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This article has been written by Aridaman Raghivanshi, from Chanakya National Law University.

Introduction

The crime of rape is specified in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. Rape is described as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman without her consent, whether by coercion, fear, or fraud. Following a 2013 amendment to Section 375, the definition of rape has been broadened. The new definition now incorporates a broader spectrum of subjects and offers a better understanding. This establishes a variety of circumstances in which rape is considered sexual intercourse. Nonetheless, the judiciary is faced with new problems on a regular basis as the world progresses. There are also cases where the facts do not align with the lines of facts set out in the code. The court must treat each new case with great caution and provide justice in the most effective manner possible. 

The case of Chaman Lal vs. State of Himachal Pradesh was heard in the Supreme Court by a three-judge bench consisting of Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice R. Subhash Reddy, and Justice M.J. Shah. 

In this case, the perpetrator took advantage of the prosecutrix’s mental condition to have sexual relations with her. Since the prosecutrix is a mentally challenged person, she couldn’t say if the case was good or bad, which caused a delay in filing the FIR because her family members heard about it after the prosecutrix’s medical examination.

The case was brought before the Supreme Court in response to a judgment of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh, which overturned the trial court’s acquittal order and found the accused guilty of violating Sections 376 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced him to seven years in jail. Though considering the law on appeals against acquittal and the scope of Section 378 Cr.P.C., the Supreme Court upheld the High Court of Himachal Pradesh’s decision.

The High Court correctly observed that the case would come under Section 375 IPC’s fifth clause, which states that “a man is said to commit rape” if he does so with her consent and she is unable to grasp the essence and implications of what she consents to because of her insanity.

Every day, we hear a new story of a woman being raped, molested, assaulted, and so on, but it soon fades away with the passing of time. Each story features a different scenario and a different face of inhuman conduct. We may not be able to discourage crimes from happening, but we may prosecute those who commit them. As a result, the role of the judiciary is crucial in this regard. When dealing with a rape case, the court must take into account the sensitivity of the situation and follow proper procedure and instructions to ensure that the innocent victim is not denied justice.

Facts of the case

According to the prosecutor’s story, the prosecutrix told her mother that when she used to go to the jungle to graze goats and cows, accused also used to come for the same. But three-four months ago, the accused forcibly had sexual intercourse with the prosecutrix and threatened her not to tell anyone about the same. The prosecutrix being a mentally retarded girl couldn’t figure out bad of the situation. She didn’t tell anyone due to fear and also due to forgetting the same. The prosecutrix was then medically examined and the medical officer told that she was carrying pregnancy of 31weeks. The father of the prosecutrix then filed an FIR against the accused alleging that he forcibly had sexual intercourse with the prosecutrix. Thereafter she delivered a female child whose biological father, as per the DNA test report, was found to be the accused. The accused was then arrested and the Investigating officer after investigating the matter filed a charge sheet against the accused for the offence under section 376 and 506 IPC. 

The matter came before the trial court, where the learned session judge after appreciating all the evidence on record and testifying the witnesses, the learned judge acquitted the accused on the ground of delay in filing the FIR. The learned judge also observed that the prosecutrix was not of unsound mind and had complete understanding of what was happening.

The aggrieved prosecution then approached the High Court of Himachal Pradesh against the order of the learned session judge. The High Court after re-appreciating all the evidences on record reversed the trial court order of acquittal and convicted the accused for the offence under section 376 and 506 IPC and imposed seven year of imprisonment.

Aggrieved by the judgment of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh, the accused then appealed before the Supreme Court against his conviction under section 376 IPC and claimed that the High Court has materially erred in convicting the accused.

Appellant’s arguments

The appellant, before the Supreme Court, argued that the High court has materially erred in reversing the order of the acquittal and convicting the accused in an appeal against acquittal. The appellant relying on the order of the learned trial Court submitted that cogent reasons were given by the court based on the appreciation of evidence on record.

The appellant pointing out the delay in filling of the FIR submitted that learned trial court rightly acquitted the accused on the account of delay of four months in filling of the FIR from the time incident took place as per the prosecution.

Further, the Counsel for the appellant submitted that the filling of the FIR was a vengeful act of the father of the prosecutrix, which was done as consequence of accused’s refusal to not marry the prosecutrix since he was already married, however the accused offered to take care of the child. The appellant in his further submission submitted that the prosecutrix, when examined on the next day of filing of FIR, was carrying a foetus of 8 months thereby questioning the testimony of the parents of the prosecutrix. He also pointed out that there was material contradiction in the deposition of the prosecutrix as well as the mother, sister and father of the prosecutrix.

