement under s. 313 of CrPC?


Held

  • The SC held that said conviction under s. 302 IPC was based on presumption rather than solid evidence and accordingly, acquitted the appellant of all charges. The SC criticized both the lower courts for not respecting the inherent right to privacy of the convict-appellant and making general and sketchy observations in the matter. It was evident that the conviction lacked a solid foundation, as the prosecution failed to establish a conclusive link between the appellant and the deceased child.

  • In addressing the findings of both the lower courts, the SC opined that the courts fell short of thoroughly examining and re-appreciating the evidence before awarding life imprisonment, as mandated by the law.

  • The SC emphasized that negative inferences cannot be drawn regarding questions or incriminating circumstances not presented to the accused during their statement under s. 313 of CrPC. The Court laid down 12 principles for s. 313 CrPC, stating that the purpose of such statements is to allow the accused to explain the circumstances in the evidence against them and to start a dialogue between the Court and the accused, based on the principles of natural justice. The Court observed that this is not a mere formality but a crucial step for fairness in the judicial process and that the accused’s opportunity to speak is a fundamental right whereby non-compliance may cause prejudice and impede a fair decision. The SC also laid down that the accused’s statement under s. 313 CrPC cannot be the sole basis for conviction and has to be read as a whole and further, the accused’s right to remain silent should also be respected.

  • Discussing the law on privacy, the SC highlighted that the right to privacy is intrinsic to human dignity and the realization of human rights, referencing the case of K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India[ii]. The SC, while relying on various decisions related to pregnancy termination and a woman’s right to make reproductive choices, emphasized the woman’s fundamental right to equality and privacy, especially concerning private matters related to her bodily and psychological integrity. It affirmed that the autonomy to make decisions about her body and reproductive choices falls entirely within a woman’s sphere of privacy. She has the right to decide whether to bear a child or undergo an abortion.

  • The SC concluded that awarding the punishment of life imprisonment requires a careful and thorough appreciation of the evidence and should not be done mechanically or perfunctorily. The law mandates that the HC must, after re-evaluating the evidence, either confirm or overturn the factual findings made by the trial court.

  • After examining the testimonies of several prosecution witnesses, the SC determined that none of these witnesses could establish, let alone prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution’s case, whether it concerned the accused discarding the deceased child in the dabri after delivery or causing the child’s death. Moreover, the prosecution had failed to provide any conclusive link between the accused and the deceased child discovered in the dabri, and no evidence had been introduced to undermine the appellant’s version.

Analysis

The SC strongly criticized the decisions of both the courts below, pointing out that these decisions infringed upon the fundamental rights of the appellant and were devoid of sound evidentiary basis. It highlighted the inadequate assessment of evidence and stressed the necessity of a rigorous evaluation of evidence and scrutiny of the accused’s statement under s. 313 CrPC in cases involving life imprisonment.


By emphasizing the fundamental right to privacy, the SC highlighted a woman’s autonomy in making decisions concerning her bodily autonomy and reproductive choices. In the words of Justice Krishna Iyer, “The fight is not for woman’s status but for human worth. The claim is not to end the inequality of women but to restore universal justice. The bid is not for loaves and fishes for the forsaken gender but for cosmic harmony which never comes till woman comes.” This profound statement encapsulates the essence of the SC’s decision.

Lastly, the SC’s decision is driven by the lack of sufficient evidence to substantiate the prosecution’s case. This judgment also reiterates the principles of circumstantial evidence and the heavy burden on the prosecution in such cases to establish all links in the chain of circumstances beyond any reasonable doubt. Thus, this ruling reinforces the imperative for a more robust and equitable legal process in cases of such significance.


End Notes

[i] 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1364

[ii] (2017) 10 SCC 1


Authored by Prashant Singh, Advocate at Metalegal Advocates. The views expressed are personal and do not constitute legal opinion.

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