Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
As controversy rages over the arrest of Arnab Goswami by the Maharashtra Police in an abetment of suicide case, the elephant in the room is that the Republic founder and editor-in-chief was actually named in the suicide note of Anvay Naik in May 2018.
This potentially scuppers the claim by Arnab’s supporters that the case is a political witch-hunt because it does mean there is a valid basis to investigate his role, especially since the note was found by local police at the time, during the previous political administration.
But does this really justify him being accused of abetment of Naik’s suicide? Would this suicide note be enough to build a case against Arnab and convict him?
Here’s what the courts have previously held.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE PROVED IN AN ABETMENT OF SUICIDE CASE?
Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is the provision which deals with ‘abetment of suicide’. It carries a maximum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment plus fine.
The term ‘abetment’ covers instigation, conspiracy or aiding in some crime – in the context of suicide, it normally refers to instigation of the person who has committed suicide.
The standard that has to be followed in these cases was summarised by the Supreme Court in its M Mohan vs State judgment of 2011, as follows:
“The intention of the legislature and the ratio of the cases decided by this court are clear that in order to convict a person under Section 306 IPC, there has to be a clear mens rea to commit the offence. It also requires an active act or direct act which led the deceased to commit suicide seeing no option and this act must have been intended to push the deceased into such a position that he/she committed suicide.”
IS A SUICIDE NOTE SUFFICIENT TO PROVE THIS?
The standard which has to be proved by the police and the prosecution to successfully convict a person for abetment of suicide is quite strict, as can be observed above.
The courts have repeatedly held that for a successful prosecution, there needs to be "intention and involvement of the accused to aid or instigate the commission of suicide.”
As a result, a suicide note in itself cannot possibly be sufficient to prove a person’s guilt.
This was affirmed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a 2018 decision in AR Madhav Rao vs State of Haryana , where it said that “Merely because a person has been so named in the suicide note one cannot immediately jump to the conclusion that he is an offender under Section 306 IPC.”
The court explains that the contents of the suicide note and “other attending circumstances” have to be examined to find out whether a case of abetment is made out or not.
“One has to analyse and examine the contents of the suicide note to find out whether it contains any incriminating information in the nature of instigation, provocation, forcing the victim to commit suicide,” the judgment reads.
So, what does the suicide note in this case say?
The alleged suicide note by Naik (on behalf of himself and his mother Kumud, who was also a director of the design company), which names Goswami and two others who owed them money, states as follows:
“We are committing suicide due to following ... our (concorde designs pvt ltd) ... money is stuck and following owners of respected companies are not paying our legitimate dues ... 1. Mr Arnab goswami - ARG Outlier of Republic TV not paid 83 Lacs for Bombay dyeing studio project... Kindly collect money from them & hold them responsible for our death & pay to creditors.”
Does this contain sufficient incriminating information?
While this clearly sets out the alleged role that Goswami played, ie, not paying dues of Rs 83 lakh to the deceased, this is still unlikely to be sufficient to prove the case against him in itself.
A trial court will have to see what evidence is brought on record to show that ARG Outlier had not paid their dues to the Naiks’ design company, whether they had deliberately withheld payment, whether they knew about the Naiks’ financial difficulties, and then within all this examine Goswami’s personal knowledge and responsibility.
Even after all that, proving an intention to instigate suicide will not be easy.
In the AR Madhav Rao case, the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed the FIR against the accused advocates and tax managers who had been named by the deceased (a colleague of the tax managers) in his suicide note.
The deceased had claimed that he had prepared a petition on behalf of his employers after taking their advice, which was going to cause his employers a major financial loss, and therefore blamed them for his death.
The high court held that this was not enough to show any intention or willful conduct on the part of the accused to instigate the deceased to take his own life, for instance compelling him to file the case under duress.
In Gurcharan Singh vs State of Punjab, the Supreme Court in 2016 acquitted the accused, who were family members of a man who had abandoned his wife and children after suffering major business losses, of abetting the suicide of the wife and children some time after.
Although the deceased had named the accused in their suicide note, the court found that there was no evidence in the materials on record, including of financial and property details, to show that the accused had performed
“any act of cruelty, oppression, harassment or inducement so as to persistently provoke or compel the deceased to resort to self-extinction being left with no other alternative.”
The exercise of examining the contents of a suicide note and seeing if the facts really bear out its claims was also conducted by the Delhi High Court in June 2020 in the case of Reena vs State of NCT Delhi. A man took his life and in his suicide note claimed this was because of the harassment of his wife.
However, the high court found that there had been no instigation, goading, incitement or encouragement of the deceased to take his life, and so ordered the dropping of charges against the accused.
Does the mental state of the deceased come into play as well?
The Supreme Court has also cautioned that there needs to be an analysis of whether the person who died by suicide was ‘hypersensitive’ and whether another person in similar circumstances would have taken the same kind of action – though admittedly this specific term is normally used in connection with marital cases.
In the AR Madhav Rao case, the Punjab and Haryana High Court said such an exercise has to apply in other circumstances as well, though it used rather uncharitable and insensitive language when doing so.
In essence, it said it needs to be seen if a person takes their life because of a problem with their mental state, you cannot blame others for their actions, which opens up the possibility that an examination of Avnay and Kumud Naik’s state prior to their deaths will also need to be conducted in Goswami’s case.
CAN ARNAB GET THE CASE THROWN OUT BEFORE TRIAL?
What is interesting from the two high court decisions cited above is that there isn’t necessarily a need to even go to trial – the FIR can be quashed, or the charges framed (if the prosecution has framed a chargesheet) can be quashed by a high court, if there is insufficient material on record to justify the case.
If the Maharashtra Police were to proceed with this case purely on the basis of the suicide note, it could well be that he can therefore get the case against him for abetment of suicide thrown out before a trial even begins.
However, the Raigad police have claimed in their remand application to the court that they do have further evidence against Goswami and the other accused, including details of the transactions, communications from the Naiks to them, and even some witnesses.
As a result, it may not be so easy for Goswami to get the case quashed at an early stage, unless he can show some “gaping holes apparent on the face of the record”, as the Delhi High Court put it in the Reena case.
Nonetheless, the onus is on the police to obtain some strong evidence here which corroborates the claims in the suicide note and show some intent and action by Goswami and the other accused, or else the prosecution is unlikely to succeed.
(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)