The appellant further argued that the prosecutrix was not suffering from mild mental retardation as claimed by the prosecution. The appellant further submitted that there is major discrepancy in the testimony of two psychiatrists who gave a different account of which language the prosecutrix seems to know, one said that she knew ‘Hindi’ while the other said that she knew ‘Phari’ and he had to use the interpreter.

 The appellant further submitted that the High Court has erred in placing reliance on the medical evidence of a particular witness regarding the report of prosecutrix having mild mental retardation. The counsel lastly submitted that the learned trial court was right in observing that the prosecutrix was a person capable of understanding her welfare and quite intelligent.

In the last limb of the argument, the appellant’s counsel argued that the accused has already served four years of a seven-year term, and asked the court to approve the appeal and quash and set aside the High Court’s judgment and order, or, in the alternative, to limit the sentence to the time already served by the accused.. 

Respondent’s argument

The learned Advocate appearing on behalf of the State vehemently argued that the High Court correctly overturned the learned trial Court’s order of acquittal and convicted the accused for the offences under Sections 376 and 506 IPC, especially when the prosecutrix was suffering from mental illness and was unable to understand the proceedings.

Further the counsel for the State rebutting the appellant’s argument submitted that in the present case the High Court as the first appellate court was well within its jurisdiction to re-appreciate the entire evidence on record, more particularly the medical evidence and to come to the right conclusion. 

The respondent further submitted that the aspect of delay in lodging the FIR has already been dealt with and considered by the High Court. The accused has taken unfair advantage of the mental state of the prosecutrix and thus even though there is some material contradiction, the benefit shall not go to the accused and the benefit must go in favor of such a victim who is suffering from a mental disorder and not in a position to recognize the good and bad side of sexual assault.

The respondent further submitted that the before the DNA test report, which clarified that the accused was the biological father, the accused came out with a false case and did not state the true facts.

The counsel for the respondent rebutting the submission on behalf of the accused that out of seven years RI, the accused has undergone four years RI and therefore the same may be considered in favour of the accused is concerned, submitted that the minimum sentence provided for the offence under Section 376 is seven years and the High Court took a lenient stand, granting just seven years of RI.. The respondent also prayed that when a person suffering from mental illness is sexually assaulted and the accused takes advantage of the victim’s mental illness, those cases should be dealt with harshly and no leniency should be shown to the accused.

Issue before the court

The Court decided to first deal with the question that in regard to the facts and circumstances of the case is, whether the High Court is justified in interfering with the order of acquittal passed by the learned trial Court and thereby convicting the accused?

Cases referred by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court while deciding this appeal referred to many cases in which the apex court had interpreted the law on appeal against acquittal under section 378 Cr.P.C time to time.

The Apex court referred to the case of Babu v. State of Kerala where the Court while dealing with a similar issue on law of appeal against acquittal, reiterated the principles to be followed in an appeal under Section 378 Cr.P.C. In this case, the court cited Sheo Swarup v. King Emperor, in which the Privy Council stated that the High Court should and will always give proper weight and consideration to such matters as 

(1) the trial Judge’s views on the credibility of the witnesses

(2) the accused’s presumption of innocence, which is unaffected by the fact that he was convicted at his trial; 

(3) the accused’s right to the benefit of the doubt; and 

(4) the slowness of an appeals court in overturning a decision of fact reached by a Judge who had the benefit of seeing the witnesses.”

The Court further referred to the case of Chandrappa v. State of Karnataka, where the court while considering the legal position of  appellate courts’ power to reverse the order of acquittal observed that (a) an appellate court must bear in mind that in case of acquittal, there is double presumption in favour of the accused, and (b) If two reasonable conclusions are possible on the basis of the evidence on record, the appellate court should not disturb the finding of acquittal recorded by the trial court.

The court further took into consideration a similar view taken by the court in Dhanapal v. State, that the law on appeal can be summarised to the effect that in exceptional cases where there are compelling circumstances, and the judgment under appeal is found to be perverse, the appellate court can interfere with the order of acquittal. 

