1 Year Jail After a Case That Lasted 34 Years: The Navjot Sidhu Road Rage Saga
The earlier SC order had slashed Sidhu's sentence from three years of imprisonment to a meagre fine of Rs 1,000.
The Quint DAILY
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On 27 December 1988, when he was playing international cricket, Navjot Singh Sidhu was embroiled in an altercation on the road, which led to the demise of a man named Gurnam Singh.
Thirty-four years later, the Supreme Court on Thursday, 19 May, enhanced the erstwhile Punjab Congress chief's sentence to one-year imprisonment in the case. Taking to Twitter soon after the apex court's order, the politician tweeted, "Will submit to the majesty of law."
The pronouncement came while hearing a review petition, filed by the kin of the deceased, against the apex court's 2018 order. The earlier SC order had slashed Sidhu's sentence from three years of imprisonment to a meagre fine of Rs 1,000.
What Was the Road Rage Incident?
According to the prosecution, Sidhu and Rupinder Singh Sandhu were allegedly in a Gypsy parked on the middle of a road near the Sheranwala Gate Crossing in Patiala, when the victim and two others were on their way to the to State Bank of Patiala to withdraw money.
Around 12:30 pm, when they neared the bank, they found their way blocked by Sidhu's car with the licence number PAD-6030. Consequently, they asked Sidhu and Sandhu to move.
Gurnam Singh's relatives claim that the request soon led to a fight, with Sidhu ultimately getting out of the car and physically assaulting Gurnam Singh. Singh fell to the ground during the attack, at which point Sidhu and Sandhu took the victim's car keys and fled in their Gypsy.
Gurnam was taken to Rajindra Hospital by rickshaw, where the doctors declared him dead. An FIR was registered and an inquest into the death was conducted soon after. After completing their investigation, however, the police submitted a charge sheet against only Ravinder Sandhu. The sessions court eventually framed charges against Sidhu as well, and ordered him to stand trial for murder.
What the Trial Court Said
Sidhu and Sandhu were both tried for murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and acquitted of the charges by the sessions court judge in September 1999.
While the prosecution argued that the injuries Sidhu caused to Gurnam resulted in a subdural haemorrhage, and eventual death, the trial court noted that the medical evidence wasn’t conclusive, and the cause of death could actually have been a heart attack.
A board of seven doctors was constituted after the doctor who conducted a post-mortem, was unable to provide the cause of death. Meanwhile, a pathological report found that the deceased had a weak heart and that his main arteries were blocked.
The constituted panel authored a report, attributing the death to “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 do with his death.
Sandhu was also acquitted for the crime committed as part of common intention.
What the High Court Said
In 2006, a two-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.
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.
Following the HC order, Sidhu resigned from his position as an MP from Amritsar and filed an appeal against the decision. He also approached the Supreme Court to stay his conviction till it decided the appeal.
In 2007, in an unusual legal development, the Supreme Court stayed Sidhu’s conviction and sentence, paving the way for him to contest the bypolls for the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat.
Supreme Court's 2018 Order
On 15 May 2018, the apex court convicted Sidhu under Section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) but acquitted him under Section 304(II) (culpable homicide).
Sidhu's version of the incident was markedly different. He claimed that he was in his office at the State Bank of Patiala (Sidhu was an employee till 2004), and that he came out after there was a fight 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.
During the arguments, senior advocate RS Cheema, representing Sidhu, questioned the evidence brought on record regarding cause of death of the victim saying that the record was "obscure, indefinite and also contradictory."
Finally, the court held that Sidhu will not face any jail term but will be fined Rs 1,000.
Gurnam Singh's Kin Move Review Petition, Seek To Enlarge Scope of Notice
In November 2018, representing Gurnam Singh's family, senior advocate Siddharth Luthra moved a review application in Supreme Court, on which a notice was issued later the same month.
The family also looked to enlarge the scope of notice.
The petitioner submitted that the victim had received a blow, and verdict on death due to heart problems was incorrect.
In response, the bench asked, "You are asking for a review, then you are also asking for a whole review of the judgment...you want us to re-appreciate the evidence?" IANS reported.
On 25 February, the SC sought a response from Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu on the plea.
The Congress leader opposed the application pertaining to the scope of the notice, reiterating the apex court's order, which noted that the demise was not a result of a blow to the victim's head.
What Has the Supreme Court Said Now?
In an order pronounced over three decades after the incident, a bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul unequivocally rejected the argument for expanding the scope of the review application.
However, on enhancement of the sentence, the apex court noted,
"There cannot be leniency in sentencing when the hurt/injury has resulted in death, nor can the delay in trial be taken into account which was not attributable to the complainants."
The court also noted that Sidhu, who was a physically healthy sportsperson at the time of the incident, caused an abrasion to a person more than double his age, and therefore, "cannot say that he did not know the effect of the blow or plead ignorance on this aspect."
"In addition to fine imposed, we impose a sentence of imprisonment of one year to be undergone by respondent 1 (Sidhu)," the court finally said.
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