The Supreme Court on Thursday, 19 May, enhanced the sentence of Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu to one year's rigorous imprisonment in a 1988 road rage case.
In 2018, the Supreme Court had acquitted Sidhu of the charge of the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, but upheld his conviction under the charge of voluntarily causing hurt. He was sentenced to pay a fine of Rs 1,000 at the time, but this has now been enhanced to include jail time.
"Will submit to the majesty of law…," Sidhu tweeted soon after the court's pronouncement.
The family of Gurnam Singh, the victim in the case, had moved a review plea against the apex court's 2018 order, which had overturned a decision of the Punjab & Haryana High Court to convict Sidhu under Section 304(II) of the IPC, and sentenced him to three years' imprisonment.
In addition to enhancement of sentence, the review plea had also sought an expansion of the review to reconsider the acquittal, but this was rejected by the apex court.
In their judgment pronounced on Thursday, the bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Sanjay Kishan Kaul stated that they were allowing the review with regard to the sentence, and that
"in addition to the fine imposed we consider it appropriate to impose a sentence of imprisonment for a period of one year rigorous imprisonment to be undergone by respondent No.1 [Sidhu]."Supreme Court
Justice Kaul had been part of the bench which passed the 2018 order along with Justice Jasti Chelameswar, who retired that year.
Why Did the Supreme Court Enhance Sidhu's Sentence?
"We do believe that the indulgence was not required to be shown at the stage of sentence by only imposing a sentence of fine and letting the respondent go without any imposition of sentence," says the judgment authored by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul.
The judges arrived at this conclusion because of two major reasons: (a) there were factors relevant to sentencing that had not been taken into account in 2018; (b) adequate consideration was not given to the victims (ie the family of the deceased).
The aspects that were not taken into account included the physical fitness of Sidhu, as a 25-year-old cricketer at the time, which he was aware of, and the age and condition of the deceased. At paragraph 24, the judgment says:
"In our view, some material aspects which were required to be taken note of appear to have been somehow missed out at the stage of sentencing, such as the physical fitness of respondent No.1 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."
The court observed that there needs to be a "reasonable proportion between the seriousness of the crime and the punishment." While it cautioned against disproportionately severe sentences, it also warned against punishment which would be "manifestly inadequate", as this would fail to produce a deterrent effect. In paragraph 26, the court observes:
"An important aspect to be kept in mind is that any undue sympathy to impose inadequate sentence would do more harm to 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."
The bench also acknowledged the importance of the victim's right to be heard, that was emphasised by the apex court recently when cancelling the bail of Lakhimpur Kheri accused Ashish Mishra.
After examining Indian and US case law on the weight that is to be attached to the rights of victims when considering sentencing, the court found that it needed to consider the deceased's family's view on enhancement of sentence:
"Thus, 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 injured’s feelings. Indifference to the rights of the victim of crime is fast eroding the faith of the society in general and the victim of crime in particular in the criminal justice system."
Given there was no longer a case where two views of the incident itself were possible, the court said there was a need to enhance the sentence imposed on Sidhu as "some germane facts for sentencing appear to have been lost sight of while imposing only a fine".
'SC Delivered Justice Today': Sukhbir Singh Badal
Reacting to the news of Sidhu's imprisonment, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), said on Thursday that the Supreme Court had delivered justice with the verdict, reported ANI.
He said, "Supreme Court has delivered justice today. The victim family had been demanding justice for many years."
Former Union Minister Dr Ashwani Kumar, who quit the Congress in February this year, said that the party now has a lot to ponder over.
"Seems like Bikram Majithia and Sidhu who contested against each other in recent elections, will now stay in same jail as well. #PatialaJail," tweeted a youth leader of the BJP.
What Is the Case?
According to the prosecution, Sidhu and Rupinder Sandhu were allegedly in a Gypsy parked on the middle of a road near the Sheranwala Gate Crossing in Patiala on 27 December 1988 when the victim and two others were on their way to the bank to withdraw money.
It was alleged that when they reached the crossing, Gurnam Singh, driving a Maruti car, found the Gypsy in the middle of the road and asked the occupants – Sidhu and Rupinder Singh Sandhu – to remove it. This led to heated exchanges.
The police, and victim's relatives had claimed that Gurnam Singh was beaten up by Sidhu who later fled the crime scene. The victim was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead.
Sidhu was earlier acquitted of killing Singh by the trial court in 1999, but the acquittal was overturned by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2006, with Section 304 (culpable homicide) being added to his conviction.
While the high court had found that Sidhu caused the injury which led to Gurnam’s death, they noted that he had no intention (or motive) to kill him.
Consequently, on 15 May 2018, the apex court acquitted him of culpable homicide charges but convicted him under Section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) of the IPC, and only imposed a fine of Rs 1,000 with no imprisonment.
The family of the victim filed a review plea in the apex court against its order. During the hearing, Sidhu told the Supreme Court that the evidence about the cause of death of the victim was "contradictory" and the medical opinion "vague.”