Further, the court placed reliance on its recent decision in the case of Vijay Mohan Singh v. State of Karnataka, where the court on occasion to determine the scope of Section 378 Cr.P.C. considered catena of its decision right from 1952 onwards and observed that:

In Umedbhai Jadavbhai, (1978) 1 SCC 228, this Court was asked to answer an identical question. In the case before this Court, the High Court reversed the learned trial court’s acquittal order after re-appreciating all of the facts on the record. However, in overturning the acquittal, the High Court did not take into account the reasons provided by the learned trial court in acquitting the accused. This Court, in confirming the High Court’s decision, noted and held in paragraph 10 as follows: (SCC p. 233)

  1. The High Court had the right to re-examine all of the evidence and reach its own decision after the appeal against the acquittal order had been properly heard.. Normally, if the Sessions Judge’s decision was reached after thorough consideration of the facts, the High Court would give it due weight. This rule would not apply in the present case, where the Sessions Judge made a completely incorrect assumption about a crucial and decisive element of the case due to the unique circumstances.”

31.4. In K. Gopal Reddy v. State of A.P., (1979) 1 SCC 355, this Court claimed that where the trial court allows itself to be afflicted by fanciful suspicions, refuses creditworthy evidence for flimsy reasons, and takes a view of the evidence that is scarcely conceivable, it is the obvious duty of the High Court to interfere in the interest of justice, lest the administration of justice be brought to a halt..”

Judgment 

The Apex court after hearing both the parties and referring to its earlier judgment concluded that the High Court acted within the parameters of law and was justified in reversing the order of acquittal passed by the learned trial Court. The High Court on re-appreciation of the entire evidence more particularly held that the deposition of the doctors found that the victim was a mentally retarded girl with a low IQ of 62 who was not in a position to understand the good and bad aspect of the sexual assault and the accused took advantage of the same.

The apex court while upholding the findings of the High Court, further added that the High court has rightly observed that the case would fall under Section 375 IPC and has rightly convicted the accused for the offence under Section 376 IPC. 

Considering the fact and circumstances of the case as well as the deposition of witnesses, the Court observed that language as contented by the accused is not material during an IQ test and an IQ of 62 falls in the category of ‘mild mental retardation’.

The Court upheld the punishment imposed by the High Court that of 7 year of Rigorous Imprisonment and further added that a person suffering from mental disorder or mental sickness deserves special care, love and affection, and in no case should be exploited or taken advantage of.

Critical Analysis and the Way Forward

This particular judicial pronouncement not only granted justice to the victim but also laid down a very strong precedent in such times when the rape culture is surging in the country. It cleared the cloud in regard to one of the multifarious holistic case of sexual assault thus making a giant leap forward by deciding on and striking at the problem, thereby ensuring justice in the strictest possible sense.

The Apex Court while delivering this judgement gave an analysis on two points. In the first part of the judgment, the Court critically analysed the action of the High court in reversing the order of the trial court thus throwing light on the law of appeal under the CrPC. The Apex Court made references to various landmark rulings on the same and checked the decision of the High Court on the same lines. Not only this, but also the 

Moreover, secondly, the Supreme Court in the second part of the judgements dealt with the facts of the case delicately as well as judiciously and provided with further criteria for ascertaining the unsoundness of mind.

It is not a matter of doubt that whereas on one hand we celebrate women’s day and their respective rights and the feminist movements are on an uptick, the incidents of outraging the modesty of women and rape are also on increase with each passing day. “We must note that a rapist not only violates the victim’s privacy and personal dignity, but also ultimately causes significant psychological and physical damage in the process,” the Supreme Court said. Rape is more than just a sexual assault; it also kills the victim’s entire identity. A murderer desecrates his victim’s physical body, while a rapist degrades the innocent woman’s spirit. As a result, when a defendant is charged with rape, the courts bear a great deal of liability. 

They must handle such situations with extreme caution. Courts should weigh the case’s cumulative probabilities rather than being influenced by slight errors or minor contradictions in the prosecutrix’s argument, which are not fatal, to throw out an otherwise credible prosecution case. If the prosecutrix’s proof inspires respect, it must be trusted without further verification of her argument in material particulars. If the prosecutrix’s proof inspires respect, it must be trusted without further verification of her argument in material particulars. If the Court finds it difficult to place tacit confidence in her testimony for some reason, it can look for proof that can provide confirmation to her testimony without needing the corroboration needed in the case of an accomplice. 

The prosecutrix’s evidence must be understood in the light of the whole case, and the trial court must be conscious of its position and sensitive when dealing with cases involving sexual molestations.” The same as was impressively well adhered to in the present case. The Apex Court examined the broader probability of the case in hand and specifically dealth with this sensitive matter in the right way. The Court ensured the protection of rights of the victim like a brooding omnipresence.

The case not only focused on legal but also humanitarian line of argument. Moreover, the said judgement is in line with the needs and exigencies of the society thus pushing the way forward for the victims of inhumane crime.


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